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12.09.2019

Audumbla

In Norse mythology, Audumbla is a primeval cow. The primordial frost jötunn Ymir fed from her milk, and over the course of three days she licked away the salty rime rocks and revealed Búri, grandfather of the gods and brothers Odin, Vili and Vé. The creature is solely attested in the Prose Edda, composed in the 13th century by Icelander Snorri Sturluson. Scholars identify her as stemming from a very early stratum of Germanic mythology, and ultimately belonging to larger complex of primordial bovines or cow-associated goddesses.

The cow's name variously appears in Prose Edda manuscripts as Audumbla, Audhumla, and Audumla, and is generally accepted as meaning 'hornless cow rich in milk' (from Old Norse audr 'riches' and *humala 'hornless').

 

 

The compound presents some level of semantic ambiguity. A parallel occurs in Scottish English humble-cow 'hornless cow', and Northern Europeans have bred hornless cows since prehistoric times. As highlighted above, Aud- may mean 'rich' and in turn 'rich hornless cow' remains generally accepted among scholars as a gloss of the Old Icelandic animal name. However, audr can also mean 'fate' and 'desolate; desert,' and so Audhumbla may also have been understood as the 'destroyer of the desert'. This semantic ambiguity may have been intentional.

 

Audumbla's sole attested narrative occurs in the Gylfaginning section of the Prose Edda, and her name appears among ways to refer to cows later in the Nafnaþulur section of the book. In Gylfaginning, Gangleri (describe earlier in Gylfaginning as king Gylfi in disguise) asks where, in the distant past, Ymir lived and what he ate. High says that the cow Audumbla's teats produced four rivers of milk, from which Ymir fed. Gylfi asks what Audumbla ate, and High says that she licked salty rime stones for sustenance. He recounts that Audumbla once licked salts for three days, revealing Buri: The first day she licked free his hair, the second day his head, and the third day his entire body.

 

 

The second and final mention of Audumbla occurs in the Nafnaþulur, wherein the author provides a variety of ways to refer to cows. Audumbla is the only cow mentioned by name, and the author adds that "she is the noblest of cows".

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