In which this is the last of the holiday stories...at least, for now...
Thanks for hanging out with Haiku Farm for 2014. May your New Year be shiny and bright.
Bringing Baldur Back (Norway and Sweden)
There was great grief in the house of Odin, for Baldur was dead.
Baldur, the white, the pure, the good, the fairest son of Odin, had been treacherously slain, and all the world was in mourning. Who now would bring good gifts to men? Who would bless them with smiles and sunlight, as Baldur had done?
Out by the shore of the sea the people gathered to perform the rites for the dead hero. Baldur's own ship, had been drawn up on the beach, and in it were placed all the most precious things that had been his. The deck was piled with cedar-wood, and between the layers of sticks were placed gums and rich spices and fragrant leaves, and the whole pile was covered with fine robes, and a couch was made whereon to lay the body. The great ship was pushed into the sea and set on fire. Wrapped in flames and hidden by dense clouds of smoke, it drifted far away from the shore.
"Alas! alas! " cried the people, "what will become of us, now that Baldur is dead—now that the sunlight is gone out of the world?" And they went to their homes weeping, and sat down in the darkness and cold, and could not believe that aught of joy would ever come to them again.
Other things sorrowed, too. The trees bent their heads, and the leaves upon them fell withered to the ground. The meadows doffed their green summer coats and dressed themselves in sober suits of russet. The birds forgot to sing. The small creatures of the woods hid themselves in the ground or in the hollow trunks of the trees. The cicadas no longer made merry in the groves. The music of the busy world was hushed. Nowhere could be heard the sound of the spindle or the loom, of ax or flail, of the harvesters' song, of the huntsmen's horn, of the warriors' battle-cry; but only the dull thud of the waves beating against the shore, or the wild whistling of the winds among the dead branches of the trees.
Odin, with his blue hood pulled down over his face, sat silent in the twilight and listened to the moaning of the sea. He was not only troubled because of the death of his son. What if the universal grief should continue and joy never return? Frost and ice and darkness would at length overwhelm the earth, and the race of mankind would perish.
"We must bring lost Baldur back to us!" he cried. "He must not stay in the gloomy halls of the under-world. And yet how can we persuade Hela, the pale-faced Queen of that region, to give him up? Who among his brothers will dare undertake so fearful a journey?"
"I will dare!" cried Hermod, Baldur's youngest brother. He was only a little fellow, but he was famous all over the world for the quickness of his movements and for his horsemanship. "I will go down to Hela's house with your prayers, if only I may ride Sleipnir, who is both fleet and sure-footed."
Gray Sleipnir was at once led out and saddled with the greatest care; and food and drink were given them, enough for eighteen days.
Nine days through mists and fogs, nine nights amid darkness and unseen perils, did the good steed gallop steadily onward; and his eight iron hoofs, clattering upon the rocky roadway, roused strange echoes among the barren hills and frowning mountain passes.
Nine days and nine nights did bold Hermod sit in the saddle with his face bared to the chilling winds and his heart set firm upon his errand. Many were the sad-eyed travelers whom they overtook, all journeying toward the same goal, but not one did they meet returning.
At length, they came out upon a broad plain which is the beginning of the great silent land. A dim yellow light illumined the sky, and the air seemed soft and mild, and a restful peace abode there.
On the farther side of the plain they came to a broad river that flowed silently toward the sea. It was the river Gjol, and across it was the long Gjallar Bridge, a narrow roadway roofed with shining gold.
Hermod gave the word to Sleipnir, and the horse galloped swiftly onward. In a little while they came to the walls of a huge castle that stood gloomy and dark among the hills. On the outside was a deep moat filled with water. The drawbridge was up and the gate was shut.
"Good Sleipnir," said Hermod, "you have borne me thus far, and have not failed me. Stand me in stead now, I bid you. Let those eight long limbs of yours be wings as well as legs!"
Then, at a touch of the spur, Sleipnir sped with lightning swiftness down the narrow roadway toward the edge of the moat, and in another moment was flying through the air right over the gate and into the courtyard beyond. It was a wonderful leap; but then it was a wonderful horse that made it.
Safe within the courtyard, Hermod alighted and tied the horse to an iron post that stood by the side of a fountain. Then, seeing that all the doors were open, he walked boldly in without asking leave of anyone, and made his way to the long banquet-hall where Hela and her guests were feasting. Whom should he see, sitting in the foremost seat at the Queen's right hand, but his brother Baldur! The light which shone in Baldur's countenance and glittered in his eyes shed a soft radiance over the entire hall, such as its gloomy walls had never seen before; and the faces of the guests were wreathed in smiles, and the Queen herself seemed to have forgotten all her sternness. Hermod, unbidden though he was, was welcomed very kindly, and a seat was given him at the table. All that evening he mingled with the guests in the hall. He talked with his brother, or told wondrous stories in the hearing of the Queen, but not once did he speak of the business upon which he had come.
The next morning Hermod asked whether Baldur might not ride home with him to his sorrowing mother, whose heart would be broken if he did not return.
"All mankind weeps for Baldur."
"All mankind? Well, that is some reason for your request, but not enough."
"All living creatures mourn for him," added Hermod.
"Indeed! But I should weep if you were to take him away from me. Do things that are lifeless also grieve for him?"
"Truly they do. The very rocks shed tears, as do also the mountains and the clouds. There is nothing that does not weep."
"I will tell you what I will do," said Hela. "Do you return to your home, and let Odin send into all the earth and find out for a truth whether everything really weeps for Baldur. If he shall find that this is the case, then come to me again, and I will give your brother up. But if a single thing shall refuse to shed tears, then Baldur shall stay with me."
Hermod was not altogether pleased with this answer, but he knew that it was useless to plead any further with the Queen, and so he took leave of her, and made ready to return. Baldur took from his finger a precious golden ring, and gave it to him to carry to Odin as a keepsake.
Then Hermod mounted good Sleipnir again and rode back, along the fearful way, out of the land of Hela, and came at last to Odin's palace.
Messengers were sent into all the world, praying that everything should weep for white Baldur.
And everything did weep—men and beasts and birds, trees and plants, rivers and mountains, sticks and stones, and all metals. At the end of a year the messengers returned, very glad to report the result. But just before reaching Odin's halls they passed the mouth of a cavern wherein sat a blind and toothless old hag named Thok. They asked her kindly to weep for Baldur.
This, she would not do.
"Bah! Why should such as I weep? Little good did he ever do me; little good will I do him. Go and tell him to stay where he is."
When Hela heard that everything save Thok wept for Baldur, she consented that Baldur, for six months in every twelve, might gladden the earth with his presence.
But during the other six she would keep him in her own halls. And this is why the sun shines, and the trees are green, and the birds sing, and all rejoice from April to October, for that is the season of Baldur's stay with them; but during the other months the sun is darkened, and all things are silent and sad, because Baldur has gone back to the under-world.
But do not forget the good steed Sleipnir. Although he never made another journey to the under-world, there was scarcely any part of the earth to which his long legs did not sometimes carry him; and especially in the far North he was a familiar figure long after Odin had gone from the earth.
In some parts of Sweden the old horse had, until quite recently, a troublesome habit of running through the harvest fields and making sad tangles of the standing grain. And so it was that, as soon as the oats or barley was tall enough, the farmers would cut and tie up a fair sheaf of it, and lay it high up on a fence where the frolicsome old fellow would be sure to see it before getting into the field.
"Ah! how kind the dear farmer is to provide this sheaf of sweet barley for me," Sleipnir would say to himself. "I really cannot have the heart to tangle his grain."