A famous funeral pyre from a popular film

Odin Mourns Balder By His Pyre

I’ve previously discussed the death and resurrection of Balder at some length, and I won’t revisit the subject today, though perhaps in 2017.

Viktor Rydberg 1876
Viktor Rydberg 1876

However, a couple of quick notes about the poem and its author. Viktor Rydberg was a Swedish novelist from a modest background who became one of the most prominent in 19th Century Sweden. His work focused on mythology and religion, and so Balder and Odin are his bailiwick.

In Pyre, it’s worth a reminder that the death of Balder is generally understood to be the first link in the chain that leads to Ragnarok. The next link is already being forged in the poem, as Rydberg alludes to winter in the first stanza, and then names the Fimbulwinter in the second, the long, dark, harsh winter that comes before the final battle of flood and flames.

However, much has yet to happen, particularly the events of Lokasenna, where Loki angers the gods too much, and whether it is clear to them that he is responsible for the death of Balder or not, he is lashed to a boulder and set to suffer the poison of a serpent until Ragnarok. The exact amount of time this takes is unknown.

Beyond that, you only need know that what Odin whispered to Balder on this pyre is one of the great mysteries of Norse mythology. In fact, in the Poetic Edda text Vafthruthnismal, the giant Vafthruthnir wagers his life against a man in the expectation that he knows more lore than any other being he might come into contact with. But he learns that his opponent has beaten him, and that the opponent is Odin, when the Allfather mentions this moment on the pyre.

Balder returns from Hel to the realms of the living after Ragnarok, so what Odin speaks to him is incredibly important. The pondering of these questions suggested in the final two stanzas is perhaps encouraging the reader to try to grasp at the very meaning of life.

The translation from Swedish posted here is by Judith Moffet.

The Pyre of Balder

Innocence is resting
on the blessed pyre.
All that breathe are taken
by an icy shudder.
Red as blood the sun sinks,
mountain shadows lengthen;
through the Ash´s foliage
Time-at-Autumn sighs.

Silent gods hold vigil
round the livid Balder.
Fimbulnight is falling—
let the pyre be kindled!
Dark the dome of heaven.
Odin grasps the torch-hilt;
furrowed deep, his forehead
toward his bosom bows.

Every hight-heroic
fight is done forever.
Men shall henceforth purpose
naught but woe and evil,
strong shall stand the scoundrel,
good in links lie bounden
till the flame of Súrter
O´er the world shall run.

Now like one entrancéd
numbly Odin pauses,
while his mind considers
deep and murky riddles,
probes the depths to ponder
secret runes, and listens
at the spirit´s bedrock
for an answer won.

Did the brooding father
find the thing he hunted?
Odin leans his forehead,
smoothed and clear, to Balder´s,
whispers to the dead one
what Valhalla never,
never has imagined,
something known to none.

Would you guess the riddle?
Walk the woods at midnight,
hear the tempest howling
in the misty uplands!
Hear the anguished whimpers,
hear the cries and plaining,
hear the deep confession
wrung from Nature´s lips.

Holy silence follows
horror´s wild lamenting,
and like organ music
Odin´s great idea
floats through all the forest:
meaning in the conflict,
comfort in the deeps.

One comment on “Odin Mourns Balder By His Pyre

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