The curious image above comes from an Icelandic text called the Melsteðs-Edda, preserved in a manuscript designated, SÁM 66, by the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, which possesses this and most other Icelandic manuscripts. This illustration, like much of the art found in the manuscript, depicts a tale from Norse mythology. On the page is shown a visualization of the origin story for the ancestors of the most famous Norse gods—Odin, Thor and their companions. Taking up most of the drawing space is Audhumla, a primordial being shaped like a cow. She was born in the void, called Ginnungagap, where heat from Muspelheim and cold from Niflheim met and created a life-producing slush. Audhumla was so huge that milk from her udders created rivers, which nourished other primordial creatures, such as the giant Ymir. Audhumla, for her own nutrition, found salty blocks of ice to lick. This would bizarrely prove vital to the ascendance of the future leading gods of the Norse pantheon. Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), an Icelandic political leader and historian, described the odd relationship between the primordial cow, Audhumla, and the family of the All-Father, Odin:
“As she licked these stones of icy rime the first day, the hair of a man appeared in the blocks toward the evening. On the second day came the man’s head, and on the third day, the whole man. He was called Buri, and he was beautiful, big and strong. He had a son called Bor, who took as his wife the woman called Bestla. She was the daughter of Bolthorn the giant, and they had three sons. One was called Odin…” (Prose Edda, Gylfaginning, chapter 6).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.