Balder the Good had dreams which forewarned him that his life was in danger, and he told the other Norse gods of them. The gods took counsel together what should be done, and it was agreed that they should conjure away all danger that might threaten him. Frigg, the mother of Balder, took an oath of fire, water, iron, and all other metals, stones, earth, trees, sicknesses, beasts, birds, poisons, and worms, that these would none of them hurt Balder. When this had been done the gods used to divert themselves, Balder standing up in the assembly, and all the others throwing at him, hewing at him, and smiting him with stones, for, do all they would, he received no hurt, and in this sport all enjoyed themselves.
The crafty and malicious Loki, however, looked on with envy when he saw that Balder was not hurt. So he assumed the form of a woman, and set out to Frigg in her abode Fensalir. Frigg asked if the stranger knew what the gods did when they met. He answered that they all shot at Balder and he was not hurt.
"No weapon, nor tree may hurt Balder," answers Frigg, "I have taken an oath of them all not to do so."
"What," said the pretended woman, "have all things then sworn to spare Balder?"
"There is only one little twig which grows to the east of the banquet hall Valhalla. It is called the mistletoe. I took no oath of it, for it seemed to me to be too young and feeble to do any hurt."
Then the strange woman departed.
When Loki had changed back to his own shape, he found the mistletoe, cut it off, and went to the assembly. There he found Hod standing apart by himself, for he was blind. Then said Loki to him:
"Why do you not throw at Balder?"
"Because," said he, "I am blind and cannot see him, and besides I have nothing to throw."
"Do as the others," said Loki, "and honour Balder as the rest do. I will direct your aim. Throw this shaft at him."
Hod took the mistletoe and, Loki directing him, aimed at Balder. The aim was good. The shaft pierced him through, and Balder fell dead to the ground. There was never a greater misfortune among gods or men.
When the gods saw that Balder was dead then they were silent, aghast, and stood motionless. They looked on one another, and were all agreed as to what he deserved, he who had done the deed, but out of respect to the place none dared avenge Balder's death. They broke the silence at length with wailing, words failing them with which to express their sorrow. Odin, as was right, was more sorrowful than any of the others, for he best knew what a loss the gods had sustained.
At last when the gods had recovered themselves, Frigg asked:
"Who is there among the gods who will win my love and good-will? He shall have that if he will ride to the domain of Hel and seek Balder, and offer Hel a reward if she will let Balder come home back to the dwelling of the gods, Asgard."
The gods took Balder's body down to the sea-shore, where stood Hringhorn, Balder's vessel, the biggest in the world. When the gods tried to launch it into the water, in order to make on it a funeral fire for Balder, the ship would not stir. Then they despatched one to Jotunheim for the sorceress called Hyrrokin, who came riding on a wolf with twisted serpents by way of reins. Odin called for four Berserks* to hold the horse, but they could not secure it till they had thrown it to the ground. Then Hyrrokin went to the stem of the ship, and set it afloat with a single touch, the vessel going so fast that fire sprang from the rollers, and the earth trembled. Then Thor was so angry that he took his hammer and wanted to cast it at the woman's head, but the gods pleaded for her and appeased him. The body of Balder being placed on the ship, Nanna, the daughter of Nep, Balder's wife, seeing it, died of a broken heart, so she was borne to the pile and thrown into the fire.
* Berserkers (or Berserks) were Norse warriors who wore coats of wolf or bear skin and were commonly understood to have fought in an uncontrollable rage or trance of fury, giving rise to the modern word berserk. [Wikipedia, s.v. "Berserker"]
Thor stood up and consecrated the pile with his hammer, Mjolnir. Many kinds of people came to this ceremony. With Odin came Frigg and the Valkyrjor with his ravens. Frey drove in a car drawn by the boar, Gullinbursti or Slidrugtanni. Heimdall rode the horse Gulltopp, and Freyja drove her cats. There were also many of the forest-giants and mountain-giants there. On the pile Odin laid the gold ring called Draupnir, giving it the property that every ninth night it produces eight rings of equal weight. In the same pile was also consumed Balder's horse.
For nine nights and days Hermod rode through deep valleys, so dark that he could see nothing. Then he came to the river Gjøll which he crossed by the bridge which is covered with shining gold. The maid who keeps the bridge is called Modgudur. She asked Hermod his name and family, and told him that on the former day there had ridden over the bridge five bands of dead men.
"They did not make my bridge ring as you do, and you have not the hue of the dead. Why do you ride thus on the way to Hel?"
He said: "I ride to Hel to find Balder. Have you seen him on his way to that place?"
"Balder," answered she, "has passed over the bridge, but the way to Hel is below to the north."
Hermod rode on till he came to the entrance of Hel, which was guarded by a grate. He dismounted, looked to the girths of his saddle, mounted, and clapping his spurs into the horse, cleared the grate easily. Then he rode on to the hall and, dismounting, entered it. There he saw his brother, Balder, seated in the first place, and there Hermod stopped the night.
In the morning he saw Hel, and begged her to let Balder ride home with him, telling her how much the gods had sorrowed over his death. Hel told him she would test whether it were true that Balder was so much loved.
"If," said she, "all things weep for him, then he shall return to the gods, but if any speak against him or refuse to weep, then he shall remain in Hel."
Then Hermod rose to go, and Balder, leading him out of the hall, gave him the ring, Draupnir, which he wished Odin to have as a keepsake. Nanna also sent Frigg a present, and a ring to Fulla.
Hermod rode back, and coming to Asgard related all he had seen and heard. Then the gods sent messengers over all the world seeking to get Balder brought back again by weeping. All wept, men and living things, earth, stones, trees, and metals, all weeping as they do when they are subjected to heat after frost. Then the messengers came back again, thinking they had done their errand well. On their way they came to a cave wherein sat a hag named Thaukt. The messengers prayed her to assist in weeping Balder out of Hel.
"I will weep dry tears [meaning: I won't cry] over Balder's pyre," she answered. "What do I gain by him, whether he is alive or dead? Let Hel hold what she has."
It was thought that this must have been the malicious Loki, Laufey's son, he who has ever wrought such harm to the [Norse] gods.
A certain king used to ask of all the wandering ascetics that came to his country, "Which is the greater man - he who gives up the world and becomes a mendicant, or he who lives in the world and performs his duties as a householder?"
Some said that the mendicant was the greater. Then the king demanded that they should prove their assertion. When they could not, he ordered them to marry and become householders.
Then others came and said, "The householder who performs his duties is the greater man." The king demanded them too to settle down as householders.
At last there came a young mendicant who simply said, "Each may be great in his or her own place."
"Prove this to me," asked the king. "I will," said the mendicant, "but you must first come and live as I do for a few days, that I may be able to illustrate to you what I say."
The king agreed and followed the mendicant out of his own territory and passed through many other countries until they came to a great kingdom. In the capital of that kingdom a great ceremony was going on. The king and the mendicant heard the noise of drums and music. The people were assembled in the streets in gala dress, and a great proclamation was being made.
The king and the mendicant stood there to see what was going on. It turned out that the princess, daughter of the king of that country, was about to choose a husband from among those gathered before her. It was an old custom for princesses to choose husbands in this way.
All the princes of the neighbourhood had put on their bravest attire and presented themselves before her. The princess was taken round on a throne and looked at and heard about them. If she was not pleased with what she saw and heard, she said to her bearers, "Move on," and no more notice was taken of the rejected suitors. If, however, the princess was pleased with any one of them, she threw a garland of flowers over him and he became her husband. Such was the custom.
The princess was beautiful, and her husband would be ruler of the kingdom after her father's death. The princess thought she would marry the most handsome among her suitors, but she did not seem to care for anyone among those gathered. Just then came a young man, a mendicant, and stood in one corner of the assembly, watching what was going on. The throne with the princess came near him, and as soon as she saw the beautiful mendicant, she stopped and threw the garland over him.
The young mendicant seized the garland and threw it off, exclaiming, "What is this?"
The king of that country thought that perhaps this man was poor and so dared not marry the princess, and said to him, "With my daughter goes half my kingdom now, and the whole kingdom after my death!" and put the garland again on the mendicant.
The young man threw it off once more, saying, "He that can live sparingly, need not be rich, and the man who loafs, is living at all times. I don't feel inclinded to change my ways," and walked quickly away.
Now the princess had fallen so much in love with this young man that she said, "I must marry this man or perhaps die"; and she went after him to bring him back.
Then the mendicant who had brought the king there, said, "King, let us follow this pair." They walked after them, but at a good distance behind.
The young mendicant who had refused to marry the princess walked out into the country for several miles. When he came to a forest and entered into it, the princess followed him, and the other two followed them. Now this young mendicant was well acquainted with that forest and knew all the intricate paths in it. He suddenly passed into one of these and disappeared.
The princess could not discover him. After trying for a long time to find him she sat down under a tree and began to weep, for she did not know the way out. Then our king and the other mendicant came up to her and said,
"Do not weep; we will show you the way out of this forest, but it is too dark for us to find it now. Here is a big tree; let us rest under it, and in the morning we will go early and show you the road."
They passed the night without food, and in the morning the king and the mendicant showed the princess the way, and she went back to her father.
Then the mendicant said to the king, "King, if you want to live in the world, live like birds who go a long way to sacrifice themselves for their young. If you want to be a householder, hold your life a sacrifice for the welfare of dear ones. And if you choose the life of a mendicant, do not focus a lot on beauty and money and power and soap. The duty of the one is not the duty of all others."
[Retold. Vivekananda. Karma-Yoga.]