This will be an investigation to draw out
the potential implications of a curious motif in Chapter 101 of
Njal's Saga, and how it may relate to Havamal 126's warning
against Hodur [Loddfafnir] taking up the art of shoe-smithing.
I. Hodur the Shoe-Smith
(Ráðumk þér, Loddfáfnir,
en þú ráð nemir, -
njóta mundu, ef þú nemr,
þér munu góð, ef þú getr -:)
skósmiðr þú verir
nema þú sjálfum þér séir,
skór er skapaðr illa
eða skaft sé rangt,
þá er þér böls beðit.
"[I counsel you, Loddfafnir,
to take advice,
It will profit you, if you take it.
Do you good, if you get it —:]
Be not a shoemaker,
Nor a shaftmaker,
Unless for yourself it be,
for a shoe if ill-made
or a shaft if crooked,
will call down evil on you."
Viktor Rydberg comments:
"Thus Odin advises the young
Loddfafnir ... to make shafts (of arrows and spears)
for himself, if he can. He who makes these for
another or uses another's does himself harm, if the
shaft is defective."
—(Viktor Rydberg, William P. Reaves, tr.,
Investigations into Germanic Mythology, Volume
II, Part 2 : Germanic Mythology:
Towards the Baldur Myth)
But Rydberg leaves blank why Odin
would advise Hodur against being a "shoe-smith."
II. Baldur's Foot-Problems
However, on page 46 of the same text,
Rydberg says, "Saxo says that Baldur, before his death, became
weak-footed and was carried on a stretcher, instead of using his
wonderful horse, also known in the Danish tradition..."
That source, from Book Three of Saxo
Grammaticus' History of the Danes, as translated by Peter Fisher
in Hilda Ellis Davidson's edition, reads,
"Balder was incessantly tormented at
night by phantoms which ... caused him to fall into such an
unhealthy condition that he could not even walk properly.
For this reason he took to travelling in a chariot or
That same passage, as translated by Oliver
Elton , reads,
"Balder was continually harassed by
night phantoms feigning the likeness of Nanna, and fell into
such ill health that he could not so much as walk, and began
the habit of going his journeys in a two horse car or a
That he was tormented at night by phantoms
indicates that he was subjected to some form of sorcery. We know
there was a sorceress involved. Rydberg, op. cit, p. 64 :
"During a hunt, he [Hedin / Hodur] meets a sorceress who
solicits him, but is rejected. For revenge, she inspires the
evil thought in him to possess his brother's wife. That such
a meeting was also spoken of in the myth about Baldur and
Hodur is corroborated by what Saxo says of Hotherus, of what
Havamal relates in circumstances that shall be presented
below, by what Sorla Thattr says about Hedin's meeting with
Gandul, and by the myth about Hodur's Indo-European
Hodur and the Wood-Women
Of this latter, Rydberg says, op cit., p. 18,
"But Keresaspa, the hero so mighty in open battle,
nevertheless was unable to defend himself against the
demon-world's trickery. The prince of evil in the darkness
of the deep created a sorceress, a pairika,
Khnathaiti, beautiful in appearance, but the quintessence of
everything demonic and hostile to the world. In Vendidad, we
learn that she "attached herself to Keresaspa."
The Parsi tradition explains the expression as Keresaspa falling
in love with her beauty. He came under her influence.
Consequently, the old Indo-Iranian myth spoke of an event in
Keresaspa's life when he was "... degraded to a pawn in the
service of darkness." So the Sorceress who Hodur came under the
influence of was throwing nightmares and night-sicknesses at
Balder that made it so he could not walk.
The Second Merseburg Charm, as it reads in
Rydberg's text, op. cit., p. 45, says, in part :
Phol ende uuodan
uuorun zi holza.
du uuart demo balderes uolon
sin uuoz birenkit.
"Fol and Wotan
rode into the woods,
there the foot of Baldur's foal
went out of joint."
Rydberg comments, op. cit., p. 46, "...the
event can be ranked among the signs which foreboded Baldur's
death, according to the Norse mythic sources."
Rydberg cites a parallel charm derived
from the Merseburg, but later, and partially Christianized,
which reads, in part (Rydberg, op. cit. p. 50):
"... His foal's foot became sprained..."
So we have a myth of Baldur's horse's foot
becoming sprained. Rydberg says (op cit. p. 47), "...Sinhtgunt
rode closest to Baldur when the misfortune to his horse
occurred, and that for this reason she is named first among
those who seek to heal the injury; thereafter comes her sister,
then the pair of sisters, Frigg and Fulla, and finally Odin, who
as "galder's father" and possessor of the most powerful
incantations, succeeds in abolishing one of Jotunheim's ills
conjured by witchcraft, against which the goddesses'
galder-songs proved powerless."
The Healing of Baldur's Horse
Carl Emil Doepler Jr.
From Rydberg's standpoint, the Merseburg
charm points to powerful sorcery coming out of Jotunheim being
aimed at Baldur, and injuring his horse's foot.
In comparing Baldur to the saint
Stephanus, Rydberg (op cit., p.56) says, "The Ballad of Steffan
relates how Stephanus waters the horse he rides and four others
by a "spring", while the stars still twinkle. This
watering-ceremony is the ballad's actual subject. Baldur is the
defender of springs and wells. Springs rise up under his horse's
hooves and wells are called by his name."
Saxo, Book Three (Peter Fisher, tr.) tells
us that "The victorious Balder, wishing to provide water as due
refreshment for his thirsty soldiers, bored deep into the earth
and discovered underground springs. From every direction the
parched troops made for the gushing rills with parted lips. The
site is confirmed by a permanent name..."
It is directly thereafter that it is
mentioned that Baldur is so tormented by phantoms that he was
unable to walk.
The Ballad of St. Steffan (Rydberg, op
cit., p. 54) also says,
"Steffan rides to the well --
... He scoops out water with the ladle..."
-- just as Baldur bored into the earth to
bring up water for his troops in Saxo.
Rydberg in Investigations into Germanic
Mythology, Volume I, Chapter 92, says, "In the Danish popular
traditions Baldur's horse had the ability to produce fountains
by tramping on the ground, and Baldur's fountain in Seeland is
said to have originated in this manner (cp. P. E. Muller on
Saxo, Hist., 120)." He also says, same chapter, "I now return to
the Merseburg formula: "Falr and Odin went to the wood, Then the
foot was sprained of Balder's foal". With what here is said
about Baldur's steed, we must compare what Saxo relates about
Baldur himself: Adeo in adversam corporis valetudinem
incidit, ut ni pedibus quidem, incedere posset (Book III).
The misfortune which happened first to Baldur and then to
Baldur's horse must be counted among the warnings which
foreboded the death of the son of Odin."
So we have something happening to Balder's
foot, and to the foot of Balder's horse.
Both people and horses wear shoes. We are
back at shoes.
Before we leave this sub-topic, let us
note some converging motifs :
Baldur, on a horse, exposes subterranean,
deep-earth springs which rise up from the chasms beneath the
soil. Then, assailed by sorcery, his horse stumbles and sprains
his foot, so deeply that only Odin can heal it, and
subsequently, Balder himself is unable to walk.
Rydberg, in Volume II of his opus, has
more to tell us. While drawing out the Baldur-motifs beneath the
Olaf Geirstadaalf-palimpsest, he translates a verse from
Flateyjarbok : (and here let us understand that Baldur stands in
for where it says "Olaf") :
"Olaf ruled Upsi in times past, widely
famous ... until a foot-disease by Fold's shore caused the death
of the battle-dealer." (Rydberg,
Volume II, p. 67.)
Rydberg comments, "What this verse says is
that Olaf ... was the "gods' equal" and a brave warrior, that
"foot-ache became the death of him" ... the "gods' equal" in
question met his death via a foot-injury. Among the gods, only
one exists about whom the story is told that some time before
his death he was attacked by a disease. This god is Baldur. We
may remind ourselves what Saxo says of him: that he fell so ill
that ne pedibus quidem incedere posset... "he could not
so much as walk"..." (Ibid, p. 68.)
We have here a mythological reference to
Baldur being attacked by a foot-disease by the shores, again, an
association with water.
|III. The Motif in Njal's
Chapter 101 of Njal's Saga has an incident which
may relate to everything we have discussed above.
The relevant portion of the chapter reads,
"There was a man called Hedin the Sorcerer, who lived at
Kerlingardal. The heathens there paid him to put Thangbrand
and his companions to death, and he went up to Arnarstakk
heath and performed a great sacrifice there. Then, when
Thangbrand was riding from the east, the earth split open
under his horse; he leaped off the horse and managed to
climb up to the rim of the chasm, but the earth swallowed up
his horse with all its gear, and they never saw it again.
Then Thangbrand gave praise to God."
—(from Vidar Hreinsson, ed., The
Complete Sagas of Icelanders, Volume III, Leifur Eiriksson
Publishing, Reykjavik, Iceland, 1997, p. 123.)
Apparently Thangbrand praises God for the fact that he himself
was not swallowed up.
In the next chapter, Chapter 102, Thangbrand the Missionary
kills a poet named Veturlidi, and there is a poem composed about
it. Rydberg treats of this poem in his second volume, and points
out that the poem refers to Baldur and Hodur. It is curious that
we have an association of Baldur and Hodur here.
Chapter 102 poem reads, "The tester of the sword, the shield's
Baldur (that is to say one of the two missionaries Thangbrand
and Gudleif) in the land held the victory tools (ie., the cross,
the baptismal font, and other religious objects) in the
prayer-bed's workplace (ie. the place where the prayer and
sacred duty are held). Thereafter the quick tester of belief
(the second of the two missionaries), Hodur of the din of
battle, broke the death-hammer on the hat-stand (ie. the head)
of the skald Veturlidi." (Rydberg,
Volume II, pp. 87 - 88.)
A more recent translation of this verse by Robert Cook
Ryðfjónar gekk reynir
randa suðr á landi
beðs í bæna smiðju
Baldrs sigtólum halda.
Siðreynir lét síðan
snjallr morðhamar gjalla
hauðrs í hattar steðja
hjaldrs Vetrliða skaldi.
The tester of shields
took his victory-tools south
to smite the Balder of weapons
in his smithy of prayers.
The brave battler for faith
brought down with a clang
his axe of awful death
on the anvil of Veterlidi's head.
"The idea receives its poetic clothing in the usual manner: by
referring to well-known mythological persons and circumstances.
The one missionary, he who used the religious "victory-tools" is
likened to Baldur; the other missionary, who utilizes the
violent weapon and kills the heathen skald is likened to Hodur (hauðr),
who in the myth was portrayed as passionate and quick to act ...
The workplace of the missionary likened to Baldur is "the prayer
bed's workplace". The one belonging to missionary likened to
Hodur is a smithy in which he is depicted standing, hammer in
hand, and letting it come down on the anvil, which is
Veturlidi's head ... Like the peaceful Baldur holds tools in the
bed's workplace (where women in labor work), so the warlike
Baldur (the missionary, Thangbrand, spoken of in Heimskringla as
"very violent and murderous man") holds victory-tools in the
prayer bed's workplace (i.e. the place where Christian worship
is conducted). And like Hodur lets the hammer break on the anvil
(so that it sinks down into the earth), so Hodur of the quick
tester of faith (the second missionary, also a man of violence)
lets the death-hammer break on the skald Veturlidi's hat-stand
(his head, so that he sinks in death)." (Ibid, p. 88)
In other words, in the poem, Thangbrand is being compared to
Baldur (and Gudleif to Hodur).
This is significant, because we can see that in the passage in
the previous chapter, Chapter 101, Thangbrand the Missionary
suffers something quite akin to the motifs we have been
1. He is assailed by sorcery.
2. That sorcery is associated with someone named Hedin (Hodur),
who goes into a heath or forest.
3. The sorcery causes his horse to fall.
4. This is connected with an opening up of the chasms of the
earth. (In Chapter 104, we read, "Thangbrand told King Olaf how
badly the Icelanders had treated him, and said they were such
sorcerers that the earth burst open under his horse and
swallowed it up.") (Hreinsson, op. cit., p. 127)
We note that Thangbrand had to leap off his horse to climb up
the rim of the cavern. Given the cataclysmic nature of the earth
opening beneath him, could he --- or his mythological
predecessor behind this saga-allusion --- have sprained or
injured his own foot in so doing, so that he could not walk?
It seems no coincidence that two contiguous chapters associate
Thangbrand with the myth of Baldur and Hodur.
I suggest that the passage from Chapter 101 of Njal's Saga is in
fact a direct mythological reference or allusion to the
Baldur-Hodur myth, and the relevant information that it yields
to us is that Hodur was behind the sorcery that led Balder's
horse to fall, become sprained, and for Balder himself to be
unable to walk due to a foot-injury. That is important
|IV. Putting the Pieces
How was Hodur connected to this?
We cannot be certain, but we do know that Odin's warnings in
Havamal's Loddfafnismal are not for nothing. Every one of them
pertains to predictions regarding Hodur that will lead to his
doom, and therefore refer to actual mythological events that
occurred. We know for certain that Hodur's shaftmakings led to
Baldur's death; and so we must assume that his shoe-smithing led
to similar calamity when the shoes he made were ill-made. These,
like the shafts, were not made for or by himself, but for
someone else and by someone else. Hodur has failed to make his
own arrows or shoes, and Baldur is the victim of this.
We must assume that Hodur in some way ended up either shoeing
Baldur's horse or shoeing Baldur himself. Since the sorcery of
"Hedin the Sorcerer" in Book 101 of Njal's Saga directly targets
Thangbrand's horse, perhaps we ought to assume that Hodur ended
up shoeing Baldur's horse, which led to the horse falling,
getting sprained, and Baldur, in leaping off, was himself
injured in the foot. The horse-shoes, therefore, were ill
charmed (skapaðr illa); and since Rydberg supplies us
with the identity of the sorceress behind Hodur's folly, we can
assume they were ill-charmed by Gullveig herself. (We ought note
that "skapa" does not only mean to "shape" or "make";
it also has a strong connotation of assigning destiny, which
implies a fate-power or magic. When the shoes were ill-shaped,
we can assume sorcery here.)
Did the ancients have horse-shoes? "Mention of an iron horseshoe
is made by Appian, a writer not indeed remarkable for accuracy;
but the phrase "brasen-footed steeds," which occurs in Homer's
Iliad, is regarded by commentators as a metaphorical expression
for strength and endurance. Wrappings of plaited fibre, as hemp
or broom, were used by the ancients to protect the feet of
horses. But the most common form of foot covering for animals
appears to have been a kind of leathern sock or sandal, which
was sometimes provided with an iron sole. This covering was
fastened around the fetlocks by means of thongs, and could be
easily removed. Iron horse-shoes of peculiar form, which have
been exhumed in Great Britain of recent years, have been objects
of much interest to archaeologists. In 1878 a number of such
relics shaped for the hoof and pierced for nails were found at a
place called Caesar's Camp, near Folkstone, England. In the
south of Scotland, also, ancient horse-shoes have been found,
consisting of a solid piece of iron made to cover the whole hoof
and very heavy." (Robert Means Lawrence, M.D., The Magic of the
Horse-Shoe, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston and New York,
1898, Chapter 1.)
Lawrence's text also says, "The practical value of the
horse-shoe is tersely expressed in the old German saying, "A
nail preserves a country;" for the nail keeps in place the
horse-shoe, the shoe protects the foot of the horse, the horse
carries the knight, the knight holds the castle, and the castle
defends the country." This interpretation of the German proverb
is very interesting, and perhaps the following Germanic
fairy-tale can elucidate for us.
Grimm's Fairy Tale # 184, "The Nail", would seem to relate to
our inquiry :
"A merchant had done a good business at the fair; he had sold
his wares and lined his money-bags with gold and silver. Then he
wanted to travel homeward and be in his house before nightfall.
So he packed his trunk with the money on his horse and rode
away. At noon he rested in a town, and when he wanted to go
farther the stable-boy brought out his horse and said: "A nail
is wanting, sir, in the shoe of its left hind foot." "Let it be
wanting," answered the merchant; "the shoe will certainly stay
on for the six miles I have still to go; I am in a hurry," In
the afternoon, when he once more alighted and had his horse fed,
the stable-boy went to him and said, "Sir, a shoe is missing
from your horse's left hind foot; shall I take him to the
blacksmith?" "Let it still be wanting," answered the man, "the
horse can very well hold out for the couple of miles which
remain; I am in haste." He rode forth, but before long the horse
began to limp. It had not limped long before it began to
stumble, and it had not stumbled Iong before it fell down and
broke its leg. The merchant was forced to leave the horse where
it was, and unbuckle the trunk, take it on his back, and go home
on foot. And there he did not arrive until quite late at night.
"And that unlucky nail," said he to himself, "has caused all
this disaster." Hasten slowly."
Note that we have a horse, whose shoe was ill-made, and because
of this, the horse was made to stumble, and it was all because
of the nail missing in the shoe.
Let us note that this story informs us that it was blacksmiths
who made horse-shoes, because they involved nails, and remember
that Hodur was trained by Mimir as a smith. If it was the nail
that was faulty in the horse-shoe that Hodur perhaps made for
Baldur, it would have a symmetry with the dart that he threw at
Chapter II of The Magic of the Horse-Shoe says, "As a practical
device for the protection of horses' feet, the utility of the
iron horse-shoe has long been generally recognized; and for
centuries, in countries widely separated, it has also been
popularly used as a talisman for the preservation of buildings
or premises from the wiles of witches and fiends."
In other words, a horseshoe that has been made correctly is a
protection against the evil of witches and sorcery. But that
implies that one that is ill-shaped will not carry out the same
Lawrence continues, in the same chapter, "Among the Romans there
prevailed a custom of driving nails into cottage walls as an
antidote against the plague." In other words, a nail itself can
be protective. There are many folk customs about an iron nail
protecting against sorcery.
Our Grimm's tale has one of the nails missing from the horse's
Baldur is later killed by a dart, arrow-head, or nail that has
Could Hodur, bewitched by Gullveig, and in a daze, have
forgotten to put in one of the nails that made the horse-shoe a
magical talisman against sorcery, thus exposing Baldur to
injury; and could Gullveig have taken this nail and used it to
fashion the arrowhead of the arrow whose shaft was made of
— Carla O'Harris
When Did the
Events in the Merseburg Charm
Occur in the Mythic Cycle?