Murder and Vengeance among the Gods: Baldr in Scandinavian Mythology

By Liberman, Anatoly | Western Folklore, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Murder and Vengeance among the Gods: Baldr in Scandinavian Mythology


Liberman, Anatoly, Western Folklore


Murder and Vengeance Among the Gods: Baldr in Scandinavian Mythology. By John Lindow. FF Communications 262. (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia/Academia Scientiaram Fennica, 1997. Pp. 210, bibliography, name and subject index. FIM 150 softbound, FIM 180 paper)

Comparatively little is known about the resplendent Scandinavian god Baldr. One day he began to have bad dreams. His mother Frigg exacted an oath from all objects that they would do Baldr no harm, but, as in all stories of magical invulnerability, the door was left open for mischief. Frigg failed to address the mistletoe, and Baldr was killed with it under unusual circumstances: the murderer was his blind brother HQ@r (Q = 6, d = th, as in this), who allowed Loki to guide his hand. An attempt to retrieve Baldr from the kingdom of the dead proved unsuccessful. Baldr's death was a prelude to the destruction of the gods by the forces of evil. Later, Baldr was avenged and returned to his abode, but this happened in what can be called a new era. Both Snorri Sturluson (and other Icelanders) and the Dane Saxo Grammaticus knew about the triangle Baldr-HQdr-Loki, yet left vastly different versions of the events.

Countless works have been written on the Baldr myth, and it will not be an exaggeration to say that Lindow knows them all. He organized his material in six chapters: 1. ",Esir and Vanir: Religion, Myth, Mythology, Mythography (The World of the Mythology, Baldr, Interpretation)", 2. "Baldr, Har, Loki: Baldr's Death", 3. "Odin and Hyrrokkin: Baldr's Funeral," 4. "Frigg and Herm6k, Loki and Hel: Attempted Retrieval", 5. "Vali and HQar, the Esir and Loki: Vengeance", 6. "Baldr and HQdr: RagnarQk and Reconciliation."

The problem that confronted Lindow is familiar to all specialists in Scandinavian mythology: the solid facts to be interpreted are relatively few, while allusions in the Elder Edda and skaldic poetry are numerous, but most of them are obscure. Hence the controversial nature of all solutions. For example, Baldr resembles Osiris and other deities like him, but has nothing to do with fertility. Loki goads HQ@r to kill Baldr, but his motives remain hidden. Mistletoe is traditionally connected with regeneration, which makes its role in the murder of Baldr puzzling. Consequently, even the most erudite stocktaking, such as the present one, brings a measure of disappointment: the time distance between us and the worshippers of the Scandinavian gods is too great. Lindow could have offered a more sophisticated analysis of the etymology of Baldr's name (in his book, he does not go beyond the hypotheses mentioned in Jan de Vries), but even if he had done so, his argument would not have been seriously affected.

Lindow is right when he says "that the search for a unified Baldr theory is ultimately too grand an endeavor and should be scaled back to a series of attempts to interpret various texts or traditions" (38), and yet, like all his predecessors, he hopes to formulate such a theory. He insists that the murder of Baldr is the central episode in the struggle between the gods and the giants. However, this very general conclusion was hardly worthy of the efforts expended on it. Nor is it fully persuasive. Giants are marginal to the story of Baldr's death, even though one giantess pushed the funeral ship into the water and the other (a most suspicious character) refused to weep for Baldr and thus prevented his return from the nether world. Loki is a villain, but his status is ambiguous, for he is first and foremost a god.

More than once, Lindow reinterprets an important detail, and it is when he tries innovative approaches that the entanglements to be unraveled show their vicious nature. Baldr was killed in a bizarre way. The gods, informed of Baldr's invulnerability, loved throwing darts and stones at him; they did it in the field where their assembly was held and where, normally, no weapons were allowed. …

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