Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Murder and Vengeance Among the Gods

John Lindow’s 1997 book Murder and Vengeance Among the Gods is another attempt at interpreting the meaning and background of the Baldr myth. The book has been split up into 6 main chapters, with 5 of them outlining the entire process of Baldr’s life, death, funeral, attempted retrieval, vengeance and reconciliation respectively. The first chapter deals with the general mythological world of ancient Scandinavia, Baldr as a character within this mythology, and a number of prominent interpretations made by previous scholars. Lindow makes the interesting observation that Scandinavian mythology vary only very slightly despite the number of genres and time periods in which it was written down (Saxo being the only major deviator) (Lindow, 1997, p. 13). Lindow also notes that Baldr in large is a “one-story god” (ibid, p. 20), even though he is briefly mentioned in many different sources. One of the earliest accounts of his death is in Húsdrápa, and Lindow then accounts the entire process of events as accounted in Völuspá, Baldrs Draumar, and the brief mentions in Skírnismál and Lokasenna, as well as the outline of Gylfaginning and Saxo Grammaticus’ way of explaining things. These stories, according to Lindow, agree on a couple of points, the most important one being that Baldr’s fate has been pre-determined, and that there is no way in which fate can be stopped (ibid, p. 22).

In his summarization of important earlier interpretations, he mentions i.e. Kaarle Krohn’s suggestion of the Baldr myth being an adaption of the sacrifice of the Son of God in Christianity into Nordic belief. He also mentions Gustav Neckel’s argument that Baldr as a figure is borrowed from the Orient, and draws upon earlier traditions of innately “good” beings dying, and the fact that these beings appear to share a name meaning “lord” (ibid, p. 30). He also mentions Jan de Vries who used a fertility argument in interpreting the Baldr myth, saying that Baldr is a fertility god that (uniquely) does not belong to the Vanir, and who dies permanently, only to return at the beginning of a new “life cycle”, supposedly symbolizing a new year for crops (ibid, p. 31). Another argument that the death of Baldr symbolizes the “beginning of permanent death”, as he appears to be the first “real” death within the mythology (after Ymir, and ignoring Gullveig who is reborn). There is also the argument used by de Vries that the Baldr myth is a myth of initiation, but Lindow himself rejects this argument and claims that there is no support for the idea of Baldr being a “hero” in any way, rather than simply being the son of Óðinn and Frigg. Lindow settles the discussion by arguing that perhaps the Baldr myth simply cannot be interpreted with any unified theory that explains its entire existence and sole meaning, but instead “should be scaled back to a series of attempts to interpret various texts or traditions” (ibid, p. 38). He stresses that the problematic aspect in the Baldr myth is the complicated relationship between the jötnar and the æsir, and a killing within a family.

In the first analytical chapter, Lindow discusses, among other things, the nature of dreams within the Baldr myth and within the mythology itself. He concludes that dreams are a frequent phenomenon within Norse mythology itself, and that this detail with regard to Baldr is consistent throughout several sources. Dreams were often seen as prophetic, and this is no different in terms of Baldr. The prophetic forebodings in Baldr’s dreams will come to pass, despite the attempts of the æsir to prevent them. Here, Lindow lists a number of examples of other prophetic dreams in which the thing that is “meant to be” must take place, and where the protagonist (and his wife) takes steps to prevent their destiny from coming true, but fails (for example, in Draumar Þorsteins Síðu-Hallssonar) (Lindow, 1997, pp. 38-40). Lindow continues to talk about the measures taken by the æsir to prevent Baldr’s death. He makes the interesting observation that among the things Baldr should be protected from, there is a curious lack of “beings with human form, the æsir and jötnar” (ibid, p. 48), and he makes the assumption that Frigg (who heads the prevention effort according to Snorri) cannot conceive that Baldr is in danger from any such figure, being loved by all. Lindow also argues that the choice of Frigg as leading the oath-taking effort is curious, because this was normally not a task suitable to women, but he also makes the argument that Frigg is indeed an old and integral part of the story, as the Frigg deity herself is a significantly old one. Lindow argues that Frigg’s role in this story derives from her over-all role within the mythology, as the consort and lover of Óðinn (ibid, p. 50). Lindow continues to exhaust Loki’s role within the myth, his origin and characteristics (ibid, pp. 52-55), and whether or not Loki is actually an original part of the myth, since he is lacking in the Saxo account. Lindow argues that Loki was introduced when the story had reached somewhere between the Near-East and Iceland, where it was finally written down (ibid, p. 68). He also mentions the mistletoe used as a weapon by Snorri (ibid, p. 63), and whether or not the sword or the mistletoe should be considered the original weapon. He proposes that the view in Iceland of the mistletoe (which did not grow there) was largely mythical, and that it was, wrongly, considered a plant useable as a weapon. As regards Höðr, Lindow suggests he is an “outsider” amongst the gods, just as Loki, and that he might have been more willing than previously thought in doing the deed (ibid, p. 65).

The next chapter continues the storyline, and discusses Óðinn and Hyrrokkin, and the funeral of Baldr. The chapter is strictly titled “Odin and Hyrrokkin: Baldr’s funeral”, but the chapter somewhat strays away from its topic. Lindow claims that the only pagan source of the Baldr myth is Húsdrápa by Úlfr Uggason, which therefore deserves special attention. In talking about the arrival of guests to the funeral, Lindow notes the order and way in which things are presented. He observes that the deities all ride in on mounts, with Óðinn being the leader of the æsir, Freyr representing the vanir, and Heimdallr being a “boundary figure” (not in the least by protecting Bifröst). Lindow makes the argument that the most important aspects of the funerary ritual, based upon an analysis he makes of the language in the stanzas from Húsdrápa, are the assembly of the different gods, the funeral pyre (which is mentioned with three different synonyms) and Óðinn’s son as the one being burned (Lindow, 1997, p. 73). Lindow also discusses the possible meaning of the giantess who lights the funeral pyre, known as Hyrrokkin, or Hildr in Úlfr Uggason’s text. Lindow makes a comparison to the Ragnarsdrápa poem, especially with the name Hildr being used in both stories and the father’s loss of a child that he unsuccessfully attempts to regain. He makes the argument that Úlfr “drew echoes of the entire Baldr story into the climactic scene of the funeral” (ibid, p. 75) by using the Hildr name and the modifier “fjalla” (i.e “Fjalla-Hildr”) to symbolize something as distant from the coast and the scene of the funeral as possible. Lindow writes:

She is an out of place, hierarchically inferior being, doing the work of the æsir (as Snorri tells us) and thus helping them to conduct the ritual properly. The inappropriateness of her presence at such a solemn moment is brought forth by the nature of her mount, here specifically identified as a wolf reined in with poisonous snakes, both symbols of the unsettled wilderness whence Hyrrokkin and her ilk come […] (ibid, pp 88-89).

Lindow also makes an interesting analysis of Þórr’s kicking of the dwarf Litr into the funeral pyre, especially in regards to his name. The word “litr” plainly means “appearance” or “color”, but Lindow cites Franz Rolf Schröder’s suggestion that it might be related to “lítill”, meaning small. But at the same time, Lindow claims that “smallness” is not a characteristic generally attributed to dwarfs through their names in the mythology. Lindow acknowledges that Litr may be an indicator of a change in tradition, but in terms of his suggestions of the meaning of the killing of the dwarf (and not only that), I sometimes believe that the application of Ockham’s razor is appropriate (ibid, pp. 94-95), not in the least to avoid becoming a myth-maker oneself.

The next chapter deals with the attempted retrieval of Baldr from the dead. Lindow notes that the retrieval story does not appear in Saxo’s account of the Baldr myth. He continues by making the argument that the implications of Baldr being a “hostage” in the world of the dead, who can somehow be retrieved through some sort of negotiating process, might imply that the myth should be read as a group-conflict between the æsir and the jötnar. He notes the curious case of the two “generals” (Lindow’s word of choice) being women, Frigg and Hel, but also mentions the strong implications of hostages and hostage exchange in the mythology, the other important case taking place after the æsir-vanir war and having profound impact on the mythology (Lindow, 1997, pp. 101-102). Lindow continues his chapter by making the argument that Hermóðr – attempting to retrieve Baldr – was unknown outside of Iceland, thus being either an Icelandic invention, or Hermóðr might have been included in the story when that name became equated with heroism; Lindow even goes as far as to claim that Hermóðr might at one point have been Óðinn himself (ibid, p. 106 & p. 112). Here, Lindow claims that he has made an argument about a “rule” in the mythology: he says that males always triumph over females. I don’t understand this argument at all, as it seems highly inaccurate, perhaps even in regard to the Baldr myth. In any case, I find it very practical to suggest, as Lindow here does, that Þökk “might have been no more than a cranky old ogress who was having a bad day” (ibid, p. 129). Lindow finishes the chapter by suggesting that Loki is the one responsible for the death and unsuccessful retrieval of Baldr, with a reference to Lokasenna; plainly, Þökk could be Loki. The message of the Baldr myth, Lindow here claims, is that grief never can be universal, and that “life will always go on despite it” (ibid, p. 130).

Chapter five continues the story, talking about “Váli and Höðr, the æsir and Loki: Vengeance”. Lindow begins the chapter by discussing at length the noun “griðastaðr” and its implications on the story. The word is used to explain the lack of immediate response from the gods to Baldr’s death. He explores whether or not the word could reflect any sort of legal obligation for the gods not to intervene in such a “sanctuary” (Lindow, 1997, p. 134), but also suggests that they might have been inhibited by a rule of blood-feud forcing Höður’s blood-kin to enact vengeance, but the complicated family relationship made it impossible for Óðinn himself (the father of Höðr) to enact this vengeance. Had Óðinn himself done the deed, he would have become the principal of that killing as well, and thus would have needed to enact vengeance upon himself (ibid, p. 135). Lindow uses a couple of references to poetry to support his claim that murder within the family was always wrong, quoting for example a stanza from Heimskringla – or as Lindow puts it: “All of them are caught between irreconcilable duties: to extract vengeance on the one hand and to honor the bonds of kinship on the other hand” (ibid, p. 139). The author then continues to explore potential relationships between Váli and Viðarr and Magni and Móði, based on their survival after Ragnarök. He suggests that one connection might be that they are both pairs of second-generation deities who engage in vengeance of some sort, and “whose special status was in part obtained through an exogamous union of their father, Odin, with a female from among the jötnar” (ibid, p. 157). The “breaker of the pattern” is, according to Lindow, Váli, who avenges by killing a family member, an act that was both appropriate and inappropriate at the same time. He proceeds to discuss the events of Loki in the story, but does not present any groundbreaking information.

The last chapter of the book deals with Ragnarök and reconciliation. Lindow suggests that the only way of solving the ill family relations that has befallen the æsir, and Baldr and Höðr in specific, is for the old Odinic world order to end. In the new world, Baldr and Höðr are apparently joined again, reconciled (Lindow, 1997, p. 166). Lindow argues that with Ragnarök, the whole strata of the “old generation” will be replaced by their offspring (with the exception of Hænir) (ibid, p. 169). Lindow explains that blood-feud is central to the Baldr myth, but that the myth itself reveals a fundamental flaw in feud, which, according to Lindow, “could be imagined to be fatal”. He argues that the flaw might be explained in that the myth only expresses the feud-system in theory, whereas texts like the Íslendingasögur explain its praxis (ibid, p. 178), and when it comes down to it, what might invalidate the idea of blood-feud in theory might not be relevant to real people in their everyday lives.

Lindow finishes his book on the very valid point that Baldr is dead because when “Asa-Loke” is charged with choosing between his companionship with the gods and that with the jötnar, he chooses the jötnar, his natural genealogy. “The killing is devastating because it was done by a brother, and it could not be undone” (Lindow, 1997, p. 181).

All in all, Lindow offers a worthwhile – although rather short, with its ca. 200 pages – insight into a new theoretical analysis of the Baldr myth. His firm stance on the historical development and evolution of the myth is refreshing and convincing, and might help bridge some of the gaps observed between different sources.