In these days of comic books and Marvel films which have made the various old Norse gods and goddesses cool and familiar to the general public, there are still a few figures whose names may be known but their histories and roles in Norse mythology still remains largely a mystery. Balder or Baldr, the Norse god of light, is one of these characters. A beloved figure even among the other gods, Balder is the much lesser known among his father Odin’s sons. And in part, this might be due to the tragedy of his early death.
Who is the Norse God Balder?
Also spelt by the old Norse name Baldr, Balder was not just a Norse god but a part of the wider Germanic pantheon, which included not just the Norse gods and goddesses but also other mythologies of the Germanic people, such as the Anglo Saxon tribes.
Considered the son of Odin and Frigg in Norse mythology, Balder or Baldr was the god of light and joy. Beloved by all gods and mortals, sadly enough most of the mythology about Balder revolves around his tragic death. There are various poems and prose pieces in old Norse that give an account of that event.
What Does He Stand for in Norse Mythology?
It is strange for a god known for the light and happiness that he radiated and spread to all around him, the sole myth that seems to survive about Balder or Baldr is about his death. This is perhaps not surprising, considering his death was thought to bring about Ragnarok.
A very important part of Norse mythology, Ragnarok was a series of events like natural disasters and great battles, bringing about the death of many of the major gods and eventually the end of the world. This is an event that is talked about extensively in the Poetic and Prose Edda, an event supposedly kicked off by the death of Balder.
Origins of Balder
Balder was one of the Aesir. The Aesir, the most important gods of the Norse pantheon, included both Odin and Frigg and their three sons, Thor, Baldr and Hodr. The other group of gods were the Vanir, who were at first involved in a war with the Aesir before they became a sub-group of the Aesir.
While the Aesir and the Vanir are talked about elaborately in Norse myth, the gods themselves are believed to have come from older Germanic myths. And so too did Balder. This is why versions of his name have survived in several languages, whether they be old Norse, old High German or Old English. The Norse gods are a remnant of the Germanic tribes in Scandinavia before the tribes were Christianized.
It is quite possible that the myth of Balder grew out of the tale of the death of some old Germanic prince, since his name does literally mean ‘prince.’ However, at this point of time, this remains merely conjecture as there is no evidence for such an event.
Meaning of his Name
The etymology of Balder’s name is quite clear. It probably derives from the Proto-Germanic word ‘Balðraz’ meaning ‘hero’ or ‘prince.’ This itself may have had its roots in the word ‘balþaz,’ which means ‘brave.’ Thus, Balder or Baldr is often given the title of ‘The Brave.’ Variations of this name are found in several languages.
Balder in Different Languages
Baldr may have been the Old Norse name for the god of light but variations of his name can be found in other languages. Balder, the way he is commonly referred to now, would have been the High German variation while in Old English or Anglo-Saxon terms, he would be ‘Bældæg.’ The English ‘Bealdor’ (prince or hero) would have itself been derived from the Old English ‘beald,’ the Old Saxon ‘bald,’ or the High German ‘bald,’ all meaning ‘bold’ or ‘brave’ or ‘courageous.’
Symbolism and Iconography
Balder was supposed to be so handsome and brave and good that he gave off light and illumination, thus being called the god of light. He was like a beacon and a harbinger of joy, which makes his death being the harbinger of Ragnarok especially ironic.
Not much is known about the symbols associated with Balder. There was of course the mistletoe, which was the only thing that Balder was not immune to and thus the weapon used to kill him. Balder had a magnificent ship and a beautiful hall, according to Gylfaginning, a part of the Prose Edda written by Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson.
The ship, Hringhorni or Ringhorn, was built by Balder himself and was one of the most splendid ships ever known. For the seafaring Norsemen, this is an impressive compliment indeed. Balder’s hall, Breiðablik, meaning ‘broad splendor’ is the most beautiful of the halls of Asgard.
Characteristics of the Norse God
Balder or Baldr was known as the most beloved, handsome and gracious of all the gods, dear to all the other gods and mortals alike. His very being seemed to shed light and joy all around him because of his kindness, courage, and honor. He was invincible to harm from all creatures and objects in the world and the other gods amused themselves by throwing their knives and spears at him to test his invincibility. Since he was so beloved, not even the weapons had any effect on Balder.
Balder’s family members are perhaps more well-known to the general populace than the god himself. His parents and brothers play a significant role in many of the key myths of the Nordic people.
Balder was the second son of Odin and the goddess Frigg, who had several sons together. Odin, the ancient god of war, wisdom, knowledge, healing, death, sorcery, poetry, and many other things, was one of the most important deities in the entire Germanic pantheon. His position can be attested by the number of names he had and the domains he presided over.
His wife Frigg was the goddess of fertility, marriage, motherhood, and prophecy. An extremely devoted mother, she played an important role in gaining Balder his invincibility and eventually in his tragic death.
Balder had several brothers and half-brothers through his father. He had a twin brother, the blind god Hodr who eventually caused his death because of the trickery of Loki. His other brothers were Thor, Vidarr, and Vali. The most recognizable Norse deity of our times, Thor was the son of Odin and the Earth goddess Joro, thus making him a half-brother of Baldr.
Wife and Child
Balder, according to Gylfaginning, had a wife named Nanna, who died of grief at the death of her husband and was burned on his ship along with him. She bore him one son, Forseti, who was the god of justice and reconciliation in Norse mythology.
Various Danish accounts from the 12th century tell the story of Balder’s death. Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish historian, and other Danish Latin chroniclers recorded accounts of the tale, based on Old Norse poetry, and the two Eddas were born in the 13th century as a result of these compilations.
While Baldr does share some similarities with other figures like the Egyptian Osiris or the Greek Dionysus or even Jesus Christ, in the tale of his death and the search for a method of resurrection, the difference is that the latter were all killed to benefit someone in some way and were brought back. In Balder’s case, it was the mischief of Loki and actually signaled the destruction of the world.
Balder’s death is only referenced and not recounted in any great detail. He is the subject of the poem Balder’s Dream. In that, Odin goes in disguise to a seer’s cave in Hel (equivalent to the Christian Hell) and asks her about Baldr’s fate. In the best known poem of the text, Voluspa, the seeress again prophesies the death of Balder and the ultimate fates of Balder and Hodr, who she says will come back to life.
His Death in Prose Edda
The Prose Edda, on the other hand, the account of his death is given in detail. The story goes that both Balder and his mother had a dream about his death. The goddess, upset, made every object in the world swear that it would not harm her son. Every object promised, except mistletoe, which was considered too small and unimportant to matter. Thus, Balder became almost invincible.
When Loki the trickster god heard of this, he fashioned an arrow or spear out of the plant. Then he went to the place where the others were all flinging weapons at Balder to test his newfound invincibility. Loki gave the blind Hodr the mistletoe weapon and asked him to fling it at his brother. The punishment for Hodr’s unintended crime was that Odin gave birth to a son called Vali who slew Hodr on the first day of his life.
Balder or Baldr was burnt on his ship Hringhorni, as was their tradition. Baldr’s wife, filled with grief, flung herself on the pyre and burnt to death with him. Another version is that she died of grief and was burned with him.
Balder’s mournful mother sent her messenger to Hel to rescue Balder. But Hel would only release him if every object in the world wept for Balder. Only a giantess named Thokk refused to mourn him, a giantess that many thought was Loki in disguise. And so, Balder had to remain in Hel until after Ragnarok. It was prophesied that he and Hodr would then be reconciled and would rule the world alongside the sons of Thor.
Balderus in Gesta Danorum
Saxo Grammaticus had a different version of the story to tell and he stated that this was the historical version. Balder and Hodr, whom he called Balderus and Hotherus, were the main competitors for the hand of the princess of Denmark, Nanna. Since Balderus was a demigod, he could not be injured by a common sword. The two met on the battlefield and fought. And though all the gods fought for him, Balderus was defeated. He fled, leaving Hotherus to marry the princess.
Eventually, Balder came back to fight his rival on the field once again. But armed with a magical sword named Mistletoe, which had been given to him by a satyr, Hotherus defeated him and gave him a fatal wound. Balderus suffered in agony for three days before he died and was buried with great honor.
Certainly, this is a more realistic version of events than the myth. But how true it is or whether these figures actually lived cannot be conclusively proved in any way.
Balder in the Modern World
Balder is the namesake of several things in the modern world and has also appeared in books, games and TV shows.
Balder was the namesake of a plant in Sweden and Norway, the scentless mayweed and its cousin, the sea mayweed. These plants, referenced in the Gylfaginning, are called ‘baldursbrá’ which means ‘Balder’s brow.’ Their white color is supposed to reflect the radiance and glory that always seemed to shine from his face. Valerian in German is known as Baldrian.
The etymology of several place names in Scandinavia can be traced back to Baldr. There is a parish in Norway named Ballesholl which derives from ‘Balldrshole’ which might literally mean ‘Balder’s Hill.’ There are streets in Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Reykjavik called ‘Balder’s Street.’ Other examples include Balder’s Bay, Balder’s Mountain, Balder’s Isthmus, and Balder’s Headland all over Scandinavia.
In Popular Culture
Since the time of Marvel, the Norse deities have played quite an important part in the comic books, TV shows and films, due to Thor being a part of the Avengers. As such Balder appears as a character in various adaptations.
Comic Books, TV Shows, and Film
Balder influenced the figure of Balder the Brave in the Marvel Comics, who is a half-brother of Thor and son of Odin.
He is also a character in several TV shows and films, mostly in minor roles and voiced by different actors. Some of the shows and films he appears in are The Marvel Super Heroes, The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and Hulk vs. Thor.
Balder appeared in the Age of Mythology game as one of the nine minor gods to be worshiped by the Norse players. In the 2018 God of War video game, he was the main antagonist and was voiced by Jeremy Davies. Called Baldur in the game, his character was very different from the gracious and kindhearted Norse deity.
Elmer Boyd Smith, the American writer and illustrator, made an illustration of Balder, with the heading “Each Arrow Overshot His Head” for Abby F. Brown’s book In The Days of Giants: A Book of Norse Tales, depicting the scene where everyone is throwing knives and shooting arrows at Balder to test him.