Heroes of the Olden Times: The Story of Siegfried
The Story of Balder
There was mirth in King Gunther's dwelling, for the time of the Yule-feast had come. The broad banquet hall was gayly decked with cedar and spruce and sprigs of the mistletoe; and the fires roared in the great chimneys, throwing warmth and a ruddy glow of light into every corner of the room. The long table fairly groaned under its weight of good cheer. At its head sat the kings and the earl-folk; and before them, on a silver platter of rare workmanship, was the head of a huge wild boar, - the festal offering to the good Frey, in honor of whom the Yule-feast was held. For now the sun, which had been driven by the Frost-giants far away towards the Southland, had begun to return, and Frey was on his way once more to scatter peace and plenty over the land.
The harp and the wassail bowl went round; and each one of the company sang a song, or told a story, or in some way did his part to add to the evening's enjoyment. And a young sea-king who sat at Siegfried's side told most bewitching tales of other lands which lie beyond Old Aegir's kingdom. Then, when the harp came to him, he sang the wondrous song of the shaping of the earth. And all who heard were charmed with the sweet sound and with the pleasant words. He sang of the sunlight and the south winds and the summer time, of the storms and the snow and the sombre shadows of the Northland. And he sang of the dead Ymir, the giant whose flesh had made the solid earth, and whose blood the sea, and whose bones the mountains, whose teeth the cliffs and crags, and whose skull the heavens. And he sang of Odin, the earth's preserver, the Giver of life, the Father of all; and of the Asa-folk who dwell in Asgard; and of the ghostly heroes in Valhal. Then he sang of the heaven-tower of the thunder god, and of the shimmering Asa-bridge, or rainbow, all afire; and, lastly, of the four dwarfs who hold the blue sky-dome above them, and of the elves of the mountains, and of the wood-sprites and the fairies. Then he laid aside the harp, and told the old but ever-beautiful story of the death of Balder the Good.
Balder, as you know, was Odin's son; and he was the brightest and best of all the Asa-folk. Wherever he went, there were gladness and light-hearted mirth, and blooming flowers, and singing birds, and murmuring waterfalls. Balder, too, was a hero, but not one of the blustering kind, like Thor. He slew no giants; he never tried to make for himself a name among the dwellers of the mid-world; and yet he was a hero of the noblest type. He dared to do right, and to stand up for the good, the true, and the beautiful. There are still some such heroes, but the world does not always hear of them.
Hoder, the blind king of the winter months, was Balder's brother, and as unlike him as darkness is unlike daylight. While one rejoiced, and was merry and cheerful, the other was low-spirited and sad. While one scattered sunshine and blessings everywhere, the other carried with him a sense of cheerlessness and gloom. Yet the brothers loved each other dearly.
One night Balder dreamed a strange dream, and when he awoke he could not forget it. All day long he was thoughtful and sad, and he was not his own bright, happy self. His mother, the Asa-queen, saw that something troubled him; and she asked, -
"Whence comes that cloud upon your brow? Will you suffer it to chase away all your sunshine? and will you become, like your brother Hoder, all frowns and sighs and tears?"
Then Balder told her what he had dreamed; and she, too, was sorely troubled, for it was a frightful dream, and foreboded dire disasters. Then both she and Balder went to Odin, and to him they told the cause of their uneasiness. And the All-Father also was distressed; for he knew that such dreams, dreamed by Asa-folk, were the forewarnings of evil. So he saddles his eight footed steed Sleipner; and, without telling any one where he was going, he rode with the speed of the winds down into the Valley of Death. The dog that guards the gateway to that dark and doleful land came out to meet him. Blood was on the fierce beast's breast, and he barked loudly and angrily at the All-Father and his wondrous horse. But Odin sang sweet magic songs as he drew near; and the dog was charmed with the sound, and Sleipner and his rider went onward in safety. And they passed the dark halls of the pale-faced queen, and came to the east gate of the valley. There stood the low hut of a witch who lived in darkness, and, like the Norns, spun the threads of fate for gods and men.
Odin stood before the hut, and sang a wondrous song of witchery and enchantment; and he laid a spell upon the weird woman, and forced her to come out of her dark dwelling, and to answer his questions.
"Who is this stranger?" asked the witch. "Who is this unknown who calls me from my narrow home and sets an irksome task for me? Long have I been left alone in my quiet house; nor recked I that the snow sometimes covered with its cold white mantle both me and my resting place, or that the pattering rain and the gently falling dew often moistened the roof of my dwelling. Long have I rested quietly, and I do not wish now to be aroused."
"I am Valtam's son," said Odin; "and I come to learn of thee. Tell me, I pray, for whom are the soft couches prepared that I saw in the broad halls of Death? For whom are the jewels, and the rings, and the rich clothing, and the shining shield?"
"All are for Balder, Odin's son," she answered. "And the mead which has been brewed for him is hidden beneath the shining shield."
Then Odin asked who would be the slayer of Balder, and she answered that Hoder was the one who would send the shining Asa to the halls of Death.
"Who will avenge Balder, and bring distress upon his slayer?" asked Odin.
"A son of earth but on day old shall be Balder's avenger. Go thou now home, Odin; for I know thou art not Valtam's son. Go home; and none shall again awaken me, or disturb me at my task, until the new day shall dawn, and Balder shall rule over the young world in its purity, and there shall be no more Death."
Then Odin rode sorrowfully homeward; but he told no one of his journey to the Dark Valley, nor of what the weird witch had said to him.
Balder's mother, the Asa-queen, could not rest because of the ill-omened dream that her son had had; and in her distress she called all the Asa-fold together to consider what should be done. But they were speechless with sorrow and alarm; and none could offer advice, nor set her mind at ease. Then she sought out every living creature, and every lifeless thing upon the earth, and asked each one to swear that it would not on any account harm Balder, nor touch him to do him harm. And this oath was willingly made by fire and water, earth and air, by all beasts and creeping things and birds and fishes, by the rocks and by the trees and all metals; for every thing loved Balder the Good.
Then the Asa-folk thought that great honor was shown to Balder each time any thing refused to hurt him; and to show their love for him, as well as to amuse themselves, they often hewed at him with their battle-axes, or struck at him with their sharp swords, or hurled toward him their heavy lances. For every weapon turned aside from its course, and would neither mark nor bruise the shining target at which it was aimed; and Balder's princely beauty shone as bright and as pure as ever.
When Loki the Mischief-maker saw how all things loved and honored Balder, his heart was filled with jealous hate, and he sought all over the earth for some beast or bird or tree or lifeless thing, that had not taken the oath. But he could find not one. Then, disguised as a fair maiden, he went to Fensal Hall, where dwelt Balder's mother. The fair Asa-queen was busy at her distaff, with her golden spindles, spinning flax to be woven into fine linen for the gods. And her maid-servant, Fulla of the flowing hair, sat on a stood beside her. When the queen saw Loki, she asked, -
"Whence come you, fair stranger? and what favor would you ask of Odin's wife?"
"I come," answered the disguised Loki, "from the plains of Ida, where the gods meet for pleasant pastime, as well as to talk of the weightier matters of their kingdom."
"And how do they while away their time to-day?" asked the queen.
"They have a pleasant game which they call Balder's Honor," was the answer. "The shining hero stands before them as a target, and each one tries his skill at hurling some weapon toward him. First Odin throws at him the spear Gungner, which never before was known to miss its mark; but it passes harmlessly over Balder's head. Then Thor takes up a huge rock, and hurls it full at Balder's breast; but it turns in its course, and will not smite the sun-bright target. Then Tyr seizes a battle-axe, and strikes at Balder as though he would hew him down; but the keen edge refuses to touch him; and in this way the Asa-folk show honor to the best of their number."
The Asa-queen smiled in the glad pride of her mother-heart, and said, "Yes, every thing shows honor to the best of Odin's sons; for neither metal nor wood nor stone nor fire nor water will touch Balder to do him harm."
"Is it true, then," asked Loki, "that every things has made an oath to you, and promised not to hurt your son?"
And the queen, not thinking what harm an unguarded word might do, answered, "Every thing has promised, save a little feeble sprig that men call the mistletoe. So small and weak it is, that I knew it could never harm any one; and so I passed it by, and did not ask it to take the oath."
Then Loki went out of Fensal Hall, and left the Asa-queen at her spinning. And he walked briskly away, and paused not until he came to the eastern side of Valhal, where, on the branches of an old oak, the mistletoe grew. Rudely he tore the plant from its supporting branch, and hid it under his cloak. Then he walked leisurely back to the place where the Asa-folk were wont to meet in council.
The next day the Asas went out, as usual, to engage in pleasant pastimes on the plains of Ida. When they had tired of leaping and foot-racing and tilting, they placed Balder before them as a target again; and, as each threw his weapon toward the shining mark, they laughed to see the missile turn aside from its course, and refuse to strike the honored one. But blind Hoder stood sorrowfully away from the others, and did not join in any of their sports. Loki, seeing this, went to him and said, -
"Brother of the gloomy brow,
why do you not take part with us in our games?"