These events take place soon after the Death of Balder under the treacherous machinations of the mischievous Loki (read it here). The Sly One had used all his cunning, guile and shape-shifting prowess to not only find out the only weakness the God Balder had – the mistletoe, but to mislead Balder’s own blind brother Hodr to strike the killing blow. The events find the assembled Gods still shocked by the sudden death of Balder.
As Balder laid dead, an ignominious silence befell on the Gods. Shock, disbelief, anger and a profound feeling of helplessness filled their hearts. Hodr was still oblivious of what just happened, while Loki escaped so fast he seemed to have vanished into the air. No words would be enough to express what transpired amongst the Gods. No words are enough to express the pain of losing a son on a father’s and mother’s hearts.
After the longest seconds in Asgard, Frigg was the first to speak, resolute as ever: “Does anyone …” she asked. “Does anyone here want to win all my love and favor? Is there anyone here who will ride the long road to Helheim and try to find Balder? Is there anyone here,” said Frigg, her voice rising as she fought down her sobs, “who will offer Hel a ransom, if she’ll allow my son Balder to come home to Asgard again?”
There was one amongst the Gods who was faster to answer, one admired for his courage. Hermod.
Stepping forward, the valiant son of Odin claimed the quest for himself, announcing to all that he was ready to go at that very instant.
Despair gave place to hope as preparations were hastily done. Odin gave servants orders. They hurried out of the hall and soon returned with Sleipnir, Odin’s own horse.
The Allfather took the reins and handed them to Hermod. As he mounted Sleipnir, Hermodr gave a last glance at the assembled Gods and at the fallen Balder. With grim determination burning into his eyes he galloped out into the darkness and on towards the endless night.
As Hermod rode towards Helheim, the Gods kept a silent vigil in Gladsheim around Balder’s body, which remained so white that it appears to be gleaming.
With the dawn, four of the Gods lifted Balder’s body on to their shoulders, while all the others formed a long cortège. They carried him down to the sea and laid his corpse on his great ship called Ringhorn, the greatest ship ever built.
The Gods built Balder’s pyre in the middle of the ship, up against the mast and adorned it with weapons and shields. They took hold of the stern and tried to launch the ship, but their grief had so exhausted them that they could not summon up the strength to shift it on its rollers. The Gods decided to send a messenger speeding to Jotunheim, to ask for the help of the giantess Hyrrokin.
The giant Hyrrokin soon came, riding a wolf with vipers for reins. As soon as she leaped off her steed, Odin summoned four Berserks and told them to watch over the wolf and ensure that it did no caused any harm. Despite the Allfather good intentions, the very sight of the four men in their animal skins angered the wolf. The Berserkers grabbed the viper-reins, but they were unable to hold the wolf as it tried to break free. The Berserks became as mad as the wolf itself and, in fury, they rained blows on the wolf with their club-like fists, leaving it for dead in the sand.
Hyrrokkin by Ludwig Pietsch, 1865
The Jotun Hyrrokin, meanwhile, walked up to Ringhorn. She looked at the humongous ship and couldn’t help but admire its beauty and grace. Gripping the stern (back) of the ship, she dug in her heels in the sand and with a horrible grunt she pushed. She pushed so hard that Ringhorn crushed down the rollers and crashed into the water, setting the pine rollers on fire with the friction and singeing the great ship.
Thor could barely contain himself at seeing Balder’s ship and funeral pyre treated with what he perceived as a great disrespect, and grabbed his trusty hammer Mjolnir, ready to crush the giantess’ head. Odin himself, with several other Gods hurried to Thor’s side and restrained him, urging him calm as they reminded Thor that the giantess was there on their bidding.
Illustration by Emil Doepler, 1905
Slowly Thor’s volcanic anger subsided inside him. He kicked at the sand, causing a sandstorm as he walked up and down.
Then the four Gods who had carried Balder’s body down to the sea gently raised it again and waded out to Ringhorn, rocking on the water. They set down his spotless body on a high bench, covered in crimson cloth.
Balder’s wife, Nanna, was watching silently. When she saw Balder lying there lifeless, her body shook and her heart broke. She died of grief, and was laid to rest beside her dead husband, thus leaving their son, the God Forsetti to morn for both parents in the same day.
Freyr had come to the cremation in his chariot drawn by Guilinbursti, his gold-bristled boar. Heimdall had ridden out of Asgard on his mount Gold Tuft. Freyja sat in her chariot drawn by her cats Bygul and Trjegul.
Elves, dwarfs and even hundreds of giants stood there too, in a group that had followed Hyrrokin out of Jotunheim. Even the sea seemed to sob at the command of Njord as the gathering stood on the ship’s side.
A great pyre was built round the body of Balder and his wife Nanna, and many treasures were laid within Ringhorn — swords, buckles, brooches and rings, clasps and pins, alongside items that the couple could need in the afterlife.
Balder’s horse was galloped along the shore and worked into a steaming sweat. Then a servant plunged a short dagger into its throat. It gave a violent jerk and, without a sound, crumpled amongst the wrack. No sooner was it dead than its body was hacked up, and the pieces were thrown into Ringhorn, to serve his master in Helheim.
Odin strode through the shallows and gripped the gunwale, climbing into the ship. Standing over the body of his dead son, he slowly took off his most treasured possession, the arm-ring Draupnir, a gold bracelet that dropped eight rings of equal value on every ninth night, and slipped it on to Balder’s arm. Then Odin bent down and put his mouth to Balder’s ear. Again he gazed at his son and silently left Ringhorn.
At a sign from Odin a servant stepped forward with a torch and set fire to the pyre, as Thor raised his hammer, solemnly intoning the magic words to hallow the cremation.
Then a dwarf called Lit, who had lost all interest in the proceedings, came running along the water’s edge. He passed right in front of Thor and Thor was so enraged that he put out a foot and tripped him. Before Lit had time to pick himself up, Thor gave him a terrible kick. The dwarf flew through the air and landed right on the licking and curdling pyre. In this way, he was burned to death beside Balder.
The ship was then sent to the sea as Gods and mortals alike wept while Balder departed for his last journey.
Next week, we will follow Hermodr quest into Hel, and find out the depths of Loki’s perfidy.
Lindow, John. 2002. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-515382-0
Orchard, Andy. 1997. Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend. Cassell. ISBN 0-304-34520-2
Simek, Rudolf. 2007 . Translated by Angela Hall. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D.S. Brewer. ISBN 0-85991-513-1
Jesse Byock (2005) Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda. 1st. edition. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN-13 978-0-140-44755-2