Hod’s words were drowned in a roar of laughter.
“What was that?” he asked.
“Only more of the same,” said Loki. “A dart well aimed. But now it’s your turn, Hod. You should pay your respects to Balder like everybody else.”
Loki and Hodur“I have no weapon,” Hod repeated.
“take this twig then,” said Loki, and he put the sharpened mistletoe between Hod’s hands. “I’ll show you where he’s standing. I’ll stand behind you and guide your hand.”
Loki’s eyes were on fire now. His whole body was on fire. His face was ravaged by wolfish evil and hunger.
Hod grasped the mistletoe and lifted his right arm. Guided by Loki, he aimed the dart at his brother Balder.
The mistletoe flew through the hall and it struck Balder. It pierced him and passed right through him. The god fell on his face. He was dead.
There was no sound in Gladsheim, no sound, only the roaring of silence. The gods could not speak. They looked at the fairest and most wise of them all, shining and lifeless, and they could not even move from where they stood to lift him.
The gods stared at each other and then they turned to stare at Hod and Loki. They had no doubt. They were all of one mind about who had caused Balder’s death and yet none of them were able to take vengeance. The ground of Gladsheim was hallowed and no one was ready to shed blood in the sanctuary.
Hod could not see the fearsome gaze of that gathering, Loki could not withstand it. He loped towards the doors of Gladsheim and slunk away into the darkness.
Then the terrible silence was broken. One goddess began to weep, seized by wild grief. And the weeping of one unlocked the floodgates of them all. When they tried to speak, they found they could not tell their grief and their words were choked with tears.
Odin himself was there and, of all the gods and goddesses, he was the most deeply afflicted. He best understood that this was the greatest evil ever sustained by gods and men, and foresaw what loss and sorrow would follow in the wake of his son’s death.
Frigg was the first to speak. “Does anyone …” she asked. “Does anyone here want to win all my love and favor?”
The mourning company turned to face her.
“Is there anyone here who will ride the long road to Hel and try to find Balder?”
Then the goddesses buried their faces in their hands and sobbed again.
“Is there anyone here,” said Frigg, her voice rising, “who will offer Hel a ransom, offer her a ransom if she’ll allow my son Balder to come home to Asgard again?”
Then Hermod stepped forward, Odin’s son whom everyone admired for his boldness. “I will,” he said. “I am ready to go.”
Gladsheim began to breathe and sound again. Odin gave servants orders. They hurried out of the hall and soon returned with Sleipnir, Odin’s own horse.
Allfather took the reins and handed them to Hermod. Then, in Gladsheim, Hermod mounted Sleipnir. He looked down at the upturned faces of the gods and goddesses and at the fair fallen body of Balder. He raised his hand and spurred the steed; Sleipnir’s hooves clattered against the marble floor. Hermod galloped out into the darkness and on towards the endless night.
The gods and goddesses did not sleep; they kept a silent vigil in Gladsheim. Ranged around Balder’s body, so white that it was gleaming, each of them was prey to his own thoughts and hopes and fears — what chance Hermod had of bringing Balder back from the dead, how to avenge Balder’s death on his own unhappy brother Hod, what kind of punishment would begin to suffice for Loki, and what meaning the death of one must have for them all.
Day began to dawn: a lightening in the east at first mysterious, then quickly gathering speed and spreading in every direction.
Then with aching hearts, four of the gods lifted Balder’s body on to their shoulders, and all the others formed a long cortège. They carried him down to the sea and laid his corpse near Ringhorn, his own great boat with its curved prow.
Balder on Ringhorn
The gods wanted to build Balder’s pyre in the waist of the boat, up against the mast. They took hold of the stern and tried to launch the boat, but their grief had so exhausted them that they could not summon up the strength to shift it on its rollers.
Then the gods sent a messenger speeding to Jotunheim to ask for the help of the giantess Hyrrokin. A great crowd out of Asgard sat near the water, watching the pulse of the waves. They were pensive and subdued, none of them so strong that he could escape the flux of his own feelings and comfort the others.
In a while Hyrrokin came. She was huge and grim, riding a wolf with vipers for reins. As soon as she leaped off her steed, Odin summoned four Berserks and told them to watch over the wolf (and the vipers) and ensure they caused no harm.
The very sight of the four men in their animal skins angered the wolf; its eyes flickered and it snarled.
The Berserks seised the viper-reins but they were unable to hold the wolf fast. First it dragged them one way, then another, slithering helplessly through the sand, as it tried to break free. Then the Berserks became as mad as wolves themselves and in fury they rained blows on the wolf with their club-like fists. They struck it down and left it for dead in the sand.
Hyrrokin, meanwhile, stalked up to Ringhorn. She looked at the boat, so large and yet so sweeping and graceful, and gripped the prow. Then she dug in her heels and with a horrible grunt she pulled — pulled so hard that Ringhorn raced screaming down the rollers and crashed into the water. The pine rollers burst into flames and the nine worlds trembled.
“Enough!” shouted Thor. His fingers closed round his hammer and he felt his old strength surging back into him.
Hyrrokin looked at Thor scornfully.
“Enough!” repeated Thor. “I’ll teach you respect.”
But Odin and several other gods hurried to Thor’s side and restrained him. They took his arm and reminded him, “she is here at our bidding,”
“I’ll crack her skull,” muttered Thor.
“It would be wrong to injure her,” said the gods. “Leave her. Ignore her.”
And slowly Thor’s volcanic anger subsided inside him. He kicked at the sand, causing a sandstorm, and walked up and down.
Then the four gods who had carried Balder’s body down to the sea gently raised it again and waded out to Ringhorn, rocking on the water. They set down his spotless body on a high bench, covered in crimson cloth.
Balder’s wife, Nanna, was watching. And when she saw Balder lying there lifeless, her body shook; she could not control it. She was tearless, in too much pain for tears now. Then Nanna’s heart broke. The daughter of Nep died there, and she was carried out to Ringhorn and laid beside her dead husband.
The cortège had swollen to a vast gathering. Odin was there; his ravens, Thought and Memory, perched on his shoulders. Frigg accompanied him, and so did the Valkyries: Shaker and Mist, Axe Time and Raging, Warrior and Might, Shrieking, Host Fetter and Screaming, Spear Bearer, Shield Bearer, Wrecker of Plans — all those beautiful maidens, choosers of the slain, stood grouped around the Father of Battle.
Freyr had come to the cremation in his chariot drawn by Guilinbursti, the gold-bristled boar fashioned for him by the dwarfs Brokk and Eitri. Heimdall had ridden out of Asgard on his mount Gold Tuft. And Freyja sat in her chariot drawn by cats.
The elves were there. The dwarfs were there. And hundreds of frost giants and rock giants stood there too, a great gang who had followed Hyrrokin out of Jotunheim. That was a vast concourse, a mingling of mourners and the merely curious on the foreshore, scuffing the strip of sand that never wholly belongs to earth or to sea. The seabirds rose and wheeled and dipped, screaming, the sea sobbed, and everyone there watched the ritual on Ringhorn.
A pyre was built round the body of Balder and his wife Nanna, dry faggots that needed nothing more than a spark to leap into their own life and consume the lifeless bodies that lay upon them, releasing their spirits to travel on.
Then many treasures were laid within Ringhorn — buckles and brooches and rings, clasps and pins — and not only treasures but knives and buckets and scissors and spindles and spades and all the fabric of life.
Balder’s horse, meanwhile, was galloped along the foreshore and worked into a steaming sweat. Then a servant plunged a short dagger into its throat. It gave a violent jerk and, without a sound, crumpled amongst the wrack. No sooner was it dead than its body was hacked up, and the pieces were thrown into Ringhorn.
Now Odin strode through the shallows and gripped the gunwale. He climbed into the boat and stood over the body of his dead son. For some time he gazed at him. Slowly he took off his arm-ring Draupnir, the gold ring that dropped eight rings of equal value on every ninth night, and slipped it on to Balder’s arm. Then Odin bent down and put his mouth to Balder’s ear. Again he gazed at his son; then he left Ringhorn.
At a sign from Odin a servant stepped forward with a lighted brand. He set fire to the pyre and at once a steady plume of smoke, twisting and spiralling, rose into the calm air.
Thor raised his hammer. Slowly and solemnly he intoned the magic words to hallow the cremation.
Then a dwarf called Lit, who had lost all interest in the proceedings, came running along the water’s edge. He passed right in front of Thor and Thor was so enraged that he put out a foot and tripped him. Before Lit had time to pick himself up, Thor gave him a terrible kick. The dwarf flew through the air and landed right on the licking and curdling pyre. In this way, he was burned to death beside Balder.
The painter was released and with it the pent emotions of the mourners. They wept as the boat began to drift out, rocking, across the water. They wept and they talked about Balder—the most beautiful, the most gentle, the most wise of them all.
Ringhorn rode across the water. Sea winds caught at her and tugged her away. First she was more boat than flame, but soon more flame than boat. She was a quivering shape, a farewell on the horizon, moving on under a great cloud of her own making.
For nine nights Hermod rode through a valley so deep and dark that he was unable to see anything. The ground fell away from him and the cold fingers of the underworld began to reach up towards him and search him. The god crossed many rivers, all of which spring from the seething cauldron of Hvergelmir: cool Svol and defiant Gunnthra. Fjorm and bubbling Fimbulthul, fearsome Slid and storming Hrid, Sylg, Ylg, broad Vid and Leipt which streaked past like lightning. At last Hermod came to the icy river Gjoll, a swirling torrent of water. Sleipnir needed no spurring. He galloped across the bridge there; it was thatched with strips of gold.
On the far side, Hermod was stopped by the maiden Modgud, warden of the bridge. She raised one pale arm and it gleamed with an unearthly pallor. “Before you go further,” she said, “tell me your name and your lineage.”
Hermod kept quiet.
“Five troops of dead men came this way yesterday,” said Modgud. “they rode over this bridge. But you make as much noise as they all made together.”
Still Hermod said nothing.
“I can’t say you look like a man who has died,” said Modgud. “Who are you?”
“I am Hermod,” said the god, “and I am Odin’s son. I must ride to Hel in search of my brother, dead Balder. Have you seen him yourself on his way there?
“He has crossed this river,” Modgud replied. “He rode over this bridge. But the way to Hel is no short way; far as you have come, it is still a little further northwards and downwards.”
Hermod thanked Modgud and she stepped aside. Then Sleipnir saw the way before him: horse and rider galloped onward. So at last Hermod came to the massive gates and towering walls that Hel had set up in front of her hall Eljudnir.
Sleipnir stopped in his tracks and whinnied.
Hermod dismounted and looked around in the dismal light. The gates were locked; impassable, it seemed, for all those not fated to pass beyond on their way to dreadful Nastrond, the shore of corpses. Hermod tightened his stirrups. He swung himself into the saddle and spurred Sleipnir fiercely.
Odin’s steed galloped at the gates. For a moment he seemed to pause, then he gave a great thrust with his back legs and leaped clear of the iron gates.
Hermod boldly took Sleipnir right up to Eljudnir’s doors. There he dismounted once more and walked straight into the cavernous hall. Faces without number turned towards him — the faces of the newly dead, faces green and rotting, faces less flesh than bone; faces pitiful, unanswered, resigned, many scowling or leering or treacherous or murderous and in agony, all of them with eyes only for Hermod.
But Hermod saw only the fair figure sitting in the high seat: his brother Balder.
For Balder’s sake and the sake of the gods, resolute Hermod stayed all night in the hall. He sat by the door and kept his own counsel, silent in that company of the dead who could not speak unless he spoke to them; he waited for Hel to rise from Sick Bed and draw back its hangings, Glimmering Misfortune.
Hermod before HelHel’s face and body were those of a living woman; but her thighs and legs were those of a corpse, mottled and mouldering. She crept towards the god, looking gloomy and grim.
Hermod greeted Hel and told her of the grief of the gods. He said all Asgard was caught in a tearfall and a storm of sorrow. He wove his words with care and love and asked Hel if she would agree to let Balder ride home with him.
Hel thought for a while and her expression did not change. “I’m not so sure,” she said at last, “that Balder is as much loved as people say.”
She waited for Hermod to reply and Hermod said nothing.
“However,” said Hel, it can be put to the test.” She spoke as slowly as Ganglati and Ganglot, her aged servants, moved — so slowly that her words were only like punctuations between her silences. “If everything in the nine worlds, dead and alive, weeps for Balder,” Hel declared, “let him return to Asgard. But if anything demurs, if even one thing will not weep, Balder must remain in Niflheim.” And with these words Hel slowly turned away from Hermod.
Then Balder stood up and Nanna rose from the shades and stood beside him. They walked the length of the hall; they passed between the benches of corpses and Balder’s face was white and shining. Balder and Nanna came up to Hermod and greeted him and led him out of Eljudnir. Then Balder took off the arm-ring Draupnir that Odin had fixed on him when he was lying lifeless on Ringhorn, and he put It into Hermod’s hands. He said, “Give this to my father in remembrance of me.” And Nanna offered Hermod linen for a head-dress and other gifts. “these are for Frigg,” she said. “And this is for Fulla.” She handed Hermod a gold ring.
Hermod took leave of Balder and Nanna. He mounted Sleipnir and rode without rest until he reached Asgard. And there, in Gladsheim, he told the gods and goddesses all he had seen and all that had been said to him.
The Aesir sent out messengers to every corner of the nine worlds. And all that they asked was that dead Balder should be wept out of Hel. As each substance had sworn an oath before that it would not harm Balder, each substance now wept. Fire wept, iron and every other metal wept, the stones wept, earth wept, the trees wept, every kind of illness wept, all the animals wept, all the birds wept, every kind of poisonous plant wept and so did every sidling snake — just as these things weep when they are covered with rime and begin to thaw again.
The gods’ messengers were making their way back to Asgard and they all felt they had overlooked nothing.
Then they came across a giantess sitting in a cave.