The Bifröst – Rainbow Bridge of the Gods… or is it?

So the other day I was thinking about the colors of the rainbow when something I had read in the Prose Edda came back into the back of my mind and began to nag and eat at me. The Prose Edda says that the Bifröst has three colors. Three colors. Three. That just did not compute for a hot minute. I sat there stumped thinking about how a rainbow on even a meagre day has more colors than that. So I decided to look it up and see what else I may have glazed over. As it turns out there are actually a few potential hiccups with our interpretations of the Bifröst, especially in how the texts we have described the thing itself. (Check out the rest of the Bifröst source material at the end of this post if you want more than I post to read here.)

 

The best description for the Bifröst comes from the Prose Edda and reads:

English, Brodeur Translation (1916):
“Then said Gangleri: ‘What is the way to heaven from earth?’
Then Hárr answered, and laughed aloud: ‘Now, that is not wisely asked; has it not been told thee, that the gods made a bridge from earth, to heaven, called Bifröst? Thou must have seen it; it may be that ye call it rainbow. It is of three colors, and very strong, and made with cunning and with more magic art than other works of craftsmanship. But strong as it is, yet must it be broken, when the sons of Múspell shall go forth harrying and ride it, and swim their horses over great rivers; thus they shall proceed.’
Then said Gangleri: ‘To my thinking the gods did not build the bridge honestly, seeing that it could be broken, and they able to make it as they would.’
Then Hárr replied: ‘The gods are not deserving of reproof because of this work of skill: a good bridge is Bifröst, but nothing in this world is of such nature that it may be relied on when the sons of Múspell go a-harrying.’”[1] Gylfaginning XIII

Old Norse:
Þá mælti Gangleri: “Hver er leið til himins af jörðu?”
Þá svarar Hárr ok hló við: “Eigi er nú fróðliga spurt. Er þér eigi sagt þat, er goðin gerðu brú af jörðu til himins, er heitir Bifröst? Hana muntu sét hafa. Kann vera, at þat kallir þú regnboga. Hon er með þrimr litum ok mjök sterk ok ger með list ok kunnáttu meiri en aðrar smíðir. En svá sterk sem hon er, þá mun hon brotna, þá er Múspellsmegir fara ok ríða hana, ok svima hestar þeira yfir stórar ár. Svá koma þeir fram.”
Þá mælti Gangleri: “Eigi þótti mér goðin gera af trúnaði brúna, ef hon skal brotna mega, er þau megu þó gera sem þau vilja.”
Þá mælti Hárr: “Eigi eru goðin hallmælis verð af þessi smíð. Góð brú er Bifröst, en enginn hlutr er sá í þessum heimi er sér megi treystast, þá er Múspellssynir herja.”[2]

 

English, Brodeur Translation (1916):
“Then said Gangleri: ‘Does fire burn over Bifröst?’
Hárr replied: ‘That which thou seest to be red in the bow is burning fire; the Hill-Giants might go up to heaven, if passage on Bifröst were open to all those who would cross. There are many fair places in heaven, and over everything there a godlike watch is kept. …’”[3] Gylfaginning XV

Old Norse
Þá mælti Gangleri: “Brenn eldr yfir Bifröst?”
Hárr segir: “Þat, er þú sér rautt í boganum, er eldr brennandi. Upp á himin mundu ganga hrímþursar ok bergrisar, ef öllum væri fært á Bifröst, þeim er fara vilja. Margir staðir eru á himni fagrir, ok er þar allt guðlig vörn fyrir. …”[4]

 

From this we can gather that the Bifröst is *perhaps* called a rainbow, has three colors, and is covered in a visible burning fire.

 

We find mention in both Prose Edda and Poetic Edda the quality of the Bifröst burning or being covered in visible fire (Þat, er þú sér rautt í boganum, er eldr brennandi). Sure they say it was perhaps called rainbow (kann vera, at þat kallir þú regnboga), but they never said that for certain merely that it could be (kann vera). It also said it had three colors (Hon er með þrimr litum). These things simply do not jive with each other if it is a rainbow. But perhaps we’re thinking about it in the wrong way, perhaps our entire interpretation of the Biföst is some kind of mild misunderstanding. Now let me spin you a tale.

 

What if the Bifröst is not a rainbow at all as we know it but is instead the Aurora Borealis? The Aurora Borealis is unlike the rainbow in many ways but is like the rainbow in others. It is multi-colored like a rainbow and can technically be seen in several colors, but it really only usually comes in three (or four) main colors – red, green (sometimes blue in there), and like a pinky violet.[5] And this apparently has to do with what elements the solar wind is affecting and at what height in the atmosphere.[6] I am not a physicist so I’m relying on others here and my sources being from student website projects done at the University of Fairbanks Alaska (because they were concise and had understandable graphics that help). So it is not a precisely perfect color match entirely to fit *perfectly* in the three; but because it is less frequent to see and it is variable it is then also far more likely that they could register and justify three colors typical for the Aurora than they could three colors for a rainbow.

auroracolors[7]
This image shows that the greatest possibility is within the green spectrum but that technically a fourth color of blue is possible but is still within the mostly green spectrum.

 

AuroraSpectrum[8]
This image shows a comparison between the ordinary rainbow which is represented by the spectrum of light and also the spectrum of light possible in the Aurora which greatly reduces the number of colors you can see in relation to the rainbow.

 

The other quality and one that is mentioned far more often is the burning nature of the Biföst. Nobody to my knowledge has ever mistaken a rainbow for burning. But that is precisely what has happened time and time again through history with the Aurora Borealis.

One notable example comes from Seneca who was discussing the various phenomena visible in the sky when he began talking about the Aurora Borealis –

“Among these should certainly be placed a phenomenon of which we often read in the chronicles – the heavens appeared to be on fire. The blaze of it is occasionally so high as to mount to the very stars; occasionally it is so low as to present the appearance of a distant fire. In the reign of Tiberius Caesar the fire brigade hurried off to the colony at Ostia supposing it to be in flames; during the greater part of the night there had been a dull glow in the sky, which appeared to proceed from a thick smoky fire. No one has any doubt that these burnings in the heavens contain flame as really as they display it; they have a certain substance in them.”[9]

Now here we have a Roman talking about the Aurora Borealis and speaking of it that it truly contained flames as it appeared so full of them. Yet in the next paragraph section he wonders about the illusory nature of the rainbow because it appeared to be some kind of illusion or phantasm or apparition and did not seem substantial.[10] This can show that to the ancient world there is a big difference in the realness of these two astronomical events, the Aurora Borealis is something that is so real looking and so flame like that it warrants mustering the fire brigade while one wonders if the rainbow is just a trick and illusion. This is further not the only occurrence of the flame-like quality of the Aurora Borealis, history and folklore of people the whole world wide who have remarked on the flaming nature of the Aurora.

 

The next thing to consider is that the Norse peoples would have been far enough north to see the Aurora in ways that more southern folks would not have been able to see. This works two ways, making it probably somewhat more likely for it to work its way into their myths and conversely making it harder for southern-minded people to recognize it when the northern-minded people wrote about it.

 

To recap, there are three descriptions for the Bifröst written about in the Eddas: that the Bifröst is perhaps called a rainbow, that it has three colors, and that it is covered in a visible burning fire. All three of these are well suited to describing the Aurora, however only one of these is useful in describing an actual rainbow. But the most telling aspect may be in the name itself, Bifröst. Let’s discuss etymology.

 

We can learn from the etymology which for Bifrǫst seems to be either from bifa (“shake, tremble”) or in the case of the variant Bilrǫst would be from bil (“moment”).[11] Neither of these is incredibly conducive for describing a rainbow but do fit fairly well with the Aurora which moves and shimmers and shakes in ways that the rainbow never has and never will and is furthermore far less predictable and far more in the moment than a rainbow. The “-rǫst” is somewhat more puzzling and I propose more important because it is related to “rest”.[12] The word Bifrǫst seems odd to use “-rǫst”, rest, when it could have used “-brú”, which would have been applicable seeing as how it means bridge, a word they were well accustomed to using even when describing supernatural bridges; unless the “rest” aspect is in fact very important.[13] I propose that it is precisely this that gives us the last clue that the Bifröst is indeed the Aurora Borealis – “-rǫst” being rest indicates evidence that it took place at night when people were intended to be resting.

 

Being a person living in the south and never having seen the Aurora, I would like to think that the Bifröst would be the rainbow for selfish reasons that I would get to see it. However, I can no longer personally support that conclusion because everything in the evidence is screaming at me that the Bifröst is actually the Aurora Borealis. It typically has the proper number of colors, it appears as if on fire and indeed was historically mistaken for fire, it is rainbow-like, it shimmers and shakes, and perhaps most importantly it appears when people are resting – hence the “-rǫst”. Given these things, it is most probable that the Bifröst is best understood as the Aurora Borealis.

 

 

 

 

Sources for the Bifröst:

 

Fáfnismál – Poetic Edda

Sigurth spake:
14. “Tell me then, Fafnir, | for wise thou art famed,
And much thou knowest now:
How call they the isle | where all the gods
And Surt shall sword-sweat mingle?”

Fafnir spake:
15. “Oskopnir is it, | where all the gods
Shall seek the play of swords;
Bilrost breaks | when they cross the bridge,
And the steeds shall swim in the flood.[14]

 

Grímnismál – Poetic Edda

  1. Kormt and Ormt | and the Kerlaugs twain
    Shall Thor each day wade through,
    (When dooms to give | he forth shall go
    To the ash-tree Yggdrasil;)
    For heaven’s bridge | burns all in flame,
    And the sacred waters seethe.

  1. The best of trees | must Yggdrasil be,
    Skithblathnir best of boats;
    Of all the gods | is Othin the greatest,
    And Sleipnir the best of steeds;
    Bifrost of bridges, | Bragi of skalds,
    Hobrok of hawks, | and Garm of hounds.[15]

 

Gylfaginning – Prose Edda

XIII. Then said Gangleri: “What is the way to heaven from earth?” Then Hárr answered, and laughed aloud: “Now, that is not wisely asked; has it not been told thee, that the gods made a bridge from earth, to heaven, called Bifröst? Thou must have seen it; it may be that ye call it rainbow.’ It is of three colors, and very strong, and made with cunning and with more magic art than other works of craftsmanship. But strong as it is, yet must it be broken, when the sons of Múspell shall go forth harrying and ride it, and swim their horses over great rivers; thus they shall proceed.” Then said Gangleri: “To my thinking the gods did not build the bridge honestly, seeing that it could be broken, and they able to make it as they would.” Then Hárr replied: “The gods are not deserving of reproof because of this work of skill: a good bridge is Bifröst, but nothing in this world is of such nature that it may be relied on when the sons of Múspell go a-harrying.”

 

XV … Each day the Æsir ride thither up over Bifröst, which is also called the Æsir’s Bridge. These are the names of the Æsir’s steeds: Sleipnir [The Slipper] is best, which Odin has; he has eight feet. The second is Gladr [Bright or Glad], the third Gyllir [Golden], the fourth Glenr [The Starer], the fifth Skeidbrimir [Fleet Courser], the sixth Silfrintoppr [Silver-top], the seventh Sinir [ Sinewy], the eighth Gisl [ Beam, Ray], the ninth Falhófnir [ Hairy-hoof], the tenth. Gulltoppr [ Gold-top], the eleventh Léttfeti [ Light-stepper]. Baldr’s horse was burnt with him; and Thor walks to the judgment, and wades those rivers which are called thus:

 

Körmt and Örmt | and the Kerlaugs twain,
Them shall Thor wade
Every day | when he goes to doom
At Ash Yggdrasill;
For the Æsir’s Bridge | burns all with flame,
And the holy waters howl.”

Then said Gangleri: “Does fire burn over Bifröst?” Hárr replied: “That which thou seest to be red in the bow is burning fire; the Hill-Giants might go up to heaven, if passage on Bifröst were open to all those who would cross. There are many fair places in heaven, and over everything there a godlike watch is kept…”

 

XVII. Then said Gangleri: “Thou knowest many tidings to tell of the heaven. What chief abodes are there more than at Urdr’s Well?” Hárr said: “Many places are there, and glorious. That which is called Álfheimr is one, where dwell the peoples called Light-Elves; but the Dark-Elves dwell down in the earth, and they are unlike in appearance, but by far more unlike in nature. The Light-Elves are fairer to look upon than the sun, but the Dark-Elves are blacker than pitch. Then there is also in that place the abode called Breidablik, and there is not in heaven a fairer dwelling. There, too, is the one called Glitnir, whose walls, and all its posts and pillars, are of red gold, but its roof of silver. There is also the abode called Himinbjörg; it stands at heaven’s end by the bridge-head, in the place where Bifröst joins heaven. Another great abode is there, which is named Valaskjálf; Odin possesses that dwelling; the gods made it and thatched it with sheer silver, and in this hall is the Hlidskjálf, the high-seat so called. Whenever Allfather sits in that seat, he surveys all lands.

 

XXVII. “Heimdallr is the name of one: he is called the White God. He is great and holy; nine maids, all sisters, bore him for a son. He is also called Hallinskídi and Gullintanni; his teeth were of gold, and his horse is called Gold-top. He dwells in the place called Himinbjörg, hard by Bifröst: he is the warder of the gods, and sits there by heaven’s end to guard the bridge from the Hill-Giants. He needs less sleep than a bird; he sees equally well night and day a hundred leagues from him, and hears how grass grows on the earth or wool on sheep, and everything that has a louder sound. He has that trumpet which is called Gjallar-Horn, and its blast is heard throughout all worlds. Heimdallr’s sword is called Head. It is said further:

Himinbjörg ‘t is called, | where Heimdallr, they say,
Aye has his housing;
There the gods’ sentinel | drinks in his snug hall
Gladly good mead.
And furthermore, he himself says in Heimdalar-galdr:
I am of nine | mothers the offspring,
Of sisters nine | am I the son.

 

  1. … In this din shall the heaven be cloven, and the Sons of Múspell ride thence: Surtr shall ride first, and both before him and after him burning fire; his sword is exceeding good: from it radiance shines brighter than from the sun; when they ride over Bifröst, then the bridge shall break, as has been told before.[16]

[1] Snorri Sturlson, The Prose Edda, Translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur (New York, NY: The American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1916), accessed August 15, 2019, http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/pre/pre04.htm (I have formatted the structure of the paragraph to better match the Old Norse but have not altered the text.)

[2] Snorre Sturlason, Snorres Edda, accessed on Völuspá.org August 15, 2019, http://www.voluspa.org/gylfaginning11-20.htm

[3] Snorri Sturlson, The Prose Edda, Translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur (New York, NY: The American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1916), accessed August 15, 2019, http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/pre/pre04.htm  (I have formatted the structure of the paragraph to better match the Old Norse but have not altered the text.)

[4] Snorre Sturlason, Snorres Edda, accessed on Völuspá.org August 15, 2019, http://www.voluspa.org/gylfaginning11-20.htm

[5] Christina Shaw, “Why are there Colors in the Aurora?”, University of Alaska Fairbanks, accessed August 15, 2019, http://ffden-2.phys.uaf.edu/211.fall2000.web.projects/Christina%20Shaw/AuroraColors.html

[6] Christina Shaw, “Why are there Colors in the Aurora?”, University of Alaska Fairbanks, accessed August 15, 2019, http://ffden-2.phys.uaf.edu/211.fall2000.web.projects/Christina%20Shaw/AuroraColors.html

[7] Christina Shaw, “Why are there Colors in the Aurora?”, University of Alaska Fairbanks, accessed August 15, 2019, http://ffden-2.phys.uaf.edu/211.fall2000.web.projects/Christina%20Shaw/AuroraColors.html

[8] Alex Slaymaker, “Welcome to Colors”, University of Alaska Fairbanks, accessed August 15, 2019, http://ffden-2.phys.uaf.edu/webproj/212_spring_2014/Alex_Slaymaker/Alex_Slaymaker/Colors.html

[9] Seneca, Physical Science in the Time of Nero: Being a Translation of the Quaestiones Naturales of Seneca, translated by John Clarke (London: MacMillan and Co., Limited, 1910), 40-41. Accessed August 15, 2019, https://archive.org/stream/physicalsciencei00seneiala#page/40/mode/2up

[10] Seneca, Physical Science in the Time of Nero: Being a Translation of the Quaestiones Naturales of Seneca, translated by John Clarke (London: MacMillan and Co., Limited, 1910), 41. Accessed August 15, 2019, https://archive.org/stream/physicalsciencei00seneiala#page/40/mode/2up

[11] “Bifrǫst”, Wiktionary, accessed August 15, 2019,  https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Bifr%C7%ABst#Old_Norse (Bifröst is my usual spelling but my source here uses the more accurate Bifrǫst)

[12] “Reconstruction:Proto-Germanic/rastō”, Wiktionary, accessed August 15, 2019,  https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Germanic/rast%C5%8D

[13] “brú”, Wiktionary, accessed August 15, 2019, https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/br%C3%BA#Old_Norse

[14] Henry Adams Bellows, trans., The Poetic Edda (New York, NY: Princeton University Press, 1936), “Fafnismol”, accessed August 15, 2019,  http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe24.htm

[15] Henry Adams Bellows, trans., The Poetic Edda (New York, NY: Princeton University Press, 1936), “Grimnismol”, accessed August 15, 2019,  http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe06.htm

[16] Snorri Sturlson, The Prose Edda, Translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur (New York, NY: The American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1916), accessed August 15, 2019, http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/pre/pre04.htm (I added the translations for the horse names from the footnotes but did not bother with the other name translations in other verses. I like horses.)

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