Baldr (also Balder) is one of the major characters in the Norse mythos. A son of Odin (like most of the male Aesir) Baldr was said to be so charismatic and good-natured that he was beloved by all whom he met, and he is associated with light and warmth and the sun.
“The second son of Odin is Baldr, and good things are to be said of him. He is best, and all praise him; he is so fair of feature, and so bright, that light shines from him. A certain herb is so white that it is likened to Baldr’s brow; of all grasses it is whitest, and by it thou mayest judge his fairness, both in hair and in body. He is the wisest of the Æsir, and the fairest-spoken and most gracious; and that quality attends him, that none may gainsay his judgments. He dwells in the place called Breidablik, which is in heaven; in that place may nothing unclean be.”
-“Gylfaginning”, Brodeur’s translation.
Like some other solar deities, including the Christ, Baldr was said to possess the power of prophecy, which manifested at least once in the form of a dream. In the dream Baldr saw his own death and grew depressed and the radiant light by which he had always been characterised grew dim. This troubled the Aesir greatly, and Baldr’s mother undertook a quest to enforce an oath from every being and object in existence that they would never harm Baldr, in futile attempt to avoid the inevitable. However, in her haste, Baldr’s mother neglected to enforce this oath from the mistletoe, which was considered so harmless that it was easily overlooked. So the mother rested contently thinking she had enacted a solemn vow from everything in existence never to harm her son. This vow, coupled with the apples of youth which the kept the Aesir young and powerful, essentially meant that Baldr should have lived forever, or at least for as long as he continued to consume the apples of youth. But in the society of the Aesir, as in all societies, there lived a trickster whose only purpose was to push the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Loki somehow learned of the mistletoe having been overlooked in the swearing oaths, and he immediately set to work in crafting a weapon from this plant. Some say he made a spearhead, others say he made an arrow tipped with sharpened mistletoe, but whatever he made he placed it in the hands of one who was thought to be harmless in order to work his mischief.
Since his mother had essentially guaranteed Baldr’s invincibility, it became a favourite game of the Aesir to cast all manner of weapons and dangerous objects at Baldr, and to laugh as they bounced off of his flesh ineffectually. Loki took advantage of this game and placed his weapon made from mistletoe into the hands of Hodr, who was the blind brother of Baldr. Hodr obviously did not partake in the game of casting weapons at Baldr, because he was blind and could not hit him even if he tried. Loki took advantage of Hodr’s isolation and offered to aim the weapon in Hodr’s hands at Baldr’s chest, so that all Hodr must do is throw it. Hodr accepted the offer, and cast the spear of mistletoe at his brother, which pierced his shining flesh through his heart. In an agonizing panic of surprise and regret, Baldr bled out his life upon the ground and died. I find it significant that Baldr, the personification light, is slain by blind Hodr, the personification of darkness, unwittingly and unintentionally. In much the same way are many bright flames extinguished, but that is a topic for another discussion.
Now, the Aesir had tolerated Loki’s mischief for a very long time, as the trickster serves a very important role in society, annoying though they may be. But after the slaying of Baldr they would tolerate no more. Loki was banished from the halls of the Aesir and hunted in his exile like a beast. Meanwhile, Baldr’s mother had not given up hope for her son. The Aesir sent a messenger to Hel, who personified the underworld realm in which the dead dwell, and pleaded with Hel to release Baldr’s spirit. Hel promised to release Baldr’s soul from death if all objects, both animate and inanimate, were to weep over the death of Baldr. And weep they did, every rock and tree and bird and serpent and fish and river and human and god alike wept over the loss of Baldr, who had been beloved by all. However, one giantess, Thokk, refused to weep tears for the son of her enemies, and so Hel kept Baldr’s spirit in the Underworld until it was to be reborn after the destruction of all the worlds at Ragnarokr.
Baldr is very clearly given many characteristics which relate him to the sun. He is fair and benevolent, he is beloved by all, and he emits his own light. Although in the Norse mythos the sun itself is represented by Sol, who draws the chariot of the sun across the heavens, Baldr could be said to represent the spirit of the sun. He is the embodiment of the sun’s effect on mankind and all other life on Earth. Although he is not the sun itself, Baldr is very clearly a sun god, and the narrative of his myth is consistent with comparable sun gods from other theologies, and with the behaviour of the sun itself.
To the eye of a man observing it from Earth, the sun moves across the heavens every day before lowering itself down into the sea each and every night. Now the sun is very clearly a giant ball of flame, which means that its descent into the deep each night effectively kills the sun by extinguishing its flames. But every morning, without fail, since time out of memory, the sun has been reborn anew to repeat its cycle. And it’s a damn good thing it does, because how long do you think life on Earth would last if the sun failed to rise? Now, forget for a moment that we know that the sun is stationary and it is the Earth which moves. Forget that we know the sun does not actually sink beneath the sea at night. Forget that the sun does not die and is not reborn at morning. You and I know these things because you and I have the benefit of advanced technology to confirm them as being true. But to a man bereft of these advanced baubles of the Techno-God, a man who might happen to stand on the Earth’s surface and observe the cycles of the sun and moon with only his naked eye, it certainly does seem that the sun moves up from the sea at morning, across the sky, before sinking down beneath the waves at night. The result of this observation, which is a perfectly valid one, is that sun god myths sometimes feature the death and resurrection of the solar deity in one form or another, as is the case with the Christ. There is some argument over whether the Christ myth was influenced by earlier resurrection myths, or whether the earlier myths were modified to resemble the Christ’s resurrection motif, but that line of argument is vacuous and profitless. What matters is this: humans from almost every known civilisation have observed the sun, studied its patterns of behaviour, and written stories about it. These stories mytho-poetically embody the spirit of the sun and its value to all life on earth, especially mankind.
The sun’s light does more than simply drive out the darkness and give life to crops; it also affects a noticeable increase in happiness in the human mind. Consider the difference you feel drawing open the curtains when you rise from bed to be greeted by clear blue skies and sunshine, opposed to the dreary disappointment you feel when the morning sky is overcast and grey and dark. This state of the mind, the increase in endorphins which reduce the effects of pain and depression, is Baldr in your brain. Baldr was loved by all things, both animate and inanimate, because his light, like the light of the sun, alters the chemistry of everything it touches. Plants will turn their faces to the sun, trees will open their leaves, snakes will crawl out of their holes, and humans will bask in its warmth. Without the sun we would all be well and truly fucked, which leads us to the ritual of Baldr’s Funeral.
The tale is told that Baldr’s body was burned at sea upon his own ship by the Aesir:
|“Bring wood to the seashore to Balder’s ship,|
|And on the deck build high a funeral pile,|
|And on the top lay Balder’s corpse, and put|
|Fire to the wood, and send him out to sea|
|To burn; for that is what the dead desire.”|
-“Balder Dead”, Matthew Arnold.
Baldr’s body was burned on his ship before it sank down into the waters one final time. All who were present wept at his loss. Thor was overcome with rage and kicked a dwarf into the pyre. Baldr’s wife threw herself on the pyre. None were glad at his loss, for the world ever afterward was a place more dimmed, more joyless. But this was not the end of Baldr, as we are told that he was (or will be) reborn after Ragnarokr, the Twilight of the Gods, and will be reunited with his blind brother Hodr and the sons of Thor to once more bring light and life to a world in sore need of it. This is typical of what we would expect from a sun god, because the sun itself has always been reborn from its nightly death for as long as we have been around to witness it.
It is for this reason that many modern pagans/heathens choose to commemorate the death of Baldr at the summer solstice, the time of year at which the day is at its longest. Every day after the summer solstice is said to be decreasing in length, thus we can say that the sun begins to wane, or die, from that point on. This is especially true in the northernmost parts of the world where winter is dark and sometimes sunless for days or weeks at a time. What more fitting time could there be to commemorate the death of Baldr? I think it’s fair to say that the majority of us favour the summer over the winter, and indeed this is a natural result of the chemical effect of the sun’s light within our brains. We grieve, quite literally, at Baldr’s metaphorical death on the summer solstice, and we look forward to his return after winter has passed. What scientists call “Seasonal Affective Disorder” could be more poetically described as “Baldr’s Absence”. Deprived of exposure to the sun’s warmth and light we become depressed, sleepless, disinterested, stagnant, hopeless, wraith-like; much like the Aesir did in the aftermath of Baldr’s murder.
Obviously I cannot comment on the private rituals of tribes like the Wolves of Vinland, of which I am not a member, but I do think there is much benefit to be had in acknowledging and commemorating the natural cycles of the sun and the seasons in mytho-poetically ritualised assemblage amongst groups of honoured peers. When I consider the ritual of Baldr’s Funeral as described by Jack Donovan in “A Time For Wolves” I am reminded of what our ancestors would surely have considered to be the most beautiful and miraculous aspect of life: the sun always rises. Baldr dies every night, every winter, every Ragnarokr, but always he is reborn anew. When we bury the sun god, we do so with heavy heart knowing that we are to be deprived of his blessing for a time, but we do so in the knowledge that he will rise again at his appointed time.
Like the sun in winter, and the sun god at his funeral, you must slay some light which shines inside of you in order to be reborn anew. If you would grow strong, you must let your weakness die. If you would grow wise, you must slay your ignorance. If you would make any significant gain in any aspect of your life, you must slay that which impedes your progress, and the first step is to slay the impedances in your own soul. Baldr’s story is one of death and rebirth, just as Odin’s story of his hanging is a story of death and rebirth, just as the Christ’s crucifixion is a story of death and rebirth, just as Crom Cruach’s taking of Eithne, mother of the sun god Lugh, at the beginning of autumn is a story of death and rebirth. If we are to be reborn anew we must first let our current self die. This is the lesson we learn from the sun at its solstice, and we speak of it in ancient tales, such as the story of Baldr’s Death.
November 6th, 2017. Dublin.
http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/pre/pre04.htm – “Gylfaginning”.
http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/alvismal/11baldr.pdf – “Some Controversial Aspects of the Myth of Baldr”, Anatoly Liberman.
http://www.jack-donovan.com/axis/2014/06/a-time-for-wolves/ – “A Time for Wolves”, Jack Donovan.
http://www.bartleby.com/254/82.html – “Balder Dead”, Matthew Arnold.
https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651 – Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).