It is time for me to ride along the blood-red roads, to set the pale horse treading the path through the sky; I must cross the wind-vault’s bridge in the West, before Salgofnir awakens the victorious people.
These rather cryptic words are taken from an Old Norse poem called Helgakviða Hundingsbana II (“the second poem of Helgi, bane of Hunding”) which was written down on parchment in Iceland, some 800 years ago. It belongs to the famous Volsung Cycle, which is the Norse interpretation of the barbarian invasions that shook Europe in the fifth-century, also famously referenced in the Ring Cycle of Richard Wagner. This short passage in verse describes the death of the hero Helgi and his ascent to the dwelling of the Gods, Valhalla, by way of the Aurora Borealis.
In this poem, Helgi describes how he, now that he dies, must ride the “blood-red roads,” “through the sky” with his horse before the awakening of “the victorious people.” Here, the blood-red roads in the sky are clearly a reference to Bivrost, the path that links the kingdom of men and Gods. In Snorri Sturluson’s Poetic Edda, it is said that the Gods themselves ride over Bivrost (“every day the Æsir ride there up over Bivrost”), so it only makes sense that a brave fallen warrior would do the same. The final part of the verse which mentions the awakening of “the victorious people” is most likely a reference to Ragnarok, which will see Óðinn’s army of undead warrior facing the hosts of the underground giants.
Finally, the color red, while relatively rare nowadays when observing the Aurora, used to be much more common in ages past as show by various Greek and Roman texts written in the Antiquity. Such texts, just like Helgakviða Hundingsbana II also tend to associate the red Aurora with warriors and battles like the third-century Roman writer Julius Obsenquens: “A celestial groan was heard and javelins seemed to fall from the sky. A fiery javelin stretched to the sky from the west. Celestial armies from the east and the west were seen fighting at both times, and those from the west were being defeated.”
In the end it looks like not only did the Norsemen see the Aurora as a manifestation of their warrior ancestors entering Óðinn’s marvelous palace, but that many other cultures also held very similar belief. It is as if the majesty of the Northern Lights inspired people from all over the world and throughout history to a similarly powerful extent.
- (1) Larrington, Carolyne. (1996). The Poetic Edda. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.
- (2) Snorri Sturluson. (1987). Edda (Anthony Faulkes Trans.). London: J.M. Dent.
- (3) Julius Obsequens text translated by Alex Nice.
- (I) Meyer, Wilhelm, Friedrich (1882). Valhalla. In: Gödecke, P.A. (1880). Sagan om Ragnar Lodbrok och hans söner . Stockholm: Nordstedts.