Throughout human history, humans have been wondering about the place where the Gods live. In some cultures the location was known but was deemed unapproachable, such is the case with Greek mythology and mount Olympus. For other cultures, such as Christian for example, Heaven is a place that exists in the spiritual realm and not in physical form.
Nordic mythology is different.
We know about Asgard and its location. That was never the problem. It even had a physical form. The only problem was that it was inaccessible from Midgard.
So, how did Gods enter Asgard while they were wandering Midgard interfering with the petty lives of mortals?
Well, they were using Bifrost.
According to some experts, the original name of Bifrost was Bilröst, and it could be translated as a ‘non-lasting colorful bridge’, yet according to others, its name was Bifrost and it meant ‘shaking and trembling rainbow’.
After years of research and experience in translating Old Norse, British historian Andrew Orchard and Austrian philologist Rudolf Simek came to a similar conclusion. Namely, Bifrost was a compound of the noun ‘bil’, which meant a moment or a short period of time, and the verb ‘bifa’ which could be translated as ‘shaking’.
Theories about how Bifrost got its name vary, and most etymologists can’t seem to agree upon a single explanation of its meaning. However, they are all certain of one thing – it was how the Norsemen understood the existence of rainbow.
Additionally, there are several alternative names for Bifrost. The most common one would be Asa-Bridge, or ‘the bridge of the Aesir’, for it connected it with the human world and was the only way mortals could reach the land of the Gods.
Heimdal, the guardian of Asgard rainbow bridge - Bifrost
The story of Bifrost Bridge wouldn’t be complete without the story of its guardian, the Aesir God Hemdallr, or as he is better known in English, Heimdall.
Heimdallr was the son of probably Odin, and nine mothers (they themselves are thought to represent waves). He is the owner of Gulltoppr, a horse with a golden mane, and possesses Gjallarhorn, the horn that could be heard across all worlds. According to legends, with that trumpet, he will gather the Aesir Gods and thus will begin Ragnarok.
He is called the whitest of Gods (meaning the whitest skinned and not the most innocent or something like that), the shining god who has golden teeth. He has the best vision and hearing among Gods and lives in his residence Himinbjorg guarding the Asgard’s entrance, Bifrost, our main subject today.
As a baby, he was nursed by his mothers with the Sun’s heat and the Earth’s power which gave him the ability of clairvoyance. Everything about him is helping him become a better guardian of Asgard. He even sleeps less than the other Gods. It is said that even the birds sleep more than Heimdallr so that he could always watch Bifrost. Yggdrasil, the world’s tree, is often connected to Heimdallr, so it may even be his personification.
His name can be translated in various ways but is most often translated as ‘the one who shines upon or illuminates the world.’ Fun fact for Christian Vikings reading this, Lucifer’s name is translated similar to this. Like most of the gods of the Nordic pantheon, Heimdallr is known by various names – Vindhler (the one protecting from the wind), Gullintanni (the one who has the golden teeth) and Hallinskidi (this name has no known translation).
Heimdallr is one of the most important Gods of the Nordic pantheon, but the main problem with him is that many of sagas speaking about Heimdallr are incomplete and conflicting, so scholars can’t really decide on a clear picture of Heimdallr, and most of our resources about Heimdallr come from the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda which are, after all, our main sources on the entire Nordic mythology.
Besides protecting Bifrost Rainbow Bridge, the most important role of Heimdallr is related to Ragnarok. We already said that his horn sounds the beginning of Ragnarok, what we didn’t say is his role in the battle itself. He is destined to kill and be killed by Loki, the trickster who, on some accounts can be even considered the Leader of the army which opposes the army of Asgard, so his role in this battle is huge.
By the mid medieval period, variations of this Nordic myth were spread all over Europe. Eventually, it was changed and shaped by the people who heard it, but its original meaning remained untouched.
Two poems and two books from Poetic Edda and Prose Edda respectively provide our main information regarding Bifrost. When we combine those two works, we can come to some conclusions.
Gods use it as a means of transportation between worlds but it may not be the only method since Thor uses rivers Kormt and Ormt when he goes to receive judgment from Yggdrasil. Why Thor doesn’t use Bifrost Bridge but uses the rivers is not quite understood. It may be that those rivers are part of the Bifrost (the less likely option). The other option, advocated by some scholars, is that this represents some story about Thor which was lost over time.
If we take the word of Prose Edda, and its figure High who is one of the three who tell the story to Gangleri, Bifrost is actually a rainbow, but it consists of only three colors and it burns. It is also the finest bridge in the world built with unmatched craftsmanship; there is no construction that can match it.
In the same work, there are some questions about the nature of it since it is foretold that it will be destroyed, or more likely destroy itself when the enemies of the gods, more specifically the warriors of Muspelheim, try to cross it.
Gangleri wonders here if the bridge was made in good faith since it can crumble so easily which must be the will of the gods since they could’ve made it to be unbreakable if they wanted, but in order to stop the Jotunn and Muspelheim armies, they didn’t.
It is interesting how Gangleri thinks that something like breaking the bridge under your enemies is considered somewhat dishonorable by Gangleri, which only tells us again that Vikings put a lot of trust in honorable combat, which excludes any kind of trickery--even if it is against forces which are trying to destroy them.
In the end, they conclude that burning the bridge will not help Asgard forces, since when the Ragnarok comes, no place in the world will be safe from “Muspel’s lads.”
Some modern scholars propose a theory under which Bifrost Bridge is actually not a rainbow but the Milky Way, which can often be seen in the night sky, and that its magnificence reminded Vikings that something which looks like that could only be the path to the world of Gods.
A parallel may be drawn as well between Bifrost as a bridge that connects Asgard and Midgard and Gjallarbru as a bridge that connects Midgard and Hel, a realm of death. A similar parallel could be drawn between Hemdallr and Modgud, the guardians of the respective bridges.
The most known example of Bifrost Bridge in popular culture is through the Marvel cinematic universe. Its guardian is Heimdall portrayed by Idris Elba (as a black actor, this could be a play on references that Heimdallr is the whitest of gods) who can summon its force using dark magic. Its power is infused in Stormbreaker, the hammer which is made for Thor by the dwarf Eitri.
Eitri can be used to connect this to another reference to Bifrost in popular culture, which is the video game God of War, war Eitri, although by another name, Sindri. His brother Brok accompanies him in this game. When it comes to Bifrost Rainbow Bridge, it is not represented as a bridge but more as a relic which could be used as a key for traveling between the realms inside the Tyr’s temple which stands over Yggdrasil. However, in order to properly work, the player should infuse it with the light of Alfheim.
According to the game, it is not the only means of transportation between the worlds since Valkyries can travel without the use of it. A special kind of Bifrost crystals were possessed by Jotunn which were built into magic eyes which were in order given to those whom Jotunn trusted the most.
Entrance to the realm of Gods (or God, whatever suits you) has always been and always will remain one of the main unanswered questions for humans. Whether it is a spiritual realm, a top of the mountain or something third, people will always ask themselves what is over the rainbow.
The story of Bifrost Rainbow Bridge tells us that exactly.
So, the next time when you are going home from the night of drinking fine mead, like Heimdallr while he is guarding the realm of Asgard from unwanted intruders, and you see the Milky Way, or when you see a rainbow while returning home from an honest day’s work, we hope that you will remember the story that behind it may lie Asgard.
Until next seeing, we leave you in good health.
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