The Twilight of the Gods

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The Death of Baldur

Baldur was one of the most beloved of all the gods. The son of Odin, the chief of the gods, and the benevolent sorceress goddess Frigg, Baldur was a generous, joyful, and courageous character who gladdened the hearts of all who spent time with him. When, therefore, he began to have ominous dreams of some grave misfortune befalling him, the fearful gods appointed Odin to discover their meaning.

Baldur’s father wasted no time in mounting his steed, Sleipnir, and riding to the underworld to consult a dead seeress whom he knew to be especially wise in such matters. When, in one of his countless disguises, he reached the cold and misty underworld, he found the halls arrayed in splendor, as if some magnificent feast were about to occur. Odin woke the seeress and questioned her concerning this festivity, and she responded that the guest of honor was to be none other than Baldur. She merrily recounted how the god would meet his doom, stopping only when she realized, from the desperate nature of Odin’s entreaties, who this disguised wanderer truly was.

And, indeed, all that she prophesied would come to pass.

Odin returned in sorrow to Asgard, the gods’ celestial stronghold, and told his comrades what he had been told. Frigg, yearning for any chance of saving her treasured son, however remote, went to every thing in the cosmos and obtained oaths to not harm Baldur.

After these oaths were secured, the gods made a sport out of the situation. They threw sticks, rocks, and anything else on hand at Baldur, and everyone laughed as these things bounced off and left the shining god unharmed.

The wily and disloyal Loki sensed an opportunity for mischief.

In disguise, he went to Frigg and asked her, “Did all things swear oaths to spare Baldur from harm?” “Oh, yes,” the goddess replied, “everything except the mistletoe. But the mistletoe is so small and innocent a thing that I felt it superfluous to ask it for an oath. What harm could it do to my son?” Immediately upon hearing this, Loki departed, located the mistletoe, and brought it to where the gods were playing their new favorite game.

He approached the blind god Hodr (Old Norse Höðr, “Slayer”) and said, “You must feel quite left out, having to sit back here away from the merriment, not being given a chance to show Baldur the honor of proving his invincibility.” The blind god concurred. “Here,” said Loki, handing him the shaft of mistletoe. “I will point your hand in the direction where Baldur stands, and you throw this branch at him.” So Hod threw the mistletoe. It pierced the god straight through, and he fell down dead on the spot.

The gods found themselves unable to speak as they trembled with anguish and fear. They knew that this event was the first presage of Ragnarok, the downfall and death, not just of themselves, but of the very cosmos they maintained.

At last, Frigg composed herself enough to ask if there were any among them who were brave and compassionate enough to journey to the land of the dead and offer Hel, the death-goddess, a ransom for Baldur’s release. Hermod, an obscure son of Odin, offered to undertake this mission. Odin instructed Sleipnir to bear Hermod to the underworld, and off he went.

The gods arranged a lavish funeral for their fallen friend. They turned Baldur’s ship, Hringhorni, into a pyre fitting for a great king. When the time came to launch the ship out to sea, however, the gods found the ship stuck in the sand and themselves unable to force it to budge. After many failed attempts they summoned the brawniest being in the cosmos, a certain giantess named Hyrrokkin (“Withered by Fire”). Hyrrokkin arrived in Asgard riding a wolf and using poisonous snakes for reins. She dismounted, walked to the prow of the ship, and gave it such a mighty push that the land quaked as Hringhorni was freed from the strand. As Baldur’s body was carried onto the ship, his wife, Nanna, was overcome with such great grief that she died there on the spot, and was placed on the pyre alongside her husband. The fire was kindled, and Thor hallowed the flames by holding his hammer over them. Odin laid upon the pyre his ring Draupnir, and Baldur’s horse was led into the flames.

All kinds of beings from throughout the Nine Worlds attended this ceremony: gods, giants, elves, dwarves, valkyries, and others. Together they stood and mourned as they watched the burning ship disappear over the ocean.

Meanwhile, Hermod rode nine nights through ever darker and deeper valleys on his quest to rescue the part of Baldur that had been sent to Hel. When he came to the river Gjoll (Gjöll, “Roaring”), Móðguðr, the giantess who guards the bridge, asked him his name and his purpose, adding that it was strange that his footfalls were as thundering as those of an entire army, especially since his face still had the color of the living. He answered to her satisfaction, and she allowed him to cross over into Hel’s realm. Sleipnir leapt over the wall around that doleful land.

Upon entering and dismounting, Hermod spotted Hel’s throne and Baldur, pale and downcast, sitting in the seat of honor next to her. Hermod spent the night there, and when morning came, he pleaded with Hel to release his brother, telling her of the great sorrow that all living things, and especially the gods, felt for his absence. Hel responded, “If this is so, then let every thing in the cosmos weep for him, and I will send him back to you. But if any refuse, he will remain in my presence.”

Hermod rode back to Asgard and told these tidings to the gods, who straightaway sent messengers throughout the worlds to bear this news to all of their inhabitants. And, indeed, everything did weep for Baldur – everything, that is, save for one giantess: Tokk (Þökk, “Thanks”), who was none other than Loki in another disguise. Tokk coldly told the messengers, “Let Hel hold what she has!”

And so Baldur remained with Hel until Ragnarok, when, after the cosmos was destroyed and re-created, he returned to bless the land and its inhabitants with his gladdening light and exuberance.

Loki Bound

Loki had always been more of a burden than a help to the other gods and goddesses. But after his contriving the death of Baldur and ensuring that that fair god would remain in the underworld until the cosmos was destroyed during Ragnarok, he went about slandering the gods at every opportunity. At last, the gods decided that his abuse had become too much, and they went to capture him.

Loki ran far away from Asgard. At the peak of a high mountain, he built for himself a house with four doors so that he could watch for his pursuers from all directions. By day he turned himself into a salmon and hid beneath a nearby waterfall. By night he sat by his fire and weaved a net for fishing for his food.

The far-seeing Odin perceived where Loki now dwelt, and the gods went after him. When Loki saw his former friends approaching, he threw the net in the fire and hid himself in the stream in his salmon form so as to leave no traces of himself or his activities. When the gods arrived and saw the net smoldering in the fire, they surmised that the wily shapeshifter had changed himself into the likeness of those he intended to catch for himself. The gods took up the twine Loki had been using and crafted their own net, then made their way to the stream. Several times they cast their net into the stream, and each time the salmon barely eluded them. At last, the fish made a bold leap downstream to swim to the sea, and while in the air he was caught by Thor. The salmon writhed in the war-god’s grasp, but Thor held him fast by his tail fins. This is why, to this day, the salmon has a slender tail.

Loki was then taken, in his regular form, to a cave. The gods then brought in Loki’s two sons and turned one into a wolf, who promptly killed his brother, strewing his entrails across the cave floor. Loki was then fastened to three rocks in the cave with the entrails of his slain son, which the gods had turned into iron chains. Skadi placed a poisonous snake on a rock above his head, where it dripped venom onto his face. But Loki’s faithful wife, Sigyn, sat by his side with a bowl that she held up to the snake’s mouth to catch the poison. But every so often, the bowl became full, and Sigyn would have to leave her husband’s side to dispose of its contents, at which point the drops that fell onto the unrepentant god’s face would cause him to shake violently, which brought about earthquakes in Midgard, the world of humanity. And this was the lot of Loki and Sigyn until, as destined, Loki broke free from his chains at Ragnarok to assist the giants in destroying the cosmos.

Ragnarok

Ominous prophecies and dreams have long foretold the downfall of the cosmos and of its gods and goddesses along with it. When the first of these prophesied events comes to pass – the beloved god Baldur will be killed by Loki and consigned to the underworld – the gods must to face the fact they can no longer escape their tragic destiny. They prepare as well as they can. Odin takes a great deal of time and care selecting the ablest human warriors to join him in the final battle against the world-devouring giants. But, deep down, they knew that all of their desperate actions are in vain.

In Midgard, the realm of human civilization, people abandon their traditional ways, disregarded the bonds of kinship, and sink into a wayward, listless nihilism. The gods aren't exactly innocent of these same charges, however. They have broken oaths and fallen short of their expectations of one another on many occasions. Three winters will come in a row with no summer in between, a plodding, devastating season of darkness and frigidity which the prophecies had called the Fimbulwinter (“The Great Winter”).

At last, the pseudo-god Loki and his son, the dreaded wolf Fenrir, who had both been chained up to prevent them from wreaking further destruction in the Nine Worlds, will break free of their fetters and set about doing precisely what the gods who had imprisoned them had feared. Yggdrasil, the great world-tree that holds the Nine Worlds in its branches and roots, begins to tremble.

The far-seeing Heimdall, the watchman of the gods’ fortress, Asgard, will be the first to spy a vast army of giants headed for the celestial stronghold. Among the gruesome mass was the gods’ fickle friend, Loki, at the helm of the ship Naglfar (“Ship of the Dead”). Heimdall sounded his horn Gjallarhorn (“Resounding Horn”) to alert the gods, who are no doubt alarmed and despairing.

The giants set about destroying the abode of the gods and the entire cosmos along with it. Fenrir, the great wolf, will run across the land with his lower jaw on the ground and his upper jaw scraping against the heavens, consuming everything in between. Even the sun itself will be drug from its height and into the beast’s stomach. Surt, a giant bearing a flaming sword, will sweep across the earth and leave nothing but an inferno in his wake.

But the Gods will fight valiantly to the end. Thor and the sea serpent Jormungand will slay each other, as do Surt and the god Freyr, and likewise Heimdall and Loki. Odin and Tyr both fall to Fenrir and Garmr respectively, who is then killed by Vidar, Odin’s son and avenger.

At last, in the ultimate reversal of the original process of creation, the ravaged land will sink back into the sea and vanished below the waves. The perfect darkness and silence of the anti-cosmic void, Ginnungagap, reigning once more.

But this age of death and repose will not last forever. Soon the earth will once again raise from the ocean. Baldur returns from the underworld, and the gladdened land becomes more lush and fruitful than it had been since it was created the previous time. A new human pair, Lif and Lifthrasir, awaken in the green world. The gods, too, return and resumed their merrymaking.

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