I came across an article on Burgundian 6th century belt buckles by Speidel that appear to depict a scene from Balder‘s travel to Hel which was lost by the time of the Eddas. It seems to be a missing part of Baldrs Draumar. Loki‘s role as Balder’s adversary continues beyond death. They may depict a previously unknown gift to humanity of Balder’s. Our understanding of Hela is greatly improved as well.
The Image on the Saint-Maur Buckle
On the left, a tall woman leans out from a door, stepping to the right. In her right hand is a bent object, probably a torch. She is very tall and wears a dress with a long coat, similar to those worn by Scandinavian women at the time. Her hair is long and loose. Her raised eyebrows and open mouth show her anxiety and anger as she looks to the figure in the middle.
The middle figure is a short bird-man. His body is bell shaped and striped; his head is human. He wears a tight cap over messy hair and although he has eyes and his right eyebrow is angled in anger, he has no mouth. Two wings emerge from behind him, and his left arm can be seen.
Between the arm and bird tail is a twig with berries and four or five leaves on each side. His left wing shows ruffled feathers as if the tall woman is bothering him. He faces us, feet turned out, but leans away from the woman and toward the lion on his right.
The giant lion rears up on his back legs and roars at the man on his right. This man stands firmly facing us, feet turned outward. His head is turned partly to the right where another smaller lion attacks. The smaller lion is in position to tear open the man’s chest with one paw and his penis with another. The man stabs the larger lion on the left in the mouth with a curved sword. His bare left hand is shoved into the smaller lion’s mouth, while his thumb points to his own mouth.
The man’s chin sticks out. He’s bearded with sharp eyes. His hair has six curls that loop on the left into a hair knot. Rising from his head are nine rays. Around his neck is a narrow double necklace. His kirtle and undershirt are raised. And the man does something not found in Christian art but is known in Germanic magick: his pants are down enough to show his penis.
There is a Christian inscription around the buckle, but it covers something else. It’s hard to know what is underneath. In some places it’s letters while the rest may be knotwork. Unlike most buckles of the time, the inscription does not describe the image.
Who are these Heathen deities? Comparison with contemporary Heathen jewellery from Denmark and the Visigoths gives us the answers. The Kongsvad bracteates depict the same bird-man with a horizontally striped, bird-shaped trunk and a twig of mistletoe. Always portrayed as shorter than the other deities, He is Loki. The fifth and sixth centuries’ three-god bracteates from Gudme show Loki with bird wings and tail, a human arm and His symbolic mistletoe. Loki’s lack of a mouth may refer to when His lips were sewn closed by the dwarf Brokk.
We know this is Loki. He has His symbols. In the sixth century, this is how He was depicted and Germanic tribes from Spain to Denmark. Everyone understood what the symbols meant. Loki, the main agent of change in Norse mythology, is a bird-man. Normally He is depicted in scenes from myth with other deities, but a belt buckle from Lavigny in Switzerland depicts Loki alone and menacing, with bird claws for feet. We know exactly how Loki looked to the pre-Viking Heathens. (I think it would be wonderful for today’s Heathens to depict Him (and the other deities) in Their traditional ways.)
In the Eddas, the falcon cape He borrows or takes from Freya. Perhaps the cape was His originally. However, because Frigga has a hawk cape, I tend to believe that the bird of prey is a well established aspect of these Germanic Goddesses. Both names Freya and Frigga originally came from the same proto-Indo-European root found in the Sanskrit Priya “beloved.” In the early migration into Central Europe, the people who would later develop the Celtic and Germanic languages changed the meaning to “free” which probably reflected Their noble status as the leader Goddesses.
A Visigothic belt buckle from the same time depicts Balder on His way to Hel, with the same bird-man Loki between Him and Hela. The small Loki stands on a wild beast. The world tree with a throne, a wolf and an eagle stands between Loki and Hela.
As seen on the Cottel buckle and other metal work, a common way to identify Balder is with the rays rising straight up from His head. Balder typically wears a double necklace. The Himlingøje silver cups, the Grésin tile, and several bracteates all depict Him with curls. We now know that Balder has curly hair and wears a double necklace.
Balder also shows His penis to menacing beasts on the Visigothic Herrera buckle. The lions are replaced with a wolf and snake here and on the Cottel buckle. (Perhaps they are Loki’s other “monster” children?) They fit into the Germanic mythology and cultural fears better than the lions. The Völuspá mentions a warg-wolf and the Nidhögg dragon as dangers to those on the journey to Hel:
“There Nidhögg sucked
corpses of the dead;
the wolf slit men.”
In the magickal fight with the two animals Balder not only exposes his penis on the Saint-Maur buckle and Herrera buckle, but also on the Pramay disc and the Grésin tile. It is large and wards Him. It is interesting that on a journey to the World of the Dead, His life-giving penis is His magickal weapon.
While Balder‘s death is certainly an important myth in the Eddas, we learn very little about Balder Himself. He is a relatively passive figure in such an important myth. Balder’s protective fertility gives us a chance to gain a more complete understanding of who this key Germanic God is. Although some people interpret Him as the Sun, that has never “worked” for me. After all, we have Sunna.
Much of Norse mythology is about the creation of our cosmos from the gap between the raw materials of ice and fire (usually water and fire in Indo-European cultures) and the beloved Indo-European cow. Typical for Indo-European myth, the first ritual sacrifice is of the first being (the Jotun Ymir) whose body is divided into the world. The world tree appears with the three important wells at its roots, the Norns exist and water the tree with Wyrd, and deities turn drift wood into humans. While Thor and Loki go on adventures, Odin constantly prepares for the battle between the Jotun and the Aesir that will usher in the end of our cosmos with another time of fire and ice.
We are promised that the cycle will begin again. The world tree remains, with a female and male human hidden in its trunk. Asgard is renewed. Odin‘s favorite son Balder (who was safely hidden in Hel, the realm of the dead), takes His father’s place, joined by the other children of the Aesir and perhaps the Goddesses and Vanir such as Njord.
Balder certainly is a God of tomorrow’s rebirth, but not that of the Sun. Balder shines, but so does Heide, Heimdall, Sif‘s hair, Gerda, etc. The proto-Indo-European meaning of deity is “shining ones” probably referring to the Sun, moon and stars. Shining is what deities usually do.
Balder seems more related to Hindu concepts of Ages, the cycle of generating (Brahma), operating (Vishnu) and destruction (Shiva). These three Gods have lifespans of Their own, and reincarnate as Themselves after death. The world and the Universe always live again. Greek and Irish mythology wonderfully explain past ages and their monsters or deities, but don’t tell us about what will come next. Gaulish Druids, according to Roman sources, taught that the soul was immortal until it and this world are destroyed by water and fire. Water and fire are the main Indo-European ways to purify from disruptive forces. Combined, they are the Indo-European source of wisdom, spiritual connection, creative inspiration, healing, Sovereignty, etc.
The Norse give us information about the way our cosmos started and will (or may have, according to some Pagans) end and be reborn. The myth Balder’s Dream explains how the trouble-making Loki tricks Balder into being killed. Then Loki ruins Balder’s chance to leave Hel. Although the deities grieve, this keeps Balder safe until the next cosmos is born. If Balder lived only to die when the Jotun and Aesir kill each other, there would be no God to be chieftain of the Aesir in the next cosmos. Loki makes sure that the prophecies which Odin learned from the dead volva will come true. Loki often does Odin‘s dirty work, like stealing Freya‘s necklace for Odin. As the two are blood brothers, perhaps this is Loki’s role. Yet Loki seems to have gone even further originally.
Depicted in these belt buckles, Balder travels Helveg the path to Hel, the same road Balder’s half-brother Hermóðr took to find Him. We learn that Balder has to fight two monstrous creatures that Loki put in His way. Here Balder is an active figure in His journey to become ruler of the next cosmos. But He may also serve as a trailblazer on Helveg, a type of psychopomp. Even though Balder does not guide the dead, He does fight the monsters we’ll have to face.
The buckle may be showing the dangers almost all of us will face when traveling to Hel. Odin encountered a traditional Indo-European dog guarding the road to Hel. Although the lions could have been adapted from the Christian legend of Daniel and the lions, two hounds are common in Indo-Iranian myth. In the Avesta the bridge the dead must cross is guarded by two dogs, while according to the Vedas Yama has His own two hounds that seize the dead. The people who became Germanic speaking tribes may have believed that two hounds guarded the road to Hel. Perhaps these buckles served as reassuring reminders of how Balder successfully completed the journey we will take, and when that time comes Hela will welcome us to Her realm.
Hela is always depicted on on bracteates as a very tall, grim woman, attired in a long dress, standing in or by her hall. Holding up an object thought to be a torch, She greets the newly dead. Burgundian and Frankish buckles and fibulas show Her hair as pointing down the center of Her forehead. A similar image is on the Mauland medallion. Hela uses Her torch to scare off Loki and His lions as She welcomes Balder. Hela will light our way and help us overcome the snake and wolf, the two lions or hounds, that may attempt to make us draugar. (The draugar will be discussed further.)
The belt buckle also depicts a cuirass, which is also found on the the bracteate IK 3. On the bracteate Hela receives the trophy of a cuirass on a pole from Balder’s wife Nanna, so we know that Nanna was in the myth even then. The funeral gift of fabric may be Frigga preparing Nanna to take Frigga’s role as spinner of destiny with the ability to know everything which will happen.
Hela obviously understands Her special role as guardian of Odin‘s favorite son. Loki‘s interference worries Hela enough to move against Her father and cause Him some frustration. The Eddas never describe the relationship between these two family members who play such important roles in Norse mythology. Here perhaps we see that Hela, like the other deities, is angered by Her father when He disrupts the right order and jeopardizes the cosmos. And He does this in HER realm.
There’s a clear separation between the living and the dead which people worldwide maintain with funerals involving psychopomp deities. (I believe that much of the separation comes from the practical awareness that dead bodies rot and attract disease spread by flies. Death must not pollute the drinking water either. The Greek concept of miasma may have possibly originated at least in part due to the physical pollution caused by dead bodies.) The Saxons hung blackberry or raspberry branches in windows and on doors to prevent the return of the recently deceased. Until the dead reach where they are meant to be, most societies have traditions to protect the living from following the dead, and to keep the dead from returning.
Funeral rites keep the protective order of purity in place. But if Balder, the most pure of the Gods, cannot reach Hel, where will He go? He cannot return to the living and Loki strives to keep him from His rightful place in Hel. But Hela knows Her role in preserving Balder. She is so concerned that She watches from the gate in Hel’s fence, waving Her torch at Loki and upsetting His feathers. If something goes wrong when we travel along Helveg, we can count on Hela to maintain the proper order.
There’s a long history of Germanic, even proto-Germanic, peoples fearing the return of the dead. “Usually in the sagas the attempts of the living are concentrated on keeping the dead within the grave….” wrote Hilda Roderick Ellis, explaining that “Draugr is the word used for the animated corpse that comes forth from its grave-mound, or shows restlessness on the road to burial.” The Celto-Germanic words developed by Indo-European tribes probably in Central Europe 4,000 years ago include the root of draugar, showing just how ancient this fear is.
Dwarves are considered by many scholars to have a connection with the dangerous dead. Originally made from maggots, dwarves live underground and often having names meaning “Black,” “Deceased,” “Torpid,” “Death,” “Corpse,” “Cold,” and “Buried beneath the Cairn.” Thor keeps the dwarf Alvíss “The One Who Knows All” engaged in conversation until the sun rises and the dwarf turns to stone. (I think it is important to remember that Thor defeated Alvíss with His wits, because too often is He treated like a stupid thug.)
The Belt Buckles
The Visigoths in Spain wore belt buckles depicting the same deities as Scandinavians. Although the 6th century Burgundians belt buckles usually are about Christian themes, two well known ones, the buckles from Saint-Maur and Saint-Quentin, provide us with ancient images of Heathen deities. The buckle from Saint-Maur is 10 x 5 cm.
Steel Bars, Sacred Water is available directly from Gullveig Press at a lower price than at Amazon. All proceeds go to sending free copies to incarcerated Pagans. We have special bulk order and prison clergy/ volunteer prices and Australian discounts, as Amazon Australia does not carry the book. We will happily buy a prisoner a copy if you donate $12 U.S.! And remember to donate used paperbacks on almost any topic to your nearest books-to-prisoners organization. Many prisoners are functionally illiterate, so your donation will improve on average seven prisoners ability to read per book!
Albertsson, Alaric, Travels Through Middle Earth: the Path of a Saxon Pagan. Llewellyn Publications (2009)
Ellis, Hilda Roderick, M.A., PhD., THE ROAD TO HEL A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature, Idunnas Press (2011)
Hyllested, Adam, The Precursors of Celtic and Germanic, Proceedings of the 21st Annual UCLA Indo-European Conference (2010)
Lecouteux, Claude, Encyclopedia of Norse and German folklore, mythology, and magic, Jon Graham trans. Michael Moynihan editor. Inner Traditions (2016)
Mierzwick, Tony, Hellenismos: Practicing Greek Polytheism Today. Llewellyn (2018)
THE POETIC EDDA Translated with an Introduction and Explanatory Notes by Lee M. Hollander, 2nd Edition Revised, University of Texas (1962)
Sturluson, Snorri, The Prose Edda, Jesse L Byock trans. Penguin Classics (2005)
Speidel, Michael P., Burgundian Gods on Sixth-Century Belt Buckles. (2010)
Swami Achuthanada, The Reign of the Vedic Gods. Relianz Communications Pty Ltd (2018)