Baldur and the Golden Bough

Baldur and the Golden Bough

Amongst all the gods, Baldur was the most beloved. Son of Odin and Frigg, Baldur was brave, gentle, and handsome. He was the god of light and truth. But noble Baldur began to have troubled dreams. Every night he dreamt of his own death.

Baldur’s mother Frigg, who loved intensely her beautiful son, became very much alarmed. She made a list of all the things that could possibly hurt her darling Baldur, and then set out to secure oaths from all on her list that they would never harm her dearest son.

To the dwarvish deeps she went, and begged favour of the dwarves:
“Let not stone or steel, nor metal forged dare harm sweet Baldur’s hide!”
The dwarves looked deep into the secret earth, at the ropes and rivers of gold, the sparkling diamonds promising the wonders
of the night sky, and the thousand secret riches that Baldur had woven into the iron deeps when the world was new forged
and so they swore. To the birds of the air, the beasts of the field, the whales and fishes of the deep did she go and beg safety
for bright Baldur, and as each would look to the beauty Baldur had woven into their world, they would promise his protection.
From Yggdrasil and all lesser trees did Frigga then beg favour, and one by one they all swore Baldur’s weal for the beauty
he had given them.

-John T. Mainer, The Story of Mistletoe

Yet, Frigg had forgotten one. Small, young mistletoe had been overlooked, for he was not a true tree at all, but rather a mere appendage, a hanger-on, a parasite of the tree. And thus, he was forgotten.

Now nothing in all the worlds (with the exception of mistletoe) could harm Baldur, and Baldur’s friends made a great game of trying to hurt him with different objects. They would shoot arrows at him, thrust spears towards his heart, throw rocks at him, even let ferocious bears loose in his bedroom whilst he slept. But, since all had pledged to not harm brave Baldur, Baldur was always fine, and Baldur’s good nature allowed him to simply laugh at the antics of his friends.

Baldur’s friends being jerks. By Elmer Boyd Smith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Yet, there was another god named Loki, a trickster. Loki liked to stir-up trouble. He felt envious of beloved Baldur and set about trying to find a way to surprise him. Loki travelled the worlds looking for something that had not pledged Frigg’s oath and so might still harm Baldur.

One day, Loki climbed up high in an oak tree to survey the countryside for some thing or beast that Frigg had overlooked. It was up high in the tree that Loki found mistletoe and learned that mistletoe had not taken Frigg’s oath. So, Loki carefully bound together the many small branches of mistletoe and sharpened them into a single point.

This spear of mistletoe Loki brought to Odin’s court. There he found the young men of the court engaged in their now favorite game of throwing projectiles at the apparently immortal Baldur.

Loki approached Baldur’s blind brother, Hodr, who sat alone with his wine. “You must feel left out,” Loki said, “I will help you join in their game. Take this spear, and I will guide your hand in the direction of your brother, as you throw the spear.”

Loki put the spear in Hodr’s hand, helped him aim, and Hodr threw the spear at happy Baldur. The spear sailed through the air, and pierced unsuspecting Baldur through the heart. Unfortunate Baldur fell down dead.

All were now in grief of Baldur’s death, but none was as sorrowful as Frigg. Frigg went then to mistletoe and demanded retribution.

“Where Yuletide brings the pain of loss will Mistletoe bring love, beneath my humble leaves
let love be now kindled. What fairer grave goods for the sun bright lord than the promise
of love new kindled? When two now meet beneath my leaves, let loves kiss light between them.
Let the light of love remember him that the world weeps for this season.”

-John T. Mainer,  The Story of Mistletoe

And for all the centuries since the death of fair Baldur, we bring mistletoe into our homes each Yuletide, and kiss under it, so that loves blooms in the new year rather than destruction, and in memory of the god who loved light and truth, Baldur.

Odin at his son’s funeral. By W.G. Collingwood (1854 – 1932) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This story is adapted from similar ones that are part of Norse mythology. The quoted lines are from a beautiful poem by John T Mainer found here, where you can also here the author read his poem.

Mistletoe has long been recognized as a medicinal herb, back as far or even farther than the ancient Greeks. Mistletoe was used to treat epilepsy, internal hemorrhage, menstrual cramps, and urinary disorders, along with other afflictions.

Mistletoe’s symbolic, romantic, and seasonal character in England began with the Druids. The Druids saw evergreen mistletoe as a sign of the continuance of life (and fecundity) in the darkest part of the year. Near the solstice, when the signs were right, Druids would gather mistletoe. They would bring it into their homes, and also use it as a potency aid for both beast and human alike. The practice of bringing mistletoe into the home at the time of the winter solstice, and its use as fertility aid is clearly connected to the modern day practice of kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas.

Mistletoe, green and vigorous even in the heart of winter. Elie plus at en.wikipedia via wikimedia commons

Mistletoe grew to became an essential part of the Christmas season in England, being especially popular in Victorian England. The tradition is that a girl who stands under the mistletoe is fair game for kissing, and if she refuses, she will have bad luck the following year. Some also include the practice of picking one mistletoe berry for each kiss taken, and when the plant is bare, no more kissing! Dickens captured a fevered scene of Victorian bacchanal under the mistletoe as young women, “screamed and struggled, and ran into corners, and did everything but leave the room, until … they all at once found it useless to resist any longer and submitted to be kissed with a good grace.” (Dickens, Pickwick Papers)

Consent much, Dickens?

Kissing under the mistletoe. The Mistletoe – A Christmas Tale, in the collection of the British Museum.

Personally, as an American, I actually don’t have any first hand experience with mistletoe. It is more a part of Christmas lore than a Christmas reality here and now, or maybe I’m just going to the wrong parties. Yet, it is still an essential element in films here, from Harry Potter to While You Were Sleeping, as well as Christmas music, from Bieber to I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, and I understand it to be more in fashion in the U.K. still.

We’ve gone from Baldur to Bieber, and while I recommend Baldur over Bieber, I also recommend some consensual snogging under the mistletoe as opposed to stabbing someone through the heart with it.

Joyful Yuletide, ya’ll!

P.S. Enjoy this nice Longfellow poem about the death of Baldur, if you so desire:

Tegnér’s Drapa

I heard a voice, that cried,
“Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!”
And through the misty air
Passed like the mournful cry
Of sunward sailing cranes.

I saw the pallid corpse
Of the dead sun
Borne through the Northern sky.
Blasts from Niffelheim
Lifted the sheeted mists
Around him as he passed.

And the voice forever cried,
“Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!”
And died away
Through the dreary night,
In accents of despair.

Balder the Beautiful,
God of the summer sun,
Fairest of all the Gods!
Light from his forehead beamed,
Runes were upon his tongue,
As on the warrior’s sword.

All things in earth and air
Bound were by magic spell
Never to do him harm;
Even the plants and stones;
All save the mistletoe,
The sacred mistletoe!

Hoeder, the blind old God,
Whose feet are shod with silence,
Pierced through that gentle breast
With his sharp spear, by fraud
Made of the mistletoe,
The accursed mistletoe!

They laid him in his ship,
With horse and harness,
As on a funeral pyre.
Odin placed
A ring upon his finger,
And whispered in his ear.

They launched the burning ship!
It floated far away
Over the misty sea,
Till like the sun it seemed,
Sinking beneath the waves.
Balder returned no more!

So perish the old Gods!
But out of the sea of Time
Rises a new land of song,
Fairer than the old.
Over its meadows green
Walk the young bards and sing.

Build it again,
O ye bards,
Fairer than before!
Ye fathers of the new race,
Feed upon morning dew,
Sing the new Song of Love!

The law of force is dead!
The law of love prevails!
Thor, the thunderer,
Shall rule the earth no more,
No more, with threats,
Challenge the meek Christ.

Sing no more,
O ye bards of the North,
Of Vikings and of Jarls!
Of the days of Eld
Preserve the freedom only,
Not the deeds of blood!


The Dog Days of Summer

The Dog Days of Summer

We are clearly in the dog days of summer now. Sunny hot day follows sunny hot day, interrupted by only the occasional late evening thunderstorm. The dog days of summer get their name from the ancient Romans, and before them, the Greeks. No, they are not called the dog days because they ‘aren’t fit for a dog’. They are called the dog days because the hottest part of the summer coincides with the heliacal rising of the star Sirius, also known as the dog star.

That's Sirius on the bottom right - just above the horizon. Sirius is the brightest start in the sky. Photo by Luis Argerich via Flickr.
That’s Sirius on the bottom right – just above the horizon. Sirius is the brightest star in the sky. Photo by Luis Argerich via Flickr.

“Heliacal rising?” you ask. Heliacal rising means that a star (Sirius, in this case) rises just before the sunrise, early enough to be visible. Before the date of a star’s heliacal rising, it rises too late in the morning to be visible to the human eye, it’s light is blocked out by the much brighter light of our sun.

The ancients watched the stars closely. They paid attention to heliacal risings and other astronomical conjunctions. In his book, How We See the Sky, astronomer Thomas Hockey writes, “Imagine watching morning after morning for a favorite bright star. Then, one special morning, you can see it-but only for an instant because soon thereafter, as the sun gets higher in the sky, twilight gives way to daylight and the star (like all stars in daytime) disappears from view. You have witnessed the heliacal rising of a star.”

The ancients not only noticed sky events like heliacal risings, they attempted to draw connections between astronomical and Earthly happenings. As a Mediterranean agricultural people, the Romans saw the supposed effects of Sirius’s heliacal rise to be quite negative. Drought, extreme heat, wilted crops, plagues, and madness were attributed to Sirius’s evil influence.

Here in Minnesota, the dog days of summer are much more tolerable. Drought is rare. The temperature seldom breaks the 100 degree Fahrenheit mark (only about 20 percent of summers in Minnesota see a 100 degree plus day). Summer flowers are in bloom-finally breaking up the mostly green curtain of late spring and early summer.  Bees and butterflies abound in our pollinator garden.

Summer flowers in full bloom.
Summer flowers in full bloom.
Junior botanist
Junior botanist

Rather than straight up heat, we experience occasional high humidity here during the dog days, which can make even relatively mild temperatures quite uncomfortable. Meteorologists refer to the combined effects of heat and humidity as the heat index. Temps in the 90s combined with high humidity produce heat indexes of well over 100 degrees. In 2011, an excessively humid day in Minnesota led to a record setting heat index of 134 degrees in Moorhead, MN. Strange as it might sound, Moorhead was actually the hottest place in the U.S. that day.

Kicking back poolside.
Kicking back poolside.
Digging some sand.
Digging some sand.

But, for the most part, the dog days of summer in Minnesota are mild, sunny, and beautiful. People from all over the Midwest head to Minnesota to spend their vacations at our many lakes.

2015-07-20 10.23.53

2015-07-20 09.24.40

2015-07-10 12.57.15

At our house, we are enjoying the long, lazy, unscheduled dog days of summer. Daily morning walks, bike rides, eating fresh produce from our garden, splashing about in the kiddie pool, and digging in the sandbox. Summer is short in Minnesota and I try to forget the haste with which brisk autumn winds follow the dog days here. Instead, I focus on absorbing all the sunshine and simplicity that these warm days have to offer.

Feature image of the dog in the pool by Matt Deavenport via Flickr

The Full Buck Moon

The Full Buck Moon

This year, July is ushered in by a full moon. July’s full moon has a number of different names attached to it by the indigenous tribes of North America. American Indian moon names are typically descriptive of seasonal happenings that occur around the time of the full moon. So, the July full moon was known by some tribes as the Buck Moon, because in July male deer (bucks) began to regrow their antlers. The family and I actually spotted a couple of deer today while out walking in the woods, though they scampered back into the brush before I had a chance to see whether they had any small, velvetty antlers emerging from their noggins.

Look at this cutie.  Photo by Larry Smith via Flickr.
Look at this cutie.
Photo by Larry Smith via Flickr.

Another name attached to the July full moon is the Thunder Moon, as frequent thunderstorms appear at this time of year. Here in southern Minnesota, we receive on average 40 or more thunderstorms each year, many of them in July. While most tornadoes occur earlier in the spring here, July can bring thunderstorms which carry the risks of flash flooding and damage from straight line winds. For example, on July 23, 1987 Minneapolis received a whopping 9.15 inches of rain in just six hours, setting a state record for one-day precipitation. This followed another storm just 72 hours earlier that dropped 4 to 9 inches over the same area. This deluge caused massive flash flooding throughout the region. In Minnesota Weather Almanac, meteorologist Mark Seeley writes, “Roads became rivers; storm sewers spouted like geysers. All Twin Cities watersheds flooded.” Thunder Moon seems apt.

Another name I saw commonly listed as a July moon name is “Hay Moon”. July is the month in which hay is ready for harvest – to be cut, dried, and stacked. I can’t think of this process without recalling Tolstoy’s Constantine Dmitrich Levin at work in the hayfields beside his serfs:

“He thought of nothing, wished for nothing, but not to be left behind the peasants, and to do his work as well as possible. He heard nothing but the swish of scythes, and saw before him Tit’s upright figure mowing away, the crescent-shaped curve of the cut grass, the grass and flower heads slowly and rhythmically falling before the blade of his scythe, and ahead of him the end of the row, where would come the rest.”

Harvesting Hay Camille Pissarro [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Harvesting Hay
Camille Pissarro [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
One element of the name “Hay Moon” gives me pause, however. While many American Indian tribes were productive agriculturists, hay is not a crop that I associate with them. Hay is grown is used as fodder for livestock, which American Indians didn’t keep. I’m thinking this moon name must have either arrived with European agricultural techniques or, perhaps, was a name never used by American Indians at all.

In Minnesota, we have very short summers. The old joke goes, “Sometimes summertime in Minnesota falls on July Fourth, and sometimes it comes on another day.” The beginning of June is often still chilly, and the last week of August may bring harbingers of fall. But, July! It’s really summertime! If you are an American schoolkid, last school year was a distant memory and the next isn’t even on your horizon yet. When recalling the Julys of my childhood, I think of fireworks, running through sprinklers, popsicles, cook-outs, swimming in lakes, and camping. Classic Midwestern American summer. I think I’d call July the ‘Water Moon’, because of all the lazy summer days spent in lakes and pools.

My kiddo enjoying the season of the Water Moon at the local creek.
My kiddo enjoying the season of the Water Moon at the local creek.

I’ll end with a surprise twist…July 2015 actually has two full moons. That’s right. One tonight on the first, and a second on the 31st. The second one goes by another name…a blue moon. I’ll write about that later this month!

So, how are you spending your July? Scything any hay? What name would you give to the July full moon based on your location and lifestyle?

The Shepherd’s Pipe

Shepherd's Piping by Elihu Vedder via Flickr
Shepherd’s Piping by Elihu Vedder via Flickr

Recently, I’ve been reading about English folk music, specifically about the shepherd’s pipe. The shepherd’s pipe is a simple wooden flute with no reed, typically with 6 holes. These would be similar to the recorders and tin whistles that some of you may have learned to play in school.

Amazingly, humans have been playing this type of flute since the late Pleistocene(!). The Divje Babe Flute, made from the femur of the now extinct cave bear, was discovered in a cave in Slovenia in the 1990s. This flute is about 43,000 years old and was most likely carved and played by Neanderthals. That is awesome.

“Flûte paléolithique (musée national de Slovénie, Ljubljana) (9420310527)” by dalbera from Paris, France

Returning to our own epoch (the Holocene, for those keeping score), English shepherds carved their own flutes by hand, for the most part, but typically from wood rather than cave bear femurs. The music of the flute served both functional and recreational purposes. It was functionally used to call the flock, drive off wild animals, and to communicate with other shepherds. And it also served as a method of entertainment on long days out with a flock.

In her informative book on medieval English folk ways, Lost Country Life, Dorothy Hartley writes, “Here we try to imagine the music of the landworker when he herded his beasts on the common, or worked in penfold or field. With long hours, often working alone, he would have plenty of time to practise, and he would hear and incorporate the sounds around him.”

These are the pastoral sounds truly lost in the modern day.

In A History of European Folklore, Jan Ling writes, “The grazing fields, the mountains, and the forests used to be an exciting soundscape of calls, music, barking, mooing, and bleating.”

This is a soundscape that is for the most part extinct. Now, even in our state parks, I hear the sound of the freeway and jets overhead.

One thing that strikes me about the shepherd’s flute is the way it celebrates a different pace of life. A time when people weren’t always busy, weren’t always concerned about turning every moment into an opportunity for productivity. I think of the shepherd in his field, whittling his pipe by hand, and then slowly, day by day, learning to play. But, with no urgency. There is no try-out or rehearsal waiting for him. He is learning to play for the simple pleasure of it (oh, and to keep the wild animals away, apparently).

I’m no luddite. I looove my phone, kind of to the point of embarrassment. But, that said, it has changed things. Just like the soundscape of calls, music, and mooing has been replaced by the freeway and jet traffic, the boredom and slowness that compelled that Neanderthal and that shepherd to craft a flute and play it has been replaced by a life of bustling, industriousness – where we are perpetually a click away from more entertainment and more distraction.

And I wonder, do we need that quiet place of boredom? Is that where creativity is born? Is that where character is built? Is it what children need to grow and adults need to heal? Who would bother to turn a cave bear femur into an instrument when Madmen is on Netflix?

Until next time, here is a professor of biology playing a replica of that cave bear pipe:

Ode to Your Zip Code

Ode to Your Zip Code

What would you say about your zip code? Miami public radio station WRLN recently launched a project where they asked listeners to “memorialize your federally-appointed numerical designation by writing an ode to your ZIP code”. So, you take the digits of your zip code and each number corresponds to a line. The number for that line then determines how many syllables go into that line. So zip 33140 would go:

3 syllables

3 syllables

1 syllable

4 syllables

0 syllables

You get it…

Anyway, I found the project pretty fun, so I thought I would give it a try myself. Here are a few attempts for my zip 55406, in Minneapolis, MN:

Trees in abundance

Plenty of lakes too

Nice to live here

Continue reading “Ode to Your Zip Code”



There’s something about coming back to the same place. The way that you can really get to know it
in a deeper way. When you’ve seen the same place at different times of day, at different times of the year, in different moods.

There’s something about a place that stays the same – the structure you might call it. But, there are countless changes on the surface of that immutable structure that only a frequent visitor might notice.

When we come to a place repeatedly with our senses open – to listen, and smell, and see that place – we began to know it in a profound way. We internalize it, begin to carry it with us.

One place that I’m fortunate to be able to visit often enough to know deeply like this is beautiful Minnehaha Falls. It is amazing to experience the seasonal changes at the falls, from the roar of late spring waters to the frozen falls of winter. Today at the falls the ice has almost fully melted, brown vegetation slowly, slowly turning green abounds on the banks and the water is falling almost gently down the drop.

2014-06-19 13.07.18
Last June at the falls after a rainstorm
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Today, April 15

I couldn’t find a winter photo, though I know I have one saved somewhere (damn, where is it?!). So, here is a nice look at Minnehaha Falls in the winter:

by Jenna via Flickr
by Jenna via Flickr

Icebreakers: Not the Kind You Use at a Cocktail Party

By Wofratz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
On the news the last few days here I’ve heard a couple of stories about icebreaker ships and I was like, what the what? That sounds awesome. So, I did some research. Last week, a large ice mass was blown into Whitefish Bay in Lake Superior, blocking cargo ship traffic across the lake and leaving ten to fifteen ships stranded and one damaged. When ice moves in around ships like this, they are pinched in on all sides. Documentary filmmaker Sprague Theobold, who was trapped in the Arctic sea for a number of days aboard a trawler, told Discovery News, “It’s as if a jigsaw puzzle came into place and you were locked in. The ice will move the way it wants to move.”

One famous example of such an event is when Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance becoming trapped in pack ice. The ship was stuck in the ice all through the winter of 1915. Eventually, the ice crushed the ship and sank it. The men evacuated to a nearby island and what followed was an epic 800 mile journey in a small life boat led by Shackleton to mount a rescue for his stranded crew.

Fortunately, the mariners in Whitefish Bay in 2015 will be spared such extreme exploits. Instead, icebreaker ships have been called in to rescue the stranded ships. Icebreaker ships are designed to push straight through the ice, leaving an ice free channel in their wake. To achieve this they have three essential design elements: (1.) A strengthened hull; (2.) an ice clearing shape to the bow; and (3)  a powerful engine that allows them to push through the ice.

While ships specially designed to navigate icy waters have been around since at least the 11th century, early icebreaker ships pale in power and efficacy to their modern behemoth  counterparts.

By Kappa Pi Sigma at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Behemoth? Yah.

Russia’s 50 Let Pobedy, a nuclear powered icebreaker, weighs 23,439 tons…um, that’s over 46 million pounds/21 million kilos. To put this is perspective, the largest commercial aircraft built in the U.S. is the Boeing 747-8 with takeoff weight of just under a million pounds. This ship weighs more than 46 747-8s!

Watching a video of 50 Let Pobedy (50 Years of Victory), it seems to me that icebreakers of this magnitude don’t cut through the ice as much as they just smash it underneath their massive weight. Check this out:

And yes, I said nuclear powered icebreaker. While nearly all modern icebreakers are diesel-electric, or combined diesel-electric and mechanical propulsion systems, the former U.S.S.R./current Russia has built nine nuclear powered icebreakers, six of which are still in commission. One of these, the NS Arktika reached the North Pole in 1977, becoming the first ship to ever do so. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t even realize a ship ever had reached the North Pole. Cool.

So, there you have it…icebreaker ships. I didn’t even know they existed a few days ago. I always find it encouraging to discover new things about the world I was totally unaware of. There is so much interesting stuff out there.