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The Myths of Reality

the perilous bridge

Alby Stone

Perilous bridge illustration

Illustration by David Taylor

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would be he of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This city now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

So wrote William Wordsworth in his famous poem Upon Westminster Bridge. This crystallises a timeless moment in which the mundane is transmuted into the magical: the city evoked by the poet's words is a far cry from the grubby, noisy, tumultuous place that London has ever been, transformed by the hour and Wordsworth's vision into a still, mystical realm in harmony with nature, at peace with itself. Bridges have this effect on the perceptive soul. It does not really matter whether Wordsworth penned his lines while actually standing upon the bridge, or was simply inspired to write them while walking across it – or, for that matter, if he just imagined that he was there while he was composing the poem. The important thing here is the symbolism: the bridge, and the enchanted world it brings to the poet's mind. The very nature of a bridge dictates its symbolic use. It is a structure that joins two otherwise separate pieces of land, yet at the same time enhances their separateness. One can travel across it, from one land mass to another, but while on it the traveller is neither in one place nor the other. A bridge is a quintessentially liminal thing, and it shares those qualities that characterise other things that delimit one state from another – doors, boundaries, the turning point of one day or year to the next – by being dangerous, enchanted, pregnant with a double-edged potential. In his poem The Bridge, H.W. Longfellow marries the liminal object with a kindred point in time:

I stood upon the bridge at midnight,
As the clocks were striking the hour.

This place between places is also a place between times [1]. Otherwise responsible adults have been known to revert to a childhood state while on a bridge, feeling free to play the game of Pooh Sticks made popular by the children's books of A.A. Milne. Normally sane and sober men and women will happily indulge in infantile games when they encounter a bridge. Obviously it was Milne who prepared the way; but it is the bridge that is the trigger, and there everyday social rôles and behaviour are suspended.

In cosmological myth, bridges sometimes lead from the realm of mortals to the land of the dead, or to the abode of the gods. Zoroastrian myth tells of the Cinvat ('separation') bridge, 'the holy bridge made by Mazda' that stretches over hell to paradise, 'which is the route of every one, righteous or wicked; the width across the route of the righteous is a breadth of nine spears, each one the length of three reeds, but the route for the wicked becomes like the edge of a razor' [2]. The bridge is suspended between two mountains, one in the centre of the world, one at the rim. This serves to reinforce the liminal bridge's status, by linking the range of mountains believed to encircle the earth, that which separates the outside from the inside, with that of the axis mundi, which keeps earth and sky apart. Similar bridges occur in the traditions of the Ossetes, Armenians, and Georgians; and the bridge al-Sirat ('the path') of Islamic tradition is almost certainly derived from Zoroastrian cosmology.

The Cinvat bridge is analogous to that crossed by the Altaic shaman in the spirit-journey to the underworld realm of Erlik Khan. This bridge is as wide as a hair, and the sea below it is strewn with the bones of shamans who have failed the crossing – like the Cinvat, this bridge will not tolerate a sinner [3]. A variation on this motif occurs in North American native myth: the Telumni Yokuts believe that the land of the dead is reached by crossing a stream by way of a shaking bridge that the living cannot use [4]. In the same vein are the sword-bridge that features in a number of Arthurian romances, and the pont où nul ne passe described in a continuation of Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval. The last is only half a bridge, but when the hero reaches the middle it swings about so that the end that formerly rested on one side now leads to the other [5]. The Arthurian bridges do not lead to the underworld, strictly speaking, but to an otherworld of sorts – deeper into the enchanted land of adventure. The road to the land of the dead is said to lead across a bridge in many other traditions. The Semang of Malaysia have a bridge called Balan Bacham that reaches across the sea to the magical island of Belet; also in Malaysia, the Sakai tell of a bridge named Menteg that spans a cauldron of boiling water, into which the wicked fall [6]. For the Moso of southwest China, the otherworld is reached by a bridge blockaded by demons [7].

The Norse myth of Baldr's death tells of Hermóðr's ride to the land of Hel on Odin's steed Sleipnir; on the way he crosses the Gjallar brú, the gold-roofed 'echoing bridge' over the river Gjoll. Saxo Grammaticus gives the story of Hadingus, who is taken on a journey to the underworld by a mysterious woman; on the road they cross a bridge over a river strewn with weapons [8]. Saxo also tells of a river that separates the world of men from a supernatural realm inhabited by monsters, spanned by a golden bridge forbidden to travellers [9]; and the paradisal land Odainsakr of Eiríks Saga Viðforla is reached via a stone bridge [10]. The most famous bridge in Norse myth is Bifrost, the 'trembling way' that is popularly identified with the rainbow. Bifrost stretches from Miðgarðr to Asgarðr, terminating at Himinbjorg, the home of its watchman Heimdallr [11].

Bridges, like all crossing places, are dangerous. As routes across the body of water that separates the living from the dead, or across the infernal abyss, these mythical bridges are especially dangerous: the soul of the sinner cannot cross, and the bridge distinguishes between the righteous and the damned. Earthly bridges are fixed structures, but these are narrow or broad, as occasion demands, or are endowed with an apparent structural unsoundness that allows only the morally resolute to make the crossing in safety. Sometimes, the danger is there for all, and for the righteous the bridge is a final test. Invariably, the bridge leads to a kind of paradise or to an underworld that will not tolerate the presence of the bad, who fall from it into a place of dissolution or punishment.

The association of bridges with death and testing persists into the present day. It is a symbolic state that has been used to good effect in the cinema. Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), while largely based on Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, often departs into mythological territory. One spectacular scene is set at a bridge where the Viet Cong are locked in a stalemate with US troops. The structure is rebuilt every day, and destroyed at night; its American defenders move and act as if they are already dead. The whole scene is spectral and eerie, imbued with a depressing sense of futility and fatalism that neatly encapsulates the war in Vietnam, and also suggests the timelessness that is a property of all liminal places. The undoing of the day's labour at night-time is a common motif in folklore; and appropriately enough, the notion of repetitive, futile labour is often represented metaphorically as 'painting the Forth Bridge' – the worker completes a particularly laborious and time-consuming task, then has to do it all over again from the very beginning. Unlike the bridge of Apocalypse Now, in which the enemy forces are as invisible as ghosts, that of A Bridge Too Far (directed by Richard Attenborough, 1977), based on the book by Cornelius Ryan, which tells the story of the Allied defeat at Arnhem in 1944, is a straightforward symbol of the common ground that both links and divides the combatants. In the film of Thornton Wilder's novel The Bridge At San Luis Rey (Rowland V. Lee, 1944), the tenuous links between five very different people are symbolised by the Peruvian rope-bridge that collapses beneath them. A German film, The Bridge (Bernhard Wicki, 1959), uses the bridge as a metaphor for the transition from childhood to adulthood, when only a group of 16-year-old boys are left to defend a town from the Allied forces in 1945.

More complex is David Lean's famous 1957 adaptation of Pierre Boulle's novel The Bridge on the River Kwai, in which British prisoners of war are set to work building a bridge for the Japanese invaders. The magnificent performance of Alec Guinness, as the Colonel who is at first resistant to the Japanese demands, and then tries to prevent the bridge's destruction, tends to distract the viewer from the symbolic purpose of the bridge itself: it is, once again, a structure that both unites and divides the two warring sides; but it is also the Colonel's own personal metaphor, a way of reconciling captivity with freedom of spirit, duty with loss of purpose. It is also the object whose construction leads, inexorably and tragically, to his death. These cinematic examples – there are many more, often adaptations from modern literature – serve to illustrate the abiding symbolism of the bridge, and demonstrate that its archaic cosmological import is embedded in our collective consciousness. It is ironic that a structure whose mundane purpose is to facilitate safe crossing has become a place of danger, linked inextricably with the workings of death [12]. Indeed, bridges are perennially notorious for the attraction they exert upon potential suicides. The Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco is a prime example, a genuine suicidal 'black spot'. The Bridge of Sighs is famous as the bridge in Venice over which prisoners were taken to be executed; but it is also an old nickname for London's Waterloo Bridge, which used to be a popular venue for suicides, and was the inspiration for Thomas Hood's poem The Bridge of Sighs:

One more Unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death.

But if bridges represent the journey of the dead to the otherworld, they are also associated with the return of the dead to the land of the living. A German tradition tells that when crops are plentiful, Charlemagne crosses the Rhine over a golden bridge at Bingen to give his blessing to the fields and vineyards. Bridges are often believed to be haunted, like the crossroads to which, as symbols, they are closely related.

The exploitation of bridge imagery is not confined to myth, cinema, and literature. Bridges are obvious targets in wartime. Yet while they usually have an undoubted strategic value, the energy and firepower expended upon bridges is often out of all proportion to any military interest the structure might arouse. Probably the best example is the lengthy onslaught suffered by the historic bridge at Mostar in Bosnia, not very long ago. It is generally acknowledged that the Serbs' interest in the Mostar bridge was dictated by its symbolic nature, linking as it did the Serb-held part of the town with the predominantly Moslem area; its destruction was a symbol of ethnic differences that the Serbian militia would no longer tolerate. Proverbially, bridge-builders are diplomats and peace-makers, those who seek to heal rifts and establish common ground. Given the ongoing failure of diplomacy in the war-torn states that were once a united Yugoslavia, the destruction of the Mostar bridge is all the more poignant, and doubly disturbing. In ancient Rome, Horatius Cocles was traditionally credited with saving the city from the Etruscans commanded by Lars Porsenna, who were attacking the wooden bridge across the Tiber, the Pons Sublicius. Horatius, so the story goes, fought off the invaders with the help of two noblemen who had been shamed into assisting him, while others destroyed the bridge behind them. The usual story has it that Horatius, having sent his two comrades back, swam across the Tiber when the bridge fell; but in another version, the hero dies [13]. This hero-tale may have grown up to explain the ritual casting of straw effigies called Argei into the river from the same bridge every May, and an old statue - supposedly of Horatius – that stood there [14]. The rationale may lie in the Roman idea of Rome itself: as an ideal state and also a representation of the cosmos, Rome is a notional paradise, its citizenship not given lightly. Perhaps here we see the Roman penchant for historicising older mythology in terms of the actual city: the Argei would thus be symbolic of those who do not belong there, and are cast into the waters in the same way as those unworthy souls who fall from the bridge to paradise in the mythologies mentioned above. Horatius then occupies the same mythological niche as Heimdallr, or the various other watchmen, porters, and guardian creatures that bar the bridge.

It is as a link between this world and the next that the image of the bridge is at its most potent. The Cinvat bridge recurs, as an object of veneration and as a cipher for admission to paradise, throughout Iranian religious literature. The Pope is known as the 'sovereign pontiff', a title derived from that of the chief priest of pagan Rome, the Pontifex Maximus – literally, the 'greatest bridge-builder', the link between the divine and the mundane. Papal commands – which are effectively Church dogma – help determine who gets into the Catholic heaven and who does not; the bridge-builder is thus also its guardian, and it is he who sets the crucial tests that sort the worthy from the unworthy. The bridge between worlds is ever perilous.


1: On the timelessness of liminal places and states, see Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca and London, 1974), p238-9.
2: E.W. West (trans.), Pahlavi Texts Part IV: Contents of the Nasks (Oxford 1892; reprinted Delhi 1965), p210.
3: Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Princeton, 1964), p202.
4: Ibid., p311.
5: Chrétien de Troyes (trans, Nigel Bryant), Perceval: The Story of the Grail (Cambridge, 1982), p169. Earlier in the same text, the hero crosses an ivory bridge that gives him a scare: 'behind him the bridge, so perilous and fearsome to cross, was crumbling all away: Perceval thought it would collapse into the abyss, for it was shaking so mightily and furiously' (p163). Perceval puts his faith in the mule he is riding, and she bears him across with 'neither ill nor pain.'
6: Eliade, op. cit., p281-2.
7: Ibid., p 446-7.
8: H.R. Ellis Davidson, The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature (Cambridge, 1943), p171-3.
9: Ibid., p186.
10: Ibid., p190.
11: The name also occurs as Bilrost, which some have considered the earlier form. As it is, this would mean something like 'temporary way'; in a wider cosmological context, 'trembling way' would be more apposite. See Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology (Cambridge, 1993), p36-7 for entries under both forms of the name.
12: Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London, 1966): 'Danger lies in transitional states, simply because transition is neither one state nor the next, it is undefinable. The person who must pass from one to another is himself in danger and emanates danger to others' (p96). This idea has been called into question – see for example, Rodney Needham, Symbolic Classification (Santa Monica, 1979), p46; Bruce Lincoln, Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual, and Classification (Oxford, 1989), p164-6, both of whom suggest that there is no inherent danger, but that, as Lincoln concludes, 'In: the right hands, however, and under the right circumstances, such anomalous entities can become potent weapons' (p170). It must be stressed that Lincoln is primarily concerned with anamalous individuals and things, as distinct from the transitional states discussed here – and in these states, danger is a constant factor. Individuals in liminal states are always at some risk, especially if entry into the next state has moral strings attached.
13: Jane F. Gardner, Roman Myths (London, 1993), p45-6.
14: Argei were kept at twenty-seven sacra Argeorum, minor shrines located around Rome; the effigies resembled men bound hand and foot (R.M. Ogilvie, The Romans and Their Gods, London, 1969, p87). Ogilvie opines that this ceremony was a substitute for an earlier rite in which old men were sacrificed in the same manner, and states that a similar sacrifice was recorded as having been performed in 440 BC, citing a later proverb, 'off the bridge with the sixty-year-olds' (p88). This does not rule out the possibility that those old men were symbolic sinners or scapegoats, their drowning ensuring the continued identity of Rome as the ideal city-state – an earthly paradise.

Originally published in At the Edge No.1 1996.

copyright © Alby Stone 1996

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