Laxdæla Saga, an Icelandic saga written in the middle
of the 13th century, informs us that Ólafur Pái (Olaf the
Peacock), built a magnificent hall on his farmstead in the
Laxardal Valley in western Iceland, around the year AD 985,
when that land was yet a heathen nation:
In the spring Olaf took over
the farm at Goddastadir ... Olaf soon had no lack of
supporters and became an important chieftain. ...Olaf's farm
was soon the most impressive in the Laxardal valley. ...The
lands which Hrapp had owned were deserted, as was previously
written. Olaf thought this a likely piece of land, as it
bordered on his own, and suggested to his father that they
pay a visit to Thorkel Scarf to purchase the land at
Hrappsstadir and other property connected to it. Their offer
was readily accepted and the purchase concluded.
...The lands included large stretches of prime
pasture and plenty of other benefits, including salmon
fishing and seal hunting, and large forests as well.
A short distance upriver from Hoskuldsstadir, on the north
side of the Laxa, a grove had been cleared in the forest.
Olaf's sheep could, more often than not, be found grouped in
this clearing in both fair weather and foul. One autumn Olaf
had a house built in this same clearing, using wood from the
forest as well as driftwood. The large and imposing house
stood empty the first winter.
The following summer Olaf moved his household there,
after having rounded up his stock beforehand. This was no
small herd, as no one in the Breidafjord district owned more
livestock. Olaf sent a request that his father stand outside
where he could watch them go by on their way to the new farm
and wish them good fortune, and Hoskuld agreed. Olaf then
organised the procession: the men at the front drove the
sheep who were most difficult to handle. Next came the
milking ewes and cattle from the home pastures, followed by
steers, calves and heifers, with the packhorses bringing up
...The farmhands had
just finished taking the packs off the horses when Olaf rode
into the yard. He addressed his household: "You must be
curious to know what the farm is to be called, and I know
there has been a lot of speculation about it all winter. It
shall be called Hjardarholt (Herd Wood)." Everyone thought
it a very good idea to take a name linked to the events
which had occurred on the site. Olaf set about building up
his farm at Hjardarholt, and the farm was soon an impressive
one, lacking nothing. During the first winter in Hjardarholt
Olaf had a large number of resident servants and other
farmhands. The farm chores were divided among the servants:
some looked after the non-milking stock, others the milking
cows. The cowshed was located in the forest some distance
away from the farmhouse.
That summer Olaf had a fire-hall (eld-hús)
built at Hjardarholt which was larger and grander than men
had ever seen before. On the wood of the gable, and the
rafters, decorative tales were carved. It was so well
crafted that it was thought more ornamental without the
tapestries than with them.
was then engaged to (Olaf's daughter) Thurid and their
wedding held later that winter at Hjardarholt.
great number of people attended the feast as the fire-hall
was fully built by that time. Among the guests was a poet,
Ulfur Uggason, who had composed a poem about Olaf Hoskuldsson
and the tales carved on the wood of the fire-hall which he
recited at the feast. It is called "House
and is a fine piece of verse. Olaf rewarded him well for the
poem, and gave all the important people who attended the
feast fine gifts, gaining considerable respect as a result.
Translated by Keneva Kunz, Complete Sagas of the
Icelanders, Vol. V (1997)
Example of an eld-hús, or feasting hall, based on the
hall at Ströng
Complete Sagas of the Icelanders
Vol V (1997)
Fragments of the poem Husdrápa have been preserved in
Snorri Sturluson's Edda, as well as a couple of short prose
passages, allowing us to know the themes of the "decorative
tales" carved on
the gables and rafters of the hall. The surviving verses, 11 in all,
inform us that mythological tales decorated the interior of the
hall: particularly scenes from the Baldur myth,
Thor's fishing for the Midgard-serpent, and the otherwise
unknown story of Heimdall's battle
at sea with Loki for Freyja's Brisingamen necklace.
Regarding the latter tale, Snorri writes in Skáldskaparmál 15
(Anthony Faulkes' tr.  and
Heimdallr er eigandi Gulltopps. Hann er ok
tilsækir Vágaskers ok Singasteins. Þá deilði hann við
Loka um Brísingamen. Hann heitir ok Vindlér. Úlfr
Uggason kvað í Húsdrápu langa stund eftir þeiri frásögu,
ok er þess þar getit, at þeir váru í selalíkjum. Hann er
ok sonr Óðins.
|Heimdall is the
owner of Gulltop. He is also a visitor to Vagasker and
Singastein; on that occasion he contended with Loki for
the Brisingamen. He is also known as Vindhler.
Ulfur Uggason composed a long passage in Husdrapa based on
this story, and it is mentioned there that they were in
the form of seals.
Snorri cites but a single verse from that "long passage" (langa
stund) of Húsdrápa in Skáldskaparmál 23:
64. Ráðgenginn bregðr ragna
rein at Singasteini
frægr við firnaslægjan
Fárbauta mög vári;
móðöflugr ræðr mæðra
mögr hafnýra fögru,
kynni ek, áðr ok einnar
átta, mærðar þáttum.
[Heimdall] of the powers' way [Bifrost], kind of
counsel, competes with Farbauti's terribly sly son
[Loki] at Singasteinn. Son of eight mothers plus one
[Heimdall], mighty of mood, is first to get hold of the
beautiful sea-kidney [jewel, Brisingamen]. I announce it
in strands of praise.
Unfortunately, the details of this mythic event have been lost
to us. Nothing more is known of it. Snorri provides no
additional information and
it is not referred to in any of the Eddic poems perserved into
our time. Fortunately, the same cannot be said of the reminder
of Húsdrápa's few surviving verses.
Another sequence of verses in Húsdrápa, corresponding to
carved images on the interior of the hall at Hjardarholt,
concerns Thor's fishing expedition in the giant Hymir's boat for the Midgard serpent.
Of interest, this
is the only account which claims that Thor dealt the serpent a
These verses include 54, 55, and 56 of Skáldskaparmál,
as well as 210, which is repeated again at 316. In Manuscripts R
and W, verse 54 is attributed to the poet Bragi. It is
attributed to Ulfur Uggason in U; both verse and attribution are
lacking in T. The subject, as noted, concerns Thor's fishing:
Because this is the only verse which claims that
Thor dealt the serpent a lethal blow, striking the head from the
snake, we should consider the
context of its composition. The final line of verse 56,
hlaut innan svá minnum, clearly
indicates that the poet is describing images he sees carved on
the gables or rafters "within" the hall at Hjardarholt.
His purpose was not to accurately recount the events of the myth, but rather to
carved representation of the myth, depicted in two-dimensional form. One
imagines a carving showing Thor powerfully striking the
serpent's head, perhaps even showing the head of the snake
seperated from its body upon impact to emphasize Thor's great strength.
210. En stirðþinull starði
storðar leggs fyr borði
fróns á folka reyni
fránleitr ok blés eitri.
sharp-looking stiff earth-rope [Midgard serpent] stared
over the gunwale at the
country-bone-[rock]folk's[giant's] rowan [Thor] and blew
Þjokkvöxnum kvaðsk þykkja
hafra njóts at höfgum
built stumpy one [Hymir] is said to have thought
tremendous danger in the goat-possessor's [Thor's]
*Anthony Faulkes (Edda: Skáldskaparmál I, p. 165)
remarks, "in spite of the attribution [of this
verse] to Bragi, this is
thought to be more likely part of Úlfr Uggason's
Húsdrápa, ... It relates to the story told in Gylfaginning ch. 48,
like several verses in Ragnarsdrápa, so the attribution
in R and W, is an understandable error." In Arthur
Gilchrist Brodeur's translation of
Skáldskaparmál (1916), the verse is attributed to Úlfr Uggason.
55. Fullöflugr lét fellir
fjall-Gauts hnefa skjalla,
rammt mein var þat, reyni
reyrar leggs við eyra.
mighty fell-Gaut's [giant's] feller [Thor] made his fist
crash on the reed-bed-bone [rock] frequenter's [giant's]
ear. A mighty hurt was that.
56. Víðgymnir laust Vimrar
vaðs af fránum naðri
hlusta grunn við hrönnum.
Hlaut innan svá minnum.
Vimur's fjord (Thor, according to
Snorri in Skáldskaparmál 12) struck the ear-bed
[head] from the shining snake by the waves. Within have
appeared these motifs.
Because the myth of Ragnarök, wherein Thor faces the
Midgard-Serpent in a true death-match at the end of time, is retold in the
Völuspá (preserved in two independant manuscripts
and cited extensively by Snorri), it is unlikely that a variant version
of the tale about Thor's fishing for the Midgard serpent,
current in Iceland around AD 985, would have told the story in this manner. In fact, the statement that Thor
dealt the serpent a death-blow on that occasion is so contrary to
we know of Thor's first battle with the serpent, that Snorri
himself felt the need to correct it in Gylfaginning 48.
The Eddic poem
Hymiskviða provides the clearest account of the event.
There is no evidence that Snorri (writing in 1280 AD) knew the
story, as it was told there.
Instead, he tells a different version of events in Gylfaginning 48,
where he states:
What immediately strikes us in this portion of Snorri's account
is the similarity of the words and expressions he chooses to
those of Húsdrápa. This
statement, when compared to the surviving verses of that poem
quoted in Skáldskaparmál, make it likely that
Húsdrápa was the source of Snorri's information about
this mythological event. Therefore, the entire
myth of Thor's fishing trip with Hymir was probably not only carved into the
hall at Hjardarholt, but also fully related in Úlfr Uggason's poem.
This may account for the differences between Gylfaginning's
version and Hymiskviða's.
Miðgarðsormr gein yfir oxahöfuðit en öngullinn vá í
góminn orminum. En er ormrinn kendi þess, brá hann við
svá hart at báðir hnefar Þórs skullu út á borðinu. Þá
varð Þórr reiðr ok fœrðisk í ásmegin, spyrndi við
fast at hann hljóp báðum fótum gögnum skipit ok spyrndi
við grunni, dró þá orminn upp at borði. En þat má segja
at engi hefir sá sét ógurligar sjónir, er eigi mátti þat
sjá er Þórr hvesti augun á orminn en ormrinn starði
neðan í mót ok blés eitrinu.
Þá er sagt at jötunninn Hymir [Ymir in U and W mss.]
gerðisk litverpr, fölnaði ok hræddisk er hann sá orminn
ok þat er særinn fell út ok inn of nökkvann. Ok í því
bili er Þórr greip hamarinn ok fœrði á lopt, þá fálmaði
jötunninn til agnsaxinu ok hjó vað Þórs af borði, en
ormrinn søktisk í sæinn. En Þórr kastaði hamrinum eptir
honum, ok segja menn at hann lysti af honum höfuðit við
grunninum, en ek hygg hitt vera þér satt at segja at
Miðgarðsormr lifir enn ok liggr í umsjá.
serpent stretched its mouth round the ox-head and the
hook stuck into the roof of the serpent's mouth. And
when the serpent felt this, it jerked away so hard that
both Thor's fists banged down on the gunwale. Then Thor
got angry and summoned up his As-strength, pushed down
so hard that he forced both feet through the boat and
braced them against the sea-bed, and then hauled the
serpent up to the gunwale. And one can claim that a
person does not know what a horrible sight is who did
not get to see how Thor fixed his eyes on the serpent,
and the serpent stared back up at him spitting poison.
It is said that then the giant Hymir
[called 'Ymir' in the
U and W mss. of Snorri's Edda] changed
colour, went pale, and panicked when he saw the serpent
and how the sea flowed out and in over the boat. And
just at the moment when Thor was grasping his hammer and
lifting it in the air, the giant fumbled at his
bait-knife and cut Thor's line from the gunwale, and the
serpent sank into the sea. But Thor threw his hammer
after it, and they say that he struck off its head by
the sea-bed. But I think in fact the contrary is correct
to report to you that the Midgard serpent lives still
and lies in the encircling sea.
A third mythic sequence found in Húsdrápa, and therefore also
the hall at Hjardarholt, had the Baldur myth as its subject. The
poem's few surviving Baldur-verses most likely represent a small
portion of what the poem once had to say about him, and
specifically describe events surrounding his funeral procession
and cremation. We know this, because in
Skáldskaparmál 12, Snorri says:
Hvernig skal kenna Baldr? Svá, at kalla hann
son Óðins ok Friggjar, ver Nönnu, faðir Forseta, eigandi
Hringhorna ok Draupnis, dólgr Haðar, Heljar sinni,
Gráta-goð. Úlfr Uggason hefir kveðit eftir sögu Baldrs
langt skeið í Húsdrápu, ok ritat er áðr dæmi til þess,
er Baldr er svá kenndr.
Baldr be referred to? By calling him son of Odin and
Frigg, husband of Nanna, father of Forseti, owner of
Hringhorn and Draupnir, enemy of Hod, Hel's companion,
god of lamentations. Ulfur Uggason composed a long passage
in Húsdrapa based on the story of Baldr, and an account
of the events which were the origin of Baldr's being
referred to on this way was written above (i.e. in
Of the "long passage in Húsdrápa" (langt skeið í
Húsdrápu) concerning the story of Baldur, Snorri cites only
five verses, scattered throughout Skáldskaparmál. The rest have been
8. Ríðr at vilgi víðu
víðfrægr, en mér líða,
Hroftatýr, of hváfta
hróðrmál, sonar báli.
Hropta-tyr [Odin] rides to the mighty broad pyre of his
son, and from my jaws flow words of praise.
14. Þar hykk sigrunni svinnum
sylgs valkyrjur fylgja
heilags tafns ok hrafna.
Hlaut innan svá minnum.
There I perceive valkyries and ravens
accompanying the wise victory-tree [Odin] to the drink
of the holy offering [Baldr's funeral feast]. Within
have appeared these motifs.
19. Kostigr ríðr at kesti,
kynfróðs, þeim er goð hlóðu,
Heimdallr, at mög fallinn.
Splendid Heimdall rides to the pyre raised by
the gods for the fallen son [Baldr] of the strangely
wise raven-tester [Odin] on his horse.
63. Ríðr á börg til borgar
böðfróðr sonar Óðins
Freyr ok folkum stýrir
fyrstr inum gulli byrsta.
Battle-skilled Freyr rides in front to Odin's son
[Baldr's] pyre on golden-bristled boar and governs
As indicated, Snorri himself recounts the events
surrounding Baldur's death in Gylfaginning 49. It should be
noted that this follows his account of Thor's fishing in Gylfaginning 48. Not surprisingly, the specific
details of the myth concerning Baldur's death, as provided by
Snorri, again correspond with the exact wording of what's left of
Húsdrápa, making it likely that this poem was Snorri's
primary source of
information for these events as well. In fact, we might rightly
suspect that all of the events told in Gylfaginning 48 and 49
are underwritten by Ulfur Uggason's Húsdrápa. Reflecting the
wording of Ulf's poem, in Gylfaginning 49, Snorri writes:
Another surviving verse of Húsdrapa deals with the
giantess Hyrrokkin, who launched Baldur's ship, apparently
after Thor's famous
strength had failed:
At þessari brennu sókti margs konar þjóð:
fyrst at segja frá Óðni, at með honum fór Frigg ok
valkyrjur ok hrafnar hans. En Freyr ók ok í kerru með
gelti þeim er Gullinbursti heitir. En Heimdallr reið
hesti þeim er Gulltoppr heitir, en Freyja ók köttum
burning [of Baldr] was attended by beings of many different kinds:
firstly to tell of Odin, that with him went Frigg and
valkyries and his ravens, while Freyr drove in a chariot
with a boar called Gullinbursti or Slidrugtanni. But
Heimdall rode a horse called Gulltopp, and Freyja her
180. Fullöflug lét fjalla
fram haf-Sleipni þramma
Hildr, en Hrofts of gildar
hjalmelda mar felldu.
|The most powerful
mountain-Hild [giantess] made the sea-Sleipnir [ship]
lumber forward, while Hropt's [Odin's]
helmet-fire-power-investors [beserkers] felled her
Of the giantess Hyrrokkin, Snorri writes in
The vivid visual nature of this account is striking. The scene
is described in such detail, we can almost see it. Again, the
account by Snorri (where it is possible to compare)
corresponds precisely with that found in Húsdrápa. Might
Húsdrapa be Snorri's primary source for the entire Baldur myth,
as told in Gylfaginning 49? Is
it possible to learn what the "long passage in Húsdrapa based
on the story of Baldr" (eftir sögu Baldrs langt skeið í
Húsdrápu), referred to by Snorri in Skáldskaparmál 12,
originally contained? These are questions which have been asked
before, abeit in a different form.
En æsirnir tóku lík Baldrs ok fluttu til
sævar. Hringhorni hét skip Baldrs. Hann var allra skipa
mestr, hann vildu goðin fram setja ok gera þar á bálför
Baldrs. En skipit gekk hvergi fram. Þá var sent í
Jötunheima eptir gýgi þeiri er Hyrrokkin hét, en er hon
kom ok reið vargi ok hafði höggorm at taumum, þá hljóp
hon af hestinum, en Óðinn kallaði til berserki fjóra at
gæta hestsins, ok fengu þeir eigi haldit nema þeir feldi
hann. Þá gekk Hyrokkin á framstafn nökkvans ok hratt
fram í fyrsta viðbragði, svá at eldr hraut ór hlunnunum
ok lönd öll skulfu. Þá varð Þórr reiðr ok greip hamarinn
ok myndi þá brjóta höfuð hennar, áðr en goðin öll báðu
|So the Æsir
took Baldr's body and carried it to the sea. Hringhorni
was the name of Baldr's ship. It was the biggest of all
ships. This the Æsir planned to launch and perform on it
Baldr's funeral. But the ship refused to move. So they
sent to Giantland for a giantess called Hyrrokkin. And
when she arrived, riding a wolf and using vipers as
reins, she dismounted from her steed, and Odin summoned
four berserks to look after the mount, and they were
unable to hold it without knocking it down. Then
Hyrrokkin went to the prow of the boat and pushed it out
with the first touch so that flame flew from the rollers
and all lands quaked. Then Thor became angry and grasped
his hammer and was about to smash her head until all the
gods begged for grace for her.
Concerning another element of Snorri's Baldur myth, Christopher
Abram (Author of Myths of the Pagan North), in a
preprint paper for the 13th International Saga Conference,
In the aftermath of Baldr's
funeral, Hermóðr rides to Hel, the Norse underworld
realm of the dead, to bargain with a mythological being
(also named Hel) for the release and return of the
innocent god whose death has been accomplished by Loki's
treachery. His mission is unsuccessful, as Loki's
further machinations prevent the fulfilment of Hel's
conditions for Baldr's release: every living thing must
weep for him, and the giantess Þökk (probably Loki in
disguise) refuses. It is a well known story from the
main eschatological cycle of Norse myth, spanning the
period between Baldr's death and Loki's binding, the
event that precedes, even if it does not immediately
precipitate, the beginning of Ragnarök.
For all its apparent importance to
the mythology as a whole, however, the ride is found in
but one text: Snorri Sturluson's Gylfaginning. Snorri's
principal model for the temporal progression of mythic
history, Völuspá, moves straight from Baldr's death to
Loki's binding, as the gods attempt to gain revenge
without the intermediate step of attempting to reverse
the effects of the dire blow that has been struck
against them. Völuspá does not narrate Hermóðr's
hel-reið. Neither that poem nor any other text from the
Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda even mentions Hermóðr.
Snorri clearly thought the story was worth telling,
without its belonging to any of his most authoritative
poetic sources. The purpose of this paper is to inquire
as to where, and how, Snorri might have obtained his
version of the Hermóðr-myth.
...The first possible explanation
of the origin of Snorri's Hermóðr-narrative is that he
had available to him a source that has been lost to us:
presumably this source would have been a poem
in an eddic metre. Many scholars have accepted the
existence of this lost poetic archetype of the myth
(e.g. de Vries, 1955), some going so far as to give it a
title — it has been called för Hermóðs by
Magnus Olsen (1924, 151), *Baldrskviða by
Richard Dieterle (1986, 302) and Hermods Helfahrt
by Franz Rolf Schröder (1924, 97-99) — or to attempt its
partial or complete reconstruction (Bugge, 1881, 48;
Schröder, 1924, 99). Dieterle has summed up the opinion
of this school of thought: "the myth [of Baldr as Snorri
tells it] belongs within the elder Eddic tradition, and
is in fact a non-innovative and rather close translation
of an earlier poem (Dieterle, 1986, 291).
...The evidence [...] in favour of
the existence of a complete poetic för Hermóðs is
primarily stylistic, and focuses on alliteration in
Snorri's prose. ...John Lindow was sufficiently
impressed by the poetic force of the phrase døkkva
dala ok djúpa to state that this stylistic feature
`suggest[s] an underlying and presumably older eddic
lay' (Lindow, 1997, 117). Dieterle (1986, 293) also
identified the phrase Vex viðar-teinungr einn fyrir
vestan Valhöll (Gylfaginning, 45) as having been
borrowed directly from the beginning of his
...[V]ery little is known for certain about the
pre-history of the textual transmission of this type of
neither Snorri nor the compiler of the Codex Regius
poems can be assumed to have had access to the totality
of eddic verse; we do not know from what texts
or traditions either author was able to select, and so
we do not know how selective each has been and how much
he has omitted.
The frequency of the references to Húsdrápa found throughout
Skáldskaparmál, and their exact correspondance to specific
passages in Gylfaginning inform us that Snorri likely knew the
poem Húsdrápa complete and used it as one of his primary
sources. From internal evidence found in Gylfaginning and
Skáldskaparmál, it is evident that Snorri used only a handful of
the known mythological poems of the Edda as sources (among them Völuspá,
Grímnismál, Lokasenna, Vafþrúðnismál and the heroic poem
Fafnismál), and relied heavily on the more enigmatic skaldic
poems such as þórsdrápa, Haustlöng, and Húsdrápa which are
more difficult to interpret. Likewise, we have strong internal
and external evidence that Snorri had no knowledge of several of
the surviving Eddic poems, among others Hymiskvida,
Harbardsljóð, Hávamál, Alvismál and Rigsþula. Thus, it is
instructive to our study of the Old Norse religion to determine
what sources Snorri used when compiling his Edda. With this in
mind, let's take a closer look at Snorri's presentation of the
Baldur myth in Gylfaginning 49.
Húsdrápa, as the Source of Snorri's Baldur Myth
Of Baldur’s death and funeral pyre, Gylfaginning 49 relates the
En er þetta var gert ok vitat, þá var þat
skemtun Baldrs ok ásanna at hann skyldi standa upp á
þingum, en allir aðrir skyldu sumir skjóta á hann, sumir
höggva til, sumir berja grjóti. En hvat sem at var gert,
sakaði hann ekki, ok þótti þetta öllum mikill frami.
En er þetta sá Loki Laufeyjarson, þá líkaði honum illa
er Baldr sakaði ekki. Hann gekk til Fensalar til
Friggjar ok brá sér í konu líki. Þá spyrr Frigg ef sú
kona vissi hvat æsir höfðusk at á þinginu. Hon sagði at
allir skutu at Baldri, ok þat at hann sakaði ekki. Þá
mælti Frigg: "Eigi munu vápn eða viðir granda Baldri.
Eiða hefi ek þegit af öllum þeim."
became known to all that nothing could harm Baldur, it
became a pastime for Baldur and the Aesir that he should
stand up at the thingstead and all the others would
either shoot at him, hew, or throw stones. But whatever
one did to him, he remained unharmed, and they all
thought that this was a great honor. When Loki, Laufey’s
son saw this, it annoyed him that Baldur was not hurt.
He went to Fensalir and Frigg and transformed himself
into the guise of a woman, whom Frigg asked if she knew
what the Aesir were doing at the Thing. She replied that
they all shoot at Baldur without causing him injury.
Frigg then said “Neither weapon nor wood harms Baldur,
because I have taken oaths from them all.”
Þá spyrr konan: "Hafa allir hlutir eiða unnit
at eira Baldri?"
Þá svarar Frigg: "Vex viðarteinungr einn fyrir vestan
Valhöll, sá er mistilteinn kallaðr. Sá þótti mér ungr at
krefja eiðsins." Því næst hvarf konan á brut.
En Loki tók mistiltein ok sleit upp ok gekk til þings.
En Höðr stóð útarliga í mannhringinum, þvíat hann var
blindr. Þá mælti Loki við hann: "Hví skýtr þú ekki at
Baldri?" Hann svarar: "Þvíat ek sé eigi hvar Baldr er,
ok þat annat at ek em vápnlauss." Þá mælti Loki: "Gerðu
þó í líking annarra manna ok veit Baldri sœmð sem aðrir
menn. Ek mun vísa þér til hvar hann stendr. Skjót at
honum vendi þessum."
things sworn an oath to spare him?” asked the woman.
Frigg replied: “There is a tender sapling growing east
of Valhall whose name is Mistletoe; it seemed too young
to me to make an oath.”
Thereafter the woman went on her way. But Loki took
Mistletoe, plucked it, and brought it to the Thing.
There stood Hödur at the edge of the circle of men,
since he was blind. Loki said to him: “Why don’t you
shoot at Baldur?” He replied: “because I cannot see
where he stands, and moreover I am without a weapon.”
Loki said: “Do as the others do, and like them, show
Baldur honor. I will show you where he stands. Shoot at
him with this sapling!”
Höðr tók mistiltein ok skaut at Baldri at
tilvísun Loka. Flaug skotit í gögnum hann ok fell hann
dauðr til jarðar...
Mistletoe and, under Loki’s guidance, shot it at Baldur.
The missile went through Baldur and he fell dead to the
En æsirnir tóku lík Baldrs ok
fluttu til sævar. Hringhorni hét skip Baldrs. Hann var
allra skipa mestr, hann vildu goðin fram setja ok gera
þar á bálför Baldrs. En skipit gekk hvergi fram. Þá var
sent í Jötunheima eptir gýgi þeiri er Hyrrokkin hét, en
er hon kom ok reið vargi ok hafði höggorm at taumum, þá
hljóp hon af hestinum, en Óðinn kallaði til berserki
fjóra at gæta hestsins, ok fengu þeir eigi haldit nema
þeir feldi hann. Þá gekk Hyr<r>okkin
á framstafn nökkvans ok hratt fram í fyrsta viðbragði,
svá at eldr hraut ór hlunnunum ok lönd öll skulfu. Þá
varð Þórr reiðr ok greip hamarinn ok myndi þá brjóta
höfuð hennar, áðr en goðin öll báðu henni friðar.
Aesir took Baldur’s body and bore it to the sea.
Hringhorn was the name of Baldur’s ship, the biggest of
all. The gods wanted to launch it into the sea in order
to make Baldur’s pyre upon it; but they could not move
the ship. They sent word to Jötunheim for a gyg (a
giantess), named Hyrrokkin. She came, riding on a wolf
with vipers for reins, and leapt off her steed. Odin
ordered four beserkers to hold it, but they could not
get power over the wolf, except to throw him down.
Hyrrokkin went to the ship’s prow and with her first
shove set it in such a pace that fire shot out from the
rollers and the whole land quaked. Then Thor grew angry
and gripped his hammer and would have crushed her head,
if all the gods had not begged him for peace.
Þá var borit út á skipit lík Baldrs, ok er
þat sá kona hans, Nanna Nepsdóttir, þá sprakk hon a
harmi ok dó. Var hon borin á bálit ok slegit í eldi. Þá
stóð Þórr at ok vígði bálit með Mjölni, en fyrir fótum
hans rann dvergr nökkurr, sá er Litr nefndr, en Þórr
spyrndi fœtum á hann ok hratt
honum í eldinn, ok brann hann.
Thereafter, Baldur’s body was brought out to the
ship; but when his wife Nanna, Nep’s daughter, saw it,
she collapsed from grief and died. She was carried out
onto the bale, and it was ignited. As Thor stood there
and hallowed the pyre with Mjöllnir, a dwarf, named Lit
(Litr) leapt before his feet and Thor kicked him so that
he flew into the fire and was burnt. To this funeral
came many different kinds of folk. First to tell of is
Odin, and with him were Frigg and the valkyries and
Odin's ravens. Frey drove in a chariot pulled by the
boar called Gullinbursti or Slidrugtanni. Heimdall rode
on his horse Gulltop and Freyja fared with her cats.
Many frost-giants were there and mountain giants too.”
Although this tale professes to recount the most tragic
event in all of Germanic mythology, the absurdity of some of the
story's finer details gives it an almost comic character that
contrasts sharply with all we know of the Old Norse
narrative art. For example, the author allows Loki to ask Höður,
a “blind” god, why he doesn't shoot or throw anything at Baldur,
and allows this blind man to shoot at his brother under Loki's
direction without any of the other gods noticing. As a
weapon, he uses the flimsy herb, mistletoe, freshly "plucked
from the ground" to inflict a mortal wound. Such
an explanation might satisfy a mythologist who sincerely
believes in Gylfaginning, but it would undoubtedly have produced
peels of laughter, if it were presented to our forefathers, who
were disposed toward realism and sensitive to comedy.
Nevertheless, Gylfaginning’s author had a heathen source for
what he says. His mistake, however, is that he
misunderstood its nature. He imagined that the heathen song,
which he faithfully followed, contained an accurate account of
the events surrounding Baldur’s death and cremation,
whereas its true purpose was to accurately describe a work of
art whose creator depicted scenes from the Baldur myth and
other stories of the gods in a series of allegorical images. Thus,
truer Snorri's source was to describing its subject's method of pictorially
expressing the myth in visual symbols, the more it deviated
from the actual myth it represented— in other words, the work of
art which the poem described departed from the mythic narrative wherever
the artist resorted to symbolic means to make his
pictorial work intelligible and recognizable to its viewers.
The poem in question is the Icelandic skald Ulfur Uggason’s
Húsdrápa, of which some fragments sufficient as evidence have
been preserved into our time.
Gylfaginning’s account of Baldur’s death and funeral procession
takes on a very different appearance, depending on the
underlying assumptions with which one reads them. If one assumes
it is a direct account of the Baldur myth itself, the contents
seem somewhat incredulous and even amusing. If, on the other hand, one realizes that
the author of Gylfaginning derived his account from Húsdrápa,
and that it extolled— not the myth in question— but an artwork
illustrating the myth in pictures, then the absurdities disappear, and one gets
an intriguing insight into the means that the creator of the
art at Hjardarholt employed to make his masterwork
intelligible and meaningful.
Consider the account of Baldur’s pyre.
Gylfaginning describes a strange funeral procession in Baldur’s
honor, one in which ravens, cats, a boar, and a host of hostile
frost giants and mountain giants take part. The strangeness disappears if instead we picture before us a
series of visual works in which the artist endeavors to make
clear which mythic person his figures represent by
means of their associated symbols.
When the artist wanted to indicate that one of the many
figures that took part in Baldur's funeral procession was Odin, he
could not depict him riding the eight-footed Sleipnir —an image immediately recognizable as Odin— because
on that occasion Sleipnir carried another rider, Hermod,
to Hel on Frigg's behalf. Therefore, the artist had ravens and
valkyries accompany Odin, characteristic companions for
the father of the gods. They
distinguish Odin as he rides to his son’s pyre. That
Gylfaginning’s author gathered these features from Ulfur
poem is made clear above.
Húsdrápa’s task was to faithfully illustrate
in words, what the artist had illustrated in pictures— not to
provide a faithful account of the Baldur myth. In other
words, Ulfur Uggason’s task was to present a faithful copy of
the particulars of the artwork he saw before him in words and to extol its
allegoric elements for the entertainment of the gathered guests. What
little is left of Húsdrápa confirms this
opinion of the poem’s nature.
After Odin, Frigg, the ravens and valkyries, Frey appeared in the
series of pictures. Since he is spoken of in the myth as a
remarkable rider, one would expect him to be represented on
horseback in Hjardarholt’s pictorial work. In Lokasenna 37, Týr calls
him the “best of all bold riders.” In two skaldic verses preserved in Skáldskaparmál 58, Frey is said to ride the horse
Bloodyhoof, an appropriate name for a war-horse. He is a
swordsman who famously gave away his sword to the giant Gymir in
exchange for his daughter (Lokasenna 42).
30 states that all the gods —the Vanir
and the Æsir with the exception of Thor— are
riders, to place Frey on a horse
would not distinguish him sufficiently from the other gods, of
which at least two, Odin and Heimdall, were depicted as riders.
Probably for this reason, the artist let Frey be conveyed by his
gold-glittering boar, which was his symbol and which clearly
distinguished him as the beneficient Vana-god. When Gylfaginning
says: En Freyr ók í kerru með gelti þeim er Gullinbursti heitir
(“While Frey drove in a chariot pulled by a boar called
Gullinbursti”), the source of this, as shown above, is Húsdrápa.
Next Heimdall rode on his horse Gulltop ("Goldtop" also
Grímnismál 30). Húsdrápa too is
the source. The same may be true of Freyja and her cats,
mentioned in Gylfaginning 49, although we have no supporting
verse to confirm it.
Gylfaginning says further that when the gods would launch
Baldur’s ship, Hringhorn, on which his pyre was prepared, they
were unable to do so and had to summon the giantess
Hyrrokkin from Jötunheim. From Jötunheim, she came riding on a wolf with
vipers as reins and, when she leapt off the steed, Odin had to
send four berserkers in order to hold the wolf, which they were
unable to do without knocking it down. With a shove, she pushed
the ship out into the water with such force that the rollers on
which it stood burst into flames and the earth shook.
Even this is gathered from Húsdrápa, and thus from one of Hjardarholt’s artworks.
The surviving portion of Húsdrápa
which speaks of the Baldur myth only concerns the funeral
procession. Therefore, this is the only direct evidence we have for
examination. Yet, where we see similar descriptions, we may suspect a
In the remainder of Snorri's narrative, once
Hyrrokkin succeeded in pushing the ship out to sea, Thor became
angry and wanted to crush her head with his hammer. When
he went to hallow the pile with his hammer, a dwarf named Litr leapt
in front of him. Thor gave the dwarf a swift kick, causing him
to fall into the fire.
The whole episode forms a chain of absurdities if we take it at
face value. That a single giantess was stronger than Thor
and all the Æsir combined is something that a faithful heathen
could never fall for. What the mythology relates about Thor most
definitely contradicts this. It is absurd to think that the gods
would humiliate themselves by sending a message to their
enemies, the jötuns, in order to solicit such help and even
more absurd that Thor would want to kill her once she had done
what was asked of her. Why the
generally good-natured Thor would kick a dwarf into the fire is
hard to understand. This behavior is
ill-suited for such a solemn occasion, during which
it was supposed to have occurred. However, all this is satisfactorily explained once we
are convinced, by means of Húsdrápa. that it is based on the artwork at
Hjardarholt, and not a traditional mythic poem.
Fullöflug lét fjalla
en Hrofts of gildar
hjalmelda mar felldu.
The most powerful
mountain-Hild made the sea-Sleipnir
lumber forward, while Hropt's
helmet-fire-power-investors felled her
The name Hyrrokkin may tell us who this giantess is. The name, a
compound of hyrr (fire) and
rjúka (smoke), means the
and may be an epithet of the thrice-burnt Gullveig-Heiðr, whom
the Æsir burnt for spreading sorcery among mankind
(Völuspá 21-27). When the artist
has her push Baldur’s ship out to sea, he thereby would have
given understandable symbolic expression to the mythic fact
that, if Hyrrokkin did not exist, Hringhorn would not have
been put to sea with Baldur’s corpse, because Baldur
would not have fallen victim to the giant world’s treachery. To
find a role for Hyrrokinn in the Baldur myth, we need look no
further than the mysterious giantess Thökk, who refuses to weep
for Baldur's return.
Þá reið Hermóðr aftr leið
sína ok kom í Ásgarð ok sagði öll tíðendi, þau er hann
hafði séð ok heyrt. Því næst sendu æsir um allan heim
erendreka at biðja, at Baldr væri grátinn ór helju, en
allir gerðu þat, mennirnir ok kykvendin ok jörðin ok
steinarnir ok tré ok allr málmr, svá sem þú munt sét
hafa, at þessir hlutir gráta þá, er þeir koma ór frosti
ok í hita.
Þá er sendimenn fóru heim ok höfðu vel rekit sín erendi,
finna þeir í helli nökkurum, hvar gýgr sat. Hon nefndist
Þökk. Þeir biðja hana gráta Baldr ór Helju. Hon segir:
Then Hermod rode back on his way and came to
Asgard and told all the tidings he had seen and heard.
After this, the Æseir sent over all the world
messengers to request that Baldr be wept out of Hel and
all did this. And all did this, the people and the earth
and the stones and trees and every metal, just as you
will have seen that these things weep when they come out
of frost and into heat. When the envoys were travelling
back having well fulfilled their errand, they found in a
certain cave a giantess sitting. She said her name was
Thanks (Thökk). They bade her weep Baldr out of
Hel. She said:
54. "Þökk mun gráta
kyks né dauðs
nautk-a ek Karls sonar,
haldi Hel því, er hefir."
"Thanks will weep
dry tears for
No good got I from the old one's son
either dead or alive.
Let Hel hold what she has."
En þess geta menn, at þar
hafi verit Loki Laufeyjarson, er flest hefir illt gert
presumed that this was Loki Laufeyiarson, who has done
most evil among the Æsir.'
What other role she may have played in Baldur's death,
if any, is unknown, since no poetic source provides detailed
information about the circumstances surrounding Baldur's death.
Völuspá, Baldurs draumr, and Lokasenna are the only other poems
which mentioned it, and they are short on details.
A suggestive passage in Book 3 of Saxo's History, has Hotherus
(Hödur) meet three witches in the wood, before his battle with
Balder over Nep's daughter, Nanna.
From the desciption of Hyrrokkin in Gylfaginning 49,
one learns what means the artist at Hjardarholt identify the
giantess. He allows her to come riding on a wolf, in order to
point out that she is a giantess. But since wolves are also the
steeds of other thurs-women, this was not enough. To distinquish
her special status among giantesses, Hyrrokkin's wolf had to be
the strongest and most dangerous of all. Therefore, it is
depicted prone, held by four of Odin’s “berserkers,” that
is to say Einherjar. In addition, the artist drew flames beneath
the ship, because Hyrrokkin was burnt by the gods and Baldur’s
death was one way she extracted vengeance. Thus she is shown
launching Hringhorn with Baldur’s pyre on board. As
clarification, the artist had Thor raise his hammer toward the
giantess, because, according to the mythology, Thor killed
Hyrrokkin with his hammer. [Compare Völuspá 27, which speaks of
Thor's reaction to Gullveig-Heid's burning with Thorbjörn
Disarskald’s verse in Skáldskaparmál 4, which lists Hyrrokkin among the giantesses killed by Thor.
Keep in mind that Snorri says that Thor did not kill Hyrrokinn on
By the ship’s stern the artist may have applied a figure that
Húsdrápa called Litr, and which Snorri understood as a dwarf
because of the dwarf-list in one of his primary sources,
Völuspá. The name Litr is used as both a giant's name
(Ragnarsdrápa) and the name of a dwarf (Völuspá 12). As a
giant-name Litr is used
in a skaldic verse from Ragnarsdrápa ascribed to Bragi skald in
Skáldskaparmál 42, which speaks of Thor fishing.
Þá forns Litar flotna
á fangbóða öngli
hrökkviáll of hrokkinn
hekk Völsunga drekku.
wriggling serpent [Midgard serpent] of the Völsung’s
drink [poison] writhed, when on the hook of the foe
[Thor] of old Lit’s kin [the giants].”
Here, Litr might indicate Loki, the father of
the serpent, who hid himself in salmon-guise, until the Æsir
caught him and punished him for his role in Baldur's death. Thor
caught Loki as he attempted to leap over a net drawn by the
In applying Hyrrokkin by the funeral ship’s prow and Litr
as a symbol of Loki down by its stern the artist may have
intended to express that Hyrrokkin and Loki were the ones who actually
caused Baldur’s death, and thereby brought about the launching
of his funeral ship. That Thor is represented kicking the dwarf into the
fire may be because Thor was the one who caught
Loki in Franangr’s falls, and placed him in the cavern of subterranean
fire (hveralund, thought to indicate the presence of
geysers) where he lies bound until Ragnarök. Litr is also one of
the gifts that Odin's brother, Lodur (Vili), gave to Ask and
Embla, and refers to one's "looks, appearance, coloring", which
in Baldr's case, would have gone up in flames on the pyre. In
any case, the "dwarf" Litr is probably a symbolic
The theory that Snorri used Húsdrápa as a source has
broader implications for the Baldur myth as well. From Völuspá
32, we learn that Baldur was killed with an arrow shot by his
brother Hödur (harmflaug hættlig Höðr nam
skjóta). According to Gylfaginning, after
Loki had ripped mistletoe from the ground, he stood beside Hödur
and directed the shot because Hödur was blind —this while all
the gods stood around Baldur in a ring (mannhringr).
Yet, we are led to believe that Loki's evil act went unnoticed
until he confessed his involvement in Baldur's death in
Lokasenna 28, at a gathering of the gods at a feast held by the
sea god Aegir. There Loki tells Frigg that he is the reason the
Aesir "no longer see Baldr riding to their halls." Snorri, who
extensively uses Lokasenna as a source, places this feast at the
opening of Skáldskaparmál, does not recount the incident of
Loki's flyting toward the gods told there, and instead
attributes the gods' capture and punishment of Loki to
Loki "presumably" disguising himself as Thökk and refusing to
weep for Baldur's return. Snorri himself seems uncertain of
this. In the prose conclusion of Lokasenna, Loki's capture and
binding follow on the events of the poem, and appear to be
directly related to his confession that he caused Baldur's
||The artist of
this modern illustration instinctively
understood the problem of Loki standing beside Hödur in
a crowd of other gods, and directing his hand without
being noticed. He chose to represent Loki as
invisible, something Gylfaginning does not do. (Gordon
Book of the Sagas, 1913)
Hödur acted without evil intent and only as a blind tool of
Hyrrokkin and Loki,
might have been expressed visually by the artist at Hjardarholt in this
manner: he depicted Hödur shooting with his eyes closed,
and placed Loki beside him directing his weapon. By this
means, he symbolically illustrated the
mythic circumstance that Hödur was Baldur’s
murderer), but Loki his ráðbani
(contriver of murder). From this, it is easy to see how
the author of Gylfaginning
came to the conclusion that Hödur was blind.
Almost universally, the word
blind not only has its actual physical meaning, but also a
derived intellectual meaning. When symbolic artists wish to
refer to the latter, they commonly do so by resorting to the
former. In other words, when an artist wants to show that a
person is intellectually "blind" to something, he commonly
depicts the figure as physically blind. One
faces danger blind, if he doesn't know or doesn't want to know of it. One rushes into battle
"blind", when he does not weigh his strength against his
opponent’s. One acts "blindly" when, as the tool of another, he
unintentionally injures someone he loves. In this sense, Hödur
was blind when he shot Baldur, and it may have been this
that the creator of the Hjardarholt-artwork wanted to express, when
he had Hödur fire the deadly shot with his eyes closed and
placed the actual murderer by his side. Otherwise, from
Gylfaginning's account, we gather that Loki was imprisoned and
tortured merely for refusing to weep for Baldur.
That Loki would actually stand beside Hödur and direct his weapon
is laughable. The Aesir, standing around
Baldur in a mannhringr (circle of people), would of course
immediately have seen who the actual murder was. Logic requires
that Loki act as cunningly as
possible, thereby hiding his involvement in Baldur's death and chosing
someone close to him to
carry it out, who could be mistaken to entertain plans of revenge
against his brother. Saxo's account of the Baldur myth, retold
as Danish history in a distorted form, suggests that there may
have been a rivalry between the two brothers for the hand of
Nanna. For this to be plausible, the mistletoe would only have
had to have been crafted into an arrow or dart (harmflaug),
capable of penetrating Baldur's skin and delivering a deadly
wound, not simply plucked from the ground as Snorri states.
That hosts of rime-thurses and mountain-giants, enemies of the
gods and the world according to the myth, would have been
in Asgard when Baldur was cremated is improbable. But it is
nevertheless understandable that the artwork at Hjardarholt
allowed them to be, because the artist could not express in a
better way that Baldur’s death plunged the world, including some
of Jötunheim’s inhabitants, into despair.
Of course, without a complete copy of Ulfur
Húsdrapa, we will never know if it actually was the source of
Snorri Sturluson's account of the Baldur myth in Gylfaginning
49, but one thing we can say for sure is that specific elements
of the myth were inspired by the poem, which itself was inspired
by the ornate "decorative tales" carved into the gables and
rafters at the magnificent hall at Hjardarholt in western
Iceland, commissioned by Olaf the Peacock around 985 AD.