By George Csicsery
That a black labrador with mysterious origins should be rescued from the middle of San Francisco Bay a mere three weeks before inauguration of the Bay Bridge’s new eastern span was too good to be true.
It is the first sign that the inauguration of the Bay Area’s troubled bridge might be an auspicious event. Why so? Any European alive before the 19th century would never have missed the connection.
That the omen went unrecognized by the people preparing to open the bridge on September 3 is testimony to our loss of cultural memory, but the Devil is always in the details, and it is never too late to make amends.
The fear of bridges failing on or near their inauguration has a rich and varied history, certainly in Europe, but also in the United States. Think of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse on November 7, 1940 a few months after that bridge was completed.
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time it was designed by Leon Moisseiff. The design was flawed, the bridge was too flexible, and that proved fatal. When battered by high winds, it developed an escalating vibration.
What happened next was captured by at least two cameras. The film showing the undulating bridge as it collapses was shown in classrooms for decades. Naturally, you can see a dozen re-packaged versions on YouTube. It’s a haunting video. The only casualty was a dog trapped in a car abandoned by its driver.
To this day, the sight of a black dog hovering around the famous medieval bridge in Regensburg, Germany, at night provokes raised eyebrows among savvy locals who recognize the Devil in his canine disguise.
But contrary to what you might believe from recent stories about superstitions connected to black animals, the devil’s presence around the bridge is not a portent of disaster. On the contrary, the hapless black dog of Regensburg’s bridge is the consequence of a success story.
Regensburg’s old stone bridge, built between 1135 and 1146, was the first to link northern and southern Europe, and for hundreds of years the only way to cross the Danube without a boat or ferry. It has been standing for close to a millennium.
The bridge is linked to the black dog through a beautiful legend, the origins of which go back to the time of its construction. The bridge’s architect, it is said, was in competition with the builder of Regensburg’s famous medieval Dom to see who would finish first.
When he saw that the cathedral was nearly finished and the bridge was nowhere near completion, the bridge builder made a pact with the Devil to help speed up his work. The deal they struck gave the Devil the souls of the first eight feet to cross the bridge. Not bad, thought the Devil, a harvest of four human souls in exchange for some minor technical wizardry.
With the Devil’s help, the bridge was indeed finished first, whereupon the cathedral’s architect threw himself from the Dom’s spire in despair. His suicide is thought to explain the image of a falling man depicted on the cathedral.
Not only did the wily bridge builder win his wager with the cathedral’s architect, when it came time to inaugurate the bridge (listen up, Caltrans) he tricked the Devil by sending a hen, a rooster, and a dog across the bridge before any human crossed. There were the first eight feet to cross the new bridge.
Outsmarted by a human, the Devil was forever stuck with the souls of these three beasts, but there was nothing he could do about it. This is believed to be why that black dog has been seen skulking around the old stone bridge in Regensburg ever since.
The association of a black dog with the Devil was immortalized in dramatic literature by Goethe in Faust, where Mephistopheles (the Devil) first appears to Faust as a poodle before revealing his true identity.
The link between bridges and the Devil is far more widespread than the Regensburg legend. A Wikipedia search reveals hundreds of devil’s bridges, 49 in France alone. Many of them are some of the oldest and most beautiful bridges in Europe. Why these bridges are tied to stories involving demonic forces in folklore, and why the legends are so similar, is not difficult to understand.
A man-made bridge is not natural; it defeats the force of gravity, connecting two places that nature, or God, have separated. That act of defiance is made possible by technologicaldexterity, and in folklore all such acts are related to wizardry, magic, the invocation of supernatural forces.
In myth, the technologically daring are punished for their efforts at experimentation (think of Icarus and Prometheus). Building bridges over precipitous gorges and wide bodies of water is a dangerous business, and in folklore can only be accomplished if some supernatural power is involved.
Enter the Devil.
Looking into the Devil’s bridge stories provides some insight into humanity’s longstanding love/hate relationship with technological progress and scientific innovation.
Bridges are not only actual paths and connections; they are also metaphorical links between two different points, or even phases of life. We are more vulnerable in transition than on terra firma. Science and technology are paths to the new and unfamiliar, often involving counter-intuitive ideas and processes. Engineers practice a kind of wizardry few others can fathom. In folklore, how can their unnatural and dangerous enterprises succeed without demonic assistance?
There is a charming legend among the Wampanoag people of Martha’s Vineyard that reveals what happens when the Devil backs out of a bridge-building deal. The giant Maushup, who lived on Martha’s Vineyard alone, decided to build a bridge to the mainland. He started by throwing some giant boulders off the cliff at Gayhead into the sea.
According to one version of the story, he was bitten on the toe by a crab and stopped building the bridge. Another version, told to anthropologist William Simmons of Brown University, has Maushup losing a fight with the Devil. As a result, there is no bridge between the Vineyard and the mainland, and all that’s left of Moshup’s project are the boulders in the sea called Devil’s Bridge. It is a treacherous piece of water notorious for shipwrecks caused by collisions with the underwater rocks of Maushop’s unfinished bridge to Cuttyhunk.
All of this is meant to shed light on the troubled history of the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The 24-year project is being delivered ten years late due to a series of mishaps that should have alerted Caltrans officials to seek some kind of diabolic bargain years ago. The recent bad bolts fiasco, as yet unresolved, was preceded by an unbelievable chain of political wrangling that was partially documented in David Brown’s 2011 documentary film The Bridge So Far. And that was preceded by the battle of designs.
Whoever is in charge, CalTrans, Governor Brown, please read up on your folklore. At the very least, get that young lab rescued from the bay in mid-August, and let it be the first to cross our new bridge. It’s the cheapest bridge insurance policy you’ll ever buy.
George Csicery is an Oakland-based writer and documentary film producer who was born in Regensburg, Germany.