Vali | Norse Mythology


In Norse mythology, Vali, also called Ali (in Old Norse Váli and Áli), is an Aesir god mentioned in the Eddas. He is the son of Odin and Rindr, and is born to avenge the death of the god Baldr killed by Hodr, himself tricked by Loki.

He does not wash or comb his hair until he has accomplished this task. Vali is one of the few gods who survive the prophetic battle of Ragnarök. In the Gesta Danorum, an evhemerist work of the XI century, he is presented as a man, a warrior who bears the name of Bous.

Very discreet in the mythological texts, he is only important as the avenger of Baldr's murder, which limits the possibilities of study. However, specialists have linked the fact that he does not wash before avenging Baldr to the ritual abstinence known in certain societies, especially abstinence linked to acts of vengeance, which is also echoed in another Nordic god, Vidar, to whom he is linked.

Etymology of Vali

The names Vali and Ali, from Old Norse Váli and Áli, are of uncertain etymology. Various proposals have been discussed; his name could derive from *Wanilo and mean "the little Vane", or from *waihalaR "one who argues". But none is convincing.

Characteristics of Vali

Vali is only mentioned in the Eddas, Scandinavian mythological texts written or compiled around the 13th century, i.e. a few centuries after the official Christianization of the last Viking kingdoms.

Thus these texts are to be taken with precaution according to certain specialists who consider that they hide Christian influences intended or not by their authors, or even inventions, and would thus not always fully reflect the pre-Christian religious beliefs of Scandinavia.

Like all the major gods, Vali is described in the Gylfaginning section of Snorri's Edda, where he is presented as a good archer, however no preserved myth makes this point:

"There is another called Ali or Vali who is the son of Odin and Rind. He is bold in battle and the strokes he throws are most fortunate."

- Gylfaginning, chapter 303

The goddess Ase Rind is described again as Vali's mother in chapter 36 of Gylfaginning. Vali himself is one of the 12 main Aesir gods, so he participates in the banquet for the visit of the giant Ægir in chapter 1 of the Skáldskaparmál part. However, Vali does not intervene in the story.

Vali is above all a god of vengeance. According to the preserved mythological texts that mention him, he is only begotten to be the avenger of the god Baldr killed by Hödr.

He is of great importance outside this myth, however, we do not know the rest. He is named among the few gods who survive the end of the prophetic world, the Ragnarök, and he is then sovereign at the renewal of the universe with the other gods who survived the disaster.

The kenning (in the plural, kenningar) is a figure of speech peculiar to Scandinavian poetry, which consists in replacing a word, or the name of a character or a creature by a periphrase. In chapter 12 of the Skáldskaparmál part of Snorri's Edda, the author mentions the kennings that can designate Vali (Válakenningar); "Son of Odin and Rindr, Son-in-law of Frigg, Brother of the Aesir, Avenger of Baldr, Enemy and Slayer of Hödr, Dweller in the Property of the Fathers".

Baldr's Vengeance

The murder of the god Baldr is essentially told in chapter 49 of Gylfaginning. Having dreams of his impending death, Baldr tells the Aesir, who are frightened. So the goddess Frigg, Baldr's mother, makes all the elements of nature swear not to harm the god, which they do, thus making Baldr invulnerable.

Then the Aesir have fun throwing all sorts of objects at him, which consequently leave him unharmed. The evil god Loki, jealous of this attention, obtains a confession from Frigg that she forgot to ask the mistletoe for an oath because this plant seems so harmless.

So Loki creates a stick of mistletoe, and proposes to Baldr's brother, Höd, to join in the game and throw it at Baldr. Since Hödr is blind, Loki guides his throw and the mistletoe pierces Baldr's body and he falls dead.

Then Vali is sired by Odin and Rind to avenge Hödr's murder of Baldr. His status as the designated avenger is mentioned in the Eddic poems Hyndluljóð 29, Baldrs draumar 11 and Völuspá 32-34.

In the latter two poems, it is stated that Vali is only one day old when he avenges Baldr, and that he is under an abstinence from washing and combing his hair until he has accomplished this task.

Vali and Ragnarok

In Norse mythology, it is prophesied that a great battle will take place in which the giants, led by the god Loki, will attack the Aesir on the plain of Vígríd, and the fire giant Surt will fight alongside the forces of chaos and set the world on fire.

This event is called Ragnarök. All chains will be broken and the dead residing in Hel will be released, so Baldr and Hödr will return from the world of the dead. However, no known text mentions Baldr, Hödr or Vali taking part in the battles, but they are survivors of the catastrophe.

Chapter 53 of Gylfaginning in Snorri's Edda describes the stages of the revival after the prophetic battle. Vali is mentioned as a survivor and he is naturally associated with Vidar, another child god of Odin who, like Vali, has the status of an avenging son:

"Vidar and Vali shall survive, for neither the sea nor the fire of Surt shall have harmed them. They shall dwell in Idavoll, where once Asgard stood."

- Gylfaginning, chapter 538

With the other surviving gods, Modi, Magni, Baldr and Höd, they share their secrets and converse about past events.

They also find the "golden tablets" of the Aesir8, which could correspond to treasures, or more likely to the pieces of the golden game played by the Aesir at the beginning of time which is mentioned in stanza 8 of the Völuspá.

Next, stanza 51 of the Eddic poem Vafþrúðnismál is quoted, where it is repeated that Vidar and Vali will inhabit the heavens after the extinction of the fires of Surt.

Vali in the Gesta Danorum 

The Gesta Danorum (Gesture of the Danes) is a work in Latin written at the end of the eleventh century by the historian Saxo Grammaticus at the request of the statesman Absalon, who ruled Denmark at the time and wished to give his country a true national epic.

Saxo Grammaticus presents in his work the history of the first Danish heroes and kings. He was inspired by pre-Christian myths and proposed a strongly evhemeristic version where the Nordic gods are in fact men of a superior power who pretended to be deities.

The Eddas do not mention how Odin managed to seduce Rind. These circumstances are told in the Gesta Danorum, where Vali is called Bous. We read in chapter 3 of Book Three that Høtherus (which corresponds to the god Höd) wounds his enemy and rival Balderus (Baldr) to death.

In chapter 4, Odin wants to avenge his son Balderus. Odin learns from a soothsayer that Rinda (Rind), the daughter of the Rutene king, would give him a son who would avenge the murder.

So Odin goes three different times to offer his services to the king under a different guise (he has the gift of metamorphosis), and tries to seduce his daughter but is each time repulsed.

He returns one last time transformed into a healer. When Rinda falls ill, Odin claims to have a remedy to cure her, but adds that this remedy would cause a violent reaction. Rinda's father therefore has her tied up on his bed, leaving Odin the possibility of raping her.

Saxo Grammaticus evokes a variant of the story, where the king offers his daughter to his doctor Odin to satisfy his love passion. From this union, Bous (Vali) is born. The latter "[loves] war" so Odin advises him to reserve his reprisals for the murderer of his brother.

Høtherus learns from the soothsayers that he will die fighting Bous. He then transfers his powers as ruler to his son, before fighting Bous and being killed. However, Bous is seriously wounded and his foot soldiers carry him home on his shield.

The next day, Bous dies of his wounds and is given a "lavish funeral". He is then buried by the Rutenes under a tumulus being used to honor his memory.

Vali's Symbolism

Vali is created to avenge Baldr's death, and he cannot wash or comb his hair until he has accomplished his task. This abstinence is reminiscent of a rite attributed to the Germanic people of the Cats by Tacitus in chapter 31 of Germania (first century), where they let their hair and beard grow from puberty until they have killed an enemy, and only then are they worthy of their family.

Another Nordic god subject to ritual abstinence is Vidar, who is also a son of Odin, and therefore Vali's half-brother. Vidar is the "Silent God", who does not speak and is destined to avenge the death of his father Odin at Ragnarök. Vidar and Vali are thus very closely related, which is reflected in the mythological texts of the Eddas where they are sometimes associated, or at least mentioned together as a pair.