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Audhumla, Wealth, and War

The ancient Norse relied on cattle for wealth, and the creation myth reflects the understanding they had of sustenance and its origins. The proto-cow, Audhumla, is said to be one of the first living beings to come into existence after the worlds of Niflheim and Muspellheim began to collide with one another in the Ginnungagap. The other was Ymir, the progenitor of the Jotuns. While he was able to reproduce asexually, Audhumla’s milk sustained his life.

Audhumla, who sustained herself by feasting on the poisonous rime that no other creature could tolerate, acted as a catalyst that transformed poison into sustenance. While she could directly partake of the rime, Ymir could not. Yet, Ymir could drink her milk, which would have been a transmuted version of the rime she used to sustain herself.

This is interesting in the context of a culture who relied on cattle for wealth, as a person’s wealth depended on the number of cattle he owned rather than the number of treasures he counted amongst his possessions. The more cattle a person owned, the better his life would be, as he could sustain himself, his family, and potentially his community with the milk and meat the cows provided.

Audhumla, as the cow in the creation myth who helps bring the gods into existence, demonstrates the strong correlation between sustenance and wealth. The vitality of life is the greatest life that a person can receive, and her actions in the myth demonstrate that truth. She is the embodiment of the Fehu rune.

The poem for the (Icelandic) Fehu rune poem translates as “Source of discord among kinsmen /and the fire of the sea/ and path of the serpent” which has some pretty interesting implications.

Wealth as a source of discord amongst people cuts across all recorded history and through all cultures. Every culture, no matter how wealth is defined, struggles to maintain the power balance between those who have it and those who do not. Those struggles are amplified amongst family, which can be seen in the constant struggle between the Aesir and the Jotuns.

Ymir is unable to sustain his own life without taking sustenance from Audhumla. Buri, the first of the gods whom Audhumla reveals, may not need that sustenance from Audhumla, as the way he sustains his life (after being released from the ice) is never mentioned in the myth.

Taking the liberty of extrapolation, let’s assume that Buri doesn’t need anything to sustain his life. Now that he is free of the ice, he is fully capable of sustaining himself through his godly powers of creation. Ymir, on the other hand, is fully dependent on Audhumla for sustenance.

Ymir is constantly producing children asexually, and all of those children share their father’s need to derive sustenance from Audhumla. However, Buri, once he comes into the picture, marries one of these children, and then the first half-Aesir/half-Jotun springs into being.

These children either inherit the Aesir ability to sustain themselves or the inability to do so without Audhumla’s assistance. As they are all kin, it would be natural for those unable to sustain themselves to develop jealousy towards those who have such an ability. With that in mind, it is easy to see how Audhumla can embody the line of the Fehu rune poem that reads “source of discord among kinsmen.”

“Fire of the sea” and “path of the serpent” may both be kennings referencing gold. The Norse viewed gold as being red in color, rather than yellow, so the first is obviously a kenning for gold. Audhumla embodies this concept as she sustains her own life by eating the rime from the rivers that flow from the Hvergelmir, merging together in the Ginnungagap to create the spark of life. In other traditions, the ocean is understood to be the source of all existence, and life itself can be viewed as the greatest wealth any living being may possess.

.As for the “path of the serpent” kenning, “serpent” typically refers to a dragon of some sort, and the Norse viewed dragons as hoarders of wealth. A dragon can no more help its nature as a hoarder than Audhumla can help her nature as a being capable of producing milk that sustains life. While she may not be hoarding her wealth, the fact that there is only one proto-cow rather than hundreds may be an indication of the scarcity of resources that existed in Iceland.

Cattle were wealth which meant life. In cultures with limited resources, warfare and strife among people tends to be higher because people have a desperate drive to survive.

In the myth, for example, Ymir is producing so many Jotuns that the Aesir see that the worlds cannot handle the strain of such an enormous population, so Odin and his brothers slay Ymir and drown the Jotuns in a sea of blood. To say that the Jotuns have the greatest potential for destruction of the three tribes of deities – the Aesir, the Vanir, and the Jotuns – is to ignore the fact that the Aesir reacted to violence with violence and established a war that will eventually result in Ragnarok.

In the Norse pantheon, every single deity is a god of war – there are no exceptions to that. Even the Vanir, who seem far more peace-loving than the others, have started their fair share of wars – Freya and the start of the Aesir-Vanir war is just one example of that.

And that tendency towards warfare is expressed in Audhumla’s being as well. She sustains life, but death is never far away. Her milk keeps death at bay, and it is the war against death that we all fight every day with every breath we take. In a way, life is a war on death, and I’ll leave you with that.

Note: As always, this perspective belongs to me alone. I do not claim to speak for others. 

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On the Nature of the Norse Gods

I’ve mentioned before how the Norse Pantheon is comprised of war gods – there isn’t a single deity that cannot be connected, in some way, to war. I’ve just started reading Essays on a Polytheistic Philosophy of Religion by Edward P. Butler, and it already has me thinking – a sign that it is an excellent book.

He mentions using Sallustius’s five models of interpretations for myth with a heavy focus on the theological interpretation. The five models are theological, physical, psychical, material, and mixed. What is meant by the theological interpretation is the way that the very essence of the gods can be considered. Butler states, “The total body of myths belonging to a culture forms a comprehensive paradigm of the cosmos as expressed within that cultural sphere.”

I wrote awhile ago on the avenues I personally feel need to be explored in order to fully comprehend a polytheistic tradition, which you can read here, and one of the avenues I mentioned is cosmogony.

I’ve been thinking about the Norse creation myth recently, and as I was reading through part of Butler’s work, I made connections that I wasn’t really expecting to make but which made sense upon reflection.

As I said, the Norse gods are gods of war, and that nature can be seen within the creation myth itself. Life emerges from conflict, from the meeting of elements of opposite natures. Fire and ice merge to create life, which is ironic as both elements are more than capable of destroying life as well. Both are so powerful in their own right that they cannot retain their own forms in the presence of the other, so they are forever altered by the interaction, and life comes forth in the shape of an asexual giant.

In some ways, Ymir can be viewed as the personification of the force of ice, as he is the first frost giant ever born. Audhumla comes forth as well, and she nourishes Ymir. She provides him with the sustenance to sustain his life. While doing so, she uncovers the first god in the ice, bringing him forth into being. She is able to melt the ice, and so it may be possible to view her as the personification of the force of fire. The two primeval beings created from the two primeval elements after coming into contact with one another. Buri, the first of the gods, may represent the first combination of the two elements in a single form. He is born of both fire and ice – encased in ice, frozen in time, he is given life by Audhumla’s actions, making him the first being to be created from a combination of elements.

Of course, while Audhumla is freeing Buri from the ice, Ymir is busy asexually reproducing more frost giants. The giants born from him are, like him, born entirely of ice. We aren’t told that Audhumla frees anyone else from the ice, so there’s no way to know for sure if Buri is the only god that she brings to life this way. What is noted next is that Buri has a son Bor (whose origin is never mentioned) and that Bor marries a giant named Bestla and the two of them give birth to Odin, Vili, and Ve.

Whether Buri has Bor through procreation or asexual reproduction is never mentioned, so it is hard to make any inferences from the fact that Bor is Buri’s son. On the other hand, we know that Bor marries Bestla – a god with a giant – and that’s that first real indication we have of the mixing of gods and giants. Bestla, as a giant, most likely came into existence through Ymir’s asexual reproductive habits, and it can be presumed that she, like all other frost giants at the time, is representative of the primeval power of the element of ice. At the same time, Bor has a mixture of both fire and ice within him, as he is the son of Buri who is also of mixed elements. Through the introduction of the mixed elements of fire and ice into the giant’s gene pool, the Aesir gods are born.

The fire within Bor introduced to Bestla ran contrary to her nature – as a being of pure ice, any form of fire should not have been able to take hold. And yet it did. And through that conflict, the Aesir gods come into being. They are birthed through the conflict of primeval elements at war with one another.

A conflict which continues with the problem that Odin, Vili, and Ve have with Ymir that results in his death. I’ve read a couple of theories as to why Ymir was seen as a threat. One theory is that he was overpopulating the world with frost giants with his asexual reproduction and needed to be stopped. Another theory is that he became so greedy for the sustenance Audhumla provided him that he killed her, and the gods killed him in revenge. The first seems more plausible to me, as I can’t fathom why anyone would kill their only source of sustenance – it’d be counter to the survival instinct.

Either theory can be viewed in the light of a conflict between the two creative/destructive elements of ice and fire. The gods, who have the power of creation and thus represent an embodiment of fire, have a power of creation very different from that of the frost giants. Ymir’s asexual reproduction can be seen as a type of creative power that was quickly spiraling out of control and becoming destructive,if utilizing the theory that the Aesir trio killed him because of the overpopulation of the world. The creative power the Aesir have is much more controlled, which can be seen in the way they carefully craft the earth out of Ymir’s remnants after they slay him. Nothing goes to waste – everything is re-purposed.

If, however, we view the myth from the angle that Ymir becomes so greedy he cannot control himself and kills Audhumla, we also see the destructive power of ice. The Aesir trio may have killed him to avenge Audhumla, but it is more likely that they killed him to prevent any further destruction. In this case, as well, we see the creative power of the element of ice being overtaken by its destructive power.

The Aesir are able to halt the destruction because they have both fire and ice elements within them. For that reason, they can slow the destructive nature of the primeval ice world that flows within their veins, and they can use the power of fire to restructure the world. Fire is a crafting power when used creatively, but it also has the ability to overwhelm its creative power through its destructive power. It is through the mix of the two elements that the gods are able to stay the destructive powers of both elements and utilize the constructive powers of each.

And they use those powers to craft worlds out of Ymir’s remains. Ymir’s blood floods the world, and only two giants are able to escape the aftermath. A sign, perhaps, that the primordial element of ice cannot be entirely eliminated from the world, especially as it was one of the elements that helped create the world. The gods use every piece of Ymir to create Midgard, letting nothing go to waste. Out of the conflict they had with him, they create something new. Out of conflict and destruction, creation and construction emerge.

Through all of this, of course, there’s a backdrop – the Ginnungagap. The Void. The Nothingness of Non-Existence through which the elements of both Muspellheim and Niflheim must pass in order to come into contact with one another to allow for life to take shape at all. It is the Unknowable Mystery, and the concept of such a Non-Existence is impenetrable, as our minds slide around it as we try to grasp it. Trying to do so, in actuality, might drive someone insane. Because it is not possible to know non-existence, as non-existence, in our reality, does not exist, and, therefore, the concept of it is not easily (or ever) grasped.

But it is this concept that the gods are intimately familiar with, as they originally live within the Ginnungagap. It is to the center of this place that they take Ymir’s body and use his remains to create Midgard. It is from this Non-Existence that physical reality emerges, the place from which Midgard comes forth. There is an inherent contradiction there that is not possible to resolve because it is a concept that we cannot grasp – that existence comes from non-existence, and that non-existence itself in some form exists. Our minds aren’t readily made to deal with such concepts…if they were, then the contemplation of the existence of non-existence wouldn’t have the potential to drive us mad.

For the gods, however, they existed within the Ginnungagap at the beginning. They dealt with the conflict between the two primordial worlds of fire and ice and saw the results of having the two elements mixed. They were born into a world of conflict, a world at war with itself, and it seems natural that they became deities of war because of that. In some ways, it could perhaps be argued that the Norse gods are gods at war with themselves, as they possess the inherent properties of the creative and destructive nature of fire, ice, and non-existence. It is a testament to how complex the nature of the gods are that it is so difficult to get a firm grasp on what may be the essence that defines them, the essence that sets them apart from us and makes them gods instead of men.

I find it fascinating to find such a connection to the Aesir as gods of war through the cosmogony of the Norse tradition, and I enjoy analyzing myths from multiple vantage points. I will not say that this is the only interpretation of this myth that is plausible, nor that it defines the nature of the gods. This is only one of my own interpretations – I don’t limit myself to a singular interpretation of any myth (notice, I even explored two different theories in this one about Ymir) – and it is not meant to be reflective of anyone else’s experiences, practices, or beliefs.