Sometimes I dream that I have to travel over a bridge that spans a great river, to get from one part of town to another. The bridge rises up so steeply that it’s closer to an arch, and there are no railings, just two narrow lanes of traffic, one going in each direction. The bridge terrifies me, but the other drivers seem unaware of the danger. The thing I remember the most strongly when I wake – details vary, dream to dream, but this never changes – is the sensation of tipping upwards at a steep angle, trying to keep the wheel straight, edge gravity pulling me towards oblivion as I tell myself that if I just keep going I’ll make it across. If I do, it’s a sure bet that before the dream is over, I’ll find myself on that bridge again, because getting to the other side hasn’t resolved the central issue – the anxiety I feel at crossing it.
Bifrost (Bifröst” or “Bilröst) is the “best of bridges,” that stretches between the human world and the realm of the gods in Norse mythology. When Ragnarök comes, Bifrost will break (Fáfnismál, via Lindow), and the war between Surt and the gods of the Norse pantheon will reach its conclusion. Bifrost is a compound whose meaning includes “stopping place,” “current,” or “road,” and possibly quivering/shaking (Bifröst vs. Bilröst). The gods made it strong – a rainbow bridge of three colors, but in the end, it will crumble. The gods ride across it when they go forth to make judgements, and at the top of the arch is Himinbjörg, the dwelling of Heimdall, who guards the land of the gods against the machinations of the giants.
The idea of a bridge between the realm of the gods and the world of humans has a dark counterpart in Gjallarbru (Gjallarbrú), a “bridge between earth and the underworld, or earth and the world of the dead” (Lindow). Upon the death of Baldr, a son/servant of Odin borrows Sleipnir (Odin’s eight-legged steed, Loki’s foal) and rides for nine nights until he reaches Gjallarbru on his way to the underworld; the hooves of Sleipnir ring on the “echoing bridge” (Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H.R. Davidson) as he crosses it, finally coming to the hall of Hel, herself, where the dead god sits in the high seat.
The Norse conception of magic, and of the worlds of the gods and of the dead, is less about geographical location, and more about realms that exist in parallel with our own – thus the idea of a mystical bridge that stretches between dimensions in the same way a mortal bridge reaches across a river. Modern stories (modern fantasy and science fiction) are more likely to focus on portals, or wormholes – but the idea is the same: that other realities exist just around the corner – that we are only a short, magical trip away from another state of being.
It’s natural for us to think of our lives in terms of transitions that we might or do make, and bridges are an intuitive symbol for this kind of forward motion, this “jumping ahead” to a different life. If bridges – in dreams, and in myths – represent crossing from one place – a state of mind, or time of life – to another, than the idea of the bridge guardian takes on a unique significance. The most famous bridge guardian is perhaps the troll in the Three Billy Goats Gruff. In the story, the smaller goats pass by, telling the troll to wait for their larger, tastier brother, who when he arrives, knocks the troll into the water, below. The smaller goats use their cleverness to get past the guardian – their brother, his strength, but the challenge of the guardian must be faced, before the transition can be made, and the journey continued. None but the gods pass Heimdall, implying that the realm of the Aesir and Vanir exists on a level beyond that which mortals can aspire to (in life), but in the end, Heimdall will fall and Bifrost will crumble: once it does, there is no going back. The ultimate transition – the death of the gods – has begun.
If bridges are transitions – literal, spiritual – than their guardians speak to the forces that prevent us from crossing, whether those forces are intangible – the impossibility of crossing into the realm of the gods, or the leap into the unknown that is the journey into death, literal – tasks that must be accomplished, through cleverness, strength, or perseverance, or psychological – our own anxieties and fears. Our lives are made up of a series of transitions, each with unique challenges to overcome, leading us to new places and new states of mind. These bridges – and their guardians – are reflected in our stories, in our dreams, and in the stories and dreams of the gods and monsters we create.
Note: The image of the rainbow bridge I used as the thumbnail for this post is the rainbow bridge in Wagner’s Das Rheingold, directed by Otto Shenk, 1990,