The Hall at Hjardarholt
and the Húsdrápa
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:   


Chapter 24:

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 rear.
...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.
Chapter 29:
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.
 ...Geirmund was then engaged to (Olaf's daughter) Thurid and their wedding held later that winter at Hjardarholt. A 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 Drapa" (Husdrápa) 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. [1988] and hereafter):

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.

Renowned defender [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 lethal blow.
  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:


210. En stirðþinull starði
storðar leggs fyr borði
fróns á folka reyni
fránleitr ok blés eitri.

But the sharp-looking stiff earth-rope [Midgard serpent] stared over the gunwale at the country-bone-[rock]folk's[giant's] rowan [Thor] and blew poison.  

*54. Þjokkvöxnum kvaðsk þykkja
þikling firinmikla
hafra njóts at höfgum
hætting megindrætti.

The stockily built stumpy one [Hymir] is said to have thought tremendous danger in the goat-possessor's [Thor's] mighty haul.  
*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.

The most 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.

Vidgymnir of 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 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 immortalize a 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.

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 poem 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 all 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:

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.


The Midgard 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.  
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.

  A third mythic sequence found in Húsdrápa, and therefore also represented on 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.

How shall 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 Gylfaginning 48)

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 lost:


8. Ríðr at vilgi víðu
víðfrægr, en mér líða,
Hroftatýr, of hváfta
hróðrmál, sonar báli.

Far-famed 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,
Hrafnfreistaðar, hesti
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 hosts.  

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:

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 sínum.


This 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 cats. 
Another surviving verse of Húsdrapa deals with the giantess Hyrrokkin, who launched Baldur's ship, apparently after Thor's famous strength had failed:

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 steed.

Of the giantess  Hyrrokkin, Snorri writes in Gylfaginning 48:

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 henni friðar.

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.
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.

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, writes:

  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 hypothetical* Baldrskviða.

...[V]ery little is known for certain about the pre-history of the textual transmission of this type of material: 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 following story:

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."

“Once it 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."

“Have all 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...

He took Mistletoe and, under Loki’s guidance, shot it at Baldur. The missile went through Baldur and he fell dead to the ground....

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.

…So the 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, the 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 Uggason's 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).

But since Grímnismál 29, 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 known from 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 similar origin.

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
fram haf-Sleipni þramma
Hildr, 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 steed.

The name  Hyrrokkin may tell us who this giantess is. The name, a compound of hyrr (fire) and rjúka (smoke), means the "fire-smoked" 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
þurrum tárum
Baldrs bálfarar;
kyks né dauðs
nautk-a ek Karls sonar,
haldi Hel því, er hefir."

"Thanks will weep
dry tears for
Baldr's bale.
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 með ásum." It is 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 this occasion.]

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.

The 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 Æsir. 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 representation.

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 death.

  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 Browne, in Book of the Sagas, 1913)  

That 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 handbani (actual 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 present 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 Uggason's 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.   
 © 2013 William P. Reaves