I spent the weekend thinking about a heathen response (not “the” heathen response) to the unimaginably terrible shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut this past Friday. I wasn’t sure if I should even attempt to write one, because I intended this blog to specifically not be a current events blog. Still, I’m a theologian by training, and this is where the rubber hits the road where religion is concerned.
This is a pastoral question. What can one say about a senseless massacre in which 20 completely innocent children were murdered, along with 6 adults who were by all accounts doing everything they could to protect their charges? How does one make sense of that?
The Asatru answer is, “You don’t. “ I turned to the Eddas to see what I could find there, and the passages that seemed to echo the situation in Newtown were those concerning the death of Baldr.
What we see in this story is a community in mourning. Baldr, the pure and beautiful son of Odin and Frigga, has been senselessly killed. There’s lots of blame to go around. Loki killed Baldr for reasons unknown, or Hoedur killed Baldr without Loki’s assistance because he wanted Nanna, Baldr’s wife. Frigga should have made the mistletoe swear not to harm Baldr. Finally, why did Baldr allow people to throw arrows and other missiles at him anyway? Was he that proud of his newly-acquired Superman powers?
None of this makes one blessed bit of difference because Baldr is dead, and he’s not coming back.
The community of Aesir and Vanir come to the funeral. Odin whispers something in Baldr’s ear before they lift him into the boat that will be his pyre. Nanna dies or commits suicide because she cannot live without her husband, and she is laid beside him to be cremated. Thor raises Mjollnir to bless the funeral pyre, but a dwarf thoughtlessly walks in front of him so Thor kicks him into the fire in his rage.
This is significant. Thor, who is known for his holiness, who is bringing the sacred to the funeral, strikes out in anger and another life is lost. To my thinking, this is something that happens to a lot of us religious folk and clergy. In the face of intense sorrow we strike out at people over stupid things at the precise moment when we’re supposed to be holy and priestly. This is a call for us to keep a close eye on our reactions, because if the mighty god Thor can lose it out of grief, so can we. Grief is more powerful than Thor.
It is also more powerful than Frigga. Frigga attempted the impossible when she asked for every being in the nine worlds to swear not to hurt her son. She attempts it again when she has Odin send Hermod to Hel to see if he can bring Baldr back from the dead. Frigga attempts the impossible a third and final time when she asks every being in the nine worlds to weep for Baldr, the condition for his return.
But again, none of this makes one blessed bit of difference. Baldr is dead. He’s not coming back. Frigga is a mother, though, and one cannot think less of her for trying. What loving mother wouldn’t attempt the impossible, multiple times, for the sake of her child?
Grief, anger, unanswerable questions, the wish of a parent to move heaven and earth in order to have their baby back. The mourning in Asgard over Baldr mirrors that of Newtown, or any place that’s seen its children die long before their time. If we look at the story for comfort, we won’t find any. The events surrounding the death of Baldr show us that the gods aren’t any more immune from death and sorrow than we are. We can point to the details on how all of them react to tragedy and see ourselves in the mother who is made irrational by grief, the angry father who will have vengeance at the cost of others’ suffering, the clergy doing or saying something stupid in the heat of their own emotion. We have gods who understand what we’re going through because they’ve gone through it themselves. Blessed be.
At this point, someone is probably thinking about how Baldr is going to come back and take Odin’s place after the Ragnarok. Someone else is also thinking about how Baldr is drinking mead with Hel in her beautifully decorated hall. Assuming that these two details are true, how likely is it that reminding Frigga of that would comfort her? Baldr may be content and safe where he is, but Frigga can’t see him or talk to him or share confidences about the future with him. When Baldr does return to Frigga, it will cost Odin’s life for him to do so. Frigga is a wise and loving goddess, but she is also a very sad one.
This brings me to the only advice I can give about the massacre or any other comparable tragedy. If you wouldn’t say it to Frigga about Baldr, don’t say it to another human about whatever loss they’ve suffered. Bring a casserole and offer to be there. Otherwise, take a page from Frigga’s book and remain silent.