Baldr the Beautiful, as he was often called, was the gentle son of the All Father, Odin. When he had dreams foreshadowing his destruction, the gods tried to help him. His mother, Frigg, arranged for every living thing on earth to promise never to harm her son. Only the tiny mistletoe was missed. Now that Baldr was apparently safe, the gods began throwing things at him for fun. But the trickster Loki entered the game without fun on his mind. Disguised as a female, he learned from Frigg about the overlooked mistletoe. He then picked the plant and gave it to Baldr’s brother, Hodr, and urged him to throw it. As Hodr was blind, Loki guided his hand, and the mistletoe hit Baldr in the heart, causing his instant death. The gods were bitterly sad at the loss of so wonderful a companion, and Odin realized that Baldr’s death foreshadowed the death of all the gods and the end of the world. Frigg begged for a volunteer to travel to the land of Hel to retrieve her beloved son. Hermod, one of her other sons, traveled to Hel, where he discovered Baldr and was told that the god could return to Asgard only if all things animate and inanimate would mourn him by weeping. As soon as he was informed of this requirement, Odin ordered a universal weeping, and everything did weep—all things, that is, except for a giantess, who was in reality the disguised Loki. Instead of tears, the Loki-giantess pronounced what was, in effect, a curse: “Let Hel keep what is hers.” And so the gentle Baldr had to remain in the land of the dead, making the end of the world—Ragnarok—unavoidable. But a belief emerged that one day the earth would revive from its destruction and that Baldr would lead some of the gods back, as a kind of “once and future king” like the Welsh King Arthur. And Loki would pay for his betrayal of Baldr.
Odin rides his eight-legged horse Slepnir into Hel in this illustration from a 1908 edition of the Poetic Edda.