For many in our modern times, mistletoe is associated with festive greetings, Christmas presents, and eggnog.
Yet wind your clock back a millennium, and this plant was, for the early medieval adherents of the Old Norse religion, associated with murder and death.
How can a plant associated nowadays with Santa Clause be the cause of the murder of a Norse god?
A very famous family
While the Vikings may well have a reputation for warmongering, bloodlust, and martial skill, there was a surprisingly softer side to history's favorite pirates and plunderers.
One of the most popular gods in the Norse pantheon was Baldur, one of the many sons of Odin and Frigg.
For those followers of the Old Norse religion, Baldur was the God of light – both literally and figuratively – associated with the summer sun (for the former) and everything light, cheerful, and joyful.
He was, if we look at some descriptions in the sagas, a sort of Norse version of a cross between the Greek gods Apollo and Euphrosyne.
Children are, whether naughty or nice, a product of their parents. Without going all Sigmund Freud, let us just say that Baldur had a rather complicated relationship with his mother (more on that later).
Baldur was one just of the many products of the result of relations between Odin (the big daddy of all Norse gods) and the goddess, Frigg, associated with marriage and fertility cults.
Frigg, it appeared, lived up to her reputation and birthed not only Baldur but a twin, Hother (the blind winter God), and everybody's favorite Thunder God, Thor.
He was said to have taken a wife, Nanna, after winning her affection and love after a near-fatal duel with his twin brother... talk about sibling rivalry!
The death of Baldur
So then, with all these famous familial connections, we must expect a great number of stories and sagas written about this happy-go-lucky god.
Well, actually, no. In fact, instead of tall tales about partying or anything sort of jolly and cheerful, the only tale we have of Baldur, from the Norse sagas, is about his untimely death.
Furthermore, in this tale, he isn't even the main character (mum Frigg takes that cake) and is sort of a secondary character in his own death tale!
The untimely tale of his death is mentioned in both the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, which are two of our major sources of the rich world of Norse mythology, sagas, and stories. Yet they were mostly compiled centuries after the Viking Age (c. 793 – 1066 CE), in 13th-century Iceland.
Looking at his demise in the Prose Edda, his death is referred to in the most famous poem, Völuspá. This poem starts off with a sorceress having visions of Baldur's death and opens with the Norse gods discussing how several of them have had troubling dreams.
To cut a long story short, Odin sets off on a quest, riding to Hel, to awaken a dead sorceress to find out who will avenge Baldur's presumed death in the future.
In his quest to discover Baldur's weaknesses, Loki finds out that the mistletoe was too young to take the pledge against hurting Baldur. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Eventually, he learns that Baldur's younger brother, Váli, will come to his aid, and Odin rides back off into the sunset (or Northern Lights, this is the Nordic world, after all).
The Poetic Edda, however, has a more descriptive, and gory, tale of Baldur's death. Here, it is Frigg who decides to do something about her son's troubling dreams of his downfall.
She summons all living things in the nine universes and forces them to promise not to lay a finger on her son. Now, this is the part in the story where poor old Baldur cops it from the gods.
Seeing as though he is now seemingly indestructible, the gods do their best – in jest – to hurt him, from hurling rocks at him (that simply bounce off) to even shooting arrows at him point blank range (which just glide over his head). Poor old Baldur is quite literally the first early medieval written source we have of bullying.
Yet one person is not happy with Baldur's new invincibility. Loki, possibly jealous or just up to his usual shenanigans, transforms into an old woman to talk with Frigg.
He learns that no godly weapons can hurt Baldur, but there is a plant "east of Valhalla" - the mistletoe - which was too young to take the pledge to hurt Baldur.
Scuttling there quickly, he finds the plant and Baldur's twin brother, the blind winter god, Hother. Loki eventually tricks Hother into hurtling the mistletoe into the distance, which would then go on and literally pierce Baldur to death.
A very Norse Christmas tradition...
What happens after the untimely downfall of Baldur is vastly different in the two Eddas. In the Prose Edda, Baldur is burnt, like most Viking bigwigs, on a funeral pyre in a Viking ship.
This Viking ship was no ordinary ship but was said to be the largest ever constructed, Hringhorni. This was a grim tomb not only for Baldur but, tragically, for his wife Nanna (who was very much alive), forced to join her husband in the fiery afterlife when the funeral pyre was lit.
The Poetic Edda, however, has a more charming end to this sad story. Frigg is beside herself with grief and begs the gods to restore life to her son. They do, and she obliges their kindness with a kiss.
Furthermore, all the gods make the mistletoe plant pledge to never do anything so evil (even unwittingly) and must only be associated with acts of love, kindness, and happiness.
If you have even given a kiss under milestone, a common Christmas tradition in many countries, not least Northern Europe, where these sagas were being told a millennium ago, you have the death of Baldur to thank for it.
The Swedish History Museum has a webpage dedicated to the god who everyone loves...except Loki...available here.
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