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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Why isn’t the Solstice the Coldest Day of the Year?

cold as ice by matthias klaiber via flickr
cold as ice by matthias klaiber via flickr

After I wrote about the winter solstice back in December, I got to wondering why the solstice isn’t typically the coldest day of the year. Since we get our heat from the sun and on the winter solstice we receive the fewest hours of sunlight, why does the coldest day on average occur almost a month later (at least here in Minnesota – this map shows average coldest day across the US.)? On January 21st, we receive almost forty more minutes of sunlight then we do on December 21st, so why is January 21st on average the colder of the two days?

The answer is actually quite straight forward. It takes awhile to warm up! Technically, this phenomenon is known as the lag of the seasons. There are a few forces at work. First, the oceans and ground absorb heat from the sun. They are still hanging onto (and releasing) some of the heat they gathered up over the hot summer months into December. As we move past the solstice, deeper into winter, the amount of residual heat has decreased, so even though we are getting more sunlight, the temperatures still continue to drop.

One apt analogy is a tea kettle on a stove top. When you place the tea kettle on the stove and light the burner, it takes awhile for the water to absorb the heat. The water won’t be hottest thirty seconds after you turn in on, even if you’ve turned the burner all the way up; it takes some time for the water to warm up. Inversely, if after you have heated the water all the way up (this would be July or August on Earth) and then you turn the burner down to low, the water won’t be immediately cool. It will take some time (until January) to cool down to the minimum temperature.

Since the ocean is efficient at retaining heat, this is why some places along the ocean experience less seasonal change than one might expect given their latitudes. For example, London (51 degrees N) is farther North than Minneapolis (44 degrees N), but the average temperature of London in the winter is much warmer than in land-locked Minneapolis. Additionally, the average monthly temperatures in Minneapolis vary by 61.7F, while in London monthly temperatures vary by only 24.3F. The North Atlantic Current brings warm water up to London from the Gulf of Mexico. This water retains much of its warmth during its long Tranatlantic voyage into northerly latitudes, thus keeping temperatures in London much warmer than one would expect given the city’s latitude.

Another factor that slows down warming in the winter is snow cover. When the solar heat emitted by the sun is retained by the Earth, it leads to greater warming. However, abundant snow cover reflects the solar heat back into space, so that we don’t feel its full warming effects. This is like wearing a white t-shirt on a hot day in an attempt to stay cool. So, in the months with the most snow cover (December – February), solar heat retention is reduced.

This year in Minneapolis, we may already have our coldest day behind us. We had a stretch of several sub-zero days at the beginning of January, with a low of -11F on January 5th. Now, we are in the midst of a warming trend. We enjoyed a balmy 37F, sunny day today and we broke out the sleds and skis. It can’t last though, February will bring more cold weather, but hopefully we’ve seen the bottom and are on a (slow) path toward spring weather.

The Winter Solstice

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Winter Sun by NietNagel via Flickr

December 21st is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the shortest day of the year and, correspondingly, the longest night. On the winter solstice, the sun is the farthest south in the sky it will appear and it is the day of the year when the sun reaches its minimum noon altitude. The sun appears to hang at this altitude for a few days, and then turns and begins its journey back northward toward its highest noon altitude – the summer solstice on June 20th or 21st.

These phenomena are more drastic the farther you are from the equator. For example, Bogota, Columbia is just 4 degrees north of the equator. In Bogota on the winter solstice, there will be 11 hours and 51 minutes of daylight. On the summer solstice, Bogota will receive 12 hours and 23 minutes of sunlight. There is only 32 minutes of difference between the shortest day and the longest in Bogota. Let’s compare that to Minneapolis, MN at 44 degrees north. In Minneapolis, we will receive 8 hours and 46 minutes of sunlight on the winter solstice. On the summer solstice, we received 15 hours and 36 minutes of sunlight. So, there is a difference of nearly 7 hours of daylight between the solstices, compared to Bogota’s 32 minutes.

This becomes even more extreme as you go farther north. Let’s head to 71′ N – Barrow, Alaska. The sun will not rise at all in Barrow, Alaska on December 21st. In fact, the sun has not risen in Barrow since November 18. The sun will not rise again until January 23rd, on which day Barrow will receive a welcome one hour and eight minutes of sunlight. They will have gone 65 days since the last sunrise. Conversely, on May 11th, the sun will rise in Barrow at 1:46 a.m. and it will not set again until August 2nd. So, in Barrow, the difference in day length between the winter and summer solstice is 24 hours.

The solstices have been important in human culture for millenia. Imagine yourself living in a world deeply tied to nature and the seasonal cycle. Each day the world has been getting darker and darker. Cold has crept across the land. Nothing is growing. Death and decay seem to be conquering the world. But then, behold! The sun pauses in its sinking journey toward the southern horizon, and it turns back; gradually, the days start growing longer. The cycle of death and rebirth continue once again. This is something to celebrate!

From prehistoric artifacts, we know that the solstices were acknowledged by humans across the world from at least 3200 BCE. Artifacts that show recognition of the solstices have been found across cultures – in Ireland, Indonesia, and Peru, for example. The oldest of these artifacts we’ve discovered comes from Ireland. Just over 30 miles north of Dublin, a prehistoric tomb known as Newgrange overlooks the River Boyne. The tomb was built around 3200 BCE. If you are having trouble placing 3200 BCE in context, this was 500 years before the pyramids were built, a whopping 2400 years before the Greek city states emerged – we’re talking 5000 years ago here.There is a 60 foot passage in this tomb, at the south end of the passage is an opening that the sun shines in only on the winter solstice. On the solstice, the sun illuminates this inner passageway for 17 minutes. You can actually go and visit Newgrange on the winter solstice and witness this phenomenon for yourself, but you’ll have to win their yearly lottery for tickets, as the event is so popular.

Fire is the most wide-spread aspect of winter solstice celebrations. It is easy to see why – what better way to mark the darkest night of the year then by lighting candles and building bonfires? Part of this fire tradition includes the burning of the Yule Log. The roots of the Yule Log are somewhat mysterious, but may have originated in Northern Europe in the 6th century. The Yule Log (perhaps an entire tree in some places) would be burnt on the solstice and should be kept burning throughout the entire night. A portion of the Yule Log would be kept to be burnt in the next year’s fire. On some Yule Logs, a chalk outline of a man was drawn before the log was placed in the fire…perhaps a remnant of human sacrifice made on the solstice?

A simple solstice celebration:

If you would like to celebrate the winter solstice, it is quite easy to put together a simple celebration. I would start by taking advantage of the few hours of daylight that you have on the solstice (unless you are in Barrow, in which case, maybe leave Barrow?) by getting outside. Take your fellow celebrants out for a nature walk in a wooded area and hunt for the perfect Yule Log. What makes a perfect Yule Log? Go with your gut, you’ll know that Yule Log when you see it. Gather your Yule Log and bring it back home. If you have a fireplace, festivities can continue inside, if you prefer. If you are going to be celebrating outside, as the sun is setting (4:34pm here in Minneapolis), get a roaring bonfire going. If you celebrated last year and have a part of the previous year’s log, put that on the fire. Once the old log is burning well, add the new log. When the new Yule Log has just about burnt out, make sure you pull part of it out of the fire to save for next year’s celebration. I love a good poem and a celebration isn’t quite complete without one, in my opinion. As you sit around the fire, have one brave or dramatic soul in your party recite an appropriate poem (there are many). I like this one:

YULE
So the shortest day came
and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries
of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
to drive the dark away.

They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
to keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.

Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us — listen!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day.
As promise wakens in the sleeping land;
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends, and hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year, and every year.
Susan Cooper

While it might be traditionally appropriate to keep the fire burning all night long, I’m into sleeping, and it is cold in Minnesota in December. So, I’d recommend putting the fire out when everyone is tuckered. You can bring the party back inside, but – and this is key- don’t turn the lights on. Whatever hours of wakefulness remain should be spent without the use of artificial illumination. How nice to come in from the bonfire and light the house only with candles on the darkest night of the year. What a different atmosphere it will create from the average night! Contemplate the ways that companionship and celebration combat the darkness of the longest night, maybe even more so than the candles and the fire.

If you find the science side of the solstice interesting, you cannot miss the video below. The visualizations are amazing.