Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Beginning of the End of the Worlds

Illustration by Jacques Reich
“ The second son of Odin is Baldr, and good things are to be said of him. He is best, and all praise him; he is so fair of feature, and so bright, that light shines from him. A certain herb is so white that it is likened to Baldr's brow; of all grasses it is whitest, and by it thou mayest judge his fairness, both in hair and in body. He is the wisest of the Æsir, and the fairest-spoken and most gracious; and that quality attends him, that none may gainsay his judgments. He dwells in the place called Breidablik, which is in heaven; in that place may nothing unclean be… ”

Such was the reverence of Baldr held by his fellow gods and goddesses. The envy of gods and desire of goddesses, not one evil could one attest to his name. Peace was at hand in the Nine Worlds, the fields of Asgard glowed gold and Midgard was bathed in the radiant glow of the Sun. For a time, all was well. But, tragically, events would be set into motion that would hurl man and god into the most dreadful apocalypse.

Lurking in the shadows as ever he did skulked the figure of Loki, the half giant friend to the gods, trickster and joker. But little did the Aesir know of the terrible truth now. The blood of the Jötunn flowed in Loki’s veins, and with it an anger which did not forget, or forgive. From the moment Loki saw all the other gods laugh at him in his humiliation, when his mouth was sewn by the Dwarf Brokk (for this story, please click here), when his friend Thor stood and laughed, his allegiance to them all had perished. He had seen his own children, Fenrir (here) and Jörmungandr (here), bound and smote by the gods, and in secret he was now a sworn enemy of the gods, walking among them, laughing with them in face, concealing the vengeance within. Now, the time to strike had come at last.

One night in Asgard, a nightmare of monstrous and eerie horror terrorised Baldr as he lay in sleep. Premonitions, evil portents of Death and a vision of his own end roused the fair god from his slumber with a scream that chilled the blood of the Aesir. Utter dread flooded him, as he felt the rotting hand of Death coming for him. Rising from his bed, drenched in cold sweat, Baldr rushed to tell someone, anyone, of the ghastly apparitions. When the Aesir heard these things, an ominous chill gripped the Hall of Valhalla. But it was nothing compared with the faces of Odin and Frigg, King and Queen of the Aesir and parents of Baldr. Never before had mighty Odin seemed so shaken. Once, long ago, he had heard this day would come, and swiftly upon its heels would come the end of the world. Frigg wailed for her son, her boy who had only just become a man, favoured of her children. The Aesir decided that all would defend Baldr from any foe. Frigg was relentless, as she embarked upon a vast journey throughout the Nine Worlds of the Cosmos. The mother of Baldr visited every single thing, asking each to swear an oath never to harm her son. Fire and water swore the oath. Wood, stone, ice, iron, gold, bronze, silver and all metals swore the oath. Gods, giants, dwarves, elves, trolls, serpents, poisons, venoms, plagues, birds and beasts all swore to Frigg never to harm Baldr. After her epic journey, Frigg returned to Valhalla, and could rest easily once more.

Each arrow overshot his head
Illustration by Elmer Boyd Smith
Time passed, and the gods had come to find fun in Baldr’s newfound invulnerability. They had devised a game by which the gods would hurl whatever came to hand at the fair god, and watch with amazement as each flew harmlessly away from him at the last moment – the oaths of all things were unbreakable. Spears rebounded wide, stones deflected off thin air, and swords magically stopped before they reached his flesh. “But when Loki saw this, it pleased him ill that Baldr took no hurt”. His eyes burned with wrath at the harmony in Asgard, and the Deceiver made his move. Above all other things, Loki was gifted as a shape shifter. Taking the form of an elderly woman, Loki moved among the shadows as the other gods were immersed in their new entertainment, and came before Frigg. The Queen of the Gods saw the woman, and pitied her ragged state. Frigg explained the game to her, proudly pointing out how no thing could harm her son. Loki pounced. “Have all things taken oaths to spare Baldr?” Frigg, distracted by the party, thought carefully and conceded “there grows a tree-sprout alone Westward of Valhalla, it is called mistletoe; I thought it too young to ask the oath of”. This revelation came as a triumph to Loki, and the ruin of all other things. Immediately, the trickster rushed to the place, and pulled up a sprig of mistletoe, and set to work fashioning a spear from it.

With haste he returned to sacred Valhalla, where the Aesir made merry and laughed raucously at Baldr’s invincibility. Scanning the hall, Loki saw his opportunity. The blind brother of Baldr, Höðr, stood back from the crowd, a dejected look upon his sightless face:

            “ Then spake Loki to him, ‘Why dost thou not shoot at Baldr?’ He answered
               ‘Because I see not where Baldr is, and for this also, that I am weaponless’.
               Then said Loki ‘Do thou also after the manner of other men, and show
               Baldr honour as the other men do. I will direct thee where he stands,
               shoot at him with this wand… ”
                                - LOKI'S DECEPTION

Baldr Slain
Painting by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg
And so Höðr took the mistletoe spear, and took aim at his brother, his arm steadied by the hand of Loki. With a mighty throw he let the shaft fly, and its aim was true. The blade pierced Baldr’s heart and with a murmur of dread, fell cold to the floor, dead. Words failed the Aesir, struck dumb by shock were they. Then rose a great lamentation, as the wails which heralded the beginning of the end of times sounded through Valhalla. But in none was the grief as terrible as Odin’s for he and he alone knew what the death of his son would truly begin.

The day came when the body of Baldr was borne out to sea, laid to rest in a magnificent vessel.The King of the gods laid his most precious ring, Draupnir, forged by the dwarves, upon his son’s chest as he wept. Nanna, wife to the fallen god, was so stricken with grief her will to live was broken, and followed her husband in Death. The giantess Hyrrokkin pushed the craft far out into the Ocean, with such force a spark flickered, and flames consumed Baldr. It was then, when mourning reached its peak, that Frigg asked the Aesir if there was one among them who would take the road to Hel, and try to persuade her to release Baldr, and restore him to life. Hermóðr, son of Odin, took up the challenge. Taking his father’s noble steed, Sleipnir the Lord of Horses, Hermóðr galloped nine days and nights through dark forest and dale grim. At last he reached the Gjöll Bridge, where marched many companies of dead men to their fate. Onward, Down and North, to Hel’s realm of decay Sleipnir’s hooves thundered, until there at last, seated on throne high was Hermóðr’s brother, the fair god Baldr. He moved to embrace him, but found his way barred by the goddess Hel herself. Flinging himself at her feet, Hermóðr begged the rotting lady of Death to release his brother, pouring out his heart to her and telling of the world of grief that Asgard had become. Hel considered him, and could not fail to be moved, bound as she was by the laws of the Cosmos as she was. “If all things in the world, quick and dead, weep for him, then he shall go back to the Aesir, but he shall remain with Hel if any gainsay it or will not weep”. Hermóðr looked up, excited. Could there really be a chance to get Baldr back?

Hermóðr rides to Hel
Image taken from the 18th century
 Icelandic manuscript SÁM 66
Frantically, Hermóðr thundered back to Asgard, and there was much rejoice amongst the Aesir. So, once again, Frigg undertook her mighty voyage, asking all things to weep for Baldr. Fire and water mourned. Wood, stone, ice, iron, gold, bronze, silver and all metals mourned. Gods, giants, dwarves, elves, trolls, serpents, poisons, venoms, plagues, birds and beasts all wept for the fair god. The spirit of Baldr had been readying to rejoin the land of the Aesir, when at last, only one remained to be asked. Messengers of the Aesir came to the cave of the giantess called Þökk. They approached her and prayed that she would shed tears for Baldr. But Þökk replied.

                         “ Þökk will weep waterless tears,
                            For Baldr’s bale-fare;
                            Living or dead, I loved not the churl’s son;
                            Let Hel hold to that she hath! ”

                                      - THE GIANTESS REFUSES TO MOURN

With her words rose a terrible scream of “No!” from the mouth of Frigg. The rotten hand of Hel grasped Baldr, and pulled him back down to the shadow land, there forever to dwell. Tears of the uttermost despair fell on Asgard’s golden meadows.

But then, the eye of Odin caught sight of the giantess Þökk. Her form changed. With a surge of realisation at the terrible truth, the King of the gods saw Loki standing in her place laughing manically at his triumph, for it had been he all along. Rage such as that never before seen exploded in the Aesir, all trace of grief replaced with an earth shattering roar as one. Having seen and suffered Loki’s tricks all this time, at last they saw their foe before them. The wrath of the gods turned upon him, as Thor hurled himself at his friend of old, ready to tear him limb from limb. But too skilled and agile a being was the Deceiver. Odin commanded all gods to seize Loki, to face justice at last for his heinous crimes. The Aesir gave chase, as Loki made his escape from Valhalla. For days he eluded them, until he came at last to a great river which would grant him escape from Asgard. The gods bore down on him, and many a hand dived for him, but Loki was a giant no more, but a salmon! Leaping into the waves he escaped them once again. Once, in a time before, the Aesir would have stopped, but not this time. Relentless, the Aesir planned a stratagem, and wove a net of unyielding strength, such as that which bound the wolf Fenrir all that time ago. Many times wily Loki evaded them, but there at the final dash to the sea, the net was drawn, Thor grasping one end and the rest of the Aesir the other. With a powerful burst Loki soared over the net, but not over the Thunderer’s fist. The Aesir immediately closed ranks and bound Loki tightly.

Loki in Agony
Illustration by Mårten Eskil Winge 
Given over to anger, the gods dragged Loki to a certain cave. Across three stones they lashed him to the rock, tying the chains with cruel force. Skadi, the frost giantess took up a great serpent and coiled it in the roof of the cave above him. Sealing the cave, with Loki and his wife Sigyn within, the Aesir departed. Venom dripped from the serpent’s fangs, and when each drop struck the Deceiver’s cheek, he writhed in agony, each throe rousing a terrible earthquake. Sigyn, desperate to help her husband, took a bowl and held it under the serpent’s jaws. But there come times when the bowl is full, and Sigyn must empty it. In the seconds in which she does, the fiery poison strikes Loki’s cheek once again, and maddening pain is his. Once, Loki had desired to humiliate the Aesir, but only humiliate them. As each drop of the serpent’s venom kindled his rage, his hate grew. Events had now been set in motion that could not be reversed. For Ragnarök, the Twilight of the Gods, where the world will be overturned in fire, is coming. It will begin here, in this cave, when Loki will break free of his chains, to one end alone – the annihilation of the gods.  

United Kingdom

The Prose Edda
The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)
(The original old tales of Norse Mythology, written a thousand years ago)

United States

The Prose Edda
The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics)
(The original old tales of Norse Mythology, written a thousand years ago)

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