Descent

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Many religious traditions express the cyclic initiation associated with the vernal equinox as a descent into the underworld. Jesus, for example, is said to have spent three days in Hell at this time. A similar story concerns the journey of the Norse god Hermod, son of Odin, through the black mists of Niflheim into the underworld. His brother Balder, the sun god, had been slain with a twig of mistletoe by the blind god Hoder, guided by Loki, and Hermod undertook to free him from the realm of Hel, Loki’s daughter.

On his journey Hermod rode nine nights astride his father’s remarkable eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, through the inky darkness of a deep valley that bordered the frigid region of Hel’s domain. As he crossed the mighty river Gjoll, he was confronted by the warden of the bridge, who knew immediately that Hermod belonged among the living. But, determined of purpose, he passed her and rode without pause to the massive gates leading to Hel’s hall.

Because he was still alive, Hermod could not open the gates or penetrate the hall’s icy walls. Refusing to give up, he spurred Sleipnir toward the gates and with a mighty leap he bounded over. Passing the horrible shore of corpses, Hermod dismounted at Hel’s doors and walked boldly into the huge hall. Thousands of faces, millions of eyes, stared at him — he knew these to be the despairing dead trapped within the hall of the underworld. He soon saw his fair brother sitting quietly on a high seat at one end of the fog-filled room.

Hermod waited patiently in silence all night until at last Hel herself entered the room to greet him. Half of Hel’s face and body were those of a living woman, but her other half was that of a putrid, moldering corpse. Hermod told her that all Asgard mourned for his unfortunate brother, and asked if she would agree to let Balder return with him. She slowly replied that she did not agree that Balder was missed by all, and offered Hermod a test: “If everything in the nine worlds, dead and alive, weeps for Balder,” she promised with a sly smile, “let him return to Asgard. But if even one thing demurs, Balder must remain in Niflheim.”

Hermod rode without rest back to the heavenly Asgard, and word of the promise of Loki’s daughter went quickly to all the nine worlds. Soon everything was weeping. As messengers from Asgard were returning, convinced of the success of their mission, they came across a giantess sitting by herself in a cave. She alone refused to weep for Balder: “I have no use for him,” she answered to all their pleas. “Let Hel hold what she has.” Thus Balder was destined to remain with Hel. On hearing this despairing news, the gods knew that the giantess was none other than the shape-changer, Loki.

The tale of the slaying of Balder is typical of “dying gods” such as Tammuz, Adonis, Attis, and Osiris. It is the story of a divine one descending into a lower plane or sphere of existence. Many of these gods return again, resurrected like the vegetation in the spring. But some, like Balder, remain in the lower realms, to return to their rightful place only after “everything in the nine worlds, dead and alive, weeps.”

In Buddhism such a one is called a bodhisattva, and the underworld is this very earth. However, a bodhisattva is not a god, but a spiritually enlightened human being. Just as some gods descend into the underworld, so some enlightened ones, from time to time, are said to descend into material manifestation to be born into our world to keep truth alive among mankind and to help all living beings in whatever way they can. The true bodhisattva takes a solemn vow to incarnate in the world as long as even a single being needs his help.

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