From the Prose Edda
Seated on a cliff before his
fight with the dragon, Beowulf, "sad
at heart / unsettled yet ready, sensing his
death" (NAEL 8, 1.85, lines 2419–20), addresses
his men and remembers his life. The first
memory is of a tragic event when he was growing
up at the court of his great-uncle King Hrethel.
Missing his target, Hrethel's second
son, Haethcyn, kills his elder brother Herebeald.
Beowulf focuses on the misery of the old
king, who "Gazes sorrowfully at his
son's dwelling, / the banquet hall bereft
of all delight, / . . . .
what was is no more" (NAEL 8, 1.85, lines 2455–58).
Scholars have surmised that this incident
refers to a myth in Norse mythology in which
Balder, the son of the king and queen of
the gods Odin and Frigg, is killed with an
arrow shot by his blind brother Hod.
Very little is known of Germanic
mythology from the time of the Beowulf poet
because the Church was anxious to eradicate
the pagan mythology of its Germanic converts.
Most of our knowledge of that mythology comes
from Icelandic sources, and especially from
the Edda of Snorri Sturluson. The
conversion of Iceland did not take place
until the year 1000, and Snorri, who also
wrote sagas, was concerned to preserve the
history, poetry, myths, and legends of his
people. His version of the ancient myths
is certainly affected by the influence of
Christianity and familiarity with classical
mythology in addition to his superb literary
craftsmanship. If the Beowulf poet
did know the myth of Balder, it would have
been in a form very different from that of
the Edda. Nevertheless, if only in
mood and tone, these widely separated works
have something in common, which is captured
in Seamus Heaney's translation by the
phrase "what was is no more."
In the Edda Balder's
death is not accidental. It is caused, on
the one hand, by the efforts of the Æsir
(the gods) to circumvent the fate foretold
in Balder's prophetic dreams and, on
the other hand, through the malice of the
fire god Loki, the offspring of giants who
dwells with the Æsir in Asgard, the
Nordic Olympus. Unlike the Greek gods, the
Norse gods are mortal; they and their enemies
the giants are doomed to annihilate one another
in a final battle. At times, Loki helps the Æsir
with his cunning, but he also secretly plots
against them. He is a shape-shifter and Snorri
refers to him as the father of lies — one
of the epithets for Satan.
The translation is by Anthony
Faulkes from Edda Snorra Sturlusonar [i.e.,
the Edda of Snorri Sturluson] (London: Dent,
The Death of Balder
[T]he beginning of this story is that Balder
the Good dreamed great dreams boding peril
to his life. And when he told the Æsir
the dreams they took counsel together and
it was decided to request immunity for Balder
from all kinds of danger, and Frigg received
solemn promises so that Balder should not
be banned by fire and water, iron and all
kinds of metal, stones, the earth, trees,
diseases, the animals, the birds, poison,
snakes. And when this was done and confirmed,
then it became an entertainment for Balder
and the Æsir that he should stand up
at assemblies and all the others should either
shoot at him or strike at him or throw stones
at him. But whatever they did he was unharmed,
and they all thought this a great glory.
But when Loki Laufeyiarson saw this he was
not pleased that Balder was unharmed. He
went to Fensalir to Frigg and changed his
appearance to that of a woman. Then Frigg
asked this woman if she knew what the Æsir
were doing at the assembly. She said that
everyone was shooting at Balder, and moreover
that he was unharmed. Then said Frigg: "Weapons
and wood will not hurt Balder. I have received
oaths from them all."
Then the woman asked: "Have all things
sworn oaths not to harm Balder?"
Then Frigg replied: "There grows a
shoot of a tree to the west of Valhalla.
It is called mistletoe. It seemed young to
me to demand the oath from."
Straight away the woman disappeared. And
Loki took mistletoe and plucked it and went
to the assembly. Hod was standing at the
edge of the circle of people, for he was
blind. Then Loki said to him: "Why are
you not shooting at Balder?"
He replied: "Because I cannot see where
Balder is, and secondly because I have no
Then said Loki: "Follow other people's
example and do Balder honor like other people.
I will direct you to where he is standing.
Shoot at him this stick."
Hod took the mistletoe and shot at Balder
at Loki's direction. The missile flew
through him and he fell dead to the ground,
and this was the unluckiest deed ever done
among gods and men. When Balder had fallen,
then all the Æsir's tongues failed
them, as did their hands for lifting him
up, and they all looked at each other and
were all of one mind towards the one who
had done the deed. But no one could take
vengeance, it was a place of such sanctuary.
When the Æsir tried to speak then
what happened first was that weeping came
out, so that none could tell another in words
of his grief. But it was Odin who took this
injury the hardest in that he had the best
idea what great deprivation and loss the
death of Balder would cause the Æsir.
And when the gods came to themselves then
Frigg spoke, and asked who there was among
the Æsir who wished to earn all her
love and favor and was willing to ride the
road to Hel and try if he could find Balder,
and offer Hel
>> note 1 a ransom if she would let Balder
go back to Asgard. Hermod the Bold, Odin's
boy, is the name of the one who undertook
this journey. Then Odin's horse Sleipnir
was fetched and led forward and Hermod
mounted this horse and galloped away. So
the Æsir took Balder's body and
carried it to the sea. Hringhorni was the
name of Balder's ship. It was the biggest
of all ships. This the Æsir planned
to launch and perform on it Balder's
funeral. . . . Then Balder's
body was carried out on to the ship, and
when his wife Nanna Nep's daughter
saw this she collapsed with grief and died.
She was carried on to the pyre and it was
set on fire. . . .
horse was led onto the pyre with all its
harness. But there is this to tell of Hermod
that he rode for nine nights through valleys
dark and deep so that he saw nothing until
he came to the river Gioll and rode on
to Gioll bridge. It is covered with glowing
gold. There is a maiden guarding the bridge
called Modgud. She asked him his name and
lineage and said that the other day there
had ridden over the bridge five battalions
of dead men:
"But the bridge resounds no less under
just you, and you do not have the color of
dead men. Why are you riding here on the
road to Hel?"
He replied: "I am to ride to Hel to
seek Balder. But have you seen anything of
Balder on the road to Hel?"
And she said that Balder had ridden there
over Gioll bridge, "but downwards and
northwards lies the road to Hel."
Then Hermod rode on until he came to Hel's
gates. Then he dismounted from the horse
and tightened its girth, mounted and spurred
it on. The horse jumped so hard and over
the gate that it came nowhere near. Then
Hermod rode up to the hall and dismounted
from his horse, went into the hall, saw sitting
there in the seat of honor his brother Balder;
and Hermod stayed there the night. In the
morning Hermod begged from Hel that Balder
might ride home with him and said what great
weeping there was among the Æsir. But
Hel said that it must be tested whether Balder
was as beloved as people said in the following
way, "And if all things in the world,
alive and dead, weep for him, then he shall
go back to the Æsir, but be kept with
Hel if any objects or refuses to weep."
Then Hermod got up and Balder went with
him out of the hall. . . .
Then Hermod rode back on his way and came
to Asgard and told all the tidings he had
seen and heard.
After this the Æsir sent over all
the world messengers to request that Balder
be wept out of Hel. And all did this, the
people and animals and the earth and the
stones and trees and every metal, just as
you will have seen that these things weep
when they come out of frost and into heat.
When the envoys were traveling back having
well fulfilled their errand, they found in
a certain cave a giantess sitting. She said
her name was Thanks. They bade her weep Balder
out of Hel. She said, "Thanks will weep
dry tears for Balder's burial. No good
got I from the old one's son either dead
or alive. Let Hel hold what she has." It
is presumed that this was Loki Laufeyiarson,
who has done most evil among the Æsir.