The story of Baldr is one filled with tragedy. It all starts when Baldr is born, the son of the royal couple of the Aesir, Odin, and Frigg. Already shortly after his birth, Baldr is nothing short of perfection. He is the embodiment of warmth, light, and good, all in one package. His mere presence is like feeling the sunshine’s warmth on one’s skin. Everyone loves Baldr.
An ill omen
Frigg loves her son more than anything in the world. She is terrified that any ill will might befall him. It breaks her heart when one day, Baldr tells her that he has foreseen his own death in a terrible nightmare. She is frightened because she has had the same nightmare herself. Being the goddess of divination herself, she knows this is likely a sign that her son will indeed die a horrible death. Upon hearing this, Odin rides to Helheim to conjure up a spirit of a völva and ask her for counsel.
Völvas are seeresses, capable of both predicting and altering the future through powerful magic (seidr). The völva tells Odin that his son will indeed die a horrible death: he will be murdered. She also tells him the names of the killer and the name of the one that will avenge his death. Finally, she tells him of Ragnarok, the event in which many of the gods will die (including Odin).
A sacred oath
When Odin returns bearing the news he has learned in Helheim, Frigg knows it is time to act. She tries to make sure that everything in the universe promise that they will never hurt her son. And when we say ‘everything’, we mean ‘everything’: both life and lifeless things. All things consent and happily take this oath. So it was that all trees, rocks, birds, metals, people, and gods (etcetera) pledged that they will not damage Baldr in any event. Almost every single thing makes the pledge. Wait, almost everything? We will get to that.
Although we can certainly say that Frigg is a special mother, it should be noted that she does not undertake the same action for her other son, Hödr. He is a different specimen altogether. Where Baldr is perfect, Hödr is not. Where Baldr is the embodiment of everything light and beautiful, Hödr is struck by blindness and cannot see the beauty of the world. He is often unable to join in the revelry of his family. Hard to enter a sparring contest when you are blind. Not difficult to see which son was mommy’s dearest.
At any rate, when all things have pledged their oath to Frigg, she is satisfied. The gods then celebrate because it seems they have successfully altered Baldr’s fate. The best way to test and celebrate their success? They take turns in throwing objects at him. They start by throwing some rocks at him, but the rocks had pledged themselves to not hurting him. Rather than bruising him, the rocks evade Baldr by going around him. Success! Next, they take a swing at him with a sword. But iron had promised that it would not hurt him, so the sword bounces right off before hitting him. Even for godly proportions, this is pretty amazing. Every god at the party rejoiced. Every god except for two: Hödr and Loki.
An act of deception
Hödr is sitting apart from the group, all by himself. He does hear the cheering of the other gods, but on account of being blind, he is unable to witness the miracle of Baldr’s immunity himself. He feels left out. Loki, who is always looking to stir up some chaos, is not particularly fond of the Aesir. A true trickster at heart, he approaches Hödr at the party and tells him he can help the blind god participate in the festivities. ‘I will be your eyes, dear Hödr’, he says. ‘Why don’t you join by shooting an arrow at your brother? It will be so much fun. I will guide you in the right direction’. He hands him an arrow and points his body in the right direction. Hödr shoots the arrow and roars with laughter. But as he shouts with joy, the others scream in agony.
Odin is good at deceiving others, but Loki is a true master of chaos. His cunning skills help him to achieve just that. Remember how we said that almost every single thing promised not to hurt Baldr? Frigg had failed to take an oath from the mistletoe plant, either because she deemed it too insignificant or because she had forgotten about it altogether. As you might have guessed, the arrow that Loki has handed to Hödr is an arrow made out of mistletoe. This means that Baldr was hit be the arrow without having any protection, causing him to die almost instantly when the arrow hit him. The gods are in shock. Hödr, still filled with joy, has no idea what he has done.
An attempt at resurrection
And so Baldr dies at the hand of his brother, who is an unwilling participant in an act of manslaughter through the treachery of a god of chaos. The Aesir, being gods, see a way out. They will simply ride to Helheim and petition Hel, its ruler, to release Baldr from the realm of the dead. Incidentally, Hel is the daughter of Loki. She was so powerful that the Aesir had once banished her to this realm of her own.
Hermod is the one that rides to the realm of the dead. He mounts Sleipnir, the horse of Odin, and hastes to the gates of Helheim. Upon the threshold of the underworld, he is welcomed by Hel. She tells him that no soul is ever allowed to return to the realm of the living after dying, not even a god as splendid as Baldr. When Hermod insists, she makes him a deal. If he can get everything to cry in mourning for Baldr’s death, she will release the god from his eternal slumber. Hermod accepts and rides back to Asgard.
Just as the gods had taken an oath from everything on not hurting Baldr, they now convince everything to mourn for him. Soon after, the trees start crying, as well as the rocks, gods, giants, and humans. All things join them in crying for the young god, except for (you guessed it) one being. An old giantess named Thökk refuses to shed a single tear, because “she never cared for Baldr anyway”. In the end, the Aesir had failed to hold up their end of the deal. Baldr would remain in Helheim.
The first avenger god
Frustrated, the Aesir decide one thing: Hödr is to be punished for killing their favorite god. Only one punishment fits that crime: Hödr has to pay with his life. Odin, ever the shining example of fatherhood, comes up with an idea to kill his blind son. He seeks out a giantess, Rind, and impregnates her (unwillingly) with a new son. This would turn out to be Váli. Whereas some younglings struggle with their purpose in life, Váli never had to worry about that for a second. His sole morbid purpose is to avenge the death of Baldr. Being the son of a god and a giantess, Váli grows to adulthood in a single day. Living up to his purpose, he murders his remaining half-brother.
Justice had prevailed. Yet the death of Baldr would lead to a chain of events, signalling the beginning of Ragnarok.