In all pre-modern societies, similar to many modern ones, people devoted considerable time to exploring and deciphering the complexities and hidden mysteries of the world.
Though people in Viking societies did create impressive technological achievements, from navigating without the sun to constructing ships able to handle the unforgiving waves of the Atlantic Ocean, they were constantly adrift in trying to explain the origins of the universe, grasping for meaning.
Part of this grasping was what modern historians have called the "Norse creation myth." This myth, found in the Prose Edda, was compiled by the 13th-century Icelandic poet and politician Snorri Sturluson.
It represents an effort by early medieval Scandinavians to explain the universe's very beginnings. According to the Prose Edda, the first world to come into existence was Muspell, a realm of extreme light and heat.
For the Norse mind, if a place of extreme heat and fire existed, then naturally, there must be the opposite, a world of cold and darkness.
At the heart of the creation story, the fiery heat of Muspell traversed this void, beginning the process of melting Niflheim's icy coldness and setting the stage for the emergence of life.
The thawing ice released droplets that transformed into a steady flow of liquid. This liquid gave rise to the first being, a primeval giant named Ymir.
It is here that our bovine friend makes its entrance into the story.
Linguistic and historical analysis indicates Auðumbla's name means "hornless cow rich in milk," yet historical depictions often mistakenly add horns. Illustration: Jakob Sigurðsson (1727-1779), Public domain
Emerging from this melting ice was Auðumbla, a primeval cow.
According to modern linguists and historians, her name is believed to be a portmanteau of the Old Norse words for "riches" and "hornless," meaning something like "hornless cow rich in milk."
This, however, has not stopped her depictions throughout the ages from incorrectly featuring horns. Not for the first time has there been a wrongful depiction of horns in Norse culture.
She was said to nourish herself by licking salty blocks of ice. Aside from the nourishment she received from the salty ice, her licks also formed Buri, the first true being in Norse mythology.
This process took three days, with the first day of licking revealing his hair, the second his head, and the final day his entire body.
Buri would have a son, Bor, who was then the father of the three principal gods in Norse mythology: Odin, Vili, and Ve.
Bor is also seen as the ancestor of the Æsir gods, one of the two pantheons in Norse mythology.
While forming Buri, a great river of milk was said to flow from her udders, signifying the importance and sacred reverence that the Norse had for cows and their milky products.
Ymir received sustenance from these five milky rivers and grew into a powerful being.
Auðumbla is then credited with not only creating life itself but also with creating the ancestors of Odin, the powerful All-Father of Norse mythology.
This 18th-century depiction illustrates Ymir, the primeval giant created from Auðumbla's salt-licked ice droplets, milking the cow and flourishing into a powerful being. Illustration: Nicolai Abildgaard (1743-1809), Public domain
Laden with rich symbolism
Aside from being a memorable character in the rich tapestry of Norse mythology, Auðumbla's appearance in the Norse creation myth is full of symbolism.
Her initial emergence at the dawn of creation signifies the transition from chaos to order, from a formless void to the creation of life, including the ancestors of Norse gods. Auðumbla thus represents the transformative power of creation.
This act of creation, symbolized by Auðumbla's interaction with the ice, speaks to the cyclical and interconnected nature of existence within the diverse myths of Norse culture.
The melting of ice revealed life, which then saw life beget life in a continuous loop.
People in Viking societies thus traced their ancestry back to this important event at the very dawn of time. This loop also mirrors what they saw as the eternal dance of life and creation, death and destruction, inherent throughout their universes and everyday lives.
Finally, given that most people in the Nordic world, throughout the early medieval period, were not fierce warriors but rather employed in agricultural work, Auðumbla represents the sacred reverence for, and importance of, cows in Viking societies.
Their products could quite literally sustain not only families but also whole communities, and cows were among the livestock that could thrive and survive in the severe climatic conditions of this northern part of the world.
In Rjukan, Norway, the community's strong appreciation for cows is vividly highlighted by large, eye-catching cow decorations hanging beneath the bridge close to the NorskHydro station. Photo: Algkalv / Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)
An ancient and contemporary reverence
Whilst there is only one real reference to Auðumbla throughout the Norse mythic narratives, she remains a powerful force, a primal presence that connects the elemental beginnings of creation to what people in Viking societies saw as the structured order of the Gods.
There is no doubt that people in Viking societies were indebted to the nourishment and life-giving qualities of their bovine livestock and thus held them in high reverence.
There was no higher reverence than placing a sacred cow, Auðumbla, at the center of their creation myth, affirming that this animal was at the epicenter of the beginnings of the Norse universes and life itself.
For anyone lucky enough to spend any time in Scandinavia, the reverence for bovines is still very much a part of local societies and communities.
Not only do farmers receive generous financial aid and subsidies in each of the three Scandinavian countries, but the best way to get three Scandinavians into an argument is by asking which country has the superior cheese or chocolate!
For more information on the origins of Vikings, visit the Sky History website here.
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