Of all the Aesirs, Balder was the most beautiful. His face shone with white light and his golden hair shimmered around it like the sun's own immaculate radiance, like the lovely flower with a yellow disc and white rays that bears his name. He was Odin's fairest son and Frigg's most dearly beloved, the favourite of all Nature, gods and men. None could turn away from him without love for his innocence and purity save Loki, who cunningly devised his death. Aligned with the divine Sun and all that is light, Balder was yet brother to the blind Hodur, whose world was ever dark and wrapped in obscurity. But he was wed to the sweetly shining Nanna, the floral goddess whose heliotropic face was always turned in joyful greeting to him. Twin to darkness, Balder lived amidst light, and in his spacious hall Breidablik, nothing common or unclean was to be found.
It is said that the runes were carved on Balder's tongue, that he knew many simples and larger truths. But though he bore this wisdom effortlessly, as an innate aspect of his being, it was fated that none of his judgements would come true, and he even came to be tormented by a frightening and reoccurring dream in which dark shadowy entities loomed and seemed to threaten his life. So persistent did this nightmare become that it affected his happy disposition, and he became cast down in a worried mood that attracted the concern of the other gods. This uncharacteristic depression marked the prelude to the greatest of all events depicted in Nordic cosmology, the universal battle between the gods and giants which eventually will bring about the dissolution of the world. Snorri gives the most detailed account of this drama, describing Balder in glowing terms in the Gylfaginning, drawing from Völuspá, in which the sibyl reveals the details of the fate in store for Balder. We know of Loki's evil part in the story from Lokassena, where Loki brags to Frigg that he was the cause that she would never again see Balder ride to her hall, and exposes himself as Rathbani Baldrs (Contriver of Balder's Death). The story is also told in Baldrs Draumar, a poem contemporary with Völuspá and rich in description of the tragic events that led to the preambles of Ragnarok, preambles which we today are still living through. The concerned gods met at Mimir's well in council and
The gods embarked upon this resolve when they learnt of the Volva's prophecy garnered by Odin, who journeyed in disguise into the regions of Hel in order to obtain it. Alfader was deeply concerned for the welfare of his son and rode forth from council through the blinds of Niflheim until he came to the east gate of Hel, where he knew a Volva was buried.
To this Odin answered in the name of his disguise:
And the Volva answered:
Odin, who knew the future through his own omniscience, still pressed the seeress for further details, until she realized with whom she spoke and sealed the interview with dire reminders about the time to come, when naught but the end of the world itself would restore Balder to life. In the meantime, Frigg rejoiced, for all that lived in the many worlds had agreed never to harm her darling offspring. She knew not of the Volva's prophecy and basked content in the sense of his well-being. All of Asgard celebrated, and the gods, fully confident of Balder's invulnerability, enjoyed a wild and carefree game with him as he stood in their midst and received without sting the blows of their javelins and arrows. It was to honour him by pointing out the charm he had against all wounds that they did this, but their joy in the fruitlessness of their attack upon his fair body only served to intensify the envy and hatred that lurked in the heart of Loki. No longer able to endure the championing of Balder, Loki went to Frigg in the disguise of an old hag, hoping to worm out some information from the unsuspecting goddess. When she told him that all things had sworn never to harm Balder, he pressed her further until she admitted that there had been a slender and weak sprig of mistletoe which the gods thought too harmless to demand a vow from. Learning where this insignificant-seeming plant grew, Loki hastened there and fashioned from the twig a deadly magic arrow, which he carried to the meadow in Asgard where the sport continued.
There Hodur stood in shadow on the fringes of the merriment, unable to see or take part. To him Loki said, "Why, O Hodur, dost thou not join the game and cast a missile at Balder also?" But Hodur cried, "Alas! Am I not blind? I can see not my fair brother, nor have I aught which I can throw." "Come and do honour unto Balder like the others", Loki urged him. "I shall give thee an arrow for thy bow, and hold thine arm so that thou mayest know where he stands." Hodur then took from Loki the magic arrow and placed it in his bow. Loki raised up Hodur's arm and pointed the weapon in certain aim. "Thou canst now share in the sport", said the evil one to the blind god, and went to a place apart. The other gods beheld Hodur standing with bent bow and they paused in their game. The arrow darted forward and struck Balder, it pierced his luminous body and he fell dead upon the sword. In horror and frozen silence the gods stood. Where there had been joy and merry-making, dumb grief prevailed, while alone stood Hodur wondering and silent. Balder the Beautiful was dead!
The whole world wept. Even the moisture on the stones at dawn was said to be tears for Balder. Frigg called upon the gods to struggle against the inevitable and sent Hermod down to Hel to plead for her son's life. The goddess Hel put a test, staling that only if everything in all the worlds wept for Balder would he be released from the bonds of her domain. The Aesirs sent messengers everywhere, asking that all forms of the living and the dead weep Balder out of Hel. And they all agreed – all except the ugly giantess Thokk (Loki in disguise) whom they found in a cave. Her answer to them was:
Thus the loss of the radiant son to the living was ensured, and the gods sorrowfully prepared his body for its last voyage. They gathered vast amounts of wood fuel which they piled on the deck of Balder's dragon-ship Ringhorn, constructing an elaborate funeral pyre upon which they tenderly laid his still lovely form. One by one they drew near to bid a last farewell. When Nanna bent over him, her loving heart broke, and she fell lifeless at his side. Odin placed the magic ring Draupnir over his son's heart and whispered unheard words in his ear just before the pyre was lit and the great ship drifted out to sea.
The whole world was drenched in shadow. Revenge taken against poor Hodur could not relieve their depths nor assuage the sorrowing. A radiant light was lost, to be smothered in the sombre hall of the underworld, where those who do not die as warriors must go. In his death. Balder resembles a type of god – a Tammuz, Adonis, Baal or Orpheus, gods who often die young and violently. The role played by the mistletoe in bringing about his demise is mysterious, as this 'golden bough', of which Virgil wrote, symbolizes regeneration and was revered as such by the Druids. It is a parasite, a guest of a tree that never engendered it. But it represents the life-essence, having the power to heal and, being neither tree nor shrub, possesses freedom from the limitations of either. While the oak on which it grows is masculine, the mistletoe is female, and for the Druids it played a critical role in rituals of rebirth at the time of the winter solstice. Given these properties, one may wonder why this plant should be the instrument of death to a god who was so closely identified with the sun and particularly with light. In the hands of Hodur the mistletoe arrow would seem to be connected with the darkness (or death) that accompanies change or transformation. As such, it lives off the forms of this world but is not limited by them. It brings death while being intimately connected with the process of rebirth, ensuring that, even through death, the cycle continues. Upon the tree upholding the structure of life, it grows to bring the kiss of promised generation, the happy moment under the sun before death once again claims its own. Such associations lend added symbolic dimensions to the character of Balder. Obviously, he can be characterized as a solar deity who dies with the summer solstice, to be resurrected during the winter.
He can also be seen as an embodiment of pure light in the cosmos who 'fell', so to speak, leaving the world to descend into ever-darkening ages. But some have identified Balder with Christ, seeing in him the son of God, a martyred being of gentle ways whose death (an early English tradition held that Christ was crucified on a mistletoe!) and whose descent into the underworld marked a divine sacrifice capable of instilling the seeds of spiritual development in the hearts of human beings. It is true that Balder was worshipped during the summer solstice, the anniversary of his descent into the lower world and the beginning of the shortening of days. But the old Norse did not claim that he arose from the dead in three days, or that by believing in him they themselves could gain immortality. Rather, they thought themselves small cogs in a larger wheel, whose turnings would bring them eventually to the end of a vast cycle when Balder would usher in a new world after the destruction of the old.
One may ask what is the use of such a sojourn amongst gods and men if the results are so meagre, if the hearts of men only become progressively blacker, and evil cannot be contained in the presence of goodness. It seems as if the forces of darkness are so invincible in the short run that the Balders and Christs and Buddhas are intermittent players in an endless chronicle of deceit and spiritual failure. But the drama of Balder (and the other Sons of Light known to mankind) is a keystone of the drama of the world. Though his goodness and gentleness were unavailing, his wisdom uncomprehended and his judgements unheeded, the fact of his existence shone as proof against pervasive mediocrity and evil. Even to hear his story sparks a flame of inspiration in one's heart, and it can never again be possible to embrace darkness without the stab of its reminder in one's conscience. Far more than being merely a dying and reborn god of agriculture borrowed from the eastern Mediterranean, Balder is a leading actor in a drama encompassing a galaxy of spiritual exemplars which goes back to pre-Vedic myth, to a common Indo-European source of inspiration which must have been the fruit of a profoundly enlightened knowledge of the true nature and purpose of existence. This is a vast myth, dealing with the history and destiny of the world and the relations between good and evil, formulated before the dispersal of the tribes that came out of Central Asia so long ago to spread into the crannies and plains of Russia, Europe, the Middle East and South Asia. It is traceable among the Scythian descendants, where the handsome hero Sozryko was killed at the wicked instigation of the evil Syrdon. It is also represented in the Indian Mahabharata, where Balder can be recognized in the person of Yudhishthira and Hodur is characterized by the blind king Dhritarashtra. In contrasting the stories, one can see that Dhritarashtra is more culpable than Hodur, for he knows what evil result his actions will yield, while Hodur does not.
The Norse always made a distinction between the Rathbani ('killer by plan') and the Hathbani ('killer by hand') By this standard, Hodur is in a very different position from Loki, just as Dhritarashtra is from Duryodhana. But the old blind king is not without knowledge and, though not the instigator of evil, makes the choice to go along with it. In the realm of moral analysis, these character shadings provide telling examples of relative goodness and evil and the interaction that goes on between them. The Hindu epics are richer and more complex in their completeness and offer many clues to a better understanding of the Eddie myths. The dice game, where Yudhishthira is beaten through the cunning of Sakuni, is clearly paralleled by the tricks of Loki during the javelin game, as is the exile of the Pandavas into the wilds by Balder's descent into Hel. The similarities in the traditions are further indicated by the fact that after the Mahabharatan War, Yudhishthira and Duryodhana are united in friendship, whilst Balder and Hodur come together as friends in the world reborn after Ragnarok. The two stories deal with differing cycles perhaps, but both can be seen as inspired by the ancient conception of the archetypal War in Heaven which sets the stage for the great drama.
Light does not fight; it only shines and illuminates and does so steadfastly until darkness steals upon it. Balder is pure white light that cannot be diminished except by its own negative darkness. As fire, Loki is jealous of light, recognizing it to be prior to his own nature and lacking dependence upon the fuels (senses) of the world. He wishes to banish its constancy and replace it with his own flickering brilliance, his own level of half-truths and ever-changing appearances. To do this, however, he must use Balder's own dark side, his twin, whose blindness provides the contrast which his unchanging light must have to exist in the world. Thus Hodur is an innocent pawn, a tool in the contest between good and evil, suggesting that darkness itself is not necessarily evil unless aspected improperly. Light, on the other hand, has always been associated with goodness, making darkness seem but an absence of light. This leads one to consider whether there might be a darkness which is truly evil, a darkness introduced into the world after the advent of light, which is sustained by design and regressive in nature – quite different from the darkness of "the world's eternal ways". In examining the effects of the absence or presence of light upon man's moral condition, one can find illuminating parallels by referring to these effects on the physical plane. From the time a new-born baby opens its eyes, it seeks out the light while awake and cries when it vanishes. On the physical plane, all organisms live in a temporally programmed world of cycles. The timing of each organism's internal rhythms must be kept in phase with these cycles through constant adaptation. To do this, the internal 'clocks' of the body must be synchronized with the external clocks, and light is the primary means by which this takes place.
Within the brain, the pineal gland translates the energy of light into a secretion of melatonin, which has a biochemical impact on the autonomic nervous system. It also acts directly on the hypothalamus, which is the autonomic coordinating centre. While endocrines, and particularly secretions arising from the adrenal function, influence metabolism and activity, the master clock is the pineal gland, and if entrainment with the outer environment is disturbed through bodily injury or prolonged lack of light, serious damage or death will result. In Nordic climes the long winters produce weeks of near-darkness, enlivened by a sun so low on the horizon as to seem a mocking brass glow in a half-life land. People become irrational during these times and sometimes run amok. In the old days such behaviour was institutionalized in the pattern of the Berserkrs, whilst modern man relies on sports, drink and the temporarily soothing detachment of scientific enquiry to achieve a sense of control. The point is that with light there is the possibility of life, and with the death of light there is derangement, disease and death. Yet if there were only light, life could take no form. There could be no world.
Light is the basic principle behind differentiation and hierarchical order. It represents the superiority of spirit, which is recognizable by its luminous intensity. Light is the manifestation of morality, of intellect and the virtues; white light symbolizes the synthesis of the One Source of all life. Because light emanates from a centre, it is creative, and thus the source of goodness is associated with order, growth and fruition. The darkness which follows light does not emanate from a centre, is not creative or connected with expansion and fruition. It is not intelligent, does not see or choose or discriminate or trigger enlightenment. It is necessary but passive, unable to take an active part in the scheme of things. But it can be used by intelligence for good or for evil. It can become the cloak protecting a germinating seed of hope, or a shroud concealing a crime against the cosmos.
Light, as the constant light of the sun, represents direct knowledge as opposed to analytical lunar knowledge, which is based upon the contrast of light and darkness. The light of the moon is both borrowed and subject to the obscuration of the secondary creation involving matter. But the moon is critically important as an entrainment mechanism setting the myriad 'clocks' belonging to all forms of life on earth. Thus darkness, rhythmically paired with light, can be seen as a necessary and critical ingredient of all transitions and transformations such as creation, initiation and death. The light which is the pulsation of unchanging divine Spirit must die out, as it were, in the old form in order to express itself in the new. As long as there is form of any sort, this basic pulsation represents the nearest thing possible to changeless, unconditioned, unmanifested light. It is continuous, subliminal to all things, and best conceptualized in terms of cycles or rings. The pure light of Balder must take on the limitation of cycles in order to express itself in the world of duality. His unconditioned radiance must be pierced by the possibility of rebirth delivered through death in the form of the mistletoe.
Even as he came into being as an Aesir, he was, perforce, coupled with darkness and the instrument of this death, his twin Hodur. When Alfader placed the Draupnir ring upon Balder's breast, he was acknowledging this necessity, for the ring completes the cycle even as it promises the return. The words Odin spoke into his beloved son's ear will be forever a mystery, but they must have had to do with arcane intelligence regarding the inevitability of the rebirth of the cosmos after its dissolution. These words were uttered just before the dead god drifted off on his great ship Ringhorn, the largest of all ships, symbolizing the world itself. Curving round on the dark water, he cycled towards the extremity of the ring, the underworld of death, while, burning upon the deck of that vessel, the whole world became his funeral pyre. It is said that the mountain tops of the globe are Ringhorn's masts, its equatorial girth her gunwales, and Balder is carried upon her as though upon an altar of sacrifice.
As the son of Odin, Balder is an extension of the Logoic Ray, the divine Light (Sun) which emanates out of Darkness. He is the pure light that enters the world, not as the fire of manas associated with Heimdal and the flickering Loki, but as the non-analytical light of direct, unquestioning knowing. His purity points to a condition of being beyond contrasts, which is why he will ultimately unite in friendship with Hodur, who is really an aspect of himself. He sees truth dearly and makes judgements based upon truth, but he is utterly without the discursive inclination which would enable his wisdom to be communicated to beings possessing more conditioned mental faculties. Thus he has to die to live in Hel (in the cave we know as the world) in order that his pure buddhic light can reveal itself cyclically, that humanity may catch a glimpse of it in sacred ceremonies or, for fleeting moments, in the inmost recesses of their hearts. It is important to remember that the struggle to save Balder from death took place in the underworld as well as in Asgard. Man, enmired in matter, must likewise struggle in the underworld of his being to preserve that pure and holy light. Once Balder's light of direct, subjective knowledge had become conditioned in the world as in man, human beings became forced to find a way to identify the pulsation of the unchanging and unconditional within themselves and save it from death.
The human condition is a reflection of the balance between Balder's pure light and Hodur's blind darkness – a balance continually thrown into imbalance by the machinations of mind caught in matter represented by Loki. The dualism of light and darkness, however, does not arise as a symbolic formula of morality until primordial darkness (which pre-exists the differentiation of matter) has split into light and dark. Pure darkness is thus not evil or gloom, but the state of undeveloped potentialities which gives rise to chaos. It is the ground out of which light emerges, into which everything returns, at the end of whose unending path the mysteries of origin are to be found. Darkness becomes evil only when introduced wilfully into processes of development natural to evolution. Thus order, growth, expansion, wealth and variety are all expressions of goodness. But if order is shaped by obsession, growth by competitiveness, expansion by pride, wealth by acquisitiveness and variety by discontent, the innate goodness in these things becomes overshadowed and even 'killed' by a darkness which is abnormal and regressive. This is a darkness fully in the hands of the pathetically limited lower mind, which manipulates it to achieve its own short-term interests, never grasping the larger picture wherein contrasts become irrelevant.
The evil spoken of here is the darkness necessary to manifestation, not the evil of wilful, regressive darkness. It is the darkness that produces light "that man may live for ever". Having ourselves fallen into the underworld, we must go through the darkness to reach the light. But instead of approaching this from below above, we can treat the darkness as a necessary ground out of which we can resurrect ourselves as channels of pure, disinterested, unconditional light. All of life is full of darkness which can be used (making hay at midnight, so to speak), not by the fearful, self-protective lower mind, but by the higher Self, as a preparatory ground in which the next seed of illumination will germinate and grow. This does not imply that one might come to hope for darkness, but that one would accept it as an inevitable preamble to light and learn to use it well. For the perceiver in man transcends light and dark and is quite capable of pursuing the purity of Balder's light to its unification with darkness and beyond. Balder's descent into the world bears witness to this greater light beyond dualism and provides mankind with hope. The sheer, unadulterated purity and beauty of his nature is echoed in the lyrically moving description of his sojourn in the world. His life and death haunt us with a sense of loss and sacrifice and a desire to atone for the forces that ^killed' him which exist within our own nature.
When we are deeply moved in this way, the beauty and purity in our own innermost heart shines out of the darkness. It permeates the complexities of our sevenfold being and bathes them in a fair luminosity which beams forth, unconditionally, on all sides. This is the long-awaited spring, the rebirth of the world in man so poetically symbolized by dark winter's thaw. This is what Nature and all the cycles of time try to teach us with every phase of the moon and every season of the year. This is the book of Mysteries opened to us in every circadian rhythm, every birth and death in us and all around us. This is the lesson of Balder's life and death, which, if intuitively understood, can reveal to us the eternal Light of Truth which threads together in a great Ring every bead of darkness and light.