In Norse mythology, Balder (Old Norse: Baldr; Modern Icelandic and Faroese: Baldur; Modern Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, and anglicized Old Norse: Balder) is the god of innocence, beauty, joy, purity, and peace. He is also the second son of Odin, the head of the Norse pantheon.
Balder represents the spirit of hope and renewal in the world, and his death (at the hands of Loki) is one of the major precursors to the apocalypse (Ragnarök). Though few accounts of mythic events from the young god's life remain extant, the surviving tales of his death and eventual resurrection contain intriguing parallels to Christianity, Vedic Hinduism and Middle Eastern fertility cults.
As a Norse deity, Balder belonged to a complex religious, mythological and cosmological belief system shared by the Scandinavian and Germanic peoples. This mythological tradition, of which the Scandinavian (and particularly Icelandic) sub-groups are best preserved, developed in the period from the first manifestations of religious and material culture in approximately 1000 B.C.E. until the Christianization of the area, a process that occurred primarily from 900-1200 C.E. The tales recorded within this mythological corpus tend to exemplify a unified cultural focus on physical prowess and military might.
Within this framework, Norse cosmology postulates three separate "clans" of deities: the Aesir, the Vanir, and the Jotun. The distinction between Aesir and Vanir is relative, for the two are said to have made peace, exchanged hostages, intermarried and reigned together after a prolonged war. In fact, the most major divergence between the two groups is in their respective areas of influence, with the Aesir representing war and conquest, and the Vanir representing exploration, fertility and wealth. The Jotun, on the other hand, are seen as a generally malefic (though wise) race of giants who represented the primary adversaries of the Aesir and Vanir.
Balder, the second son of Odin and a member of the Aesir, is the god of spring, innocence and joy.
Balder was best known as the Norse god of spring and renewal - an Adonis-like youth whose goodness, purity and overall pleasant disposition made him nearly impossible to dislike. The Prose Edda, written by Snorri Sturluson (1178-1241 C.E.), gives a clear indication of this characterization:
However, much like Persephone in the Greek tradition, Balder's primary import in the Norse tradition results from the mythic circumstances surrounding his untimely death (and his prophesied return after the fires of Ragnarök have burned out).
The murder of Balder plays an important role in Nordic cosmology as a precursor to the eschaton (Ragnarök). The accounts of his murder often begin by describing a plague of sleep which fell upon the Aesir, when Frigg and Balder were tormented by dreams that the young god was going to die. Since dreams were often understood to be prophetic, this motivated the boy's father (Odin) to set out to the depths of the underworld, to consult with the sprit of a deceased sibyl. Concerned by the prophetess's dire warnings, Balder's mother Frigg made every object on earth vow never to hurt Balder. All but one, a weed called the mistletoe, made this vow, as Frigg had thought it too unimportant and non-threatening to include. When Loki, the mischief-maker, heard of this, he made a magical spear (in some later versions, an arrow) from the mistletoe. He hurried to the place where the gods were indulging in their new pastime of hurling objects at Balder, which would bounce off without harming him. Loki gave the spear to Balder's brother, the blind god Höðr, who then inadvertently killed his brother with it. For this act, Odin and Rind had a child named Váli, who was born solely to punish Höðr, who was eventually hunted down and slain for his part in the tragedy.
Balder was ceremonially burnt upon his ship, the Hringhorni, reputed to be largest of all ships. In the confusion surrounding the funeral, the dwarf Litr was kicked into the funeral pyre by Thor and burnt alive. Nanna, Balder's wife, also threw herself on the funeral pyre to await the end of Ragnarok when she would be reunited with her husband (though in alternate traditions, she simply died of grief). Balder's horse with all its trappings was also burned on the pyre. The ship was set to sea by Hyrrokin, a giantess, who came riding on a wolf and gave the ship such a push that fire flashed from the rollers and all the earth shook.
Upon Frigg's entreaties, delivered through the messenger Hermod, Hel promised to release Balder from the underworld if all objects alive and dead would weep for him. And all did, except a giantess, Thokk, who refused to mourn the slain god. Thus Balder had to remain in the underworld, not to emerge until after Ragnarok, when he and his brother Höðr would be reconciled and rule the new earth together with Thor's sons.
Finally, when the gods discovered that the giantess had been Loki in disguise, they hunted him down, bound him to three rocks, and insured his continued torment until his fated release at Ragnarök. For more information on Loki's punishment, see the article on Loki.
The eschatological themes introduced above were also especially prominent in the Völuspá, an unattributed poetic work from no later than the thirteenth century C.E., which goes into significant detail concerning the new heaven and a new earth that will emerge following the world-negating battle between the Aesir and Jotun. In this time, the seeress (who is the narrator of the text) describes how this promised land, where the fields unsown shall yield their increase and all sorrows shall be healed, will be ruled by the newly reborn Balder. In this realm, he will return to dwell in mansions of bliss, in a hall brighter than the sun, shingled with gold, where the righteous shall live in joy for ever more:
A variant (which casts the characters into semi-historical roles) can be found in the late 12th century version of the tale told by the old Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus (c.1150 - c.1220 C.E.). According to him, Balder and Høther were rival suitors for the hand of Nanna, daughter of Gewar, King of Norway. In this version, Balder was a demigod and common steel could not wound his sacred body. The two rivals encountered each other in a terrible battle, which eventually led to Balder being beaten and forced into exile.
In this account, the divine character of the tale (and much of its mythic resonance) is stripped away in favor of an attempt at historical accuracy (or an attempt to discredit "pagan" practices).
The mythology surrounding Balder, with its strong themes of resentment, loss and renewal, has resonances within many religio-cultural contexts. For example, the death of the "immortal" Balder resembles the demise of the invulnerable Zoroastrian hero Esfandyar in the epic Shahnameh. In a similar manner, Lemminkäinen (a god in Finnish mythology), shares the same fate as Balder, as both are killed by "harmless" plants wielded by blind gods. Turville-Petre also notes a considerable body of scholarship connecting the myths of Baldur's death and return to the Middle-Eastern fertility cults centering on the figures of Tammuz, Attis, Adonis, and Baal.
In an additionally intriguing parallel, Balder and Yudhisthira return to their respective homelands after the conclusion of the cataclysmic battle, and are able to usher in an era of peace and prosperity.
Balder has also been likened to Jesus Christ, likely due to the number of shared motifs between the two figures (a dying-and-rising god killed, though blameless, who heralds the arrival of a period of eternal peace). Such parallels (and even identifications) were especially striking in the versions of both tales that emerged from the Nordic world during the conversion of the region to Christianity - including a folk account of Christ being crucified on a mistletoe! However, "we need not go so far as [to] ... describe the cult of Balder as Christianity in pagan clothing, but it may well be allowed that Balder's character in the original Norse myth laid him open to Christian influences. Like Christ, Balder died, and like Christ he will return at the end of the world."
There are few place names in Scandinavia that contain the name of Balder. The most notable is the (former) parish named Baldishol in Hedmark county, Norway (where the last element is hóll meaning "mound; small hill"). Others (using his Norse name) may include Baldrsberg in Vestfold county, Baldrsheimr in Hordaland county Baldrsnes in Sør-Trøndelag county and the fjord and municipality Balsfjord in Troms county.
Also the Scandinavian language, terms the Scentless Mayweed (Matricaria perforata) "Balder's brows" because of its whiteness.
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