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Ch. 33: Death of Baldur, Elves, Runes, Iceland

Baldur, the Good, having been tormented with terrible dreams
indicating that his life was in peril, told them to the assembled
gods, who resolved to conjure all things to avert from him the
threatened danger. Then Frigga, the wife of Odin, exacted an
oath from fire and water, from iron and all other metals, from
stones, trees, diseases, beasts, birds, poisons, and creeping
things, that none of them would do any harm to Baldur. Odin, not
satisfied with all this, and feeling alarmed for the fate of his
son, determined to consult the prophetess Angerbode, a giantess,
mother of Fenris, Hela, and the Midgard serpent. She was dead,
and Odin was forced to seek her in Hela's dominions. This
descent of Odin forms the subject of Gray's fine ode beginning,

"Up rose the king of men with speed
And saddled straight his coal-black steed."

But the other gods, feeling that what Frigga had done was quite
sufficient, amused themselves with using Baldur as a mark, some
hurling darts at him, some stones, while others hewed at him with
their swords and battle-axes, for do what they would none of them
could harm him. And this became a favorite pastime with them and
was regarded as an honor shown to Baldur. But when Loki beheld
the scene he was sorely vexed that Baldur was not hurt.
Assuming, therefore, the shape of a woman, he went to Fensalir,
the mansion of Frigga. That goddess, when she saw the pretended
woman, inquired of her if she knew what the gods were doing at
their meetings. She replied that they were throwing darts and
stones at Baldur, without being able to hurt him. "Ay," said
Frigga, "neither stones, nor sticks, nor anything else can hurt
Baldur, for I have exacted an oath from all of them. " "What,"
exclaimed the woman, "have all things sworn to spare Baldur?"
"All things," replied Frigga, "except one little shrub that grows
on the eastern side of Valhalla, and is called Mistletoe, and
which I thought too young and feeble to crave an oath from."

As soon as Loki heard this he went away, and resuming his natural
shape, cut off the mistletoe, and repaired to the place where the
gods were assembled. There he found Hodur standing apart,
without partaking of the sports, on account of his blindness, and
going up to him, said, "Why dost thou not also throw something at
Baldur?"

"Because I am blind," answered Hodur, "and see not where Baldur
is, and have moreover nothing to throw."

"Come, then," said Loki, "do like the rest and show honor to
Baldur by throwing this twig at him, and I will direct thy arm
towards the place where he stands."

Hodur then took the mistletoe, and under the guidance of Loki,
darted it at Baldur, who, pierced through and through, fell down
lifeless. Surely never was there witnessed, either among gods or
men, a more atrocious deed than this. When Baldur fell, the gods
were struck speechless with horror, and then they looked at each
other, and all were of one mind to lay hands on him who had done
the deed, but they were obliged to delay their vengeance out of
respect for the sacred place where they were assembled. They
gave vent to their grief by loud lamentations. When the gods
came to themselves, Frigga asked who among them wished to gain
all her love and good will. "For this," said she, "shall he have
who will ride to Hel and offer Hela a ransom if she will let
Baldur return to Asgard." Whereupon Hermod, surnamed the Nimble,
the son of Odin, offered to undertake the journey. Odin's horse,
Sleipnir, which has eight legs, and can outrun the wind, was then
led forth, on which Hermod mounted and galloped away on his
mission. For the space of nine days and as many nights he rode
through deep glens so dark that he could not discern anything
until he arrived at the river Gyoll, which he passed over on a
bridge covered with glittering gold. The maiden who kept the
bridge asked him his name and lineage, telling him that the day
before five bands of dead persons had ridden over the bridge, and
did not shake it as much as he alone. "But," she added, "thou
hast not death's hue on thee; why then ridest thou here on the
way to Hel?"

"I ride to Hel," answered Hermod, "to seek Baldur. Hast thou
perchance seen him pass this way?"

She replied, "Baldur hath ridden over Gyoll's bridge, and yonder
lieth the way he took to the abodes of death."

Hermod pursued his journey until he came to the barred gates of
Hel. Here he alighted, girthed his saddle tighter, and
remounting clapped both spurs to his horse, who cleared the gate
by a tremendous leap without touching it. Hermod then rode on to
the palace where he found his brother Baldur occupying the most
distinguished seat in the hall, and passed the night in his
company. The next morning he besought Hela to let Baldur ride
home with him, assuring her that nothing but lamentations were to
be heard among the gods. Hela answered that it should now be
tried whether Baldur was so beloved as he was said to be. "If,
therefore," she added, "all things in the world, both living and
lifeless, weep for him, then shall he return to life; but if any
one thing speak against him or refuse to weep, he shall be kept
in Hel."

Hermod then rode back to Asgard and gave an account of all he had
heard and witnessed.

The gods upon this despatched messengers throughout the world to
beg every thing to weep in order that Baldur might be delivered
from Hel. All things very willingly complied with this request,
both men and every other living being, as well as earths, and
stones, and trees, and metals, just as we have all seen these
things weep when they are brought from a cold place into a hot
one. As the messengers were returning, they found an old hag
named Thaukt sitting in a cavern, and begged her to weep Baldur
out of Hel. But she answered,

"Thaukt will wail
With dry tears
Baldur's bale-fire.
Let Hela keep her own."

It was strongly suspected that this hag was no other than Loki
himself, who never ceased to work evil among gods and men. So
Baldur was prevented from coming back to Asgard. (In
Longfellow's Poems, vol. 1, page 379, will be found a poem
entitled Tegner's Drapa, upon the subject of Baldur's death.)

Among Matthew Arnold's Poems is one called "Balder Death"
beginning thus:

"So on the floor lay Balder dead; and round
Lay thickly strewn swords, axes, darts and spears,
Which all the Gods in sport had idly thrown
At Balder, whom no weapon pierced or clave;
But in his breast stood fixt the fatal bough
Of mistletoe, which Lok the Accuser gave
To Hoder, and unwitting Hoder threw;
"Gainst that alone had Balder's life no charm.
And all the Gods and all the heroes came
And stood round Balder on the bloody floor
Weeping and wailing; and Valhalla rang
Up to its golden roof with sobs and cries;
And on the table stood the untasted meats,
And in the horns and gold-rimmed skulls the wine;
And now would night have fallen and found them yet
Wailing; but otherwise was Odin's will."

THE FUNERAL OF BALDUR

The gods took up the dead body and bore it to the sea-shore where
stood Baldur's ship Hringham, which passed for the largest in the
world. Baldur's dead body was put on the funeral pile, on board
the ship, and his wife Nanna was so struck with grief at the
sight that she broke her heart, and her body was burned on the
same pile with her husband's. There was a vast concourse of
various kinds of people at Baldur's obsequies. First came Odin
accompanied by Frigga, the Valkyrior, and his ravens; then Frey
in his car drawn by Gullinbursti, the boar; Heimdall rode his
horse Gulltopp, and Freya drove in her chariot drawn by cats.
There were also a great many Frost giants and giants of the
mountain present. Baldur's horse was led to the pile fully
caparisoned and consumed in the same flames with his master.

But Loki did not escape his deserved punishment. When he saw how
angry the gods were, he fled to the mountain, and there built
himself a hut with four doors, so that he could see every
approaching danger. He invented a net to catch the fishes, such
as fishermen have used since his time. But Odin found out his
hiding-place and the gods assembled to take him. He, seeing
this, changed himself into a salmon, and lay hid among the stones
of the brook. But the gods took his net and dragged the brook,
and Loki finding he must be caught, tried to leap over the net;
but Thor caught him by the tail and compressed it so, that
salmons every since have had that part remarkably fine and thin.
They bound him with chains and suspended a serpent over his head,
whose venom falls upon his face drop by drop. His wife Siguna
sits by his side and catches the drops as they fall, in a cup;
but when she carries it away to empty it, the venom falls upon
Loki, which makes him howl with horror, and twist his body about
so violently that the whole earth shakes, and this produces what
men call earthquakes.

THE ELVES

The Edda mentions another class of beings, inferior to the gods,
but still possessed of great power; these were called Elves. The
white spirits, or Elves of Light, were exceedingly fair, more
brilliant than the sun, and clad in garments of delicate and
transparent texture. They loved the light, were kindly disposed
to mankind, and generally appeared as fair and lovely children.
Their country was called Alfheim, and was the domain of Freyr,
the god of the sun, in whose light they were always sporting.

The black of Night Elves were a different kind of creatures.
Ugly, long-nosed dwarfs, of a dirty brown color, they appeared
only at night, for they avoided the sun as their most deadly
enemy, because whenever his beams fell upon any of them they
changed them immediately into stones. Their language was the
echo of solitudes, and their dwelling-places subterranean caves
and clefts. They were supposed to have come into existence as
maggots, produced by the decaying flesh of Ymir's body, and were
afterwards endowed by the gods with a human form and great
understanding. They were particularly distinguished for a
knowledge of the mysterious powers of nature, and for the runes
which they carved and explained. They were the most skilful
artificers of all created beings, and worked in metals and in
wood. Among their most noted works were Thor's hammer, and the
ship Skidbladnir, which they gave to Freyr, and which was so
large that it could contain all the deities with their war and
household implements, but so skilfully was it wrought that when
folded together it could be put into a side pocket.

RAGNABOK, THE TWILIGHT OF THE GODS

It was a firm belief of the northern nations that a time would
come when all the visible creation, the gods of Valhalla and
Niffleheim, the inhabitants of Jotunheim, Alfheim, and Midgard,
together with their habitations, would be destroyed. The fearful
day of destruction will not, however, be without its forerunners.
First will come a triple winter, during which snow will fall from
the four corners of the heavens, the frost be very severe, the
wind piercing, the weather tempestuous, and the sun impart no
gladness. Three such winters will pass away without being
tempered by a single summer. Three other similar winters will
then follow, during which war and discord will spread over the
universe. The earth itself will be frightened and begin to
tremble, the sea leave its basin, the heavens tear asunder, and
men perish in great numbers, and the eagles of the air feast upon
their still quivering bodies. The wolf Fenris will now break his
bands, the Midgard serpent rise out of her bed in the sea, and
Loki, released from his bonds, will join the enemies of the gods.
Amidst the general devastation the sons of Muspelheim will rush
forth under their leader Surtur, before and behind whom are
flames and burning fire. Onward they ride over Bifrost, the
rainbow bridge, which breaks under the horses' hoofs. But they,
disregarding its fall, direct their course to the battle-field
called Vigrid. Thither also repair the wolf Fenris, the Midgard
serpent, Loki with all the followers of Hela, and the Frost
giants.

Heimdall now stands up and sounds the Giallar horn to assemble
the gods and heroes for the contest. The gods advance, led on by
Odin, who engages the wolf Fenris, but falls a victim to the
monster, who is, however, slain by Vidar, Odin's son. Thor gains
great renown by killing the Midgard serpent, but recoils and
falls dead, suffocated with the venom which the dying monster
vomits over him. Loki and Heimdall meet and fight till they are
both slain. The Gods and their enemies having fallen in battle,
Surtur, who has killed Dreyr, darts fire and flames over the
world, and the whole universe is burned up. The sun becomes dim,
the earth sinks into the ocean, the stars fall from heaven, and
time is no more.

After this Alfadur (the almighty) will cause a new heaven and a
new earth to arise out of the sea. The new earth, filled with
abundant supplies, will spontaneously produce its fruits without
labor or care. Wickedness and misery will no more be known, but
the gods and men will live happily together.

RUNIC LETTERS

One cannot travel far in Denmark, Norway, or Sweden, without
meeting with great stones, of different forms, engraven with
characters called Runic, which appear at first sight very
different from all we know. The letters consist almost
invariably of straight lines, in the shape of little sticks
either singly or put together. Such sticks were in early times
used by the northern nations for the purpose of ascertaining
future events. The sticks were shaken up, and from the figures
that they formed a kind of divination was derived.

The Runic characters were of various kinds. They were chiefly
used for magical purposes. The noxious, or, as they called them,
the BITTER runes, were employed to bring various evils on their
enemies; the favorable averted misfortune. Some were medicinal,
others employed to win love, etc. In later times they were
frequently used for inscriptions, of which more than a thousand
have been found. The language is a dialect of the Gothic, called
Norse, still in use in Iceland. The inscriptions may therefore
be read with certainty, but hitherto very few have been found
which throw the least light on history. They are mostly epitaphs
on tombstones.

Gray's ode on the Descent of Odin contains an allusion to the use
of Runic letters for incantation:

"Facing to the northern clime,
Thrice he traced the Runic rhyme;
Thrice pronounced, in accents dread,
The thrilling verse that wakes the dead,
Till from out the hollow ground
Slowly breathed a sullen sound."

THE SKALDS

The Skalds were the bards and poets of the nation, a very
important class of men in all communities in an early stage of
civilization. They are the depositaries of whatever historic
lore there is, and it is their office to mingle something of
intellectual gratification with the rude feasts of the warriors,
by rehearsing, with such accompaniments of poetry and music as
their skill can afford, the exploits of their heroes living or
dead. The compositions of the Skalds were called Sagas, many of
which have come down to us, and contain valuable materials of
history, and a faithful picture of the state of society at the
time to which they relate.

ICELAND

The Eddas and Sagas have come to us from Iceland. The following
extract from Carlyle's Lectures on Heroes and Hero worship gives
an animated account of the region where the strange stories we
have been reading had their origin. Let the reader contrast it
for a moment with Greece, the parent of classical mythology.

"In that strange island, Iceland, burst up, the geologists say,
by fire from the bottom of the sea, a wild land of barrenness and
lava, swallowed many months of every year in black tempests, yet
with a wild, gleaming beauty in summer time, towering up there
stern and grim in the North Ocean, with its snow yokuls
(mountains), roaring geysers (boiling springs), sulphur pools,
and horrid volcanic chasms, like the vast, chaotic battle-field
of Frost and Fire, where, of all places, we least looked for
literature or written memorials, the record of these things was
written down. On the seaboard of this wild land is a rim of
grassy country, where cattle can subsist, and men by means of
them and of what the sea yields; and it seems they were poetic
men these, men who had deep thoughts in them and uttered
musically their thoughts. Much would be lost had Iceland not
been burst up from the sea, not been discovered by the Northmen!"


Thomas Bulfinch

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