LitThe Aesir took the body of Balder to the shore, intending to light Hringhorn, his mighty ship, ablaze as a funeral pyre. They couldn’t move the ship without the help of the giantess Hyrrokken, who arrived riding on a wolf with writhing serpents for reins. She pushed the mighty ship so forcefully that fire sprang from underneath the vessel, and the earth shook. Balder’s corpse was borne out onto the waves. His wife Nanna’s heart was broken at the spectacle – she died of grief, and they cast her body onto the pyre. Thor stood solemnly by with his hammer, and then a dwarf, Lit, ran in front of him; Thor kicked the dwarf into the fire and he, too, was burned.

The gods were understandably upset at the death of Balder, even more so because his death (at the hands of the blind god Höd, but made possibly by Loki’s trickery) occurred at a place of sanctuary, and no immediate revenge could be taken. Instead, Frigg entreated the assembly, begging that someone ride to Hel and offer ransom for Balder’s return. Hermod took the journey, riding Odin’s eight-legged steed, Sleipner. In the meantime, the gods built the funeral pyre, and launched the ship as they mourned. One of the most important incidents in Norse mythology had occurred, and the tale had just begun to unfold. Great matters, surely: the death of a god, maybe the beginning of the end of the world. But what about that dwarf? What about Lit?

Perhaps there’s more to the story than we know. Perhaps there was some reason Lit was there, some slight against Thor that he committed. Maybe the mere presence of the dwarf, running around at the funeral pyre, was enough to incur Thor’s wrath. It’s hard to escape the notion, though, that the death (murder?) of Lit is something that happened because Thor was in a bad mood – an action taken without consideration or regret. Lit is little more than a footnote: a life and a death of little consequence – an afterthought, a leftover – in a tale of the mighty.

Hermod traveled for nine nights until he reached Gjallarbrú, the bridge that stretches from the earth to the land of the dead. Hel promised to release Balder if all things wept for him. Emissaries were sent out to the four corners of the earth, and all things did weep for the most noble of gods… all but an old hag, Thökk (perhaps Loki in disguise). Balder remained in Hel, and his funeral – attended by a vast array of gods – was followed by vengeance against Loki, as the trickster took multiple forms in an attempt to escape his fate. Ultimately, Loki was bound to a rock. One of his sons was turned into a wolf, that it might devour his other son. A serpent was suspended above his face, dripping venom, and though Loki’s wife Sigyn caught the venom in a pot, when she turned to empty it the poison dripped onto Loki’s face, causing him to writhe in pain.

There was no vengeance for Lit – no justice; to even put his death in context requires telling a larger tale, in which he plays virtually no part. Like us, Lit was neither giant nor god, just a small creature, at constant risk of being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and getting kicked into the fire by the powerful. The American answer to that dilemma is to celebrate the possibility of achievement – the promise that everyone can rise to the level of the gods, with hard work and perseverance – a myth if ever I’ve heard one (and I’ve heard more than a few). Another answer is to approach the problem systemically – to try to level the playing field, in an attempt to temper the human drive to rise above one’s peers – a noble task, surely – but one fraught with unintended consequences. So how does one reconcile a world where the mighty are – for reasons that often seem arbitrary – elevated, and the rest are left to fend for themselves?