Baldr is famous for being the god whose death triggered the disastrous Ragnarök: the “Doom of the Gods.” Though, why and how Baldr’s death gave way to such tumultuous events is still speculated. He was not the chief god, as that was the role of his father, Odin. Likewise, Baldr was not the only son of Odin, so his being the younger brother of formidable figures like Thor, Tyr, and Heimdall makes him appear significantly minor.
For such a seemingly average character, Baldr – more specifically, his death – is a popular topic in Norse poetry. Similarly, Baldr’s return after Ragnarök has been discussed by modern scholars for its similarity to Jesus Christ of Christian myth.
We know that Baldr was the favorite son of Odin and Frigg, who was plagued by visions of his own death. His mythological presence in written attestations leaves readers wanting, to say the least. However, Baldr’s role in the religious beliefs of ancient Scandinavia is hard to dispute. Baldr may have been a god who met an early end in mythology, but his position as the faultless, kind-hearted god of light may speak greater volumes about how Northern Germanic tribes viewed the end of the world.
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Who is Baldr?
Baldr (alternatively Balder or Baldur) is the son of Odin and the goddess Frigg. His half-brothers include the gods Thor, Heimdall, Tyr, Váli, and Vidar. The blind god Hod (Höðr) is Baldr’s only full sibling. In Norse mythology, Baldr is married to the Vanir goddess Nanna and shares a son with her named Forseti.
The name Baldr means “prince” or “hero,” as it is derived from the Proto-Germanic name, *Balðraz. Proto-Germanic is from the Germanic branch of Proto-Indo-European languages, of which eight language groups are still spoken today (Albanian, Armenian, Balto-Slavic, Celtic, Germanic, Hellenic, Indo-Iranian, and Italic). In Old English, Baldr was known as Bældæġ; in Old High German he was Balder.
Is Baldr a Demi-God?
Baldr is a full-fledged Aesir god. He is not a demi-god. Both Frigg and Odin are venerated deities so Baldr cannot even be considered to be a demi-god.
Now, demi-gods did exist in Scandinavian mythology, just not to the same extent that demi-gods existed in Greek mythology. Most, if not all, Greek heroes were demi-gods or descended from a god. There is divine blood in most major characters in Greek legends. While Sleipnir is perhaps the most famous Norse demi-god, the Ynglings, Völsungs, and Danish Scyldings all claim lineage from a deity.
What is Baldr the God Of?
Baldr is the Norse god of beauty, peace, light, the summer sun, and joy. Any positive adjective you can think of is what Baldr embodies: he is beautiful, kind, charming, comforting, charismatic – the list goes on. If Baldr were to walk into a room, everybody would suddenly light up. After hurling the nearest object at him, that is.
Baldr wasn’t only the god of all things good in the world. He was also untouchable. We see gods bearing superhuman strength, speed, and agility, but nothing could hit Baldr, even if he was standing still.
The apparent immortality of Baldr, which surpassed even the long-lived Aesir deities, led to an interesting pastime. The other gods amused themselves by trying – and failing – to bring harm to Baldr. He was perfect; technically, nothing could harm him, save for his own dismal dreams.
Is Baldr Stronger than Thor?
Baldr is not physically stronger than Thor. After all, Thor is considered the strongest of all the Norse gods and goddesses. He also has legendary accessories such as his belt, gauntlets, and hammer that double his already mind-boggling strength. So, no, Baldr is not stronger than Thor and would likely lose a hypothetical fight.
The only advantage Baldr really has is his inability to get hurt. Technically, any punches or swings from Mjölnir will slide right off Baldr. When we consider this extreme level of endurance, Baldr may beat Thor in a duel. Thor is still stronger; Baldr just can last longer since he won’t get physically injured.
It is also worth noting that Baldr is a fighter himself: he knows his way around weapons. It is completely plausible that Baldr can chip away at Thor over time.
Baldr in Norse Mythology
Baldr is a short-lived character in Norse mythology. The most familiar myth of his centers on his shocking death. While being macabre, there isn’t too much else to go off of in wider Germanic mythos. Over the centuries, historians and scholars alike have attempted to decipher more of who Baldr was and what he represented.
Although an Old Norse myth based on oral tradition, 12th-century accounts of Saxo Grammaticus and others record a euhemerized account of Baldr’s story. He became a warrior hero in the Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus, pining for the hand of a woman. Meanwhile, the Poetic Edda and the later Prose Edda compiled by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century are based on older Old Norse poetry.
The connecting piece to most iterations of Baldr’s myth is that Loki remains the main antagonist. Which, to be fair, is a majority of myths.
The myths involving Baldr that lead up to his death and the immediate effects of it:
Baldr wasn’t a god that got a good night’s sleep. He actually struggled with rest, as he was frequently plagued with visions of his own death. None of the Aesir gods could figure out why the god of joy was having such terrible dreams. His doting parents were getting desperate.
In the Eddic poem Baldrs Draumar (Old Norse Baldr’s Dreams), Odin rides to Helheim to investigate the origins of his son’s night terrors. He goes as far as to resurrect a völva (a seeress) to get to the bottom of it. The undead seeress explains to Odin the troubled future his son would have and his role in Ragnarök.
Odin returned from Hel to inform Frigg of their son’s fate. Upon discovering that Baldr’s dreams were prophetic, Frigg made each and every vow to never harm him. Thus, nothing could.
The gods and goddesses amused themselves by chucking different objects in Baldr’s pathway. Swords, shields, rocks; you name it, the Norse gods threw it. It was all in good fun because everyone knew Baldr was invincible.
Logically speaking, he had to be. Frigg made sure nothing would harm her son. In the Gylfaginning of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, Frigg mentions to an elderly woman (who is actually Loki in disguise) that the “mistletoe…seemed young…to demand the oath from.” By confessing that she neglected to gather an oath from the mistletoe, of all things, Frigg unwittingly gave her son’s future murderer ammunition.
The Death of Baldr
In Norse mythology, Baldr does die. However, it is the way that Baldr meets his end and the events that immediately follow that are significant. That is to say, Baldr’s death rocked the nine worlds.
Once the trickster god learns of Baldr’s weakness, he returns to the assembly of the gods. There, everyone was throwing sharpened sticks (darts in some accounts) at Baldr. They gawked in amazement at how their makeshift weapons were harmless. That is, everybody except Baldr’s brother, Höðr.
Loki goes to Höðr to ask the blind god why he wasn’t joining the fun. Höðr had no weapon, he explained, and if he did he couldn’t see in the first place. He could miss or, worse, get someone hurt.
Coincidentally, this was working out perfectly for Loki so far! He managed to convince Höðr that not shooting pointy sticks at his brother was disrespectful. He even offered to help Höðr give his brother that honor. What a nice guy.
So, there goes Höðr – with perfect aim, thanks to Loki – striking Baldr with an arrow. Not just any arrow, either: Loki gave Höðr an arrow laced with mistletoe. As soon as the weapon pierced Baldr, the god collapsed and died. All the gods present were distraught.
Now, the aftermath of Baldr’s murder was just as emotionally taxing. Baldr’s wife, Nanna, died of grief during his funeral and was placed on the funeral pyre alongside her husband. His father, Odin, assaulted a woman who birthed a son, the Norse god of vengeance, Váli. He matured within a day of his birth and slew Höðr as retribution for Baldr’s death. The world fell into an eternal winter, Fimbulwinter, and Ragnarök loomed on the horizon.
What Killed Baldr?
Baldr was killed by an arrow, or a dart, that was made from or laced with mistletoe. As it is stated by the völva in the Poetic Edda, “Hoth thither bears the far-famed branch, he shall the bane…and steal the life from Othin’s son.” The brother of Baldr, Hodr, struck down and killed the deity with a branch of mistletoe. Though Hodr was deceived by Loki, both men would receive repercussions for their role in the death of Baldr.
Looking back to the use of mistletoe in Baldr’s murder, sources state that Frigg did not demand an oath from it. She viewed the plant as either too young or too insignificant. Or, both. However, Baldr’s mother did receive oaths from “fire and water, iron…metal; stones, earth, trees, diseases, beasts, birds, vipers…” which proves that the vows made were extensive.
Now, while Frigg got promises from most all things, she neglected a single element: air. In Old Norse, air is called lopt. Coincidentally, Lopt is another name for the trickster god, Loki.
Mistletoe is an air plant and therefore has various species that can survive in numerous climates. As an air plant, the mistletoe latches onto a separate plant for support. It does not require soil for support, hence why it wouldn’t fall into the “earth” or “trees” categories that vowed to never harm Baldr. It is considered to be parasitic, relying on the host for nutrients.
Moreover, as an air plant, the mistletoe is suggested to be influenced by Loki himself. Perhaps that is how he managed to guide the arrow so well. The arrow likely struck true because it was guided by air; by lopt; by Loki.
Why Did Loki Want to Harm Baldr?
T there are a couple of reasons why Loki wanted to harm Baldr. For starters, everyone loved Baldr. The god was pure light and unbridled joy. Of course, Loki, being the guy who picks fights over nothing, is bothered by him.
Also, at this point in the myths, the Aesir have…
- Sent Hel to rule over Helheim. Which, to be fair, isn’t the worst, but it is keeping her from her father.
- Threw Jörmungandr into the literal ocean. Again, Loki is intentionally kept from his child. Still doesn’t justify murder but Loki isn’t one to think rationally about these sorts of things. Actually, he doesn’t seem to think rationally about many things, unless they are dire.
- Lastly, the Aesir betrayed, bound, and isolated Fenrir. That is, after raising him in Asgard and thrice deceiving him.
Loki may have seen harming Baldr as an eye for an eye since his own offspring were treated so poorly. It is safe to say that depends on how present a father we want to make a god of mischief out to be. Then, there is the speculation that Loki is an evil incarnate and was intentionally rushing Ragnarök. Not cool, but also not impossible; though, this does sound like Norse mythology from a later Christian author’s standpoint. Whatever Loki’s motivation for mortally wounding Baldr may be, the strife that followed was unimaginable.
What Did Odin Whisper in Baldr’s Ear?
After setting Baldr’s horse and Baldr’s wife on the funeral pyre, Odin mounted the ship where his son’s corpse lay. Then, he whispered something to it. No one knows what Odin whispered to Baldr. It is all just speculation.
The most popular theory is that, as Baldr was laid on his funeral pyre, Odin told his son of his vital role in the coming Ragnarök. More specifically, Odin had whispered to Baldr that he would return after the cataclysm to lord over a peaceful land.
The reason Odin believed in this prophecy is that the völva from Baldr’s Dreams told him it would be. That, and Odin himself could practice seidr magic that would foresee the future. Odin was a renowned prophet, so it isn’t entirely impossible that he knew what position his son would be in.
Soon after the death of Baldr, Frigg beseeched other gods to have a messenger go to Hel and bargain for Baldr’s life. The messenger god Hermóðr (Hermod) was the only one who was willing and able to make the journey. Thus, he borrowed Sleipnir and bounded off to Helheim.
As Snorri Sturluson recounts in the Prose Edda, Hermóðr traveled for nine nights, passed the Gjöll bridge that separated the living and the dead, and vaulted over the gates of Hel. When he confronted Hel herself, she told Hermóðr that Baldr would only be relinquished if all things living and dead wept for him. Boy, did the Aesir have a tough quota to make if they wanted to release Baldr.
Before his departure, Hermóðr received gifts from Baldr and Nanna to give to other gods. Baldr had returned Odin his enchanted ring, Draupnir, while Nanna gifted Frigg a linen robe and Fulla a ring. When Hermóðr returned to Asgard empty-handed, the Aesir were quick to try and have everything shed a tear for Baldr. Except, not everything did.
A giantess named Thökk refused to weep. She reasoned that Hel already has his spirit, so who are they to deny her what is rightfully hers? The outright refusal to mourn Baldr’s death meant that Hel would not release him back to the Aesir. The glorious son of Odin was to live out his afterlife alongside common folk who did not die a warrior’s death.
What Happened to Baldr in Ragnarök?
Ragnarök was a series of apocalyptic events that accumulated to the eradication of the gods and the birth of a new world. Baldr would be reborn in the new world after Ragnarök. Actually, Baldr is amongst the few gods that managed to survive.
Since Baldr was left in Helheim, he did not participate in the final battle of Ragnarök. In the Prose Edda, Baldr returns with Höðr to the regenerated world and rules alongside the sons of Thor, Modi and Magni. If this were to be the case, the dual kingship the brothers would practice is reflected in the governments of some Germanic peoples.
Dual kingship is the practice of having two kings that jointly rule with their own respective dynasties. The form of government is especially highlighted in the Anglo-Saxon conquest of ancient Britain. In this instance, the mythological brothers Horsa and Hengist led Germanic forces in an invasion of Roman Britain during the 5th century CE.
Whether or not the intention of dual kingship in the new world was established or implied is unclear. Regardless, Baldr is intended to take up the mantle with the scant amount of other deities that survived. Together, the remaining gods would guide humanity during a period of peace and prosperity.
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 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.