The 13th Guest

The following is an article from Uncle John’s All-Purpose Extra Strength Bathroom Reader.

Today is Friday the 13th.  In the course of researching the fear of the number 13, the BRI crew stumbled across this story that is widely regarded as the origin of that superstition- this Norse tale of the death of the god Baldur, who symbolized beauty and good in the world. What’s the connection? The murderer, Loki, was the 13th guest at a dinner honoring Baldur’s memory. The idea that #13 symbolized evil took hold in the Norse culture, and spread to the rest of Europe. Here’s the tale, from Myths & Legends of the Ages.

Baldur was the son of Frigga, the Queen of the Norse gods. Baldur was the most beautiful of the gods, and he was also gentle, fair, and wise. Wherever he went, people were happy at just the sight of him.He was not only the favorite of his mother, but the favorite of all the other gods.

One night, Baldur dreamed three dreams. Each dream was more terrible than the one before it. In the third dream, he found himself in a dark, lonely place. He heard a sad voice cry, “The sun is gone! The spring is gone! Joy is gone! For Baldur, the beautiful, is dead!”

The young god was very much upset. He told his lovely young wife, Nanna, about these sad and terrifying dreams. Nanna ran weeping to Queen Frigga, saying, “Oh mother, this must not come true!”

Queen Frigga was deeply frightened. But she spoke soothingly and said, “Do not fear, Nanna. Baldur is so dear to all the world, how could anything in the world want to hurt him?”

But Queen Frigga was frightened. She thought of a plan. “I will travel all over the heavens and all over the world,” she said. “I will make all things promise not to hurt my boy.”

First, she went to the gods themselves. She told them of Baldur’s dreams. She implored them to promise that none of them would ever hurt Baldur. They all promised gladly.

Then Frigga traveled all over the world step by step. From all things, she got the same promise. From the trees and the plants; from the stones and the metals; from earth, air, fire, and water; from sun, snow, wind, and rain; and from all the diseases that men know -every creature and every thing promised not to harm Baldur.

At last, the weary but joyful Queen returned to Asgard, home of the gods. Frigga brought the happy news: there was nothing in the world that would hurt Baldur. And there was great rejoicing in Asgard. All the gods felt relieved. When someone suggested they play a game which would prove how wrong the dream was, everyone agreed.

They placed Baldur at one end of the field. He stood there in all his golden beauty, his face glowing with a bright light like that of the sun. And as he stood there unarmed and smiling,  the other gods took turns shooting arrows at him, hurling their spears against him, throwing sticks and stones, and every stone fell harmless at Baldur’s feet; every arrow and spear turned aside as it reached his body. Baldur stood serene and smiling. Nothing would hurt him.

But among the crowd, there is one who did not smile. Loki the crafty one, Loki the evil one, did not laugh and cheer like the others. Loki was filled with jealous anger and malice. Baldur had never done him any harm, yet Loki hated him; for Loki knew full well that no one in the world loved him the same as they loved Baldur. An evil plan took shape in Loki’s mind. While the others were engaged in the happy game, Loki disguised himself as an old woman, and made his way to Queen Frigga.

"Good day, my lady," he said. “What is all that excitement and noise over in the field?”

"Don’t you know?" answered Queen Frigga in surprise. “They are shooting at my son Baldur. They are proving the promise that every creature and every thing has made, not to injure him. You see, the promise is being kept.”

The old woman pretended to be surprised. "Really!” she cried. “Do you mean to say that every single  thing in the whole world has promised not to hurt Baldur? It is true that he is a fine fellow, but still that is a remarkable thing. Have you gotten such a promise from absolutely everyone in the world?”

“Oh yes,” said Queen Frigga. “Everyone has promised. Of course, there is one tiny little plant so small and unimportant that I did not even bother to ask.”

“And what little plant is that?” said the old woman.

“It is the mistletoe that grows nearby. It is really too harmless to bother with,” said Frigga.

Loki hobbled away, but as soon as he saw that no one was noticing him, he picked up his gown and ran as fast as he could to the spot where the little mistletoe grew. With his knife, Loki cut off as piece of mistletoe, whittled it and shaped it until it was a slender arrow. Then he hobbled back to the field where the merry game was still going on. In one corner of the field stood Hod, the blind brother of Baldur. Loki, in the guise of an old woman, tapped his arm.

“Why are you not taking part in the merry game?” she asked. “They all do honor to your brother. Surely you ought to do so, too.”

Then Hod touched his sightless eyes. “Ah,” he said. “I am blind. How would I rejoice to give honor to my dear brother but I cannot see to aim a weapon.”

“You ought to at least throw a little stick,” said the old woman. “Here is a little green twig that you can use as a dart. I will guide your arm while you throw it.”

Hod smiled and stretched forth his arm eagerly. Then Loki placed the arrow of mistletoe in Hod’s hand, and taking careful aim, hurled it straight at Baldur’s heart. With a cry, Baldur fell forward on the grass. Everyone rushed forward. They could not understand what happened. When they saw that Baldur was dead, they knew that it was the end of sunshine and spring and joy at Asgard. The terrible dream had come true!

They turned upon Hod, ready to tear him to pieces. “What is it? What have I done?” asked the poor, blind brother.

“What have you done? You have slain Baldur!” they cried.

“No! No!” cried Hod. “I could never have done such a thing. It was the old woman who stood at my elbow and gave me a little twig to throw. She must be a witch.”

The gods scattered all over the field to look for the old woman, but she had mysteriously disappeared. Then they noticed that Loki was not amongst them. “It must have been Loki!” they said.

The heartbroken gods placed Baldur on a beautiful ship to send him to Queen Hela, the Queen of Death. And weeping and wailing, they sent him on his way. But Queen Frigga sent a message to Hela to find if there was some way to win Baldur back from the Kingdom of Death.

“I would let him go if I might,” Queen Hela said, “but a queen cannot always do as she likes. There is only one way that you can bring Baldur back to life, If everything on earth weeps for Baldur’s death, then he may return. But should even one creature fail to weep, Baldur must remain with me.”

The gods sent messages all over the world bidding every creature to weep for Baldur’s death. There seemed to be little need for such a message, for already there was weeping and mourning in every part of the world. Even the giants, who were enemies of the gods, wept for Baldur. It began to look as though Baldur might be ransomed from Death.

But when all the messengers returned to Asgard, one of them told of an ugly old giantess in a deep black cave who refused to weep for Baldur. The messenger had begged her to weep but the giantess had answered, “Baldur is nothing to me. I care not whether he lives or dies.” So all the tears of the sorrowing world were useless, and Baldur would not return, because one creature would not weep.

To divert their sadness at the loss of their beloved Baldur, and to make them forget Loki’s treachery, Aegir, the god of the sea, invited the twelve remaining gods to a banquet.

The twelve gods gladly accepted the invitation -none refused. But in the middle of the feast, evil Loki, the thirteenth god, appeared, uninvited. When they told him to leave, he cursed them and in a rage of jealousy, he slew Aegir’s servant. Angered at the senseless murder, the gods drove Loki from the banquet.

Scarcely had they recovered from this terrible interruption to their feast, when Loki appeared once more, slandering the gods, taunting them with their weaknesses and imperfections, deriding them for their mistakes. Gathered as a group, the gods were forbidden violence, yet Loki’s voice grew louder and louder until Thor could bear it no more.

“Loki has done his last evil deed,” shouted Thor the Thunderer, as he lifted his mighty hammer. “Come, my brothers,” Thor fired, “We have wept long enough. It is now time to punish!”

Loki tried to escape by changing himself into a fish, hiding in a deep river. “They’ll never be able to find me here,” he said.

But although Odin, the All-Father, had only one eye, he could see everything in the world. He could see down through thick mountains and down into the deepest sea. Odin took a net and scooped Loki out of the river. When he grasped Loki’s slippery fish body, Loki was changed back into his own shape. There he stood, surrounded by the wrathful gods.

“Kill him! Kill him!” they shouted, as Odin pushed him along the road to Asgard. And on the way to the rainbow bridge which led from Asgard to Midgard, the land of the humans, thousands of men lined the road shouting “Kill him! Kill him!”

From their caverns in the mountains came the dwarfs. They stood shaking their fists at Loki. The beasts growled and bared their fangs as if they wanted to tear Loki into pieces; the birds flew at him trying to peck out his eyes; insects came in clouds to sting him, and serpents bared their fangs at him, ready to poison him with their deadly bite. But Odin decided on an even worse punishment than death. He led Loki down into a damp, dark cave under the ground where sunlight never shone. The cave was full of ugly toads and snakes. In this terrible prison chamber, Loki was placed upon three sharp stones. He was bound with iron bands, so that no one could ever loosen them. The bands cut into Loki as he lay.

Over his head was hung a venomous serpent. From its mouth, poison which stung and burned like fire, dropped onto Loki’s face.

Everybody in the world hated Loki except one. In spite of all his wickedness, Loki’s wife, Sigyn, remained faithful to him. She stood by his head and held a bowl to catch the poison which dripped from the serpent’s jaw, so that it would not reach Loki’s face. But whenever the bowl became full, Sigyn had to take it away to empty it and then the burning, terrible drops of poison fell on Loki’s face.

Under the cavern, Loki still lies, struggling to be free. When the poison falls upon his face, he shrieks and struggles so violently that the whole earth trembles. Then people cry, “An earthquake!” and they run away as fast as they can. For Loki, the evil one, though bound, is still dangerous. And bound as he is, Loki will stay imprisoned until the end of the world.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's All-Purpose Extra Strength Bathroom Reader. The 13th book in the series by the Bathroom Reader's Institute has 504 pages crammed with fun facts, including articles on the biggest movie bombs ever, the origin and unintended use of I.Q. test, and more.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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