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.