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 fair that he was beloved by all he met, and the Norse associated him 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,” by Snorri Sturlusson. Brodeur’s translation.
Like some other solar deities, including the Christ, Baldr sometimes possessed the power of prophecy or great foresight, which manifested at least once in the form of a dream. In the dream, Baldr saw his own death and grew depressed, after which the radiant light by which he had always been known grew dim. This troubled the Aesir greatly, and Baldr’s mother undertook a quest to save her soon.
His mother set out to enforce an oath from every being and object in existence so that they would never harm Baldr. This was, of course, a 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 could be overlooked. So the mother rested content, thinking she had enacted a solemn vow from everything everywhere never to harm her son. This vow, coupled with the magic apples of youth that kept the Aesir young and powerful, essentially meant that Baldr should have lived forever or for as long as he continued to consume the apples.
But in the society of the Aesir, as in all societies, there lived an agent of chaos whose only purpose was to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior and cause strife. Loki somehow learned of the mistletoe having been overlooked in the 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 favorite game of the Aesir to cast all manner of weapons and dangerous objects at him and to laugh as they bounced off 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 didn’t partake in casting weapons at Baldr because he was blind and couldn’t hit him even if he tried. Loki offered to aim the weapon in Hodr’s hands at Baldr’s chest so that Hodr would only have to throw it. Hodr accepted the offer and cast the spear of mistletoe at his brother, which pierced his bright flesh through to 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, an agent of light, was unintentionally slain by blind Hodr, an agent or a victim of darkness. In much the same way are many bright lights extinguished, but that’s a topic for another discussion.
Now, the Aesir had tolerated Loki’s mischief for a very long time because he had sworn an oath of brotherhood to Odin, King of the Gods and Baldr’s proud father. 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 ruled the underworld realm in which the dead dwelt, 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 woman, a giantess called Thokk, refused to cry tears for the son of her enemies. So Hel kept Baldr’s spirit in the Underworld until it was to be reborn after the destruction of the world at Ragnarok. Thokk, of course, was really Loki in disguise.
Baldr is very clearly given many characteristics which relate him to the sun. He’s fair to look upon, beloved by all, and he emits his own light. Although in the Norse mythos, the sun itself is represented by the chariot driven by Sol which rides 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 life on earth. Although he is not the physical sun, Baldr is very clearly a solar god. The narrative of his myth is consistent with comparable sun gods from other theologies and the behavior of the sun itself.
However, it must be said that our main source for info about Baldr is Snorri Sturluson, a Christian Icelandic chieftain from the thirteenth century. So we have to take all of these myths with some degree of skepticism.
Considering that the motif of a god who embodies some quality of the sun is so commonplace throughout mythologies from all over the world, we must consider the nature of the sun itself if we’re to understand sun-gods like Baldr.
To the eye of a man observing it from earth, the sun moves across the heavens each day before lowering itself down into the sea each night. 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 beneath the waters. 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 the sun is stationary, and in fact it’s the earth that moves. Forget that we know the sun doesn’t actually sink beneath the sea at night. Forget that the sun doesn’t die and isn’t reborn at morning.
You and I know these things because you and I benefit from advanced technology and a history of scientific discovery which peoples of the past couldn’t even imagine. 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 like the sun moves up from the sea at morning, across the sky, then sinks 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 also the case with Jesus Christ.
There is some argument over whether the Christ myth was influenced by earlier resurrection myths or whether the earlier myths were later 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 civilization have observed the sun, studied its patterns of behavior, and written stories about it. These stories poetically embody the spirit of the sun and its value to all life on earth, especially mankind.
The sun’s light is a holy power without which we would be lost. That might sound dramatic, but it’s entirely true. Think about it. Sunlight does more than drive just out darkness and give life to crops, either of which is no mean feat. It also works some spell of biology on the mind which causes humans to be happy. Consider the difference you feel drawing open the curtains when you rise from bed to be greeted by clear blue skies and sunshine, as opposed to the dreary disappointment you feel when the morning sky is overcast, grey, and dark.
This state of mind, the increase in endorphins that 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 tragic event 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 into the waters, like the sun setting one final time. All who were present wept at his loss. Thor was overcome with rage and kicked a dwarf into the flames. Baldr’s wife threw herself on the pyre. His father Odin whispered some secret in his son’s cold ear, a secret he never revealed to anyone else. 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 the sources say that he will be reborn after Ragnarok, the cataclysmic 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.
For this reason, many modern pagans and heathens choose to commemorate the death of Baldr at the summer solstice, the time of year when 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 appropriate time could there be to commemorate the death of Baldr?
I think it’s fair to say that most of us favor 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 symbolic death on the summer solstice, when the realization dawns that the days are about to get shorter, and we look forward to his return after winter has passed. What scientists call SAD or “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, restless, disinterested, stagnant, hopeless, and wraith-like, much like the Aesir did in the aftermath of Baldr’s murder. The glory fades from the world a little more each day, and we can only watch and wait for the end.
Obviously, I cannot comment on the private rituals of modern pagan tribes of which I am not a member. Still, I think we stand to benefit by acknowledging and commemorating the natural cycles of the sun and the seasons in mythopoetic rituals amongst groups of peers. When I consider the Wolves of Vinland ritual of Baldr’s Funeral as described by Jack Donovan in his essay “A Time For Wolves,” I’m 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 Ragnarok, but always he is reborn anew. When we bury the sun god, we do so with a 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 too must slay some of the light that shines in of you to be reborn. 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 kill 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 resurrection. If we are to be reborn like these gods, we must first let our current self die. It’s never easy to let go of some part of your own identity. But if something in your psyche is holding you back and preventing you from shining brighter and stronger, then you must let it go. Because no matter how difficult it might be, no matter how great the pain, no matter how dark the night, we can rest assured in the certainty of knowing that the sun always rises. And if we keep our eye on the sun, we’ll always rise too.
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.
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).