Review: Some Controversial Aspects of the Myth of Baldr by Anatoly Liberman

Anatoly Liberman uses his book to argue certain points of variation relating to the death of Balder in Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum and Snorri Sturluson’s Eddas. His main points of exploration are:
-The use of the word Mistilteinn being interpreted as mistletoe.
-The character of Hoder and whether he really is blind.
-The true nature of Balder.
-Loki’s role in the story, since he does not appear in Saxo’s rendition.
-The funeral of Balder and its patchwork of different elements.

First Liberman goes through varying authors’ theories methodically and logically, explaining why he discounts some and supports others. His evidence is based not only on Saxo and the Eddas, but also various other referenced works and etymology.

His main bone of contention, which appears throughout, is the use of the word Mistilteinn and its interpretation as ‘mistletoe’. His main reason for discounting this as an original element of the tale is that mistletoe did not grow in Iceland at the time, and was known only in limited areas of Norway and Sweden. Since descriptions of Mistilteinn and how Loki actually acquired it are confusing in Snorri’s rendition, Liberman thinks some other plant may originally have been cited. The reed, for instance, apparently occurs frequently in Scandinavian folklore. He gives an incident in Gautreks Saga where ‘a reed, activated by magic, could be turned into a spear.’ He gives the thistle as another possibility, his theory based on the wooing of Gerda in the Eddas, where she is threatened with a stuffed thistle ‘filled with loathsome stuff and sent to kill, there is a runic curse Ϸistill-mistill-kistill.’

Because of the lack of real knowledge of mistletoe in Iceland, even when Snorri wrote the Eddas, Liberman believes it to be a later construct. He says: ‘As god of vegetation certain plants may have been sacred to Baldr, and often a god gifted with unnatural strength is brought down by his own weapon, or something scared to him.’

In Saxo’s Gesta Danorum, a partially mythological history of Denmark, Balder and Hoder are not brothers but rivals for the affections of Nanna. In this version Nanna favours Hoder and Balder is not painted in such a flattering light. Nor is Hoder blind in this tale, and he is the sole instigator of Balder’s death with a sword called Miming.

Liberman is of the opinion that Balder and Hoder originally represented light and darkness: ‘Opposites acquire their meaning from the nature of opposition. The bond between them is apparent, and, when they are personified as siblings […] they are always drawn into tales of love and jealousy, the latter involving the death of the more attractive character.’
At some time it seems these two figures may have been a sky deity and a god of the underworld. As such the sky god (Balder) would hold dominion over storms, rain and thus vegetation. The god of the underworld would also rule over vegetation but as the ‘rich soil from beneath’. Thus their rivalry is part of the cycle of nature. Hoder’s blindness may be seen as that of a mole from the darkness, as well as literally.

Liberman can’t seem to quite work out how Loki fits into the story. Since he isn’t implicated in Saxo’s earlier version he seems to be of the opinion this may be a regional variation or a later alteration, ‘the result of an imperfect merger of two traditions.’ He believes there was some memory of Loki as performing some terrible deed at a point in mythic history, evidenced by Utgarda-Loki in Saxo’s writings, who was chained and would eventually break free. However Loki, Liberman insists, was not seen as the actual murderer of Balder since he was only punished, not killed in blood-vengeance like Hoder. He also gives an example of a scene in the Lokasenna where: ‘Loki boasts that, but for him, Baldr would have been around; yet he still leaves the hall unscathed.’ Liberman gives other reasons, which are better grasped by reading his work as his hypotheses are rather lengthy.

On to Balder’s funeral and Liberman seems to think the real meaning behind various elements has been lost over time and, in part, due to Snorri’s re-telling. One of these is the giantess Hyrokkin who pulls Balder’s funeral boat out to sea. Knowing the animosity between the Aesir (the Norse gods) and the Jotnar (the giants) it would seem odd that a giant should pull out the funeral pyre, especially when Thor himself was said to possess great strength. Even though she is there to help, Thor is angered and threatens to kill her. Because she pulls, rather than pushes, the boat into the water and is threatened with death Liberman proposes that Hyrokkin is Balder’s fylgia, a kind of personal guardian spirit. She ‘[…] will disappear in the sea together with the god she failed to protect.’

Other interesting links are explored, including a theory that the horse burned with Balder on the pyre may originally have been a stag or hart. He also denounces the theory that Hoder may be a hypostasis (aspect) of Odin and that Balder’s death was a sacrifice to the Allfather.

Liberman has a forthright but readable style, and his work is littered with references to various authors’ works. His theories tend to jump around a little, popping up amongst other separate ones, and his opinion of Snorri Sturluson seems to be exasperation at best. However this is a highly informative and interesting read for anyone interested in the Eddas, the myth of Balder, and learning more about Hoder and Loki.
It is also interesting to see how much stories can change over time, especially in the hands of writers who like to merge and embellish. Through reading this work those who take Snorri’s Eddas as the full story may now open up to the possibility that the Sagas may not represent the whole ‘truth’ about the gods, or they will not like Liberman’s theories and will probably discount them. How you take it is up to you, but I found it an entertaining and informative read and it has given me a few more lines of enquiry.

If you’re just starting out with Norse mythology I suggest you read at least the Eddas and perhaps H.A.Guerber’s Myths of the Norsemen first.



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