Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Mythical Symbolism Behind Bridges

The Mythical Symbolism Behind Bridges

“bridge (brij), - n. 1. a structure spanning and providing passage over a river, chasm, road, or the like. 2. a connecting, transitional, or intermediate route, phase, etc.”[i]

It is impossible to ever pinpoint the moment that bridges were invented. No individual is given credit for the discovery of a means to traverse across safely across chasms. Since the time man first discovered a fallen tree over a river, the art and technology of building bridges has developed, expanded, and thrived. Notable landmarks in the evolution of the bridge include the Romans used stone to build aqueducts to span rivers and store water. Around 1777, the first iron bridges made their appearances, visually stunning with a higher tensile strength that that of stone.[ii] (Image 1) This was just the starting point for the human race’s obsession with finding new, creative, and innovatively beautiful ways to cross bodies of water.
The bridge has developed into an iconic challenge for designers worldwide as well as a draw for tourists. For example, one of the first images to pop into mind when one thinks of San Francisco is the Golden Gate Bridge. (Image 2) Bridges have become art, man’s triumph over nature and the definition of the very nature of place.
Calasso, however, reminds us to look deeper through his mantra, “But how did it all begin?”[iii] Certainly enough, looking back beyond the historical past, the bridge structure has been around from the beginning of our mythical past. This is hardly a great invention by man to bridge the gap from land to land. Bridges were a creation of the gods, connecting to the heavens.
More than physical structure, the image of a bridge mythically symbolizes the pathway to paradise. It is a transition or movement to a better place. The transition over the bridge symbolizes what has been referred to in Mythology 210 as “paradise found” or “the return.” It is the final stage of myths and the ending of the journey.
There are several aspects in the transition to paradise that the bridge embodies. The first is the crossing of the bridge itself, often a test or challenge of worthiness. The nature of the actual bridge may test the soul. Those who are evil or fail the tests fall into darkness or hell while the good move safely to heaven.
The symbolism of bridges is universally reinforced in mythology, independent of cultural specifics. The Islamic religion believes in the Sirat al-Mustaqim or “the path of God.”[iv] It is the size of a rope and one must travel “3000 miles (or hours) long, 1000 upwards, 1000 across and 1000 downwards”[v] to reach heaven. For the good souls, a white horse will be waiting to carry them across quickly. The wicked souls are burned by the fires of hell raging below, which causes them to fall. Culturally these bridges vary in form, but they embody the same principles.
Other examples of symbolic bridges can be found in the Muslim tradition. They call this mythological passage the Bridge of Jehennam, Al Sirat, or The Path. This bridge to paradise is narrower than a spider’s thread and sharper than a sword. The wicked will fall into mid-hell while the good will pass safely into heaven. The formal characteristics of the bridge differ in the Inca tradition. The Incas viewed Hanan Pacha, their version of heaven, as accessible only over a bridge woven from hairs. Looking at the Japanese Shinto religion gives us a view of the bridge Ama-no-uki-hashi. Also known as the floating bridge of heaven, this connects the home of the sky gods, Takamagahara, to earth.
Beyond the challenging nature of the bridge itself, many cultures believe that the bridge to heaven is watched over by a guardian who will either aid or hinder those who attempt to cross it. This bridge guardian exists to protect the pathway and judge potential crossers. The Bridge of Judgment in the Zoroastrian belief judges the true nature of a man. At death, every soul has an individual evaluation at the Bridge of the Separator (the Cinvat Bridge) and is met by the personification of their soul and conscious. For the good, a beautiful maiden will await their arrival and take them safely to heaven. The path becomes wide and smooth, and their way is clear and easy. An ugly hag will meet the wicked. The path narrows as they attempt to cross, causing them to fall into the pit of hell. [vi]
Further examples of this include the Norse tradition, where Heimdall guards the bridge Bifrost connecting Midgard to Asgard. It is covered with flame to keep those unworthy of entering Asgard from crossing. It is usually depicted as a rainbow. (Image 3) In the Native American Plains tribes, Owl Women guards the bridge to the afterlife. On the Malay Peninsula, the Meni Kaien have the tradition of Balan Bacham or the bridge of the dead. This is guarded by Mampes to keep the wicked from traveling to Belet, the afterworld. The Persians have a different view, believing that Rashnu, personification of righteousness and divine angel of justice and last judgment, acts as guardian along with Mithra, god of light, and Sraosa, personification of obedience. Together they guard the bridge to heaven, Chinvat, where Rashnu judges the soul on golden scales.
This wide assortment of cultural myths vividly reinforces the universal characteristics of the bridge. Deeply engulfed in our mythological background, the symbolism of bridges has reinvented itself in modern-day life. Perhaps influenced by my Scandinavian background, my favorite bedtime story was “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” This Norwegian folktale tells the story of three goats that wish to travel across a bridge where green grass is plentiful. This clichéd concept of wanting to go where “the grass is greener” references the desire to travel to a better place or paradise.
As the three goats make their way across the bridge to paradise, they are confronted and delayed by the evil troll. Before they can continue on to the other side, they must defeat this troll in some manner. This challenge represents the final test on the path to heaven. It is the testing of the soul and judgment day. In this tale, the judgment is represented by a physical guardian of the way, the troll.
Through trickery and using their heads, figuratively and literally, the three goats pass the test. After proving their worth, the three billy goats Gruff make their way to the green hills and happily gorge themselves on the lush grass. At last they have reached paradise.
This fairy tale of my youth has been manifested in concrete. In lower downtown Seattle, the mythical bridge makes its appearance in a not so subtle way. Spanning Lake Union, the Aurora Bridge connects the high class Queen Anne neighborhood to the down-to-earth, artsy Fremont district. (Image 4) To travel to the upscale Queen Anne area, however, one must first face the task of bypassing the troll, whose image is straight out of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” This large troll designed by architect Steve Badanes resides under the Fremont side of the bridge and has become an icon of the area as well as the destination for many Halloween parties. (Image 5) In this way, the deeply rooted concept of the troll under the bridge to heaven has abstracted itself and been manifested in a loving, playful way. The many tourists who visit the Fremont Troll have no idea that they are actually meeting one personification of that which will judge their own souls.
Perhaps an interesting symbol of bridges has transferred in a frequent, unfortunate way into modern life. The mythological site of a soul’s fall into hell has perhaps become the unknown symbolism of individuals who take their own lives by jumping off bridges to their death. This can be related to the ultimate fall of the soul failing the test and descending into darkness.
Originating in worldwide mythology and physically manifested today, the symbolism of bridges is deep and multifaceted. From the obscure to the well know, different culture’s mythologies show us that bridges are clearly much more that simply a means to cross over a gap in the landscape. Mythically speaking, these magnificent structural feats are man attempting to recreate the pathway to heaven in the physical world and control our own transition to paradise.
[i] Webster’s, pg. 166
[ii] Trachtenberg, pgs 447-451
[iii] Calasso, pg. 4
[iv] Qur’an 42:53
[v] Encyclopedia Mythica, Sirat al-Mustaqim
[vi] Cavendish, pg. 43


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