Shining Baldur of the Aesir tribe was the loveliest and most beloved of all the gods of the Norse pantheon. Baldur exuded charm, and was so physically beautiful that he gave off light. He was also described as the wisest of all the gods. As an arbiter of disputes, he settled feuds among gods and men.
Baldur’s death as a result of Loki’s treachery was one of the central stories of Norse mythology. Universally lamented by the gods and by (most of) humanity, Baldur’s demise precipitated Loki’s imprisonment and helped set in motion the events of Ragnarök, the end of days.
“Baldur” was originally thought to come from an Old Norse word, baldr, meaning “bold,” or “brave.” It could be, however, that the descriptor baldr was named after the god, rather than the god being named after it. Modern scholars have suggested that the name was rooted in the proto Indo-European word bhel-, meaning “white.” Words for “white” were commonly used to describe Baldur and other Norse deities. Such words were often translated as “bright” or “shining,”as their meaning referred not only to the color, but to the god’s associated qualities—brilliance, beauty, and clarity—as well.
Baldur’s chief attributes were his fairness, beauty, and likeability. He possessed a great ship called Hringhorni (meaning “ship with a circle on its stem,”) which was said to be the greatest ship ever constructed. Upon Baldur’s death, the ship was turned into a massive funeral pyre for his body and set to drift downriver.
Baldur rode a horse named Léttfeti, who was sacrificed on his funeral pyre, and dwelled in a palace known as Breidablik, the “broad-gleaming.” In the Grímnismál of the Poetic Edda, the authoritative compilation of old Norse poems, a disguised Odin described the “broad-gleaming” abode of Baldur as the most peaceful of all places:
The seventh is Breithablik; Baldr has there For himself a dwelling set, In the land I know that lies so fair, And from evil fate is free.
Baldur was the son of Odin, chief of the Aesir and highest of all gods, and Frigg, a goddess of wisdom with the power of foresight. He had a brother, Hodr, as well as several half-brothers by way of Odin. These half-brothers included Thor, Vidarr, Tyr, Heimdall, Hermod, and Bragi. Another half-brother, Váli, was conceived by Odin and the giantess Rindr after Baldur’s death in order to avenge him.
Baldur married the goddess Nanna, and together they had a son named, Forseti, a god associated with peace and justice. Once grown, Forseti established a hall for himself called Glitnir, where he, like his father, settled grievances and reconciled foes.
The Death of Baldur and Onset of Ragnarök
The story of Baldur’s death was one of the best known and most critical myths in Norse society. It was also one of the only myths to feature Baldur as an active character. The story was told often, and its many details came from a variety of sources.
One night, Baldur had a nightmare in which he foresaw his own death. When his mother, Frigg, dreamt the same dream (an ominous sign among the Norse, who believed that dreams contained glimpses of things to come), the gods decided to act. Mounting Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse, Odin rode to Hel, a realm of the dead, searching for an oracle that could decipher these portentous dreams:
Forward rode Othin, the earth resounded Till the house so high of Hel he reached.
There, Odin found a deceased völva—a wielder of seidr, the magical art through which practitioners divined the future. Using a magic of his own, Odin resurrected her from the dead. All did not go according to plan, however. The völva, most displeased at being roused from her death slumber, resisted Odin’s interrogation. Undeterred, Odin pressed on, eventually earning several hints and glimpses of what was to come from the reluctant völva. She foretold that Baldur would indeed die—though she did not specify how—and that those who loved him would mourn.
When Odin returned with the news, Frigg was devastated. Determined to forestall her son’s death, Frigg approached all things living and inert within creation, making them promise never to harm her son. According to Snorri Sturluson, author of the Gylfaginning, a book contained in the Prose Edda,
“And Frigg took oaths to this purport, that fire and water should spare Baldr, likewise iron and metal of all kinds, stones, earth, trees, sicknesses, beasts, birds, venom, serpents.”
“And when that was done and made known, then it was a diversion of Baldr’s and the Æsir, that he should stand up ... and all the others should some shoot at him, some hew at him, some beat him with stones; but whatsoever was done hurt him not at all, and that seemed to them all a very worshipful thing.”
When he found out about Baldur’s immunity to harm, Loki, a trickster who delighted in the misfortunes that befell others, took offense. Taking the form of a woman, he inquired of Frigg whether all things had sworn oaths. Not knowing the woman’s true identity, Frigg conceded that she had not demanded the oath from a humble sprig of mistletoe. Seizing this news gleefully, Loki rushed off to locate the mistletoe and fashion it into a spear. When he returned to the gods, they were were hurling missiles at Baldur and making sporting fun of his invulnerability. Loki spied Hodr, Baldur’s blind brother, and handed him the spear. Under instruction from Loki, Hodr hurled the spear at Baldur and mortally wounded him. The gods surrounded Baldur, and Odin whispered in his dying son’s ear. What he said remained a subject of great mystery in Norse lore.
Lost in sorrow, Frigg asked for a volunteer to travel to the realm of the dead and beg Hel, goddess of the dead, for the release of Baldur. Hermod, Frigg’s son and Baldur’s brother, stepped forward to offer his services. Riding Sleipnir, he traveled for nine days and nine nights before finally arriving in Hel’s halls. There he found a forlorn Baldur seated at Hel’s table. Hermod asked the goddess of death to release Baldur, claiming that the fallen god was the most beloved being in all creation. Hel agreed to Baldur’s release, but only on the condition that all things first weep for him.
Hermod rushed back with the news, and the Aesir quickly began sending messengers out to spread the word. They approached humans and animals, trees and plants, and even inanimate objects such as rocks and stones. All wept for Baldur. The gods were close to eliciting tears from every last entity in existence when they found an old giantess named Thökk (really a disguised Loki) in a remote cave. In all creation, Thökk alone refused to cry for Baldur, and in so doing doomed the fallen god to Hel:
‘Thökk will weep waterless tears For Baldr’s bale-fare; Living or dead, I loved not the churl’s son; Let Hel hold to that she hath!’
Resigned now to Baldur’s death, the gods placed his body and that of his wife (who had died of grief) onto his mighty vessel, Hringhorni. They set it ablaze and let the ship drift away until it disappeared from sight.
The Binding of Loki
Meanwhile, Odin pursued vengeance of his own. With the giantess, Rindr, he sired a son named Váli who grew to manhood in a single day and slayed poor Hodr. Váli then went after Loki, binding the trickster to a rock with the entrails of Loki’s son Nari. The gods also set a poisonous snake above Loki’s head so that it would drip venom onto his face and body, causing him to writhe in agony and shake the very foundations of the earth. Loki was fated to remain in this sorry state until the final stages of Ragnarök .
According to the völva narrator of the Völuspá, Baldur and Hodr were destined to return to life during the rebirth of the world that would follow Ragnarök, when “fields unsowed ... bear ripened fruit,” and the golden tables of the gods would stand again “in wondrous beauty.”
In comparison to his counterparts, Baldur has not figured prominently in popular modern representations of Norse mythology. His name has been used in several video game series, including God of War; in the eighth installment of the series, Baldur served as the chief antagonist. A character named Balder appeared in the Max Payne video game series, and while the epic role-playing games, Baldur’s Gate (1998) and Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000), used his name, Baldur never actually appeared within the games themselves.