Balder – an Indoeuropean Twin-god?

In Norse mythology, the story of the bright and beautiful god; Balder, who was shot with an arrow by his brother and died, but who could not return from the realm of the dead despite the great efforts of the other gods, is a great mystery. Many have wondered what might be the reason behind this story that seems so unreasonable. The good and wise god who everyone liked and admired, but who nevertheless suffered such an unkind fate? I think Balder may have been part of a twin-god tradition (Greek Dioscuri) that was originally present in the Indo-European language and religion.

Here is the story of Balder:

Balder is one of the Æsir in Norse mythology. The Æsir were the gods that came last to Scandinavia; the original gods were the Vanir. Balder was light and fair, wise and eloquent, Snorre Sturlason says in Gylfaginning. This part of his Edda[1] tells what King Gylve experienced on his journey to Åsgard, «the farm of the gods». It is Snorre’s account of Balder that is remembered today.

Balder’s Dreams

His death is central to the Balder myth. Snorre and the poem Balder’s Dreams tell that Balder is plagued by nightmares telling that he will die. His father, Odin, then goes to Hel and awakens a Volva from the dead. He asks her why Balder dreams like that. The Volva, who sees everything, says that Balder will be killed[2].

Balder’s mother, Frigg, tries to change the fate. She walks around the world to get everything that exists to promise not to hurt him. It is just the little mistletoe that isn’t asked, as Frigg thinks it is too small and insignificant. This mistletoe grows, according to Voluspå, in the top of Yggdrasil, Odin’s tree.

Balder is now invulnerable, nothing can hurt him. Arriving at the Thing, the Æsir amuse themselves by shooting and throwing everything they could find on Balder. Nothing wounds him. He is immortal. Balder’s brother Hod is blind and he stands alone outside the circle. Loki sees this and invites him in. Loki knows that the mistletoe hasn’t made any promise. He puts an arrow of mistletoe in the hands of Hod and aims for him. Balder is hit by the arrow and falls dead to the ground.

The Æsir immediately realize what a disaster this is, one of Odin’s sons has been killed by his own brother. To make matters even worse, the murder happened on the Thing area that is sacred. The Æsir could therefore not avenge Balder right away. In Balder’s dreams, Odin asks who will avenge the murder. The Volva tells him that this will be his own son Våle. Våle now kills Hod, Våle is only one day old.

Hermod is riding to Hel

Frigg is burdened by grief and asks the Æsir to get Balder out of the realm of death. The Æsir are reluctant, but Hermod, another of Odin’s sons, borrows his father’s horse Sleipner and rides to Hel. There he tries to persuade the goddess Hel to let go of Balder. Hel yields on condition that all material things in the world will weep for Balder.

The Æsir ask all things in the world to cry for Balder. They succeed, but on their way back, an envoy meets a Jotun woman who would only cry dry tears for Balder. It is believed that this was Loki who had turned himself into a sorceress. Balder must thus stay in the realm of death[3].

Balder’s Funeral Ceremony

The gods wanted to give Balder an honourable funeral. They laid his body and Balder’s wife, Nanna, that “died from grief” on the ship with her husband and Balder’s horse, before it glides burning out on the sea. The ship Ring Horne was so big and heavy that they could not move it and had to call the gygra Hyrrokkin from Jotunheimen. She pushes the ship so hard that a flashing fire stands out from below. Thor is cursed and nearly kills her. Making fire is his task. He sanctifies the ship with the fire from his hammer. Thor is the master of ceremony or the supreme master of this burial[4].

Loki’s penalty

In Lokasenna Loki puts the blame for the death of Balder on himself. He teases Frigg and says he is the reason why she will never see her son again. Loki is finally caught and punished. He is tied in a cave in Jotunheimen where he is to lie until Ragnarok. Then he will be unleashed and will lead the evil forces in the battle against the Æsir, «the good».

Balder in Ragnarok

After the Fimbul winter (three winters without a summer between) comes Ragnarok, then Balder will rise from his grave in the realm of death. Both he and his brother and killer Hod will stay at Iðavöllr where Åsgard stood before Ragnarok. Here, the revenger Våle and his brother Vidar will live, as well as Thor’s sons Mode and Magne who now get Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer. This is the new world, with the new gods; Thor and Odin’s sons and Balder and his brother.

Interpretation of the myth

It is Snorre’s account of Balder that has been standing for posterity. I think Snorre’s Edda shows a late and somewhat transformed version of the stories about the Indo-European twin gods. Voluspå tells that Hod and Balder live on «tufti valtiva-ve», the sanctuary of the gods of war[5]. In the play Lokisenna, Frigg wishes to have a son like Balder who had «protected her with the sword». Skaldic poems from the Viking Age also say that Balder was a warrior[6]. In other words, he was a warrior and not just a bright and kind-hearted god that Snorre made him.

In the story of the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus Gesta Danorum, the warlike Balder comes forward and the Æsir are legendary heroes. Hod and Balder are rivals who fight for the king’s daughter Nanna’s favor. Balder is killed by Hod in a duel. Here is no trace of an evil Loki[7].

The Indo-European twin gods fought each other and one was often killed. They were warriors and protectors of the people. Balder and Hod must originate from the same tradition, probably from another Indo-European tribe who came to Scandinavia.

 I believe the name Loki (Loke) may originate from Norse logi, Old Frisian loge, German Lohe, «flame»[8]. From the same root originates the Germanic *leuhna- which has become «lyn» in Norwegian, «lightning». Both «the luminous» and «lightning» are typical terms for the twin gods that create lightning, thunder, rain and thus the fertile rainfall of fields and humans. Loki can thus mean «the luminous», he and Thor were probably twin gods in another tradition, that later separated. Balder «is so bright that he is shining,» Snorre said,[9] a common description of one of the Indo-European twin gods.

Cremation probably came to Scandinavia with the Indo-European peoples[10] and is linked, in my opinion, to the twin god that made lightning and thunder, Thor (although Snorre also let other gods like Odin be burned). We saw that Tor was master of ceremonies in the funeral procession to Balder and set fire to the ship with his hammer. Here the god Balder, his wife and horse are burned, a typical Indo-European burial custom, which has been found throughout the area from Scandinavia and Europe to the vast steppes north of the Black Sea and of the Caspian Sea.

Balder goes down to the underworld, just as the plants in nature do in fall. And just as Heracles, Tessub, Telipinu[11], Tor and the Freemason in the third degree do[12]. We see all the plants and beings that do not want to harm him (except for one) so that he can resurrect. Something has happened here, an accident or a natural disaster that caused the god not to resurrect in the spring. Perhaps the legend was changed after the great volcanic eruption on Iceland in the year 536 AD, spreading a Fimbul winter all over northern Europe and where half of the population in Norway and Sweden supposedly died?[13]

The gods give the «good things» in Indo-European religion. The motif of «the lost god» is also found in the mythology of the Indo-European Hittites (Asia Minor, late Bronze Age) with the god Telipinus’ angry retreat to the underworld, which led to infertility and distress on earth. Only when he is appeased and returns, the abundance returns to the people. The Swiss religious scholar Walther Burkert says that «abundance returns with the lost god». He refers to ancient Greek scriptures and rituals[14]. The Balder myth, is a mythical and incomprehensible story to us, but probably had the same origin as the traditional myths of other Indo-European people.

Oslo, March 2019/February 2021. Arvid Ystad

[1] Snorre Sturlasson, Edda, Gylvaginning, Om Balder, Oslo, Translated by Ivar Mortensson-Egnund, 1961, s 248.+ Balders history, s 276-281.

[2] Balders Draumar, Edda, Oslo, 1961, s 80

[3] Snorre, Edda, Hermod på Helferd, s 279-80, Oslo 1961

[4] Snorre, Edda, Balders Bålferd, s 278-79, Oslo 1961

[5] Edda, Voluspå 62, s 16, 320, Oversatt av Ivar Mortensson-Egnund, Oslo 1961

[6] Edda, Loketrætta 27, s 66, s 326. Oversatt av Ivar Mortensson-Egnund, Oslo 1961

[7] Store Norske Leksikon, Balder,   

[8] Bjorvand og Lindemann, Våre Arveord, Oslo, 2007, lue, s 681

[9] Snorre Sturlasson, Edda, Om Balder, Oversatt av Ivar Mortensson-Egnund, s 248

[10] Kristian Kristiansen, Institusjoner og Materiel Kultur, Tvillingherskerne som religiøs og politiske institusjon under bronsealderen, Vegar til Midgard, 4, 2004, s 105. Herman Lindqvist, Historien om Sverige, 1992, s 33-47. Wikipedia/Corded Ware Culture. Arvid Ystad, Frimurerne i vikingtiden, 2016, s 232, 254,255

[11] Unpublished book on the Indo-European Twin-gods, expected published 2022

[12] Arvid Ystad, Frimurerne i vikingtiden, 2016, Pax Forlag, s 264-73

[13] t-historiens-verste-ar-a-vere-i-live-1.1236419

[14] Walter Burkert, 1979, Structure and History in Greek Mythology, p 123-42, 136 and Robert Parker, 2011, On Greek Religion, p 193-4.