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.

each_arrow_overshot_his_head_by_elmer_boyd_smith
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.

odin27s_last_words_to_baldr
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.

mistleltoe_in_lebanon
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?

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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!

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