In Asgard there were two places that meant strength and joy to the Æsir and the Vanir. One was the garden where the apples that Iduna gathered grew, and the other was the Peace Stead, where, in a palace called Breidablik, Baldur the Well-Beloved lived.
No crime had ever been committed in the Peace Stead, no blood had ever been shed, and no lies had ever been spoken. Everyone in Asgard felt contented when they thought of this place. If it were not for the Peace Stead and Baldur’s presence, the minds of the Æsir and the Vanir might have become gloomy and grim from thinking about the terrible things that were facing them.
Baldur was beautiful. He was so beautiful that all the white blossoms on the earth were called by his name. Baldur was happy. He was so happy that all the birds on the earth sang his name. Baldur was so just and so wise that the judgment he pronounced would never be altered. Nothing foul or unclean had ever come near where he lived.
Healing was done in Baldur’s Stead. Tyr’s wrist was healed of the wounds that Fenrir’s fangs had made. Frey’s mind became less troubled with the foreboding that Loki had filled it with when he scolded him about the bartering of his sword.
After Fenrir had been bound to the rock on the faraway island the Æsir and the Vanir felt at peace for a while. They passed days in Baldur’s Stead, listening to the birds that made music there. It was there that Bragi the Poet wove into his never-ending story the tale of Thor’s adventures amongst the Giants.
But foreboding came even into Baldur’s Stead. One day little Hnossa, the child of Freya and the lost Odur, was brought there in such sorrow that no one outside could comfort her. Nanna, Baldur’s gentle wife, took the child on her lap and found ways of soothing her. Then Hnossa told of a dream that had frightened her.
She had dreamt of Hela, the Queen that is half living woman and half corpse. In her dream Hela had come into Asgard saying, “I must have a lord of the Æsir to live with me in my kingdom beneath the earth.” Hnossa was so frightened by this dream that she had fallen into a deep sorrow.
When the Hnossa’s dream was told they all fell silent. Nanna looked thoughtfully at Odin All-Father. And Odin, looking at Frigga, saw that a fear had entered her heart.
He left the Peace Stead and went to his watchtower Hlidskjalf. He waited there till Hugin and Munin would come to him. Every day his two ravens flew through the world, and coming back to him told him of everything that was happening. They might tell him of events that would let him guess if Hela had indeed turned her thoughts toward Asgard, or if she had the power to draw someone down to her dismal home.
The ravens flew to him, and landing one on each of his shoulders, told him of things that were being said up and down Ygdrassil, the World Tree. Ratatösk the Squirrel was saying them. And Ratatösk had heard them from the serpents that with Nidhögg, the great dragon, always gnawed at the root of Ygdrassil. He told the Eagle that sat on the topmost branch, that in Hela’s home a bed was spread and a chair was left empty for some lord.
Hearing this, Odin thought that it were better that Fenrir the Wolf should range ravenously through Asgard than that Hela should win someone from amongst them to fill that chair and lie in that bed.
He mounted Sleipner, his eight legged horse, and rode down toward the homes of the Dead. For three days and three nights of silence and darkness he journeyed on. Once one of the hounds of Helheim broke loose and followed Sleipner’s tracks. For a day and a night Garm, the hound, pursued them, and Odin smelled the blood that dripped from his monstrous jaws.
At last he came to where, wrapped in their shrouds, a field of the Dead lay. He dismounted from Sleipner and called on one to rise and speak with him. He called on Volva, a dead prophetess. When he pronounced her name he uttered a rune that had the power to break the sleep of the Dead.
There was a groaning in the middle of where the shrouded ones lay. Then Odin cried, out, “Arise, Volva, prophetess.” There was a stir in the middle of where the shrouded ones lay, and a head and shoulders were thrust up from amongst the Dead.
“Who calls on Volva the Prophetess? The rains have drenched my flesh and the storms have shaken my bones for more seasons than the living know. No living voice has a right to call me from my sleep with the Dead.”
“It is Vegtam the Wanderer who calls. Who is the bed prepared and the seat left empty for in Hela’s habitation?”
“The bed is prepared and the seat left empty for Baldur, Odin’s son. Now let me go back to my sleep with the Dead.”
But now Odin saw beyond Volva’s prophecy. “Who is it,” he cried out, “that stands with unbowed head and will not grieve for Baldur? Answer, Volva, prophetess!”
“You see far, but you cannot see clearly. You are Odin. I can see clearly but I cannot see far. Now let me go back to my sleep with the Dead.”
“Volva, prophetess!” Odin cried out again.
But the voice from amongst the shrouded ones said, “You cannot wake me again until the fires of Muspelheim blaze above my head.”
Then there was silence in the field of the Dead, and Odin turned Sleipner, his horse and for four days, through the gloom and silence, he journeyed back to Asgard.
Frigga had felt the fear that Odin had felt. She looked at Baldur, and the shadow of Hela came between her and her son. But then she heard the birds sing in the Peace Stead and she knew that nothing in the world would injure Baldur.
To make sure she went to all the things that could hurt him and from each of them she took an oath that they would not injure Baldur, the Well-Beloved. She took an oath from fire and from water, from iron and from all metals, from earths and stones and great trees, from birds and beasts and creeping things, from poisons and diseases. They all gave the oath that they would not harm Baldur.
Then when Frigga went back and told what she had accomplished the gloom that had been on Asgard lifted. Baldur would be spared. Hela might have a place prepared in her dark home, but neither fire nor water, nor iron nor any metals, nor earths nor stones nor great woods, nor birds nor beasts nor creeping things, nor poisons nor diseases, would help her to bring him down. “Hela has no weapons to bring you to her,” the Æsir and the Vanir cried to Baldur.
Hope was renewed and they made games to honor Baldur. They had him stand in the Peace Stead and they brought against him all the things that had sworn to leave him unharmed. Neither the battle-axe thrown at him, nor the stone out of the sling, nor the burning brand, nor the deluge of water would injure him. The Æsir and the Vanir laughed joyously to see these things fall harmlessly from him while a crowd came to join them in the games; Dwarfs and friendly Giants.
But Loki the Hater came in with that crowd. He watched the games from a distance. He saw the missiles and the weapons being thrown and he saw Baldur stand smiling and happy under the strokes of metal and stones and great wood. He wondered at the sight, but he knew that he could not ask the meaning of it from the anyone who knew him.
He changed his shape into that of an old woman and he went amongst those who were watching. He spoke to Dwarfs and friendly Giants. “Go to Frigga and ask. Go to Frigga and ask,” was all the answer Loki got from any of them.
Then Loki went to Fensalir, Frigga’s mansion,. He told those in the mansion that he was Groa, the old Enchantress who was drawing out of Thor’s head the fragments of a grindstone that a Giant’s throw had embedded in it. Frigga knew about Groa and she praised the Enchantress for what she had done.
” I have taken out many fragments of the great grindstone from Thor’s head by the charms I know,” said the false Groa. “Thor was so grateful that he brought back to me the husband that he once had carried off to the end of the earth. I was so overjoyed to find my husband returned that I forgot the rest of the charms and I left some fragments of the stone in Thor’s head.”
So Loki said, repeating a story that was true. “Now I remember the rest of the charm,” he said, “and I can draw out the fragments of the stone that are left. But won’t you tell me, Queen, what is the meaning of the extraordinary things I saw the Æsir and the Vanir doing?”
“I will tell you,” said Frigga, looking kindly and happily at the old woman. “They are hurling all kinds of heavy and dangerous things at Baldur, my beloved son. Everyone in Asgard cheers to see that neither metal nor stone nor great wood will hurt him.”
“But why won’t they hurt him?” said the false Enchantress.
“Because I have an oath from all dangerous and threatening things to leave Baldur unharmed,” said Frigga.
“From all things, lady? Is there nothing in all the world that has not taken an oath to leave Baldur unharmed?”
“Well, indeed, there is one thing that has not taken the oath. But that thing is so small and weak that I passed it by without thinking about it.”
“What can it be, lady?”
“The mistletoe that has no root or strength. It grows on the eastern side of Valhalla. I passed it by without asking an oath from it.”
“Surely you were not wrong to pass it by. What could the mistletoe—the rootless mistletoe—do against Baldur?”
Saying this, the false Enchantress hobbled off.
But the false Enchantress did not go hobbling far. He changed back to his real form and hurried to the eastern side of Valhalla. A great oak tree grew there and out of a branch of it a little bush of mistletoe grew. Loki broke off a piece and with it in his hand he went to where the Æsir and the Vanir were still playing games to honor Baldur.
All were laughing as Loki drew near, for the Giants and the Dwarfs, the Asyniur and the Vana, were all throwing missiles. The Giants threw too far and the Dwarfs could not throw far enough, while the Asyniur and the Vana threw far and wide of the mark. In the midst of all that glee it was strange to see one standing looking unhappy. But he was one of the Æsir, Hödur, Baldur’s blind brother.
“Why don’t you enter the game?” said Loki to him in his changed voice.
“I have no missile to throw at Baldur,” Hödur said.
“Take this and throw it,” said Loki. “It is a twig of the mistletoe.”
“I cannot see to throw it,” said Hödur.
“I will guide your hand,” said Loki. He put the twig of mistletoe in Hödur’s hand and he guided the hand for the throw. The twig flew toward Baldur. It struck him on the chest and it pierced him. Then Baldur fell down with a deep groan.
The Æsir and the Vanir, the Dwarfs and the friendly Giants, stood still in doubt and fear and amazement. Loki slipped away. Blind Hödur, from whose hand the twig of Mistletoe had gone, stood quiet, not knowing that his throw had taken Baldur’s life.
Then a wailing rose around the Peace Stead. It was from the Asyniur and the Vana. Baldur was dead, and they began to mourn him. While they were grieving Odin came amongst them.
“Hela has won our Baldur from us,” Odin said to Frigga as they both bent over the body of their beloved son.
“No, I will not say it,” Frigga said.
The mother of Baldur went amongst the Æsir and the Vanir “Who amongst you would win my love and goodwill?” she said. “Who will ride down to Hela’s dark realm and ask the Queen to take ransom for Baldur. She might take it and let Baldur come back to us. Who amongst you will go? Odin’s horse is ready for the journey.”
Then Hermod the Nimble, the brother of Baldur stepped forward. He mounted Sleipner and turned the eight-legged horse down toward Hela’s dark realm.
For nine days and nine nights Hermod rode on. His way was through rugged glens, one deeper and darker than the other. He came to the river that is called Giöll and to the bridge across it that is all glittering with gold. The pale maid who guards the bridge spoke to him.
“You are still alive,” said Modgudur, the pale maid. “Why do you journey down to Hela’s deathly kingdom?”
“I am Hermod,” he said, “and I go to see if Hela will take ransom for Baldur.”
” Hela’s home is frightening to enter,” said Modgudur, the pale maid. “All round it is a steep wall that even your horse cannot leap over. The bed inside is worry, the table is hunger and the wall hanging of the chamber is anguish.”
“It may be that Hela will take ransom for Baldur.”
“If everything in the world still grieves for Baldur, Hela will have to take ransom and let him go from her,” said Modgudur, the pale maid that guards the glittering bridge.
“It is good, then, because everything mourns for Baldur. I will go to her and make her take ransom.”
“You may not pass until it is certain that everything still mourns for him. Go back to the world and make sure. If you come to this glittering bridge and tell me that everything still grieves for Baldur, I will let you pass and Hela will have to listen to you.”
“I will come back, and you, Modgudur, pale maid, will have to let me pass.”
“Then I will let you pass,” said Modgudur.
Happily Hermod turned Sleipner and rode back through the rugged glens, each one less gloomy than the other. He reached the upper world, and saw that everything was still grieving for Baldur. Hermod rode onward. He met the Vanir in the middle of the world and he told them the happy news.
Then Hermod and the Vanir went through the world seeking out each thing and finding that each thing still wept for Baldur. But one day Hermod came upon a crow that was sitting on the dead branch of a tree. The crow made no cry as he came near. She rose up and flew away and Hermod followed her to make sure that she mourned for Baldur.
He lost sight of her near a cave. Then in front of the cave he saw a hag with blackened teeth who didn’t grieve. “If you are the crow that came flying here, grieve for Baldur,” Hermod said.
“I, Thaukt, will not grieve for Baldur,” the hag said, “let Hela keep what she holds.”
“Everything weeps tears for Baldur,” Hermod said.
“I will weep dry tears for him,” said the hag.
She hobbled into her cave, and as Hermod followed a crow fluttered out. He knew that this was Thaukt, the evil hag, transformed. He followed her, and she went through the world croaking, “Let Hela keep what she holds. Let Hela keep what she holds.”
Then Hermod knew that he could not ride to Hela’s home. Everything knew that there was one thing in the world that would not grieve for Baldur. With head bowed over Sleipner’s mane, Hermod rode into Asgard.
When the Æsir and the Vanir, knew that no ransom would be taken for Baldur and that the joy and happiness of Asgard were gone indeed, prepared his body for burning. First they covered Baldur’s body with a rich robe, and left beside it his most precious possessions. Then they all left him, kissing him on the brow. But Nanna, his gentle wife, threw herself on him and her heart broke and she died of grief. Then the Æsir and the Vanir wept again. They took the body of Nanna and they placed it side by side with Baldur’s.
Baldur was placed with Nanna beside him on his own great ship, Ringhorn. Then the ship would be launched on the water and set on fire.
But it was found that none of the Æsir or the Vanir were able to launch Baldur’s great ship. Hyrroken, a Giantess, was sent for. She came mounted on a great wolf with twisted serpents for a bridle. Four Giants held the wolf when she dismounted. She came to the ship and with a single push she sent it into the sea.
Then when it rode the water fires rose up on the ship. In the blaze of the fires someone was seen bending over the body of Baldur and whispering into his ear. It was Odin All-Father. Then he went down off the ship and all the fires rose into a mighty blaze. Speechlessly the Æsir and the Vanir watched with tears streaming down their faces while everything grieved, crying, “Baldur the Beautiful is dead, is dead.”
What was it that Odin All-Father whispered to Baldur as he bent above him with the flames of the burning ship around? He whispered of a heaven above Asgard that Surtur’s flames could not reach, and of a life that would come to beauty again after the World of Men and the World of the Gods had been covered with fire.