Alone the watchman waited at the head of the bridge, predecessor of a later sentry to issue one day from Shakespeare's pen, observer of a landscape moving below him. But it was not the trees that feigned to move, rather the rocks themselves which seemed to be ominously approaching, bruising one another as they pressed their weight onto the ethereal span of Bifrost. These were no mere boulders propelled by the inner workings of Jötunheim or Midgard, no stony rampart pushed up by the writhing of the cosmic serpent. They were a vanguard of Rock and Frost Giants, eternal enemies of the gods, a perpetual challenge to the vigilance of Heimdal as he stood sentinel at Asgard's gate. Ere the tumbling threat could mar the rainbow crossing he was upon them, he and the bridge itself as one, dissolving their energy with his fiery blast and scattering them with his sword.
Heaven's Edge is the place to which Bifrost ascends. It is the place of Heimdal's hall, Himinbjörg, the 'Cliffs of Heaven', a term still used in Norway to describe a steep, mountainous headland which slopes abruptly to the sea. From Himinbjörg, Heimdal rides forth along the rainbow bridge or Milky Way, the 'White God' seated upon his golden steed. Though he sometimes wanders the earth and is said to be the father of men, he never ceases his eternal watch, and a blast upon his magical Gjallarhorn can be heard as a warning through all the nine worlds. Symbolic of the crescent moon, Gjallarhorn is kept at the root of Yggdrasill in the waters of Mimir's Well. There it rests near Odin's eye, the emblem of the full moon, and seems to represent a cyclic turn in the affairs of cosmic evolution, a solemn voice asserting the power of being, as well as a sharp ear alert to the slightest inflection of dissolution.
Tirelessly sitting at the edge of Asgard, Heimdal sees by night and day. It is said that, like the Vanirs, he can see into the future and can hear the grass growing on the earth as well as the wool on the backs of sheep. Drinking his sweet mead at night, he hears the tiniest footfall throughout the nine worlds, which is how he came to know that, in Folkvang, Loki was turning himself into a mosquito in order to steal Freyja's necklace. When he heard this singularly unique buzzing, his penetrating glance revealed the evil-doer's cunning scheme just as the latter stung the sleeping goddess into a change of position advantageous to the unhooking of the necklace's clasp. With immediate swiftness, Heimdal swooped down upon Loki, who turned into a fire and disappeared. Undaunted, Heimdal became a cloud and began to rain, whereupon Loki became a polar bear and drank up the rain. Even as he drank, however, Heimdal attacked in the form of an even greater bear, from whose deadly embrace Loki barely escaped in the shape of a slippery seal. But Heimdal pursued him as a bigger seal and, in a fierce struggle, forced Loki to shed his torn and mangled skin and give up the necklace. In restoring Freyja's necklace, the White God dispersed the black clouds of gloom that had gathered, and the jewelled stars of a clear night appeared once again in the heavens. He thus brought back the light of night and day to the world and demonstrated his sympathetic relationship with Freyja, the deity so closely associated with spring and fertility. He also revealed his strong antipathy towards Loki, who represents the evil and destructive aspect of fire, as much as he himself represents its illuminating goodness.
"Men tell in old stories that he of the gods who is called Heimdal set out in a time of peace and quiet along a certain sea strand." Arriving at a lowly hut, he introduced himself as Rigr to the poor and unprepossessing couple that he found there. The Rigsthula goes on to tell how he befriended this Ai and Edda (meaning 'great-grandfather' and 'great-grandmother') and partook of their coarse and meagre meal. When evening came he lay down between them, as he did for three nights running before taking his leave from their humble abode. In nine months' time a dark son with a low brow whom they named Thrall was born to them. He grew to be very strong and worked hard from dawn to dusk. He married a girl similar to himself named Thyr, and from their union sprang the race of thralls. Not lingering in this district long, Heimdal made his way along the coast to a roomy farmhouse, where he stayed with Afi and Amma ('grandfather' and 'grandmother'), whose industry and cleanliness had produced good crops and a plentiful larder from which their table was graced with simple but wholesome food. The White God spoke with them, giving them instructions as he had done with Ai and Edda, and for three days at the coming of evening he lay down between them through the night. Nine months saw the birth of a son to them, a ruddy-faced, bright-eyed boy whom they named Karl. With his maturity Karl married Snör ('rich in keys and well dressed'), and from their union issued the land-owning class of farmers known as yeomen.
In his final visit, Heimdal stayed at a rich manor house where he sat with Fathir and Mothir ('father' and 'mother') and gave to them good advice. As with the others, he remained three days and nights, supping with them at their abundant and graciously appointed table and lying between them at night in their richly commodious bed. Nine months later, blond-headed, fine-featured Jarl was born and grew to be a warrior, to swim, to ride and to rule. To him alone, of these several offspring, Heimdal appeared and gave instructions in the understanding of the runes. He taught him the sacred incantations, kennings and songs, the words against pain of heart, mind and body, and words that put water on a fire and put the sea to sleep. He also told him he was Rig-Jarl (King Jarl), his son, and inspired him to deeds that would bring honour and glory. Jarl grew to master these arts and married Erna ('slender-waisted'), with whom he laid down the ruling class of nobles, the third and highest class that came to make up the social order of old Scandinavia. Thus, it was believed that the class system, like caste or class systems elsewhere in the ancient world, was divinely inspired and rulers were members of lineages comprised of godlike kings. The Nordic kings contended with a far more democratically-minded lot than, say, the divine kings of India, and they combined in a less well-defined way the roles of Brahmin and Kshatriya. But their system, like that of the ancient Hindus, was believed to reflect a God-given order which in some way mirrored that of the cosmos.
Thus, while Heimdal protects the gods whose reign marks the order of manifested existence, he also instils law and order in the world and strives to uphold the demarcation between different classes. As Rigr in the Rigsthula, he is the progenitor of mankind in its three classes. Elsewhere he is also closely associated with Yggdrasill, whose branches and roots discreetly separate out the various races of gods, giants and dwarfs as well as human beings. His identity sometimes seems to merge with the World Tree. Indeed, some say the name Heimdal is composed of the terms heimr, meaning 'habitat' or 'world', and dalthu or dallur, denoting a fruit-bearing tree. Interestingly, the Finno-Ugric peoples shared an old belief in the 'white youth' they designated as the father of the human race who was nourished by the spirit of the World Tree and fed upon its milk (Milky Way?). That ideas pertaining to this theme may have been borrowed from non-Indo-European-speaking tribes is a distinct possibility, though such associations may ultimately have come to them from proto-Indo-European sources in Central Asia. The history of the movement of ideas in the world is as complex as the study of human migration combined with the infinite possibilities of widely scattered and independent tappings of the Universal Mind. Identified with the World Tree, the White God can be seen as the sentinel and witness upon whom is suspended the fruit of manifestation. If he imbibes the milk, it is the galactic fluid of the stars strewn along its branches like blossoms that bud and bloom and die away. The liquid flows along its milky way like sap rising in a cycle drawn through the boughs of the great tree.
In writing down the Eddas, Snorri referred to a lost work called Heimdalargaldr (The Magic Song of Heimdal) and drew from his memory the lines which told of "one [who] was born in olden days, of strength surpassing, kin to the Powers. He, nail-resplendent, was born to nine giant maids, on the edge of the earth." How much is lost to us through the disappearance of this poem will perhaps never be known, but the complex character of Heimdal cries out for a core of interrelating explanations which might well have been offered in its verse. As it is, one gathers clues and kennings, anecdotes and allusions, from other related works, such as the Völuspá, which describes his birth:
The nine mothers have names associated with the waves of the sea and the cliffs upon which they batter, as well as with fire and the 'World Mill'. They are called the 'wave maidens', daughters of the terrible Ogir (Aegir) and his wife Bar (Ran), who drag men down into the deep to throng their underwater with human souls. With appellations like 'Howler' (Gjálp) and 'Grasper' (Greip), the daughters appear to have inherited their parents' fearful nature, but Heimdal was nursed by the cold sea and grew strong in its swirling energy. Turning and waxing at the edge of the world, he was a fire in the midst of water, a golden-toothed (Gullintanni) solar god born out of the fathomless depths of Chaos. Twisting around, he is Vindler, the 'Turner' or 'Borer', producer of domestic fire by friction, whose name comes from the Old Norse vinda, meaning 'to wind, twist or turn'. Thus, Heimdal is a fire-bringer not dissimilar to Prometheus and capable of being related to Agni (Ignis) and the two sticks which are turned together to produce fire. Other parallels can be found in the Rig Veda, where the Hindu god of fire is referred to as the 'White God' who is strong and has golden teeth. He is said to have searching eyes that penetrate the darkness and he is the ever-attentive guardian of order.
Agni is variously the offspring of two, seven, nine or ten mothers and, as Apam Napat, is the son of the waters. The Rig Veda says of him, "He with clear flames unfed with wood, shines in the waters." As Vindler, Heimdal shares many of these characteristics, for he is the action and the force which produces living fire. He is the 'World Bow' (one of the translations of his name), identifying his fire with that of the rainbow bridge. "For the Aesir bridge", so the Grímnismál tells us, "burns all with flame", and when Gylfi asks, "Do you mean to say fire burns over Bifrost?" he is told, "Certainly, what you see red in the rainbow is burning fire", without which the Rock and Frost Giants would swarm over into heaven's halls. Thus the fire stands guard, as it were, along the span separating heaven from earth – along Bifrost, which descends into Jötunheim near Mimir's Well and is constructed of the blue air, the green water and the red fire.
In the skaldic poem Husdrapa, Heimdal is referred to as the "son of eight and one mothers". The separation out of the One is significant, for just as the term rigr comes from the ancient Celtic word for 'king', so another of Heimdal's names (Hallinskithi) means 'ram', and the old Celts called the waves of the sea 'sheep', the ninth one being the 'ram'. Born of the ninth wave, Heimdal is like Bhishma, born of Ganga after eight preceding brothers had been drowned. His identification with the ram asserts his role of progenitor in the sense that Bhishma overbroods the Kauravas and Pandus: not directly in the earthly sense, but as a fiery impulse which itself remains undisturbed. In this way, Heimdal is the sacrificial fire of the ram who hangs upon the World Tree. Born at the world's edge where Chaos and Cosmos meet, where the ocean of dissolution encounters the land of substance, Heimdal marks the beginning and the end of cycles of manifestation by the flame of his sacrifice. He is born of the ice-cold sea and the earth's strand rising out of it, and is revealed in the blood of sacrifice poured upon the soil of being. Thus he visits the parents of thralls, karls and jarls along the sea coast, an edge of the world representing a perfect analogue to the edge of Asgard where he keeps his sleepless watch.
An intriguing puzzle for which an explanation may have been provided in the lost Heimdalargaldr concerns the meaning of the kennings wherein the sword is called "Heimdal's head" and a head was referred to as "Heimdal's fate". The skalds related this usage to a passage from the poem which apparently told how the god was pierced by a man's head, but the picture becomes cloudy when one sees that they also called a sword "man's fate" and Heimdal's sword a "head". This confusion raises several questions, for if Heimdal was actually slain by a head, then he must have been reborn, because he is slated to be the last to die at the end of Ragnarok. Or could the nine waves or mothers imply a series of incarnations culminating in that of the sacrificial ram? More fundamentally, what could it mean to be slain by a head, and why the head of man? Could this be associated with his portentous visit among humans, and is there a suggestion here of a sacrificial Avatar? We have already seen that there are striking similarities between the White God and certain personages of the Hindu tradition. One can also see the familiar themes of Ragnarok developed in the great Mahabharatan War, both epics being capable of consideration as reflections of an older Indo-European mythic idea.
Heimdal can be meaningfully compared with Bhishma because they both incarnate aspects of pre-Vedic myths, such as birth from a water deity and a primordial avuncular role as procreation manager, guardian and counsellor for three generations. Both are 'sideliners', as it were, celibate sponsors and guardians who never take a wife or consort for themselves but ensure that the fruit of others' unions are cared for. By thus inspiring the generation of the great-grandparents, the grandparents and the parents of the human race, Heimdal reveals himself as a very ancient god, indeed one of the most archaic of the Gothonic deities transported by rugged migrating tribes out of Central Asia to the icy headlands of the North.
The number nine is especially significant in the Nordic mythical scheme. Besides Heimdal's nine mothers, the ninth wave associated with the ram and the nine months' gestation of Thrall, Karl and Jarl, there are nine worlds in its cosmology, Odin hung upon Yggdrasill for nine nights, and he learnt nine magical songs from Bölthór. More generally, nine is the number of the complete image of the three worlds, the end limit of the numerical series before its return to unity. In mystical addition it is a number which, when multiplied, reproduces itself and is comprised of three times three worlds – generations, cycles or waves. In the highest heaven there is the circle – the All which becomes One. In the second heaven the One becomes Two (masculine and feminine). Three (plus the Logoic son) and Four (producing the Tetraktys). In the third heaven (the manifesting world) the number becomes Four and Three (seven being the sacred number of life), plus Two, which signifies the completion of the three strides of Vishnu (Nine), the sacred number of Being and Becoming. In The Secret Doctrine the ninth creation is that of the Kumaras, incarnators of mahat. Theirs is a manifestation involving not just prakriti but self-consciousness, to which man gives "intellectual assent". Appearing in all kalpas, the Kumaras are "the progenitors of the true spiritual SELF in the physical man–the higher Prajapati" (fathers).
Like the Kumaras, Heimdal is innocent and pure. He is the celibate god whose education of humanity marks the beginning of their self-conscious physical, mental and spiritual awakening at the precise point when their vehicles are becoming ready for higher intellection. In this way, he is 'born', as it were, along the strand, bringing the gift of his sacrificial fire by friction, and the three generations of couples he visits can be seen as representing progressive stages in manasic incarnation rather than merely classes. In the light of this interpretation, one can consider more fruitfully the mysterious kenning about Heimdal's fate, especially as it relates to the sword. Symbolically, the sword is a powerful representation of perceptive thought, the power of mind which pierces through to the core of truths. The head of man, being the vehicle par excellence of the manasic principle (mahat in man), can thus be seen as an exchangeable metaphor for the sword. In addressing the question of what is meant by Heimdal being pierced by a man's head, one needs to look beyond the combined symbolism of the sword and head to the nature of the self-conscious awareness they represent. To do so enables one to glimpse the essence of the god's sacrifice: that he gives the sword of mind out of the wholeness of himself, only to be sundered by it in the hands of those who are sundered from one another. His 'death', then, would mean that he, in some profoundly mysterious sense, sacrificed his immortality in that aspect of himself which lit up the fire in man.
Of equal mystery is Heimdal's Gjallarhorn, which he keeps in Mimir's well of wisdom when it is not being used to alert the gods. Generally speaking, the horn has always signified strength and masculine power, but its most sacred significance lies in the fact that it indicates "what is above the head" and opens up a path there, as suggested in the old Greek myth concerning Aries and the battering-ram used to open the way into the upper kingdom. Kept in the well at the foot of Bifrost, the Gjallarhorn has to be fetched each time Heimdal sees the need to sound its alarm. This procedure connects the horn intimately to the bridge over which he must travel to retrieve the instrument. In focussing upon this activity, one finds that much of the complexity of symbolism surrounding Heimdal begins to come together. For if one sees the White God as the guardian of Asgard, the heavenly kingdom above, one needs to find a bridge capable of linking this lofty role with the object of his sacrificial activities in the world below. One should remember that the god himself is alluded to as the bridge, rendering his sacrifice in a more specific sense than that suggested by his identification with the World Tree. For the bridge is the occult symbol of the antaskarana, the 'Trembling Path' that links the lower to the higher mind, the medium of communication between the two. Over this bridge the impressions and thoughts capable of being assimilated by the immortal god in man are conveyed, while the baser instincts and desires are spotted and thrown back into the world – into Midgard and Jötunheim in their tripartite divisions.
When giants bent on envy, lust, greed or hatred of the divine order attempt to cross the bridge, Heimdal flashes along it to gather his horn which alone can be heard in all the nine worlds. Blowing on this horn he alerts the gods, but he also alerts every part of the worlds below, every aspect of man's lower nature to which the personal mind is attuned. Thus the god descends along the bridge and awakens the lower consciousness so that it can rise up and assist in the struggle. He descends, commences the battle, and then reascends to his post of watchman. As long as Bifrost's fiery span remains intact and the Immortal Watcher holds his post, the forces of chaos and dissolution cannot succeed. Continual vigilance is the order of the day, and continual harkening to the horn of wisdom's unsullied note. When periods of quietude and balance have been achieved and a time of peace prevails, Heimdal may descend along the antaskaranic path to light up the adequately prepared mind along the way and visit many places within the complex lower world. But when disturbances arise, he grasps his horn and, gathering the whole lower quaternary as a battering-ram, sweeps the menacing giants aside and storms the gate to that realm which hovers above the Cliff of Heaven and over the head of each individual human being. Thus, the smaller cycle is brought within the larger, the fruit of the World Tree made to carry the fiery seed of Immortality, and man is inspired to participate in divine self-rule.
The antaskarana is "the internal instrument" of communion between the lesser world of life and death and the measureless vista of the unsleeping sentinel. His watch persists in the single life of a mortal, as in the life of a whole cosmos, until all the other gods have passed away. At the very end of a manvantaric cycle, Heimdal will keep his post, locked in struggle with the evil Loki, who will die before he himself succumbs. He stands thus at the beginning and the end, the ancient Gothonic deity who is the World Tree of sacrifice and the bridge which enables conscious participation in it. Shankaracharya said that the antaskarana can be refined by sacrifices and other sanctifying deeds. This is because the antaskarana is, in its essence, sacrifice, which grows stronger and more effective through the conscious additional sacrifice of its host, the individual becoming immersed in sacrifice and blending with the nature and function of the White God. The understanding of the mysteries of the cyclic divisions of heaven and earth rides along the crest of the ninth wave. This is because only with the individual's self-conscious awareness of his own microcosmic identity with the substance and process of the macrocosm can realization of the universality of the law of sacrifice be known. The fiery bridge within the individual must become a thoroughfare of communication between the god who watches and knows and the giants and trolls below, in order for the progressive awareness of the thrall, the karl and the jarl to supersede one another towards true understanding.
The number nine is that of the extended world, the whole of man's nature manifest. And it is the point of return to Unity where the Four and the Three and the Two of the third heaven produced in the nine months of gestation can be refined by the One acting through the Tetraktys. The descent, refinement and drawing up along the bridge take place over and over again. Heimdal's work continues until the very end, for man is 'born' repeatedly, as it were, cycling through his life along Heaven's Edge, only to plunge into the depths of Jötunheim or Hel. He rises with the sap in the great tree but withers with the draughts of wintry circumstance. Only the individual who harkens well to the note of Gjallarhorn in times of war, delves deep into the wisdom waters where it rests in peaceful times, and does everything in his power to purify and attune his personal vestures can expect to transcend these revolving cycles. By seizing Heimdal's ninth wave at the tide, one grasps the sword of mind and joins his vigilant battle against the lies and half-truths and baser desires that continually threaten to destroy the bridge between the immortal Perceiver and the personality. In so doing, one can learn to ride with the White God along the starry edge of cycles, making of one's life a grand saga writ small of Adhiyajna, the epic sacrifice of cosmic evolution.