According to Norse myth, or at least to the tradition that was handed down to the Icelandic chief, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), the high god of the Scandinavian pantheon, Odin, had a very odd ancestry. Although Odin was called the All-Father, and was said to be a builder of worlds and humankind, Norse myth told that there was also life and land before the birth of Odin. As the story goes, inhospitable realms such as blazing Muspelheim and cold, dark Niflheim came into being long before the advent of Odin. Between the two realms was a great void, called Ginnungagap, where heat and cold met. Ice from Niflheim encountered the warmth of Muspelheim, causing the ice to melt into a primordial soup. From the slush came the first giant, Ymir, as well as a great primeval cow, called Audhumla. The colossal cow was so large that from her udders poured four rivers of milk, which nourished Ymir and his descendants.
While Ymir was bizarrely spawning new giants from sweat on his arms and legs, Audhumla spent her time licking at a salty block of ice. The ice, however, was hiding a nasty surprise—after an unknown amount of time, hair emerged. As the cow kept licking the ice, a whole humanoid head began to appear. Finally, after three days of laborious licking, Audhumla excavated a living person from the ice—it was Buri, Odin’s grandfather.
Buri had a son named Bor with an unnamed woman, and Bor married a giantess named Bestla, daughter of Bolthorn the giant. From Bor and Bestla was born Odin, as well as two other sons. Unfortunately for those living at that time, Odin and all who would follow him detested the giants. Odin and the sons of Bor eventually slew the first giant, Ymir, and butchered his body. They filled the void, Ginnungagap, with Ymir’s blood, flesh and bones, creating from it the seas and continents of Midgard (Middle Earth). In their newly constructed realm, Odin and his brothers encountered the first trees, and from that wood they were said to have fashioned the first humans.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Image of Audhumla and Buri from a medieval text, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.