Hermóðr, or Hermod in English, is attested in the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda. He is commonly described as a son of Óðin and brother of Baldr, and also as the messenger deity of Norse mythology. Hermóðr is often called Óðin’s Sveinn, which means “Odin’s boy” and this is specific to the context of a master and servant relationship, more so than biological father and child – perhaps referring to a relationship between the two that is more like that of a pageboy or a squire to his lord.
After the death of Baldr, Frigga promises her unwavering favour on whomever is brave enough to travel the dark road to the Underworld to beseech Hel to send her favourite son back to the Æsir. Hermóðr volunteers, and Óðin grants him his eight-legged mount, Sleipnir to ride down to Hel. For nine nights Hermóðr rides Óðin’s horse, arriving at Gjöll, the bridge to Hel which is shining with brilliant gold and guarded by the Valkyrie-like Jötunn maid Móðguðr, whose name
means “Battle-frenzy” or “Battle-tired”.
She challenges the lad at first, but upon hearing his quest allows him to pass. Móðguðr informs him that Baldr has indeed arrived in Hel and directs Hermóðr Northwards and down, the traditional direction of Hel (as opposed to the Irish Otherworld, which is always in the West).
Hermóðr comes to the wide gate of Hel and Sleipnir leaps over it, into the realm beyond. Arriving at Hel’s hall, he finds Baldr as the goddess’s feted guest of honour. Hermóðr informs Hel of his intentions and petitions her to make an exception to her duty – for it is the task given to her by Óðin to keep the dead in her domain and maintain the natural order (an order which becomes upended and reversed at Ragnarok). Hel hears him out, and agrees that if all creatures living and dead weep for Baldr, she will consent to his return.
Upon his leaving, Baldr gives Hermóðr the ring Draupnir, left with him on his funeral pyre by Óðin, to return it to the All-Father. Nanna likewise gives him a dress she has made for Frigga, and her own ring to gift to Fulla, Frigga’s handmaid and keeper of her jewels. The messenger returns with Hel’s reply, and the rest plays out as the tragic story we all know.
It should be noted that Hermóðr is the only being in the Norse myths who is allowed to enter and return from Hel. Not even Óðin is able to accomplish this.
In the Gesta Danorum, Hermóðr is described as a moral hero. This is similar to how Balderus and other deities are described by Saxxo Grammitcus. Some scholars theorize that Balderus and Hermóðr may thus be deified heroes, champions worshipped post-mortem as “Sons of Odin” – a title which all Einherjar could claim. In Saxxo’s tale, Hermóðr seems to continue in the tradition of being given things, in this case given a helm and mail coat by Óðin, possibly strengthening the case that Hermóðr is an Einherjar (deified warrior) rather than a true biological son.
In the poem Hákonarmál, Hermóðr receives the hero Hákon the Good as an Einherjar to Valhalla, and it is unclear if Hermóðr is an official god in this story.
Thoughts on Hermóðr
Hermóðr is described as Óðin’s Sveinn, probably as in “boy servant.” In English, the word is swain. Interestingly, this word also means boyfriend, as in suitor or male companion. Although Hermóðr is described as Óðin’s son, it must be pointed out that Óðin the All-Father is described as everyone’s father, not just those of his issue. Hence the “All” in All-Father.
We also know that Óðin practices Seidr, or witchcraft. Male seidr practice is described quite clearly in folklore, the myths, and sagas as being associated with male homosexuality. Óðin is accused by Loki in Lokasenna of such, and this is why it is such a shocking accusation for the Christian writer of the Poetic Edda. Scandal!
Although Hermóðr is asserted as Baldr’s brother in the Prose Edda, we know that Snorri doctored up genealogies to serve his narrative (i.e. Thor as Óðin’s biological son). Heterosexist bias would not detect a possible homoerotic element, and would have favoured a dynastic heteronormative interpretation. But if we look at the word play of Hermóðr from a broader context that also considers Óðin being a seidrman, a gap in the lore emerges. When Óðin learned seidr from Freya, with what male did he engage in it with? As a god of seidr, a Chieftan of gods, and the All-Father, this role seems like it ought to be significant. Yet the lore draws a blank.
There is ample evidence that queer experiences are purposefully erased or simply not noticed in historical works. For example, Snorri’s Frigga is quick to shush Loki’s slander of Óðin’s buggery during his roast in Lokasenna before any mention of Óðin’s partner in the practice. The lore we rely on so heavily is fundamentally flawed by the outside-looking-in bias of the Christians who wrote the poems down – and this has only been further muddled by academic and philosophical scholars in the centuries since. It is really only now, in the 21st Century, that evidence supporting the presence of queer sexuality in the Norse pagan world is being widely presented and accepted.
Even if Hermod isn’t this figure – the boyfriend of Óðin – it is important to think broadly about what we consider accepted myth, and who is included and represented in myth and culture – and who has been deliberately erased by what heathens sometimes call ‘Christian bias.’
Seen as a messenger deity, Hermóðr draws cross cultural comparisons with Hermes, a messenger for his own pantheons’ patriarch, Zeus. Their names, coincidentally, are similar sounding. Hermes is attested to in the literary record as forming a trinity with Hercules and Eros as the gods of homosexual love. Hermes himself has various male lovers, and Hercules of course is well known for his own swains – most significantly Aeolus. In male and female homosexual love spells, Hermes is invoked as Hermes of the Underworld. He was said to accompany travelers as they left the home, as a guardian spirit, and often went down to the underworld on fetch-quests for Zeus.
In contemporary paganism, Hermóðr is seen as a god of negotiation and diplomacy, messages, embassy, and of finding your way on dark roads, whether those roads be physical paths or mental journeys.
Signs and Symbols
Messenger and courier motifs, manservant motifs, and mail and messages in general. Boyfriends, older man-younger man relationships. Negotiation and diplomacy. Dark roads (literal
and metaphoric), and journeys into the unknown.
Hermod, Svienn, Swain.