On Balder the Beautiful
In theory, the primordial wellsprings of literature should be simple. During the greatest part of our existence as a species, human beings have lived in tribes. Closely knit, xenophobic tribes roamed the African savannah in the dawn of mankind; tribes still control human affairs in places like Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Tribal life admits two basic narratives. (There is a third schematic for literature that is occult and revealed later by this essay). The first narrative is the blood feud: someone outside of the tribal group has killed, either by raiding or sorcery, someone within the tribe. Vengeance must be taken. The second fundamental tribal narrative is related to marriage. Members of the tribe may be prohibited from marrying one another – at least, when the man and woman belong to same clan or moiety. This means that, even within the tribe, many eligible mates are forbidden. But, often, lovelorn youth ventures outside the confines of the tribe, seeking a wife from among the women of an enemy tribe. Forbidden love or rapine of the women of adversary tribes affords a theme for the second great narrative impulse animating literature. Stories about a young man seeking a mate among alien women signify the need for exogamous marriage. From an anthropological perspective, these narratives are exogamy allegories.
Types of these two narratives may be readily identified. A thousand fairy tales begin with the motif of a warrior princess who murders unsuccessful suitors for her hand. How many Oriental kings zealously protected their daughters by establishing impossible impediments to marriage with execution by fire or axe as the penalty for the suitors’ failure? These folk tales embody the essential centrifugal impulses of the exogamous marriage narrative – a bold suitor, an exotic, beautiful and nubile princess, and the deadly peril that comes from consorting with the people of an enemy tribe. Icelandic sagas, at their simplest, embody the blood feud narrative: someone is killed and, therefore, others must die in recompense – an eye for an eye and a life for a life.
The two epics that lie at the origins of Western literature represent these two archetypal narratives. The Iliad is an account of a blood feud between the two tribes: the Greeks and the Trojans. The exogamous marriage motif, signified by Helen’s rape, triggers the blood feud but, when Homer brings us to the windy plains of Troy in media res, the narrative has been simplified to a revenge story: ultimately, Hector must die in compensation for the death of Patroclus. By contrast, the Odyssey reverses this structure: the Iliad is a revenge story triggered by marriage outside the tribe; the Odyssey is a marriage story triggered by a tribal war for revenge. In the Odyssey, the titular hero wanders the world, engaging in liaisons with the women of various exotic and menacing tribes – his centrifugal motion outward into sexual encounters with aliens ultimately collapses back into the centripetal tribal hearth. Odysseus returns to Ithaka, tainted, perhaps, by intercourse with strange women, and, as an outsider, purifies his own tribe by slaughtering the suitors importuning his wife.
Literary epics struggle to cast away these archetypes, but the ancient narrative forms are persistent. Virgil wants to write a founding epic for his patron, Augustus Caesar – but early in the Aenied, epic paradigms divert the poet into an account of Aeneas dalliance’ with Dido, portrayed like the alien women in the Odyssey as a seductress, witch, and sorcerer. And, when Aeneas reaches Italy, the poem draws its power from the paradigms of the blood feud narrative, as tribal warriors battle one another, smiting blow for blow. In the Divine Comedy, Virgil seeks his paradisal bride, Beatrice, in the most foreign of all foreign lands, the afterlife. In the Inferno and Purgatorio, God takes revenge, pursuing his own blood-feud against sinful mankind. Religion in large part defines itself as an ideological mechanism for transcending the twin paradigms of the blood feud and the marriage narrative. The Old Testament Bible is a vast tribal epic, primarily motivated by vicious feuding between rival clans interrupted by peace-time idylls that turn nightmarish when the Chosen People marry exogamously outside their tribal groups thereby inducing God’s wrath. The New Testament’s primary agenda is to refute these two archetypal narratives: Jesus renounces blood feuding and declares all tribes to part of one family – he is shown consorting with foreign and strange women, for instance the Samaritan woman, at the typical Middle Eastern trysting place and exchange between enemy tribes, an oasis well.
Literature complicates and richens narrative paradigms without disregarding them. A classic example of this tendency is the old German Nibelungenlied. King Gunther of Burgundy ventures outside his tribe to woo and win Bruennhilde, the warrior Queen of Iceland. Gunther’s sojourn in Iceland is characterized by fairy-tale motifs – Bruennhilde slaughters unsuccessful suitors lacking the martial strength and skill required to seduce her. Unfortunately, Gunther doesn’t have the valor necessary to wrestle his future bride to submission – he has to covertly rely upon another outsider, Siegfried, the mighty prince of Xanten, to subdue Bruennhilde. This deceit triggers the entire epic which narrates the destruction of the Burgundians. The Burgundian princess, Kriemhilde, marries outside of her tribal group, being espoused to Siegfried as a kind of reimbursement for that hero’s services rendered subduing Bruennhilde in Iceland. Of course, Gunther marries Bruennhilde, a sinister figure who represents the ultimate Dido- or Medea-like alien woman. Hagen, one of King Gunther’s feudal vassals, assassinates Siegfried. Kriemhilde knows that her husband has been killed by Hagen but, at first, is powerless to effect her revenge. Here, the exogamy narrative finds itself in stark conflict with the obligations of blood-feud. After all, Siegfried was an outsider to the Burgundians slaughtered by an insider, one of King Gunther’s henchmen – in theory, he could be killed with impunity. Gunther is Kriemhilde’s brother. By the principle of agency, Kriemhilde is obliged to take revenge against her own brother. Marriage establishes blood-feud obligations that apparently trump the allegiance owed to members of the tribe. Here the two archetypal narrative strands become tightly interwoven – marriage outside the tribe results in a blood-feud which requires that vengeance be taken against other clan members. So what does Kriemhilde do? She remarries, selecting as her husband Etzel, the King of the Huns, thus establishing an alliance with a ferocious, powerful, and completely alien tribe. Then, the Burgundians are invited to a feast at Etzel’s citadel where they are ambushed and massacred. In order to discharge her duty to revenge the outsider, Siegfried, Kriemhilde has to invoke the assistance of a barbaric, Oriental despot to destroy her own tribe.
Sophisticated narratives like the Nibelungenlied entwine the two tribal narratives – blood feud and marriage to an outsider yield a lethal paradox: what happens when the obligation to take revenge triggers a duty to kill someone within the tribe – or, worse, someone within the family? It is this dilemma that yields a third more cryptic strand in literature.
A paradigm for the tragedy of blood-revenge required within a family is found in Beowulf. Before descending into the marauding dragon’s barrow, Beowulf, now an old man, recalls the events of his youth. At seven, he recalls, that he was fostered by King Hrethel. Hrethel had two sons, Herebeald and Haethcyn. One day, while practicing with his bow and arrow, the younger son, Haethcyn accidentally
shot wide and buried a shaft
In the flesh and blood of his own brother.
King Hrethel’s grief is compounded by the fact that there is no mechanism for feud-revenge arising from this killing. The death is profoundly dishonorable because it can not be avenged:
The offense was beyond redress, a wrongfooting
of the heart’s affections; for who could avenge
the prince’s life or pay his death price?
The Old English uses an oxymoron to denote singular horror of this kind of death: (th)aet waes feo-leas gefeoht. The word feo means assault and signifies the event that must necessarily provoke a feud – feo and feud are etymologically related. The Old English kenning for this homicide is, therefore, an assault-less assault (feoh-leas gefeoht) or a feud-less feud. The Beowulf poet follows his account of Herebeald’s killing with a celebrated simile: King Hrethel is like an old man who has had the misfortune of living to see his only son “swing on the gallows.” The misery of observing this execution, surprisingly, is not primarily the shame that the old man feels at his son’s crimes. Rather, the old man is devastated by the fact that he can not revenge this homicide – there is no compensation for a judicial killing: ond he him helpe ne maeg (and there was no help he could render). The thought that judicial killing has replaced blood-feud, and that an execution on the gallows can not be avenged, signifies the demise of an entire ancient way of life:
He gazes sorrowfully at his son’s dwelling,
the banquet hall bereft of all delight,
the windswept hearthstone; the horsemen are sleeping,
the warriors under ground; what was is no more.
No tunes from the harp, no cheer raised in the yard...
In context, this elegy is a dirge for the entire heroic world of the blood-feud, a world that the Christian poet composing Beowulf views as splendid, horrible, and inevitably displaced by Christianity. The first half of Beowulf, Grendel’s siege of Hrothgar’s banqueting hall can be interpreted as an allegory for the vicious, inhuman power of blood-feuding as well as the heroism and glory concomitant to those feuds. Grendel, a giant and the kin of Cain, hates Hrothgar’s bright and merry banqueting hall and the human fellowship that it symbolizes. He assaults the men in the hall and a blood-feud ensues. Only Beowulf has the strength and courage to destroy the monster, ripping his arm from his socket, and hanging that huge hideous claw – the talisman of the blood feud – over the threshold to the banquet hall. But the feud does not end. Grendel has a mother and she assumes the obligation to avenge her son. The cycle of feud-violence can not be ended until Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother, descending into the deepest and murkiest grotto-lake in the landscape to accomplish that deed. The logic of the blood-feud is simple: life for life until no lives remain. Grendel’s mother is the last of his kin and her death concludes the cycle of violence.
The blood-feud between Grendel and Hrothgar (and his vassals) is morally unambiguous. There is no kinship between the two tribal groups involved in the violence. Grendel is of the race of giants, antediluvian and, with his mother, the last of his kind – he is not even human and, therefore, no culpability arises from his killing. Grendel signifies the inhuman demands of the blood-feud system that defined the victims of intertribal violence as something other than human, strangers outside of the tribal family. But the unknown poet who puts Beowulf into its form known to us is a Christian, most likely a monk. He recognizes that Jesus and his Gospel have changed the paradigm. Enmity between tribes is abolished by Jesus’ message of loving-kindness. In Christian thought, all men are members of one extended family, all children of Adam and Eve. Accordingly, Christians are constrained to interpret any killing as a murder within the family.
In general terms, Beowulf traces the passage from murder as a legitimate tool of blood-feud to a polity in which violence is vested in the State and judicial in character. The Grendel tale gives way to the parable of the dragon. The dragon seems to represent the power vested in a centralized monarchy, regal authority that claims the sole right to the use of violence as a means of social control. The dragon emerges from his barrow and breathes fire onto the village in the shire due to an offense of lese-majestie – someone has snatched one of the royal goblets accumulated as capital in the dragon’s barrow. The dragon, glistening with scales of many colors and winged, is more beautiful than Grendel, but also more destructive. At the pivot between the Grendel story and the parable of the dragon, the Beowulf poet inserts the story about Herebeard’s accidental slaughter by his brother. This homicide occurs within the family and so the principles of blood feud can not be used to resolve the killing. In the pre-Christian world, all killings, even accidental, are culpable – indeed, in many tribal societies the notion of accident doesn’t exist: even a death by disease is thought to be the result of malign sorcery committed by a witch in an enemy tribe. Accordingly, the power of the state must be invoked to avenge the killing since kin are barred from revenge -killing within the family group Hence, the simile insisted upon by the Beowulf poet in describing King Hrethel’s grief – he is like an old man who has lived to see his son judicially executed and can do nothing about it. Christianity insists that all men are brothers. Therefore, a Christian world must regard all murders as fratricide – justice requires that recompense for a death within the family (or the extended family which is now the world) be reposed in a royal majesty, a dragon-like figure of arbitrary violence. Kings, of course, are wont to war against other kings – hence, Beowulf like the Nibelungenlied moves inexorably from small scale feuding to pitched battles between armies.
Scholars observe a strong connection between the digression involving Herebaerd’s killing in Beowulf and the core of mythological legends surrounding the Norse god, Balder the Beautiful. Balder was Odin’s second son, Thor’s younger brother. Unlike the brawny warriors surrounding him, Balder seems to have been delicate and pretty. His complexion is very pale – it is said that his brow is as white as the flowers that blossom in springtime in the high mountain meadows overhanging the fjords. He lives in heaven “where nothing is impure.”
Such a splendid and delicate being was, of course, his mother’s special favorite. Frigg, Balder’s mother, is worried for his well-being. The world is full of violence and monsters from which even the gods are not immune. Further, Balder has told Frigg that he has been troubled by dreams suggesting that something will hurt him or that he might even die. Frigg, whose name probably means “love,” lies claim to all created things. She summons them to council and makes every ounce of matter in the universe swear an oath to her that it will not harm her beloved son. The stones and the trees, the birds and the gushing water, insects and meteors, all promise Frigg, the all-mother, that they will refrain from injuring her delicate, pale wraith of a son, Balder. A fundamental theme in Norse mythology is the mortality of all things and, of course, Frigg’s scheme to protect her son goes awry. In fact, it might be argued that Norse fatality requires that Frigg’s very efforts to preserve Balder from harm become the agency of his destruction. Apparently, a Viking oath requires testamentary capacity – that is, that the oath-taker be compos mentis and adult. Exactly how such testamentary or contractual capacity is measured in things like waterfalls and boulders is unclear, but Frigg observes that “mistletoe is too young to take an oath.” In mythological thought, the exception to the rule, of course, is fatal.
Nothing if not rambunctious, the various gods and their vassals take turns hurling stones and weapons at Balder the Beautiful. This is the envious homage that power pays to beauty. But beauty turns aside all missiles. Balder, pale and indecisive, stands in the center of a barrage of arrows and spears. Nothing can harm him and great hilarity ensues in heaven. Loki, a trickster god, participates in the harmless attack on Balder and may be jealous of the beautiful youth’s invulnerability. Plotting harm, Loki masquerades as an old woman, endears himself to Frigg and, then, disingenuously asks her why the gods are hurling things at Balder. Frigg tells him about the oath that she extracted from all created things – and, fatally, mentions that the mistletoe was “too young” to make a promise to her. Loki steals away and fashions a spear out of mistletoe. It is not clear how mistletoe – a parasitic vine that grows in spiral balls in trees – could possibly be made into a weapon. A lance made from mistletoe is like “hen’s teeth” – it is an oxymoron, something that can’t possibly exist. Loki’s powers are great, however, and somehow he makes the mistletoe into a pointed weapon.
Standing aside from the circle of gods hurling arrows and spears at Balder is Hoed, Balder’s half-brother. Hoed is blind and can’t throw anything at Balder because he doesn’t know where he is. Loki hands Hoed a lance of mistletoe and tells him to pitch it at Balder. Hoed hurls the mistletoe spear, turning his blind face, one supposes, generally in the direction of the missiles clattering off Balder and falling to the ground. The spear arcs into Balder, piercing him, and the most beautiful of the Aesir, the Scandinavian gods, dies. Thus was accomplished, Snorri Sturlason says, “the greatest misfortune among gods and men that can be done.”
Balder’s death triggers a complicated cycle of tales. Hermoed, Odin’s servant, descends into hell to try to retrieve Balder from the underworld. This heroic effort fails. Trouble ensues at Balder’s funeral. One of the mourners, an ogress, arrives riding a giant wolf with snakes for reins. Four berserks are deputized to hold the ogress’ mount. Berserks are not the best liverymen and a melee occurs – a hapless dwarf gets kicked into Balder’s funeral pyre and is burned alive. Balder’s consort, a Valkyrie named Nanna, hurls herself into the flames. As with Bruennhilde’s immolation, Balder’s horse, Dreipnir, also perishes in the fire.
The gods pursue Loki to punish him for his crime. Loki changes shape and escapes every effort to capture him. Finally, Thor corners Loki near a river. Just as Thor’s huge fist is closing around him, Loki becomes a salmon and slips through the god’s fingers. With the help of other Aesir, Thor forges a magic net. After three attempts, Loki is ensnared in the net. Thor drags Loki into a cave and fetters him to a boulder. The gods are thorough in their revenge. Loki’s eldest son is turned into a wolf and, then, unleashed on the trickster god’s younger sons – they are torn to pieces and devoured. A writhing serpent is suspended over Loki. The serpent’s fangs drip poisonous venom into Loki’s eyes and mouth. Loki’s wife attends the miserable god, collecting the poisonous venom in a bowl. But, when the bowl is full and must be emptied, she departs the cave and, then, Loki is seared by the venom’s slow drizzle, writhing in his bonds so that the earth quakes with tremors.
Enacting vengeance on Hoed is more problematic. Hoed is a Odin’s son and blood-kin. Accordingly, Odin can not kill Hoed, although the rules of the blood-feud require that a life be exchanged for a life. The dilemma is that faced by Kriemhilde in the Nibelungenlied and involves the same grief that shattered Beowulf’s King Hrethel – honor requires a slaying that family and tribal ties precludes. But Odin is resourceful: if he can’t take revenge for his beautiful, slain son, he will beget an avenger. So Odin rapes a giantess named Rind. She bears a son, Vali. Vali doesn’t procrastinate in achieving Odin’s intentions. On the eve of his first day, not 24 hours free from the womb, Vali, a precocious lad, murders poor, blind Hoed.
In Norse myth, there are further ramifications flowing from Balder’s death. Ultimately, the catastrophe ripples to the edges of the universe and brings about the twilight of the gods. Paradoxically, Scandinavian mythology insists that both Hoed and Balder somehow survive the Goetterdaemmerung – I suppose their survival is somehow based on the fact that they are already dead when all of the other Aesir meet their fate.
Freud famously observed that dream imagery is overdetermined – this means an image or a narrative condenses several causal agents. Mythology conjures with reality like dreams – the processes of thought embodied by mythology are kin to those that we experience in dreaming. The tale of Balder’s death is densely overdetermined. We might surmise that it has something to do with beauty – and, on the metaphysical level, with appearances. Balder’s killer is the one that can not see him and, therefore, may be immune to his beauty. Frigg’s mother-love imparts to Balder characteristics that achieve the unintended consequences of his death. Freud tells us that every son who is confident of his mother’s love will grow up to be a conqueror of men – but conquerors, of course, are uniquely exposed to murderous envy and, usually, assassinated. No doubt exists that the narrative exposes tensions in tribal society inevitably resulting from a moral code that required death to be compensated by death on the basis of blood-feuding. The story certainly exposes the tragic consequences of applying the ideology of the blood-feud within a family. But, most importantly, I think, the story, like its cognate in Beowulf, exposes a third fundamental theme in human affairs – the notion of casualty, that is, the fortuitous, sudden accidental event.
Both the Beowulf account of Herebeald’s death and the slaying of Balder raise a fundamental and puzzling issue – why is blood-feud revenge necessary in the context of a killing that we would term purely accidental? Isn’t the obvious solution to the dilemma posed by a negligent killing in the family the notion that the homicide should be excused because it is purely accidental and not intentionally caused? Neither account directly considers the fact that degrees of culpability are always considered in assessing manslaughter. Mythological thinking is a zero-sum game: someone is killed, and so, someone else must die -- death must be given for death regardless of the degree of moral culpability involved in the initial homicide. Negligence resulting in homicide is equivalent to murder. But, of course, no one really believes this – nor did anyone ever believe it. The human imagination always has possessed a murky grey zone between intentional act and act of God occupied by the concept of negligence. It’s my thesis that one significant element of the Beowulf digression about Herebeald’s slaying, which seems to derive from the quasi-religious story about Balder (the names may be derived from one another – some scholars hear an echo of Balder in Herebeald) is that the narrative is “good to think with.” And one of the things we are supposed to think is unsaid, but, nevertheless, powerfully implicit: our primordial ancestors were like children; they faced a dilemma that we can avoid by simply invoking the concept of reduced moral culpabililty for negligence. Indeed, Balder’s story is contrived to offer Hoed every possible excuse for killing his brother: Hoed is blind and can’t aim his missile, the fatal spear is made of mistletoe which can’t possibly injury anyone, and the victim is supposedly immune to injury. To use the language of the law, the injury to Balder is wholly unforeseeable and, therefore, no actionable duty arises with respect to Hoed’s act. Thus, I believe that Balder’s story (and the tale of Herebeald’s death) provides a way of thinking about ethics which the narratives posit as new, sophisticated, a thought-tool for modern people – in mythology, the time in which events occur is always lost immemorially in the past, although somehow always in the present. Hoed’s accidental slaying of Balder is a way of forcing contemplation of the notion of negligence, casualty, accident, and moral fault.
Exogamous marriage provides the framework for one set of archetypal narratives. The revenge-feud represents another narrative fundamental to human consciousness. And, I would argue that the third great narrative structure may be described as casualty, or, as sometimes called: fate (or destiny). In large part, accident rules the affairs of men. The role of accident or casualty in triggering narratives is an occult element in the stories we tell one another. The reason that the notion of casualty is concealed in Beowulf and the Balder story is that men wish to imagine themselves the captains of their fate, agents vested with free will making their own destinies. But, of course, there is a secret doubt in even the most aggressive of warriors and rulers – to what extent are we really entitled to praise for our good fortune? And to what extent are we really culpable for our bad acts? Aren’t both good and bad fortune the result of accidental forces that may well be predestined? The idea is similar to Martin Luther’s remark that predestination, although theologically indisputable, was a dismal subject and one that should not considered too diligently. (On predestination: “Do not seek to know what is above you...accept predestination and do not inquire too closely about the secret counsels of God... Luther’s commentary on Genesis 29:9).
Accident shows us two faces. We are dismayed and horrified when casualty intervenes arbitrarily in our lives to inflict apparently meaningless suffering and chaos. But accident may be beautiful as well: the entire lyric impulse in poetry derives from accidental encounters that somehow strike us a revelatory and numinous. Wordsworth’s clouds and daffodils, Goethe’s mountain sunset with birds crying to one another in the treetops, Robert Frost’s pastures and brooks – this poetry represents an impulse derived from the accidental encounter by a solitary wanderer with some aspect of the natural (or human) world that was previously unappreciated. Fortuity may guide the encounter, or may produce a surge of emotion that for some reason was previously unavailable – a momentary, casual “spot in time” becomes drenched with the emotion arising between the collision between the imagination and something that, suddenly, and inexplicably arouses the imagination from its characteristic slumber. Balder’s beauty is said to rival the white blossoms that adorn the sub-arctic pastures of the far north in the bright and ephemeral spring sunlight. Thus, Balder embodies both the danger of the fortuitous and its importance in reviving the slumbering imagination – we can’t say, often, what moves us about a certain vista or combination of words, but there is something that speaks to us powerfully precisely because it is accidental, and, therefore, beyond our conscious control.
Balder’s beauty represents the accidental. As such there is something hazy, indistinct, and unexpected about him. Handsome and strong, Snorri Sturlason in John Lindow’s translation (Norse Mythology, Oxford 2001) tells us:
he is the wisest of the aesir and the most eloquent and the most merciful, but that nature
accompanies him, that none of his judgments stands.
In medieval Iceland, “judgement” was fundamental to a chieftain’s power and status. Iceland, which models the old Scandinavian tribal system, was without central authority. Law was administered by the great chieftains who settled disputes, usually about real property, by pronouncing judgment and upholding those decrees through their own strength and steadfastness. Judgment of this kind, representing a kind of arbitrated settlement, was fundamental to northern European tribal politics. The centrality of this kind of judgement to these cultures is reflected in the 12th century Domesday Book, a cataster or assessment roll containing judgements (dome) as to land ownership – this is one of the first books in British political history and remains one of the most important. The great Icelandic saga, Njal’s Saga (sometimes called Burnt Njal) is, among other things, a compendium of cases involving judgment. This theme is announced in the book’s first lines when Mord Fiddle, one of the central protagonists, is called “a mighty chieftain and a great taker up of lawsuits and so great a lawyer that no judgments were thought lawful unless he had a hand in them...” Balder, however, seems a figure antipodal to Mord Fiddle. His judgments, clouded, perhaps, by the aura of casualty surrounding him, are indefinably tainted so that “none of (them) stands.
Here is a final point that intrigues me. The fog of beauty and indecision haloing Balder is so great that there isn’t even a clear judgment about whether his judgments are valid and enforceable. Wikipedia translates Snorri Sturlason’s description of Balder with these words:
He is the wisest of the Aesir and the fairest spoken and most gracious and that quality attends him that none may gainsay his judgment.
So do Balder’s judgments stand or not? Even this is unclear.