The beginning of this tale is, that Balder dreamed dreams great and dangerous to his life. When he told these dreams to the asas they took counsel together, and it was decided that they should seek peace for Balder against all kinds of harm. So Frigg exacted an oath from fire, water, iron and all kinds of metal, stones, earth, trees, sicknesses, beasts and birds and creeping things, that they should not hurt Balder. When this was done and made known, it became the pastime of Balder and the asas that he should stand up at their meetings while some of them should shoot at him, others should hew at him, while others should throw stones at him; but no matter what they did, no harm came to him, and this seemed to all a great honor.
Gylfaginning 49, Rasmus Anderson translation
I am sure most of you know the story. Balder has bad dreams, he is about to die. His mother Frigg has everything swear an oath not to hurt Balder. When this is done, some kind of ritual play is carried out. Loki is unpleased, finds out a way to kill Balder and has the blind Höd commit the act. Balder’s body is cremated while Hermod tries to get him back from Helheim. Hel will only allow Balder to return if everything weeps for him, but Loki again manages to sabotage this and Balder remains in Helheim until after Ragnarök.
Balder can no longer be harmed, so all the Gods start to throw things at him to their great enjoyment and to all a great honour! I cannot help finding this a bit strange. Balder can no longer be harmed, but why provoke fate? It is almost like firing dozens of guns on an actor and there happens to be one real bullet (Brandon Lee in The Crow). Why is it honorable to try to kill someone who cannot be killed? What is the use of this strange play if there is not something very significant about it? Just some thoughts.
I cannot help thinking of Siegfried who became invulnerable after bathing in the dragon Fafnir’s blood or Achilles who who held in the waters of the river Styx by his mother for the very purpose of invulnerability. Siegfried, Achilles and Balder all have a weak spot. Siegfied had a leaf between his shoulders while bathing, Achilles was held by the ankle by his mother and in the case of Balder, his mother has forgotten one thing to swear the oath. In all cases, the result in all caes is vital.
There is this strange flinge of mystery that says that these things were meant to happen and of course, nothing happens without a reason. Like Balder, Achilles dies by the shot of an arrow, Siegfried by the sword (and in the version of Saxo Grammaticus “Balderus” also dies by the sword). There are other people who have written about this, so I will no go into detail here.
There are thinkers who see in Siegfried, Achilles and Balder some kind of personification of the crop. The seed dies and the corn lives (fertility). Of course this is in the most case true for Balder, because he is the only one that lives (and still even in another story).
Other thinkers see in the story of Balder’s death a symbolical story of changing seasons. Summer dies, fall sets in. Summer dies violently! Balder relives after Ragnarok (in this case winter) and it becomes spring again. A nice interpretation, but I think there are a bit too many details to the story for this option. What is Loki’s role and what should he represent?
Then we have an interpretation that connect Balder to the sun, so the story of his death and resurrection represents the descend and ascend of the sun and/or the changing of seasons.
A rather simplistic explanation which is in a way linked to the ideas above is that the story of Balder’s death represents a ‘ritual of reconciliation’, an offer to ward off evil. Not the most credible in my view, because it was actually this very offer that was the first cause of Ragnarök.
All good and well, but these possible interpretations are but one, since I think the symbolism is multi-layered.
A very popular explanation is of course that Balder is Christ hanging on the cross, stung in the side by a blind person (Longinus / Höd). This is only true in the Grammaticus version of the story where “Balderus” is killed by “Hotherus” and not while a whole bunch of people are fighting him. Besides, in this case Balderus is not wounded in the side, but in the genital area, a different symbolism altogether.
Balder as the sun makes a very nice connection to the shooting guilds of the European continent. As traditional guilds (not very often with an unbroken tradtion though), shooting with longbows, crossbows or air-guns, have an anual feast in which the new king is appointed. Each member has to try to shoot a bird (or something that represents a bird), more in particular a cock, from a very high pole, while standing almost precisely under it. The person who takes down the bird is the king for the following year. This is accompanied by very nice folkloristic habbits, but that is a different subject. The shootings are held on the festive days of the patron saint of the guild. Many guilds have saint John the Baptist, on (around) the summer solstice. This is most significant, because an explanation of the symbolism of the shooting is that the king takes down the cock, the sun, and ‘incarnates’ it so that he becomes the sun, or at least, its representative and thus the king. In this case the sun could be seen as Balder, who is taken down by a ‘normal’ person (a blind person) who then becomes Balder. The shooting of Balder in this case is a (seasonal) ritual. With this guildic-tradition we come very close to yet another explanation.
In the previous explanation you can also say that we have an initiation ritual where the initiant ‘kills the sun’ to incarnate it. Höd sees again after Ragnarök, he has become an initiated. On the other hand, the story can also be seen as a clear example of a death-and-resurrection ritual (Balder lives again after Ragnarök, and he is the initiated). Balder has to die so he can relive as an initiant (the king). In real initiations the candidate of course isn’t really killed, so maybe the shooting at Balder is a reflection of a ritual in which the initiant is apparently killed. An ‘Odin initiation’ supposedly involved killing/marking by the spear (or a cane), but in the Balder story it is a mistletoe (and sometimes a sword). Could this be an example of a Balder initiation? I don’t think there is further evidence to back up this wild idea. On the other hand, when I was looking for naturalistic intepretations I came across a quote of Jan de Vries who expresses the idea that I had when I started to write this article much better than I could. It is a translation from German (I think, Aat van Gilst doesn’t give a source) to Dutch and then to English, but the idea is very clear:
“Balder stands in a circle of men, each throws a weapon towards him: the renowned Odin threw the mistletoe and the initiant falls to the ground, convinced that he is struck by a spear; after a while he is touched by the same branch, which represents the rod of life, so that he is reborn as an Odins-warrior.”
A very interesting interpretation that is not very true to story as it came to us. Odin doesn’t kill Balder (but Loki is his bloodbrother!), but Odin is the God of initiation. In the way of my article about fire-gods, it is Loki who is the ego and instigator or Balders death, so that he can become Heimdall. In any case, the most likely interpretation of the story in my view is an initiation story, the “Balder play” is a ritualistically evoked death-experience used in a death-and-resurrection ritual.