Among all peoples in early times the sun was an object of wonder. It was to them a mystery, but although they could never understand it, they imagined many explanations of it. When we remember that in those long-ago days nothing was known of the rotation of the earth or of its movement round the sun, we can readily see how very real the movement of the sun must have seemed. But if it moved across the sky it must be a chariot, for it was in chariots that all men travelled quickly, while none but a god could ride across the sky.
The nature of the sun may have been difficult to understand, but the comforts and the benefits which it brought to men were plain to all. It was a kindly god who gave the earth warmth and light, who ripened the crops and the fruit and made them serviceable to man, who clothed the trees with leaves and scattered the fields with flowers. It is little wonder then that in all parts of the world men worshiped the sun, and the god whom they pictured in their imagination was all the more real to them because of the great worh he performed.
We have seen how the Greeks and Romans worshiped the sun as Apollo, the god who set out each day when the Gates of the East had been opened by the Goddess of the Dawn, and, driving his chariot across the sky, dipped down into the oeean, where a boat awaited him to bring him back. Apollo was the most beautiful of the gods, as befitted the giver of light and happiness, and was worshiped throughout those sunny lands of the South. On the Island of Rhodes, off the coast of Asia Minor, stood one of the Seven Wonders of the World, a statue of Apollo. It was known as the Colossus of Rhodes on account of its size, for it was 100 feet high, the fingers of the god being as long as a man. It was placed at the entrance to a harbour, and remained in position for nearly sixty years, and was then (224 B.C.) overthrown by an earthquake.
The principal temples of Apollo were in the Island of Delos, and at Delphi in Greece, and it was at this town of Delphi that the great Pythian Games were held every four years in honour of the god. The games were so called because Apollo was believed to have slain at Delphi a dragon called Python.
The sun's daily journey, his contest with the darkness, and his final victory at the dawn of the new day are ideas which have led to endless stories, and we find these stories are very similar among different peoples. Ra, the great sun-god of Egypt, was pictured as travelling by day in a ship across the waters of the sky, and returning during the night through the kingdom of the dead. To the Egyptians Ra was a symbol of life, death, and a new birth or resurrection. Through the night Ra fought with the lord of the powers of darkness, a huge serpent, who awaited the sun in the west with a band of demons, and whom he overcame at the approach of dawn. Ra was always represented either as a hawk or as a man with a hawk's head, with the sun on his head. The hawk was chosen as his symbol, because it was said to fly towards the sun.
In India the sun was worshiped as the god Agni, who rode in a shining chariot drawn by blood-red horses. He was golden-haired, and had a double face, seven tongues, and seven arms.
Among the gods of the early British who were driven into Ireland was the sun-god Nudd, or Ludd, as he was sometimes called. His name appears in Ludgate, and it is thought that his temple stood on what is now Ludgate Hill in London. At a town called Lydney, in Gloucestershire, the remains of a temple to Ludd have been found, with many inscriptions containing his name.
The Angles and Saxons imagined the sun to be carried in a chariot driven by a maiden named Sol, as we shall read later. They had no god whom we can describe exactly as a sun-god, but several of their gods were like the sun in many ways, particularly Frey, whose sword sent out rays of light like the sun, and who caused the crops to ripen, and Balder the Beautiful, the God of Light, who was the favourite son of Odin, father of the gods, and was, as his name shows, the most handsome of the gods, ever happy and light-hearted. His golden hair and his bright, clear eyes shone like the sun, and his radiant smile warmed the hearts of all who met him. He knew no thought of evil, but was "good and pure, and bright, was loved by all, as all love light".
In spite of his lovable nature, however, Balder was destined to misfortune through his twin brother, Hodur, the God of Darkness, who was the exact opposite of his brother, for he was gloomy and silent, and suffered from blindness. Odin, through his great wisdom, knew that disaster was to come to Balder, and spared no effort to stave off the evil day, by making all things in creation swear that they would never harm the God of Light. This they were only too ready to do, and all made a solemn vow, with the one exception of a shoot of mistletoe, which was passed over as being too slight a thing ever to cause harm to anyone. Balder being now free from all possibility of hurt, the gods one day amused themselves by shooting and throwing at him, laughing gaily as the objects they threw fell short or turned aside. Now Loki, the God of Fire, was bitterly jealous of the God of Light, and, as he watched the sport, his evil nature prompted him to a cruel and cowardly deed. Having discovered that the mistletoe alone of all created things had made no promise, Loki hastened to the gate of Valhalla, where the mistletoe was growing and plucking it, by the help of his magical power quickly fashioned from it an arrow. He then returned and sought out Hodur, who, because of his blindness, was standing idly aside and taking no part in the sport. Loki pretended to take pity on him, and fitting the arrow to a bow which he placed in Hodur's hands, he offered to aim the shaft for the blind god. Aided by Loki, Hodur let fly the fatal arrow, and, to the horror and amazement of the gods, Balder fell dead. The anger of the gods against Hodur knew no bounds, and they would have killed him had it not been for their own law, which forbade the shedding of blood in Asgard, the home of the gods. All Asgard was plunged in the deepest grief, and Hermod, the messenger of the gods, was sent to Hel, the Goddess of the Underworld, praying her to restore Balder to life. Hel consented to do so, on condition that all created things should weep for Balder. Messengers were at once sent out over all the world to bid all things weep for Balder. Living creatures, trees, and flowers, and even the stones shed tears for the god they had loved so well; but at last a giantess was found whose only reply to the messengers was "Let Hel keep what she has". Thus the evil Loki, for he it was in the disguise of a giantess, showed once again his cruel hatred of Balder, and caused the whole earth to mourn the loss of the radiant God of Light.
The gods now prepared for the burial of Balder. As was the custom among the Northmen, fuel was piled on the deck of Balder's ship Ringhorn, and the body was then laid on the funeral pyre. The sides of the ship were decorated with rich cloth and garlands of flowers, and swords, armour, drinking-vessels, and many other things which the gods valued, were placed beside the hero. A torch was then put to the fuel, and the ship was launched. The funeral pyre floated slowly towards the west, the rising flames lighting up sea and sky, until at last, like the sun itself, it sank slowly into the sea, and all light faded from the sky.
Balder's Funeral Pyre
But when the gods and heroes heard, they brought
The wood to Balder's ship, and built a pile,
Full the deck's breadth, and lofty; then the corpse
Of Balder on the highest top they laid.
And they set jars of wine and oil to lean
Against the bodies, and stuck torches near,
Splinters of pine-wood, soak'd with turpentine,
And brought his arms and gold, and all his stuff,
And slew the dogs who at his table fed,
And his horse--Balder's horse--whom most he loved,
And placed them on the pyre, and Odin threw
A last choice gift thereon, his golden ring.
The mast they fixt, and hoisted up the sails,
Then they put fire to the wood; and Thor
Set his stout shoulder hard against the stern
To push the ship through the thick sands;--sparks flew
From the deep trench she plough'd, so strong a god
Furrow'd it; and the water gurgled in.
And the ship floated on the waves, and rock'd.
But in the hills a strong east wind arose,
And came down moaning to the sea; first squalls
Ran black o'er the sea's face, then steady rush'd
The breeze, and fill'd the sails, and blew the fire.
And wreathed in smoke the ship stood out to sea.
Soon with a roaring rose the mighty fire,
And the pile crackled; and between the logs
Sharp, quivering tongues of flame shot out, and leapt,
Curling and darting, higher, until they lick'd
The summit of the pile, the dead, the mast,
And ate the shrivelling sails; but still the ship
Drove on, ablaze above her hull with fire.
And the gods stood upon the beach, and gazed.
And while they gazed, the sun went lurid down
Into the smoke-wrapt sea, and night came on.
Then the wind fell with night, and there was calm;
But through the dark they watch'd the burning ship
Still carried o'er the distant waters on,
Farther and farther, like an eye of fire.
And long, in the far dark, blazed Balder's pile;
But fainter, as the stars rose high, it flared,
The bodies were consumed, ash choked the pile.
And as, in a decaying winter-fire,
A charr'd log, falling, makes a shower of sparks--
So with a shower of sparks the pile fell in,
Reddening the sea around; and all was dark.
MATTHEW ARNOLD--Balder Dead.