Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Odin Knows That Baldur Must Go

Baldur - Artwork by Dave Migman

Baldur's Dreams

As a youth, Baldur was plagued by nightmares. Visions of his death assailed his dreams and he went to Asgard for help. The gods were aghast; how could the mild natured son of Odin suffer so? Baldur of the radiant brow didn’t have a bad bone in his body. His father, Odin, would surely be able to put meaning to his dreams. 


Odin decided to go the land of the dead, for he knew well the ways of the dead. But an issue such as this, so close to his heart, urged drastic measures. He readied Sleipnir and charged along the road to Niflhel; a realm of dank mists that lay deeper than Hel’s abode. After slipping past the realm’s guardian, Odin entered by the eastern door. Beyond it he came to a hall decorated for a festivity. 


He sought the grave of a wise seeress and cast his magic to raise her. Odin announced himself as Vegtam, the Traveller, and asked her for whom the hall was made ready. Reluctantly the seeress answered his questions: the high chair was prepared for his son and it would be Hodr the Blind who would kill Baldur. Another of his sons, Vali, would avenge Baldur’s death.


Baldur’s mother, Frigg, devised a plan to save their son. She would travel the nine worlds and take a pledge from everything there was not to harm their son. Once her task was completed, the Asgardians tested the ploy by making Baldur stand in a field, while they cast different missiles at him. It worked; spears glanced from his skin, rocks bounced harmlessly from his radiant brow. He was invulnerable.


Loki was unimpressed. He disguised himself as an old woman, bent and buckled under her shawls. Visiting Frigg’s hall, Fensalir, he spied on the goddess until he learned that Frigg’s quest hadn’t totally gone to plan — there was one thing that hadn’t sworn the oath: mistletoe. It had looked too young to ask and therefore Frigg left it alone. Loki left the hall. 


He took a sprig of mistletoe back to the field, where the gods were still making sport of Baldur. He offered the blind god, Hodr, his sprig to cast. “Don't worry, I will guide your aim,” Loki assured him. Hodr tossed the sprig at the target and it pierced Baldur’s chest clean through. The radiant one fell dead upon the field. Odin not only felt the depth of the grief for the loss of his son, he also knew what Baldur’s death foretold. Ragnorak would surely come now. 


Baldur’s Brother, Hermod, sped to Hel at the instigation of Frigg. She reasoned that, with Hermod as emissary, they might broker a deal with Hel herself and ransom Baldur. Borrowing Sleipnir, Hermod departed for Niflhiem. 


Baldur’s funeral was attended by many others from across the nine worlds.  His still corpse was placed in his sun-ship, Hringhorni and the Aesir prepared a funeral pyre beneath the body. But when the gods tried to shift the ship toward the shore, it would not budge. A giantess, Hyrrokkin, was summoned from Jötunheim. She shoved the boat into the ocean with ease. At the sight of her husband’s body, Nanna, Baldur’s wife, dropped dead and was placed on the boat beside him. As the flames were set, Odin took his magical ring, Draupnir, and placed it on his son’s corpse. 


Hermod Rides to Hel - Artwork by Dave Migman

Who Won't Weep for Baldur?

Meanwhile Hermod rode to Hel and after riding nine long nights he reached the Hel-gate. There Hermod met with Hel. She had great power in that realm, more than Odin himself, for her minions were all the dead that didn't die in battle. She wasn’t going to surrender her new acquisition easily: If Baldur was so greatly loved, then he would only be returned on condition that everything in the nine worlds, dead or alive, wept for him. Baldur led Hermod from the hall, giving to him Odin’s ring, for remembrance.

 Trees wept, flowers wept, even the stones shed tears for Baldur – all except Thokk, a frost giantess. “Let Hel keep what hold she has,” she grumbled, and so Hel would do exactly that. Of course, Thokk was Loki in disguise, but the damage had been done and Baldur remained in the underworld. However, it was told that after Ragnorak he would be released, returning to the world of men in the new age that followed.  


Meanwhile another son of Odin, Vali, avenged his brother by slaying Hodr. The Aesir hunted down Loki, capturing him, they bound him in a cave, where a serpent spewed poison over his face. 

But What Does it all Mean?


This is a deeply significant story – Baldur is associated with the sun, not the sun itself, but brightness, light or radiance (some also suggest his name suggest has links with fertility too). He is a god of peace and virtue. Many petroglyphs of sun boats can be found Scandinavia, dating to the bronze-age, when solar cults were popular. There is even one example in which a giant lifts one up, evocative of Hyrrokkin’s role in shifting Baldur’s ship.  The tale is loaded with clever symbology, such as when Odin reaches Niflhel, entering via the eastern door — for though the dead are said to ‘sail out west’, entry to Hel’s domain is by the east. 


In many ways the tale parallels myths from other cultures and tells of the sacrificed god, who descends but is ultimately reborn. He is a solar deity, plunging into the underworld during the winter to stand in the court of Hel. He does not come there as one of her minions, but is set upon a high seat, honoured by his followers, the ásmergin, who provide him with food and sacred mead. The event is part of a cosmic cycle, and his killing and descent are necessary, for the cycle must be completed. Despite the efforts of his mother, his descent cannot be halted. 


Perhaps Loki understands this: Baldur is depleted. He stands in the field while the gods make sport flinging things at him — a scene that is hardly conducive with Baldur’s description as the fairest of the gods, for it’s almost as if they’re mocking him. Does Frigg’s word not stand alone, that they must take it upon themselves to test it out?  When Hermod seeks him in Hel, Baldur does not plead to be released, or protest his descent, in fact he and Nanna offer gifts that symbolise otherworldly fertility: Draupnir, a golden ring that begets more rings. Gold is also directly associated with solar-symbolism. 


It’s also of interest to note where Baldur goes when he’s slain. He does not perish in battle, so the hall of his father, Valhalla, is ruled out, he goes to Hel’s realm — but there he is honoured. 


The cycles of nature persist, even the gods cannot halt them. The Alfather knows this well. Gifted with prophecy and foresight, he knows what Baldur’s descent presages, the twilight of the Gods will come, all with be sundered. But the cycles persist, they are part of ancient culture. The new age will arise and Baldur will ascend once more.


Odin - Stone Carving by the Author, Dave Migman


One Last Mystery

The tale holds one final mystery, concerning the father and the son. In a riddling contest between Odin (disguised as Gestumblindi) and the viking king, Heidrek, the question is put forth by old One-eye: “What did Odin Whisper in Baldur’s ear while he was borne on the pyre?” Suddenly seeing through Odin’s disguise, Hiedrek cries in fury at his failing, for only Odin knows the answer to that question.

Read about Odin HERE


1 - Encyclopaedia Mythology - Arthur Cotterell

2 - Encyclopaedia of Norse & Germanic Folklore, Mythology & Magick - Claude Lecouteux

3 - Encyclopaedia of Ancient Dieties - Charles Russell Coulter & Patricia Turner

4 - Norse Mythology - A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals & Beliefs - John Lindow

5 - The Poetic Edda - Various Artists

6 - The Prose Edda -Snorri Sturlusson

7 - Heathen Paths -Viking and Saxon Pagan Beliefs - Pete Jennings

Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Sacred Landscape of the Ancient Scottish Past - An Investigation

The Queensberry Hill from the Ae Forest

Queensberry - What’s in a Name

Seen from Dumfries and the Annandale valley, the Queensberry is a conical hill, rising above the foothills of the Ae and Kinnel Rivers. It sits alone, and is distinct from the other hills, rising like a fecund belly. 


I believe that landmarks, such as the Queensberry, were singled out as ‘manifestations’ of the divine in ancient times. In Scotland, the names of some hills, such as Caisteal na Caillich in Aberdeenshire, and hills called paps, are references to an ancient goddess. 

This being the case, my idea about the Queensberry isn’t so outlandish. 


But this hill had me stumped: did the Duke of Queensberry, and his estate, come from a family name, or was he named after the area? I set to work, ploughing through local antiquarian society records. From 1882 there is a reference to Queenshill, or Queensberg, in the description of a members’ outing. I also discovered that the first Earl of Queensberry, Sir William Douglas, was Viscount of Drumlanrig (1637-1695). The land was bequeathed to him during a visit by King Charles I, in 1633. Douglas built Drumlanrig Castle, but lived in Sanquhar castle.

I figured that I needed to find out if the hill’s name was Queensberry before William’s title. The best way to check this was to rifle through the National Library of Scotland’s online map vault. This is an amazing resource for anyone interested.


After much trawling, I found a hand drawn map by Timothy Pont, dated between 1583-96. Pont was a Fife man, who studied at St. Andrews in the 1500s. He undertook a mission to produce maps of Scotland and get them published, creating the first proper maps of the country.  In the sketch of the area in question, Pont names the conical hill as Queensberry - so the hill existed before the title. With a large grin on my chops, I ticked that box and moved on. What next? How about looking at the origins of the name? 


Etymologically let’s break it down: 


 Queensberry, Queensberg, Quenysbery, (c. 1485, Wallace).



Queen -  cwēn, Old English = a particular queen, or simply meaning ‘woman’. 

In Proto-Celtic: Ben, proto Indo-European, *gwenh = woman. 

Anglo Saxon - cenē, plural, cweneēs. Prot Germanic - *kwenō - kwenōniz = Queen

Old Irish ben, Irish - bean, Celtic bena.


Berry - Berg, Old English = A hill.


Queensberry from the Blue Cairn

The History of the Land 


The area was once Old Welsh speaking and of Brythonic Celtic origin - culminating in the kingdom of Rheged, which stretched as far as Carlisle and Stranraer. However, by the 6th Century A.D. the kingdom had fallen under the rule of the Saxon kingdom of Bernicia. 

The lands around the Queensberry, which includes the Forest of Ae, are still very much wilderness. The foothills that skirt the fertile Vale of Annandale, bordering the Kinnel to the east of this wilderness, and the the hills that gird Nithsdale to the west, are dotted with settlements, hill forts, enclosures and other archaeological remains. Cairns, such as Long Cairn, are situated in the heights. The rugged foothills have been lived on for centuries, for the lower ground was mostly bog and marsh.


Where ancient settlements existed in the pre-Christian past, we must assume that there was provision for each community’s needs; shelter, trade, food and worship. The Celts were known for their religious groves, but less so for their temples. It was said they worshipped in the open air. Geography, not buildings, were of importance to these tribespeople, especially pre-iron-age. 

It is nature that governs the choices of the sacredness of the terrain. A distinct landmark draws symbolic anchors. The stories carried by the peoples was transposed onto their settled locations, and, as new stories came, these were similarly woven into the landscape. The earth was no dead thing; it was animate, alive. Everything had its spirit, every fold in the land desired explanation. Some places just have presence. They affect us, draw us, almost inexplicably, like a mountain peak, a shard of rock. Heights draw the eye. 


The Queensberry hill, isolated from other hills, and therefore iconically distinct, formed a symbolic centre. I feel that this sacredness is hinted at in the name, and also location of the hill. 

Queensberry rising above the forest and the windmills

The Otherworldly Heights


The highlands, the peaks and the wilderness possessed an otherworldly aura to the ancient tribes. Here the liminal zone was one where boundaries between the mundane and the sublime were crossed. There’s a reason that the Bronze-agers chose to bury their dead on the hilltops. This was the realm of the gods and spirits, to which they consigned their ancestors, thus weaving their communities into the drama of the living land. These places were where commune was possible with the dead, with spirits and even their deities.  

This is not to single the Queensberry out as the only such hill. Of course not. The landscape of Greece abounds with sacred landscapes references - mountains, springs, rivers, etc - the Bronze-age British landscape was no different. There would be many sacred landscapes, pivoting on a sacred central point, with other sites radiating from it, according to myth and religious needs of the community. This template is still found in tribal societies and known from others in antiquity. 


This idea is important. In an age where everything it steadily commoditised, we need to regain this sense of sacred linking with the land. If we did see the landscape with a sense of awe, surely we'd respect it better? If the stories of your ancestors were woven into the basic tapestry of the land (your gods, your spirits), wouldn’t this make you less likely to abuse it? 

We can gain an immense sense of wonder at the science of it all, for sure. But when I walk amongst the wild, and walk the silent tracks, the Queensberry nudging into view, until it squats like a giant tumulus across the span of the horizon, I feel a sense of that awe that is ‘other’. The awe that is immeasurable, unconfined and wells from deep within.


1 - The Transactions & Proceedings of the Dumfries & Galloway Scientific, Natural History Antiquarian Society - 1880-83, 1896-7, 1993 

2 - Celtic Place Names in the Borders - May Gordon Williamson

3 - An Etymological Lexicon of Proto-Celtic - Matasovic

4 - The Anglo Saxon Charms - Felix Grendon

5 - Gallo-Brittonic Etymological Dictionary - Edward Hatfield

6 - European Paganism  - Ken Dowden

7 - Ancestral Geographies of the Neolithic; Landscapes, Monuments & Memory - Mark Edmonds

8 - Cosmos & History - Eliade Mircea