What did the Viking believe about the Northern Lights? Do the tales of the God-Bridge Bivröst reflect the Norsemen’s visions of the Aurora Borealis?

The Vikings never wrote books, but their descendants produced thousands of manuscripts during the middle-ages. However, within this corpus, only one sure mention of Northern Lights exists: in the Norwegian Konungs Skuggsjá (“The King’s Mirror”), written around 1250 (2). The text’s author describes the Aurora as appearing only around Greenland (3) and doesn’t mention any traditional stories about it. Other sources, this time of mythological nature do, however mention an intriguingly similar phenomenon.

The Bridge of the Gods, Bivröst (“Moving Way” in Old Norse) is mentioned in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, written around 1220 (4) and in the Poetic Edda which is probably much older (5). In Snorri’s account, Bivröst/Bifraust is described as such:

Gvðín gerþu bru af iorþu til himins, er heitir Bifravst: “The gods made a bridge from earth to the heavens which is called Bifravst” (6)

Later, Bivröst is said to be covered with flames and having three colors (7). Bivröst also appears in the Poetic Edda which carries numerous myths from Scandinavia’s Pagan past (8). In Grímnismál (“Grímnir’s sayings”) Odin gives it two names, the burning Ásbrú (“God-Bridge”) and Bilröst (“Unstable Way”). In Fáfnismál (“Fafnir’s sayings”), the dragon Fafnir, mentions Bilröst and its destruction before the Ragnarök battle. Lastly, Bilröst appears in Helgakviða Hundingsbana II (“Helgi Hundingsbane’s Second Poem”) where it is crossed by a dead warrior and is named Rodnar brautir (“reddened ways”)(9).

Overall, these sources describe an unstable fire-red bridge between heaven and earth, sometimes taking other colors and sometimes being crossed by warriors. The bridge is however described in another way in the passage from the Prose Edda in which it is said that the Bridge:

Kan vera, at kallið er regnboga: “Might be, what you call rainbow” (10)

This clearly tentative statement has been taken by most scholars as being authoritative, even if the earlier texts don’t make this connection (11). Indeed, if the oldest texts are to be trusted, the Bivröst is red, flame-like and is associated with the Otherworld and fighting, which is exactly how the Aurora has been described in other parts of the world for centuries, both before, during and after the Viking age.

Firstly, the description of the Aurora as a bridge/path to another world is commonly found in places as far away as Canada and as close as North-Norway. In Canada, the Hudson Bay-Inuits believed that Auroras were torches dead people carried on their way to heaven (12). In North-Norway, a Sámi riddle tells about a man being taken away from earth by the Aurora (13). Overall, people the world over have associated Auroras with death and the Otherworld just like Bivröst is associated with the Old Norse heavens.

Linking Northern Lights with fighting is also widespread: The Roman historian Julius Obsequens describes the Aurora as “Military Spears” (14) and even in the XVIth century, Europeans often explained the Northern Lights as battles in the heavens (15). In the XIIIth century, several Russian chronicles mention Auroras as being heavenly armies fighting each other (16). Again, Bivröst´s link with fighting is clear, both regarding the Ragnarök battle and individual warriors.

The last elements identifying Auroras in the Medieval Norse sources are the color red and fire

The last elements identifying Auroras in the Medieval Norse sources are the color red and fire. Already 2500 years ago the Greek Plutarch described Auroras as fire (17) and New-Zealand’s Maori believed that Auroras were fire lit by their ancestors (18). Such descriptions go hand-in-hand with poems describing a flaming red Bivröst.

The reason Norsemen would mention a mostly red and not green Aurora might be puzzling but makes sense if one thinks about its scientific explanations. Indeed, in the Viking age the solar activity was much weaker than nowadays (19). Northern Lights were therefore probably rare and might have mostly been spotted during extremely strong solar storms which tend to create red Auroras (20). A relevant parallel would be the rare, mostly-red Aurora that could be seen over Northern Europe on February 27th 2014 (21).

In conclusion, the descriptions of Bivröst in Nordic sources closely correspond to how Northern Lights have been described throughout History. Its name, a reference to the versatility of the Auroral movement (22) was probably progressively detached from the concept of Northern Lights as the Solar activity, essential to Northern Lights, became weaker following the end of the Viking age (23). Thankfully, today, we are able to gaze upon the magnificent Northern Lights Bridge, the Bivröst just as did Vikings in ages past.

we are able to gaze upon the magnificent Northern Lights Bridge, Bifröst just as Vikings, in ages past

Sources:

  • (1) Davis, Neil. (1992). The Aurora Watcher Handbook. Fairbanks. University of Alaska Press. (163 – 169).
  • (2) Kongespeilet. Brøger, Anton Wilhelm (ed.). (2000). Oslo. Den Norske Bokklubene. (VII).
  • (3) Ibid. (27 – 28). The word used in the text is Norðrljós, whose literal translation is “Northern Lights”.
  • (4) Gunnell, Terry. (2005). Eddic Poetry. In Rory McTurk (ed.). A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture. (pp. 82 – 100). Blackwell Publishing. Oxford. (82 – 83).
  • (5) Ibid. (93 – 95).
  • (6) Edda Snorra Sturlusonar. Finnur Jónsson (ed.). (1931). Copenhagen. Gyldendanske Boghandel, Nordisk Forlag. (19).
  • (7) Ibid. (23).
  • (8) Gunnell (2005). (82).
  • (9) Edda, Die Lieder Des Codex regius Nebst Verwandten den Männern. Gustav Von Neckel (ed.). (1927). Heidelberg. Carl-Winter Universitätsverlag. (61 – 64. 156. 178 – 179).
  • (10) Edda Snorra Sturlusonar. Finnur Jónsson (ed.). (1931). (23).
  • (11) Turville-Petre, Gabriel. (1964). Myths and Religion of the North. London. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. (154)
  • (12) Hawkes, Ernest William. (1916). The Labrador Eskimo. Ottawa. Government printing Bureau. (153)
  • (13) Gvigstad, Just. (1927). Lappiske Eventyr og Sagn. 1 Lappiske eventyr og Sagn fra Varanger. Oslo. Instituttet for sammenlignende kulturforskning. (522 – 525).
  • (14) Obseqvens, Julius. (n.d.) Prodigiorum Liber. Retrieved from: http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/obsequens.html
  • (15) Eather, Robert. (1991). Majestic Lights: The Aurora in Science, History, and the Arts. Washington D.C. American Geophysical Union. (44 – 45).
  • (16) Ibid. (66).
  • (17) Ibid. (36).
  • (18) Cavendish, R. (Ed.). (1970). Aurora in Man, Myth and Magic (Vol. VI). Milwaukee. McDonald Raintree. (175).
  • (19) Davis. (1992). (62).
  • (20) Ibid. (36 – 37).
  • (21) BBC New UK. (2014). Northern Lights Illuminate the UK. BBc News. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-26378027
  • (22) DeVries, Jan. (1962). Altnordishes Etymologisches Wörterbuch. Leiden: E.J. Brill. (35).
  • (23) Davis. (1992). (62).

Pictures Sources:

  • (I)Center– Odin and Bivröst by Emil Doepler in Ranisch, Wilhelm . (1900) Walhall, die Götterwelt der Germanen. Verlag. Berlin.-
  • Sides– Metal plaque representing Odin on his horse Sleipnir. Sweden. IXth century.
  • (II) The Codex Regius (The King’s book) Manuscript of Eddic Poems.
  • (III) Heimdall and “Bivröst” by Emil Doepler (Ibid.).
  • (IV) Red Northern Light Corona. Reykjavík, Iceland: 27/02/2014. (C) Lyonel Perabo.
  • (V) The Battle of Ragnarök by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine in Wägner, Wilhelm. (1882). Nordisch-germanische Götter und Helden. Otto Spamer, Leipzig & Berlin.