Posted by: nightmistwalker | December 25, 2011

Herbs of Yule – The Winter Solstice Story

blessed yule

Baldur was the Norse God of the sun. His father was Odin, the God of war and death, the God of wisdom and poetry, the Chief God,  The Compassionate, The King of the Elves. Baldur’s mother was Frigga, Great Goddess of the earth. Baldur was beloved not only of his parents, but also of the populace. It was said that Baldur was fair of complexion and nature, gentle, graceful, passive, eloquent and wise. He was bright and brought joy to his companions.

One night, Baldur had a dream. The dream became a recurring one, a fearful one, in which Baldur’s death appeared to be foretold. The gentle God became understandably upset, and he finally told his family and companions about the dreams. No one could quite understand the symbols, but they could understand that their beloved Baldur was not doing well. His parents were devastated, and each determined to do what they could in their own way.

Odin made a journey to Niflheim, the Norse underworld, located at the lowest roots of Yggdrisal.  There, he confronted a seeress, one of the Vala, who was the gatekeeper to the land of the dead. His worse fears were confirmed when she predicted the arrival of Baldur in Niflheim. Gods were not supposed to die, and the thought of Baldur’s residence in the land of the dead was upsetting enough. Odin’s questions grew more relentless, however, as he sought for the knowledge that would restore his son to life. The seeress recognized Odin at last and returned to her sleep without providing him with the knowledge he sought.

Frigga took a more determined course of action. She set out to require of everything in the world a pledge that they would never harm Baldur. Every tree, plant, stone, element, bird and animal that she encountered gave her their word that they would never harm her son. Finally, exhausted with her work, she returned to her home assured that Baldur was protected from all who would cause him harm.

Her weariness must have effected her judgment, however. When she visited the mistletoe, it looked so small and innocent, that she decided not to require its pledge.

Upon returning from her journey, she explained to the  assembled gods and goddesses that everything had pledged not to harm Baldur. Immediately, the crowd began to rejoice. Feasts and games were called for, and the divinities began to party. Some of the more active gods formed a contest wherein they threw various items at Baldur. He took the jesting in jovial stride – and, indeed, none of the weapons harmed him. There was great joy in the community.

But Loki, the god of mischief, did not feel joyous. He watched the festivities for a while and then began to wonder if everything had indeed given a pledge. Knowing that Frigga would never tell him directly, Loki disguised himself as an old woman and slowly made his way to the exhausted Goddess. Frigga was pleased to have some company while she rested and fell into easy conversation with her guest. It was just a matter of time before Loki’s flattering attentions began to have their effect. “You traveled over the entire creation? No wonder you are so tired! Let me give you some more of this refreshing drink. And everything gave you their pledge? How wonderful!”

“Well, not everything,” Frigga finally said. “There is a frail little plant on the other side of the great mountain that looked so weak and helpless that I could not imagine that it would have the power to hurt my son. Its name is mistletoe, and I did not require it to give me its pledge.”

Perhaps Loki waited until Frigga was asleep or perhaps he made a conventional excuse, but he managed to leave the Great Goddess without arousing her suspicions. Searching the far mountainside, Loki was able to locate the delicate looking mistletoe. Taking a branch with him, Loki made his way to the sports field.

The festivities were in full swing. The haphazard items that had been tossed at Baldur had been replaced by more organized projectiles. Loki watched as a line of archers shot their arrows in unison at Baldur. The arrows flew, straight and true, until they came within 5 feet of Baldur. Then, the line of arrows swerved to one side of him and came to rest harmlessly to one side of their intended target. Baldur stood still at one end of the field, laughing heartily as all of the weapons missed him. The crowd cheered repeatedly as this display was repeated over and over again. Only Hodur, the blind god of winter (and Baldur’s brother), was not participating in the sport. Hodur was standing sadly to one side of the field listening to the jokes and reveling. Loki approached Hodur and began to use his most charming manners.

“Isn’t it a joyous day for us that Balder is invulnerable to wounds?” Loki asked brightly.

“Oh, yes,” Hodurr replied.

“Why are you not participating in the celebrations?” asked Loki.

“I wish I could,” Hodur sighed, “but I cannot see the mark. I can only stand here and listen to the happy sounds of the crowd.”

“Well, I can help you with that problem!” Loki cried. “If you wish to participate, I will guide your arrow. Just release it in the direction I place you.”

Hodur was overjoyed that he, too,  could join in the celebratory sport. Loki led him to the head of the line. No one noticed that he affixed a newly sharpened sprig of mistletoe to the tip of Hodur’s arrow. Loki aimed the weapon at Baldur and told Hodur he was ready.  Hodur drew his bow, Loki rechecked the aim, and Hodur released his arrow.

The mistletoe arrow flew straight and true, but did not swerve as the other arrows had. Instead, it pierced Baldur’s defenses, striking him directly in the heart. Baldur , the Sun God, fell to the ground, instantly dead. The world was immediately plunged into unending winter.

As the shocked cries and screams filled the air of Asgard, Odin the Wise sprang into action. Racing to the stables, he hitched a team of Frigga’s sacred reindeer to a cart. With a crack of his whip and a mighty shout, Odin guided the leaping team of reindeer down the trunk of Yggdrasil, arriving once again at the gates of Niflheim.

They arrived in time for Odin to catch a glimpse of Baldur’s shade in the entrance hall of Niflheim. The gates slowly began to close as Odin cried out, “Stop! That is my son!”

“Yes,” the ancient woman answered, “yes, he is here. You shall not see him again.”

“You do not understand,” Odin pleaded desperately. “He is the Sun God. He is not supposed to die! What will the worlds of Asgard and Midgard do without the sun? Let him go! Let me take him home again!”

The gate was almost closed. The seeress paused and looked at Odin. Not unkindly, she said to him, “Man can destroy life, but he cannot provide it. You have no power here. Farewell.” The gate was shut in his face.

Slowly, Odin returned to Asgard, the reindeer team climbing steadily through the increasing winter storm. Snow and ice impeded their way, winds howled around them, yet still the team climbed until they had once again reached Asgard. Leaving the team at the palace entrance, Odin entered the silent hall, girding up all his courage to do the one thing he most dreaded to do. He had to tell Frigga that their son was dead.

On the field of Asgard, the crowd of gods and goddesses was still crying out lamentations for the death of Baldur. Slowly, though, the cries were changing from mourning to outright fear as the blizzard increased in intensity. Thunder snow poured down upon them, winds shrieking to a point unheard of before in Asgard.  Then, suddenly, they heard a sound that they had never heard before. At first, they thought it was the storm, screaming in a way that shocked them into silence. Just as they realized that this sound was stronger than the storm itself, they saw the cause of the noise.

It was Frigga, racing to the body of her son through the storm. Shrieking madly, she clawed at the wind, her hair and her clothes blowing all around her. Odin followed behind her, but even he was unable to keep up with her. The crowd in silence allowed her access to her son, gathering around as she flung herself to her knees next to the lifeless form of Baldur. Odin stepped into the final place in the crowd. All Asgard formed a perfect circle, in the center of which was Frigga screaming her grief for her son.

Rending open Baldur’s shirt, Frigga took hold of the arrow and pulled it from his body. She gazed upon the tip, and the screaming increased as she realized that it was mistletoe that had pierced his heart. Her son was dead due to her own negligence! Beside herself with grief, Frigga raged and wept, her hot tears falling into the wound, which emitted little puffs of steam which froze into crystals at the touch of the frigid winter air. She wept a long time, washing his body with her tears. Gradually, she quieted. Moaning now, she moved over him, her hair drying the tears she had shed. Finally silent, she bent for one more moment over Baldur’s corpse, and then she looked up.

This was not the face of a madwoman. This was the face of power, pure determined power, a power that no one in Asgard had seen before. Frigga looked at the arrow still in her hand, and she gave a slight smile. Then, holding the arrow up and behind her, she placed her body between the murderous plant and her son, and, leaning over, she kissed him full on the mouth.

Remember, my friends, man has the power to destroy life, but cannot provide it. Woman can do both.

With that kiss, Frigga breathed the breath of life back into the still form of Baldur. With a startled gasp, Baldur moved his limbs and gave a cry as air expanded his lungs.  The crowd reacted, astonished at what they had just seen.

Odin the Wise recognized the implications immediately. All of Asgard had just witnessed the miracle of Baldur’s resurrection. All Niflheim, too, knew that Baldur was alive, for his spirit had just departed from  the mighty gates, a journey that no other shade had taken. But what of Midgard? Baldur was weak and would need some time to recover. What would happen to the world of humans, unaware of his return to the living?

Odin turned and raced to the palace entrance, where the team of reindeer were waiting, still hitched to the cart. With a crack of his whip and a mighty shout, Odin galvanized the team to action. Leaping and bounding, they raced down the World Tree, fast as thought, unified in action. Indeed, if you were standing in Midgard and able to see them coming, you might even believe the reindeer were flying.

It was deep, dark night when Odin and the team arrived in Midgard. The humans were huddled together in their homes, desparate for warmth, paralyzed with fear. Odin the Compassionate entered every single home,  whispering his message in every sleeping ear, “Be ye of good cheer! Baldur lives! The sun will return! Rejoice!”

His name is Odin. He is awesome in his power. We would be overwhelmed in his presence. Yet, he loves us. We celebrate him in story and in song, using the very gift of writing that he gave us. He gives us, also, the gift of hope that sustains us in desperate times.

This is the Winter Solstice. Happy Yule.

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