In spite of the fact that myths are perceived as fictional stories about different events occurring thousands of years ago, they still influence people’s spiritual life. The reason is that myths represent ancient people’s views regarding the cosmos, the relationships between nature and a human being, and the sacred concepts.1 In this context, the Scandinavian or Norse mythology significantly influenced the visions of people living in that region in terms of their perception of natural phenomena and beliefs regarding gods.
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The purpose of this research is to examine the image representing the death of Balder, the son of Odin, and analyze it in the context of the role of this myth in Norse mythology. The image illustrating the death of Balder effectively depicts the most dramatic moment of the myth, emphasizing the murder and the evil nature of Loki with the help of colors and the placement of figures.
Description of the picture
The picture presenting the killing of Balder is an illustration that was included in the 18th-century Icelandic manuscript that depicted the Norse myths related to Odin and his sons. The artist chose to depict the act of killing Balder with the help of a branch of mistletoe. In this picture, Hod is represented as being blind, and Loki seems to guide him to assassinate Balder (Figure 1). Thus, the positions of all characters are carefully presented in the picture, and Loki is portrayed behind Hod to accentuate his role in this murder. To explain the placement of Hod and Loki against Balder, it is necessary to refer to the description of these gods’ relations in the Norse myths.
In Scandinavian mythology, the key focus is on Odin, who is the oldest god among others and who is the ruler of the Aesir. Odin and his wife Frigg gave birth to four sons that are considered to be the prominent gods in Norse mythology: Thor, Vidar, Vali, and Balder.3 Each of these gods impersonates natural forces and some kind of power, where Balder’s role is determined as being the embodiment of renewal and spring. Thus, Balder is often described as most sensitive and good among other gods, and “he is the best, and all praise him; he is so fair of face and bright that he seems to shine.”4 Still, he also has an opponent, Loki, who is Odin’s brother and the son of a giant, and who lives in Asgard.5 In Norse mythology, Loki impersonates the evil nature in the world, and his actions seem to lead to the last fight of gods.
It is necessary to note that the deities in Norse mythology were created with reference to the idea of the struggle between morality and sin. Thus, it was the result of reflecting the Scandinavian people’s beliefs regarding the world and its laws.6 In the Eddas, there are many myths and odes that represent the culture and traditions of early Scandinavian people.7 The key aspect in this field is the separation of the world into the realm of gods, which is known as Asgard, the realm of Vanaheim, the realm of mortal people, and the underworld.8 Odin and his sons live in the highest realm of gods, which can be reached by Bifrost, a rainbow.
The killing of Balder is described in Norse mythology as one of the most influential events that can be viewed as a trigger for intensifying the fight between good and evil. Before being killed, Balder saw dreams about his death, and Odin and Frigg asked all beings and things in the world not to hurt their son in any way.9 As a result, Balder could not be hurt anymore, and other gods chose to attack him to check this aspect.
The fact that Balder could not be harmed disturbed Loki, who became a woman to learn what things could kill Balder. Perceiving Loki as a woman, Frigg told him that only some mistletoe had not promised anything to her.10 When Loki gave this mistletoe to Hod who used it to kill Balder, it was possible to speak about the win of evil over good, and the picture demonstrates this act based on the myth. Balder embodied spring, hope, and shininess, and when he was killed, “the greatest misfortune among gods and men was done.”11 Therefore, the death of Balder is described in Norse mythology with much detail to accentuate how the killing of something or somebody good and wise can influence the world. This important event is depicted in the picture under analysis with reference to the myth.
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The illustration reflects the art tradition of the 18th century that was spread in Iceland and other Northern countries in terms of using colors, texture, contrasts, and shapes to accentuate a certain context. In the discussed picture, the dominant colors are terracotta, red, and blue.
It is possible to assume that different tones of the red color are used by the author to emphasize the bloody nature of the observed action. This color in its variety of shades from deep red to orange and terracotta is appropriate for accentuating the context of the illustration. Furthermore, this natural-color was actively used in the 18th century to create visual images for books. The contrasting color used by the author is blue, which seems to accentuate the brightness of the main red color.
The contour of figures is also important to be discussed. It is dark brown, almost black, and to accentuate some details of the characters’ apparel, the author does not use any color for contrast. The artwork is also characterized by the specific use of shapes. Following the art tradition of the century when the illustration was created, the prevailing shapes used by the author are round or even orbed.
References to the Norse mythology
The story of killing Balder represented in the Eddas continues by describing his funeral to accentuate the grief of all gods because of Balder’s death. This god was burned on a ship, and this aspect reflects the Vikings’ tradition of using ships for all possible activities. Balder’s wife Nanna could not cope with her grief, and she also died, and gods burned her along with her husband. The ceremony is described in the Eddas as a splendid and unique funeral that was visited by not only all gods but also giants.12
It is important to note that Hermod chose to go to Hel to return to Balder, but this traveling was not successful. As a result, it is important to focus more on studying how Balder’s death accentuated Odin’s and Frigg’s failure in protecting their son against Loki’s activities. The reason is that Odin and Frigg knew about the threat of death in advance, and they lacked the power to prevent it.
The understanding of the picture is based on the idea that Norse mythology is grounded on the concept of the struggle between good and evil. It is important to focus on viewing the Scandinavian world as divided by the impact of good and evil powers, and this division creates a specific balance between forces of gods and giants.13 As a result, the Norse myths reflect the struggle between these powers to intensify their impact in the world and to state the rule of gods representing good or giants representing evil and chaos. From this perspective, the concept of the fight between good and evil seems to encompass the key ideas that were important for the Vikings who developed the Norse mythology. Thus, this concept is also reflected in the picture representing the death of Balder.
While focusing on Norse mythology, much attention should be paid to discussing it in the context of the place where it was developed. The early Vikings, who reached Iceland thousands of years ago, created their unique vision of deities they worshipped and spread it among the Icelanders. The Icelandic School of Norse Mythology developed under the impact of Snorri Sturluson, who was known as an Icelandic poet and historian.14 Sturluson wrote the Prose Edda, in which all Norse myths about Odin and his sons were included. Currently, this work is referred to as the most famous and substantial collection of Icelandic or Norse myths.
The purpose of the planned research project is to examine the image depicting Balder’s death and explain its specifics in the context of the related Scandinavian myth and the overall Norse mythological tradition. The focus should be on understanding how the relationships between gods and giants, as well as the gods’ attitude to Balder’s death, are presented in the picture. In this context, paying attention to the figure of Balder among other Scandinavian or Icelandic deities is important because this god embodies ancient people’s vision of hope and renewal associated with shining and flourishing.
The emphasis on Balder’s death in the selected illustration accentuates not only early people’s interest in pursuing happiness and associated troubles but also people’s interest in the 18th century when the picture was created. These aspects are accentuated with the help of the artist’s choice of colors, shapes, and the placement of figures.
The Death of Balder. Digital image. ThoughtCo. 2018. Web.
Gaiman, Neil. Norse Mythology. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.
Gilmore, Amanda. “Trees as a Central Theme in Norse Mythology and Culture: An Archaeological Perspective.” Scandinavian-Canadian Studies 23 (2016): 16-26.
Karlsdóttir, Alice. Norse Goddess Magic: Trancework, Mythology, and Ritual. 2nd ed. London: Simon and Schuster, 2015.
Lecouteux, Claude. Encyclopedia of Norse and Germanic Folklore, Mythology, and Magic. London: Simon and Schuster, 2016.
Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Santa Barbara: Oxford University Press, 2002.
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Long, Steven. Odin: The Viking Allfather. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.
“The Prose Edda.” Univerzita Karlova. 2018. Web.
Smith, Edward. The Echo of Odin: Norse Mythology and Human Consciousness. New York: McFarland, 2018.
- Alice Karlsdóttir, Norse Goddess Magic: Trancework, Mythology, and Ritual, 2nd ed. (London: Simon and Schuster, 2015), 112-114.
- The Death of Balder, digital image, ThoughtCo, 2018. Web.
- Steven Long, Odin: The Viking Allfather (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015), 21-27.
- John Lindow, Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs (Santa Barbara: Oxford University Press, 2002), 65.
- Claude Lecouteux, Encyclopedia of Norse and Germanic Folklore, Mythology, and Magic (London: Simon and Schuster, 2016), 34-45.
- Amanda Gilmore, “Trees as a Central Theme in Norse Mythology and Culture: An Archaeological Perspective,” Scandinavian-Canadian Studies 23 (2016): 18.
- “The Prose Edda,” Univerzita Karlova, 2018. Web.
- Edward Smith, The Echo of Odin: Norse Mythology and Human Consciousness (New York: McFarland, 2018), 7-24.
- Ibid., 66.
- “The Prose Edda,” Univerzita Karlova. Web.
- Lindow, Norse Mythology, 66.
- “The Prose Edda,” Univerzita Karlova. Web.
- Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017), 12-17.
- Lindow, Norse Mythology, 2-6.