A to Z: Baldr

Published April 2, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

Okay, he’s so basic it’s almost cheating, but yep, here you go, today’s mythical figure is Baldr, son of Odin and Frigg.  There were a lot of options for B, but I wanted to go with Baldr because this is what he looks like in the Shin Megami Tensei games:

Image copyright Atlus, but provided by the MegaTen Wiki. Click for link.

With a character design like that, how could I pass him up?

Oddly, he doesn’t show up in any MegaTen games until Devil Survivor, which started out on the Nintendo DS, though the one I’ve actually played was Devil Survivor Overclocked, the expanded 3DS remaster.  (Technically, I started the original version, but…)  He probably wasn’t used prior to that point because of his nature and personality, which I’ll get to in a minute.  The reason he got used in Devil Survivor was actually a plot thing:  they changed his name to Beldr (not entirely wrong, considering his name was Beldeg to the Anglo-Saxons) and made the “Bel” part derived from the Akkadian word for “lord” or “master” (which is entirely wrong), and the plot revolved around various demons whose names started with “Bel.”  (I won’t go into further detail, however, as I don’t want to spoil the game’s plot, in case anyone wants to play it and hasn’t yet.  It’s a good game, if you have the patience to get past the initial difficulty curve.  I can’t really recommend the manga adaptation, though.)

He’s not summonable in Devil Survivor, but he is summonable in Shin Megami Tensei IV and Shin Megami Tensei IV Apocalypse, and this is his compendium entry from those games:

The god of light in Norse lore and son of Odin and Frigg.  He is married to Nanna and has two brothers, Hod and Hermod, and a son named Forseti.

He was loved by all the gods, but after having a nightmare of his death, Frigg made all the plants and animals swear not to harm Baldur.  Only the mistletoe was passed over as it was too young.  Hearing this, Loki tricked Hod into shooting a mistletoe at Baldur, which killed him.  Hel promised to revive Baldur if every living thing cried for him, but the giantess Thokk refused to weep.  When it was found that Thokk was Loki in disguise, the gods punished him.  With the world’s light gone, it took its first steps toward Ragnorak.

The same story is presented in Devil Survivor, piecemeal, in a little less detail, by this guy:

Image copyright Atlus, but provided by the MegaTen Wiki. Click for link.

As soon as he started telling us about how Beldr was brought down by the Devil’s Fuge (aka mistletoe), I laughed and said “Oh, hi, Loki!”  I really like the character designs in Devil Summoner (actually, I tend to like the MegaTen character designs all around), but this guy (identified persistently as “Gigolo”) may have my favorite character design in this particular game.

Okay, so that was a bit more game-related text than I intended to have, but this one a) is very plot-related (unlike a lot of them) and b) is easy for me to get excited about.  One interesting thing to note, however, about “Beldr” and his appearance in Devil Survivor is that the game seems to have assumed that while his death had already taken place, his resurrection (and the events of Ragnarok) had not yet taken place.  Which does fit the traditional belief but begs questions about how/if Ragnorak could/would still take place after the religion that believed in it lost all its followers.

Anyway, as is actually rather common in MegaTen games, they’ve told Baldr’s story pretty well.  Baldr was the god of pretty much all the “nice” stuff:  light, summer, purity, happiness, all that jazz.  Everyone loved him, naturally, except (at least in some versions) Loki.

The Wikipedia article (yeah, I suck enough to consult it regularly, but at least in this case I already knew the basics and just needed some specific details) has a great quote from the Prose Edda (early 13th century) about Baldr’s nature:

The second son of Odin is Baldur, and good things are to be said of him. He is best, and all praise him; he is so fair of feature, and so bright, that light shines from him.

Then one night both Frigg and Baldr himself dream he’s going to die.  Baldr is used to dreams being prophetic, so he’s distressed by dream, and that’s why Frigg goes out and makes everything in the world promise never to harm him.  In most versions of the tale I’ve seen, the mistletoe is skipped over because it’s “small and insignificant,” but the game script has a good point about it being because the mistletoe was young, as youth could be a bar to the ability to swear legally binding oaths.

Naturally, Baldr reacts to his newly gained invulnerability as any hot-blooded Viking would:  he has all his friends and family start attacking him with everything they can find, because what could be more fun than being struck painlessly by every possible weapon?  And that’s when Loki slips a dart made from mistletoe into the hands of Baldr’s blind brother Höðr, who tossed it at Baldr, only to have it unexpectedly kill him.  (Höðr, of course, was summarily killed for his part in it, despite having had no idea it would happen.)

Baldr was given a magnificent funeral, including typical Aesir behavior, like Thor kicking a dwarf onto the pyre to burn to death just because.  (Okay, maybe there was a reason, but nothing I’ve seen has ever said what the reason was.)  Baldr’s widow Nanna also jumped onto the pyre to die with her husband’s corpse in most versions, though in others she simply dies of grief.

Of course, once the mourning is over, then it’s time for action.  Frigg sets out to find a way to revive her precious son.  Hel agrees she’ll release Baldr to be restored to life if every living and unliving thing will weep for him.  (So much for the mourning being over!)  So Frigg repeats her vast journey for the sake of her son, this time asking everything to cry for Baldr.  Baldr being the shining belle of the Asgardian ball, everything is happy to cry for him, except a grumpy old giantess named Þökk, who insists that she won’t cry, and that Hel can keep what she has.

While Þökk is usually assumed to be Loki in disguise, it’s not actually confirmed in the literature.  (What little literature there is.)  I can’t help wondering “what if she wasn’t Loki?”  I mean, what if she really just hated the Aesir and therefore wanted Baldr to stay dead?  (Being a Jotun, she’d have a lot of reason to hate the gods of Asgard.)  Or what if she was Loki’s daughter, Hel?  Hel would have a lot of potential reasons to keep Baldr from being revived:  maybe she likes having him around (hey, if everyone loves him so much for being so handsome…), maybe she doesn’t want to undo her father’s triumph, or maybe she’s looking forward to/needs the coming shake-up of Ragnorak and the deaths of so many swelling up her realm.  I’m positive none of the literature has ever blamed anyone other than Loki for Þökk’s refusal, but it seems much more interesting (from a modern, detached perspective) if it was someone else.  (Given that her name means “thanks,” it does seem somewhat unlikely that she’s really just a grumpy Jotun…)

In any event, whoever Þökk is, and whatever her reasons for not crying, the net result is that Baldr is not revived, and Ragnarok looms directly ahead.  (And unlike the recent movie, Ragnarok is not happy-fun-times.)  Knowing the Aesir wanted to punish him for his actions (either in causing Baldr’s death or preventing his resurrection), Loki turned into a salmon and hid in a waterfall.  But the Aesir caught him, and bound him up beneath the surface of the world, using the entrails of one of his sons (either named Narfi or Nari, depending on the text you’re reading) as chains, putting a massive serpent above him to drip venom on him.  Loki’s devoted wife Sigyn stays by his side, using a bowl to catch the venom, but every time she has to take the bowl away to empty it, the venom hits him, and his agony causes earthquakes as he writhes in pain.

And that’s the uneasy equilibrium in which the Vikings (and other peoples who believed in the Norse gods) believed themselves to be living.  Ragnarok — the destruction and revival of the world and the gods when Loki escaped and with his monstrous children (particularly Jörmungandr, AKA the Midgard Serpent, and the monstrous wolf Fenrir) made war on Asgard in vengeance for his suffering — lay sometime in the future.  Baldr, Nanna and Höðr would all be revived at the end of Ragnarok, to rule over the new world as the new gods.

Such cyclical worlds aren’t uncommon in world mythology (many traditional belief systems in the Americas have them, and the Hindu god Shiva presides over a destruction-and-renewal cycle as well), but what really strikes me about this is the fact that as far as the Vikings (etc.) believed, their god of light, summer, joy, what-have-you, was dead, and his revival was going to result in the end of the world, including the death of all human beings but two.  (Imagine if the Great Flood myth so common in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern belief systems was a future event, rather than a past one, and you’ve got it.)  What kind of culture places such widespread death in the future?  And what does it say about the culture that the dead god who could only be revived after that death and destruction was essentially the god of everything happy (other than sex)?

Methinks it was not pleasant living as a Viking.

(Like I needed a myth to know that?  Although apparently it had its good aspects, too:  the Vikings did horrible things to the women in the settlements they raided, but if they tried anything on their own women, they didn’t get away with it in the slightest.  The punishment for rape (among their own people) was death.)

And, while I could probably find a lot more to say on the subject of Baldr (especially if I go into more detail on Ragnarok), I think it’s best if I bring this to a close now…


BTW, the runner-up for this post was this guy:

Art copyright Atlus. Image courtesy the MegaTen Wiki. Click for link.

This little guy with the big feet is a Billiken.  Which really gave me a double-take when I saw the name, as I’m used to Billiken being the name of the sports teams/mascot of a local school.  This is the description of him from Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker:

A cute, mascot-like god of luck.  A famous statue of it is at the Tsuutenkaku tower in Osaka.

His plump figure and pointed head are his distinguishing characteristics.  While now famous as god of Naniwa, he was actually created in the 1900s by an American artist.  It is said he was named after the American president William Taft.

So, according to Wikipedia, the artist who created the Billiken in 1908 was Florence Pretz of Kansas City, MO.  Neither Wikipedia nor the 1974 article on the subject of the Billiken by anthropologist Dorothy Jean Ray mention William Taft at all, though.  (Wikipedia does mention a 1996 Japanese movie about the Billiken statue at Tsuutenkaku Tower, so maybe that’s where the idea comes from, and it’s been accepted as “fact” in Japan?)

…but there’s not actually a lot to say about Billiken, which is why I went with Baldr for this post instead.  I just wanted to point out the Billiken thing because it’s so crazy.

9 comments on “A to Z: Baldr

  • I am familiar with this myth, but a great way to retell it. Actually, I always wondered how they got Loki to cry for Baldr – maybe some crocodile tears, then off to turn into a giantess! By the way, I wonder how you got that thorn letter? When I had a typewriter many years ago, the best you could do was type p and then go back and type a b over it. You can’t do that with a computer.

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    • That’s a good point about getting Loki to cry as himself; I hadn’t even thought about that! (Maybe that’s why they always assume the giantess was Loki, because they just plain couldn’t find him to make him cry…)

      As to getting the thorn in the post, to be honest, I copied-and-pasted it into place. WordPress does have an “add a character” menu, but it doesn’t include a lot of the more unusual ones. It lets you copy them in from other webpages or from a word processor, though.

      Like

  • Baldr is an interesting god – I admit to Norse leanings. I’ve used Scandinavian elements quite a few times in my writing, although leading towards Saami folklore as in Juksakka. I’ve re-imagined her as the Norse goddess, Skadi who thought a certain god’s feet had to be Baldr’s. My A to Z last year had a Scandinavian theme with an alternative history twist [https://rolandclarke.com/blogging-from-a-to-z/kanata-a-to-z-challenge-2017/].

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