One of those deities whose life might, in a sense, be said to be between heaven and earth was the Norse god Balder, the good and beautiful god, the son of the great god Odin, and himself the wisest, mildest and best beloved of all the immortals.
The story of his death is this: Balder dreamed something which seemed to forebode his death. He told the other gods about this and, because he was so beloved, the gods held a council and resolved to secure him from any danger. So the goddess Frigg took an oath from fire and water, iron and all metals, stones and earth, trees, sicknesses and poisons, and from all four-footed beasts, birds and creepy things that they would not hurt Balder.
When this was done Balder was deemed invulnerable; so the gods amused themselves in their downtime by setting him in their midst – some would shoot at him and others threw stones at him, because why not? But whatever they did, nothing could hurt him, so at they had a big laugh and a jolly time was had by all. But Loki, the mischief-maker, didn’t think this was fair, and he went in the guise of an old woman to Frigg, who told him that the weapons of the gods could not wound Balder, since she had made them all swear not to hurt him.
When Loki asked, “Have all things sworn to spare Balder?” Frigg answered, “East of Valhalla grows a plant called mistletoe; it seemed to me too young to swear.” So Loki went there, pulled the mistletoe and took it to the assembly of the gods. There he found the blind god Hother standing at the outside of the circle. Loki asked him, “Why do you not shoot at Balder?” Hother answered, “Because I do not see where he stands; besides I have no weapon.” Then Loki said, “Join in the fun. I will show you where he stands and you can shoot him with this twig.” Hother took the mistletoe and threw it at Balder, as Loki directed. The mistletoe struck Balder and he fell down dead.
For a while the gods stood speechless, then they wept bitterly. They took Balder’s body and brought it to the sea-shore. There stood Balder’s ship, Ringhorn. Balder’s body was taken and placed on the funeral pile upon his ship. When his wife Nanna saw it, her heart burst in sorrow and she died. So she was laid on the funeral pyre with her husband. Balder’s horse, too, with all its trappings, was burned, so the couple could journey on it to the underworld.
In the older Edda, the tragic tale of Balder is hinted at rather than told at length. Among the visions which the Norse Sibyl sees and describes in the weird prophecy known as the Voluspa is one of the fatal mistletoe. “I behold,” she said, “Fate looming for Balder, Woden’s son, the bloody victim. There stands the Mistletoe slender and delicate, blooming high above the ground. Out of this shoot, so slender to look on, there shall grow a harmful fateful shaft. Hod shall shoot it, but Frigga in Fen-hall shall weep over the woe of Wal-hall.”
But looking far into the future the Sibyl sees a brighter vision of a new heaven and a new earth, where the fields unsown shall yield their increase and all sorrows shall be healed; then Balder will come back to dwell in Odin’s mansions of bliss, in a hall brighter than the sun, shingled with gold, where the righteous shall live in joy for ever more.
Writing about the end of the twelfth century, the old Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus tells the story of Balder where Balder and Hother were rival suitors for the hand of Nanna, daughter of Gewar, King of Norway. Balder was a demigod and common steel could not wound his sacred body. The two rivals battle each other. Although Odin, Thor and the rest of the gods fought on Balder’s side, Balder was defeated and flew away. So Hother married the princess. But Balder didn’t give up and again met Hother in a field. But he fared even worse than before because Hother gave him a deadly wound with a magic sword which he had received from Miming, the Satyr of the woods; and after three days in pain, Balder died of his pain and was buried with royal honours in a barrow.
Whether he was a real or mythical, Balder was worshipped in Norway. On one of the bays of Sogne Fiord, which penetrates far into the depths of the Norwegian mountains, Balder had a great sanctuary. It was called Balder’s Grove.
We like to think that the figure of Balder was nothing more than a myth, but it is also possible that the myth was founded on the tradition of a hero, popular and beloved in his lifetime, who long survived in the memory of the people, gathering more and more of the marvelous stories about him as he passed from generation to generation of story-tellers. So it is worth while to observe that a somewhat similar story is told of another national hero, who may well have been a real man. In his poem, The Epic of Kings, founded on Persian traditions, the poet Firdusi tells us that in the combat between Rostam and Esfandiyar, Rostam’s arrows did no harm to his adversary, “because Zerdusht had charmed his body against all dangers, so that it was like unto brass.” But Simurgh, the bird of God, showed Rostam the way to vanquish his foe.
Rostam rode after her, and they halted not till they came to the sea-shore. There she led him into a garden, where a tamarisk stood tall and strong, branches piercing to the sky. Then the bird of God asked Rostam to break a tree a branch that was long and slender, and made it into an arrow. She said, “Only through his eyes can Isfendiyar be wounded. If, therefore, thou wouldst slay him, direct this arrow to his forehead, and it shall not miss its aim.” Rostam did as he was asked to do; and when next he fought with Isfendiyar, he shot the arrow at him. The arrow pierced Isfendiyar’s eye and killed him.