Illustration from Johannes Ewald’s Balders død (The Death of Balder) showing Nanna crying to the left, the dead Balder in the center, Hother covering his face with his hand to the right, Odin and Frigga despairing in the sky, the Valkyries with their spears to the right and Thor and the other Æsir in the center background. Engraving by Daniel Chodowiecki, in Ewald’s Samtlige Skrivter (“Complete Writings”) vol. 3, 1787.
As you may recall from the mythological telling of Balder’s death summarized in a previous post, a prophetess tells Odin that Balder is fated to die at the hands of his brother Höðr following a promise Frigga begs of all creatures, object, and forces in the nine worlds not to harm Balder. But Loki recognizes that Frigga overlooked the innocuous mistletoe, and he mischievously directs the blind Höðr to strike a fatal blow at Balder. This fate is foretold in Voluspa and the closely related Baldrs draumar of the Poetic Edda.
But while I have heavily depended on the Icelandic Eddas for my accounts of Thor, his deeds, and his followers’ understanding of their relationship to him, the Eddas are not the only written record of ancient Germanic belief.
The Danish Johannes Ewald depended on a native source for his adaptation of the story of Balder’s demise, the Gesta Danorum (“Deeds of the Danes”) written by Saxo Grammaticus in the 12th century. Saxo’s history takes on not only the deeds of the Danes themselves, but also, like Snorri Sturlusson of Iceland, folds the gods into the story as living, breathing beings, who interacted with historical figures and were so renowned that their stories came to be the myths and legends that were told by poets, singers, and as stories for children. This kind of rationalization of gods is called euhemerism, a practice we’ll likely discuss in depth another day.
In Saxo’s account, the demi-god Balder was rivals with King Hother both in war and for the love of a woman named Nanna, who was Hother’s foster-sister. Nanna is the name of
Loki Balder’s wife in the Icelandic Eddas. They fought, with Balder winning easily at first on the battlefield, but eventually losing in single combat as Hother wielded a sword named Mistletoe. He died a short time later and was buried with royal honors.Ewald’s version in The Death of Balder is based on this account, but draws also from the Eddas and focuses more on the interactions and motivations of Balder, Hother, and Nanna, with significant supporting roles for Thor, Loki, and a Valkyrie named Rota.
Balder is infatuated with Nanna far beyond the point of excess and Thor implores him to leave the matter be and return to Asgard. But Balder persists, and Thor moves on to other business. Loki encounters Balder and inflames his passions. Loki also encounters Hother and makes him suspicious that Nanna might be entertaining a male guest sometime soon. As all three principal characters come together, combat ensues and Hother could not wound the half-god Balder, but Nanna makes clear that she loves Hother despite his jealousy and that Balder should move on. Hother owes Balder a life debt as a result.
Loki arranges matters so that the Valkyrie Rota crafts a spear pre-destined to kill Balder and makes sure that Hother receives the spear. Even though Hother owes Balder his life after their previous encounter, he takes the spear both in self-defense and because he has grown near suicidal because he could not complete his oath that either he or Balder would die that day.
Another meeting between Balder and Hother ensues because Balder, despondent after Nanna has rejected him yet again, has worked himself into a frenzy and gone off fighting anyone who will engage him. When he arrives to see Nanna with Hother, he engages Hother. Their combat is brief, as Hother evades a powerful attack but Balder falls onto the fated spear and dies.
Asgard mourns, and the play ends without Hermod’s ride to Hel to resurrect Balder in the other version of the myth.
But the play isn’t just interesting because it’s an 18th century adaptation of the 12th century Saxo’s great Danish history. It also gives a great deal of insight into the psychology of the author.
Ewald was a young man in love when he went off to fight in the Seven Years’ War, and he hoped that he could earn glory to honor his beloved Arendse. But he returned to Copenhagen to discover that Arendse had married and that his efforts – and battle scars – were in vain. This episode marked Ewald deeply for the remainder of his life, and he dealt with this rejection extensively in his work, especially his memoir and his well-known play Fiskerne (The Fishermen).
But here in The Death of Balder Ewald is clearly working through this loss with Balder as the rejected suitor as well. The superior warrior and man (a god even!), Balder pines desperately after Nanna, takes heart at her every word, and finds hope even when she thanks him for sparing her beloved Hother’s life. And as it becomes clear that Nanna has no interest in him, and that she sees no way that a god and a mortal woman can live happily together, Balder becomes suicidal, trying to find a way to die but realizing that only the prophesized weapon forged in the fires of Muspelheim (the land of fire and the giant Surtur) can kill him. Thus he goes blindly into combat, eventually falling onto that very weapon, just as was foretold.
Ewald’s life was not happy. He was frequently ill and overly fond of alcohol (I hesitate to call anyone an alcoholic removed over two hundred years from supporting evidence). He died of severe illness in 1781, at age 37.
Obviously the play is fascinating for many reasons and this review only scratches the surface, but it’s worth pointing out that the Norse mythology can be utilized in myriad ways to understand the human condition, whether through ritual and blessing, through fanciful tales of adventure and moral instruction, or through drama and psychological exposition.
Project Gutenberg has multiple digital editions of The Death of Balder available – it’s short enough to read in one sitting. That Project Gutenberg edition, a translation by George Borrow, is also available for free at Amazon.