Norse mythology describes the universe as a fascinating cosmos with many intriguing worlds. But one of the most interesting elements of the Norse cosmos is not a world at all, but the Rainbow Bifrost Bridge.
An enchanted bridge created by the gods, it connects the worlds of the Aesir gods and men, allowing the gods access to care for and protect their mortal creations. But it is also a vulnerability in the defenses of Asgard, and so must be guarded at all times. The Norse gods chose Heimdallr to fulfill this important task.
The Bifrost Bridge always plays an important role in modern re-imaginings of Asgard and the Norse gods. But let’s take a look at the original Rainbow Bifrost Bridge, as it is described in the Prose Edda and other sources.
The Norse Cosmos
According to Norse mythology, the Norse cosmos comprises nine worlds, all of which are descreet. They sit among the roots and branches of Yggdrasil, the mighty world tree that is the glue of the universe.
Movement between these different worlds is not easy, and not all beings are capable of doing it. For example, Odin’s eight-legged steed Sleipnir is one of the few beings with the power to move easily between the worlds.
The Aesir gods live in Asgard (the fortress of the Aesir), but Odin, in his role as a creator god, also created Midgard, the middle fortress, and populated it with mankind. But mankind are mortal beings with inferior power and strength to the gods and the giants (jotun), and so Odin realized that the Aesir must take responsibility for protecting these beings from the chaotic forces of the jotun.
Therefore, Odin created the Bifrost Bridge from the elements of Fire, Water, and Air in order to give the gods an easy way to move freely between Asgard and Midgard.
The Bifrost Bridge is called the rainbow bridge, as the name “Bifrost” can be interpreted as meaning “fleetingly glimpsed rainbow” or “shaking and trembling rainbow”.
The Prose Edda, a thirteenth-century text that draws on earlier sources, describes the bridge as an unstable rainbow that touches the Earth from the Heavens, which suggests that the Vikings also imagined the bridge as a rainbow.
Perhaps, whenever a rainbow appeared in the sky, the Vikings believed that the gods were passing over the bridge.
It has also been suggested that the rainbow shape of the bridge is meant to represent the Milky Way, which would have glimmered in the dark night sky during Viking times.
But the gods were not the only beings to pass over the bridge. It was also the Bifrost bridge that allowed the souls of warriors who died bravely on the battlefield to pass from Midgard to Asgard, where they lived in Valhalla, the hall of Odin. There the dead are destined to feast until they are called on to fight again in the final battle of Ragnarok.
Heimdallr the guardian of Bifrost
But, while the Bifrost Bridge provided safe passage between Asgard and Midgard, it also represents a weak point in the defenses of Asgard. The gods did fortify their realm in order to protect it against the jotun.
So, the Aesir gods need to be vigilant about watching the bridge, and therefore assigned the god Heimdallr as its guardian.
Heimdallr’s name probably means “he who illuminates the world”, which is probably a reference to him shining in some way as he is often described as the “brightest” of the gods.
He may have been one of the many sons of Odin, and is said to have had nine mothers, the daughters of the sea giant Aegir, also known as the nine waves. They nourished him on the power of the Earth, the water of the Sea, and the heat of the Sun, making him one of the strongest beings in existence (probably only behind Thor and Odin).
His extraordinary parentage left him with many incredible attributes.
Heimdallr is said to require less sleep than a bird, and he can see for over 100 leagues in light or darkness. His hearing is so good that he can hear the grass growing in the meadows and the wool growing on sheep.
He is also described as having the power of foresight, which caused one author to say that he is one of the Vanir gods, among whom this trait is more common. But this would throw the other assertions about his parentage into question.
Protector of the Bridge
As the protector of the bridge, Heimdallr lives in a stronghold called Himinbjork, which means sky cliffs. It sits exactly where the Bifrost Bridge intersects with Asgard.
As well as fighting off enemy threats himself with his flashing sword and his steed Gulltoppr, when threats descend on Asgard, he sounds his horn Gjallarhorn, which can be heard throughout the Norse cosmos.
But despite his significant responsibilities, Heimdallr does not seem to have been an ever-vigilant sentry, as he is portrayed in the Marvel movies.
The god is described drinking delicious mead in his stronghold, while no doubt keeping an ear out for trouble.
He also attended gatherings with the other gods. For example, we know that he was at the meeting to discuss the theft of Thor’s hammer Mjolnir by the giants, as it was Heimdallr who suggested that Thor dress up as Freyja in order to trick the giant Thrym into summoning the hidden hammer.
Bifrost and Ragnarok
We do not know how many times Heimdallr might have been called on to defend the Bifrost Bridge, but we do know about the last time that he will do it because it forms part of the Ragnarok prophecy.
This is a prophecy, recorded in part in several sources, that tells what will happen at the end of days, in a mighty apocalypse that will see the death of the gods and the end of the world.
While many omens will precede the ultimate events of Ragnarok, the final signs that indicate the arrival of this apocalypse will be the disappearance of the sun and the moon, and Heimdallr sounding his horn, which will be heard throughout the cosmos.
This will prompt Odin with his army of fallen warriors, the other gods, and their allies to take to the Bifrost Bridge and cross over to Midgard, where the final battle will happen.
Odin will die there, with the mighty giant wolf Fenrir devouring him as he runs through the world, devouring all before him.
Thor will also meet his end, fighting to the death with Jormungandr, the Midgard Serpent. While Thor will slay the serpent with his hammer, before this, Jormungandr will spew so much venom into the air, and onto Thor himself, that Thor will also die within a few moments.
At this time, Heimdallr will also meet his end, perhaps defending the Midgard entrance to the Bifrost Bridge. Loki, who is fighting against the Aesir with the other giants in vengeance for the punishment he received for his role in the death of Balder and the appalling way that the Aesir had treated all of his children in general, will take on Heimdallr. The two will kill one another.
The death of Heimdallr will open up the way for the giant army to cross the Bifrost Bridge, enter Asgard and destroy it. The prophecy also says that the bridge will disintegrate behind the giant army as they cross.
Many accounts of Ragnarok end there, with Asgard destroyed and the world of men sinking into oblivion. Some accounts describe the world as re-merging from the waters of chaos, and the surviving gods banding together to rebuild the world. But there is strong evidence that this is a later Christian addition and does not belong to the original prophecy.
Either way, there is no mention of whether they will recreate the Bifrost Bridge.
Bifrost in Popular Culture
The Bifrost Bridge appears in most popular re-imaginings of the Norse cosmos. It certainly plays an important role in both the Marvel comics and Marvel movies. We even see the bridge destroyed by the actions of the giants in the Marvel movie Thor: Ragnarok.
In the first of the Thor Marvel movies, Jane Foster gives a scientific explanation for the bridge, describing it as an Einstein-Rosen bridge. Proposed by Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen, this is basically a wormhole that links two disparate points in space-time.
Crossing the Bifrost Bridge
What do you think, would you like to cross the Bifrost Bridge and find yourself in the realm of the gods or the hall of Valhalla?
Do you think of the gods passing or souls heading to Valhalla every time you see a rainbow in the sky?