It is Wednesday – Woden’s Day. And therefore, a particular exploration of a Myth most pertinent to He. That of Auðumbla – the Great Cow. More specifically, how this links to a speculative archaic Proto-Indo-European cosmogonical myth.
Or, rather, how it doesn’t link to the rather annoyingly pervasive very particular effort at a “reconstruction” I have in mind … but instead helps us to displace it in favour of the truth. And, in the process, helps to further ‘flesh out’ the persona of Auðumbla beyond the scant details that we have available to us from the Nordic corpus.
Now, to begin – that “reconstruction” that’s got me rather bemused is, of course, the one advanced by Bruce Lincoln in his “The Indo-European Myth of Creation” published in the ‘History of Religions’ journal almost half a century ago.
It’s proven remarkably influential; and it is rather unfortunate that its main thrust has resulted from … jumbling up a bunch of elements that, while not unrelated, are nevertheless quite clearly distinct. We have considered a few of these elsewhere and so shall now repeat that work here. Instead, we just want to zero in upon a single figure. That of the Cow.
Which, in fairness to Lincoln – he hasn’t quite come out and said is sacrificed in the most archaic Proto-Indo-European formulation of the myth, instead suggesting it’s an “ox (or a bull)”. It’s some gremlin editing Wikipedia, it seems, who’s turned that into “cow sacrificed” – perhaps not realizing the rather essential point of distinction between a Cow and a Bull, even if both are Bovines. And if you don’t happen to believe that’s a rather important difference … go try milk a bull and see how far that gets you.
In any case, however it’s entered into the popular discourse, it is difficult to find somebody talking about alleged Proto-Indo-European creation mythology without making mention of the ‘First Sacrifice’ and a Cow being the unfortunate victim.
Except here’s the difficulty:
It never happened.
How can we be certain?
Because in all of the exemplars for a ‘Primordial Milk-Giver’ that I can think of offhand (bar one – and more on that in a moment) … there is no sign of the deed in question. The sole exception is found within the Zoroastrian sphere, concerning the rather ‘ambiguous’ (gender-wise) figure of Gavaevodata. It is not our purpose to get into the intricacies of a relatively late Zoroastrian myth (the key details are from the Bundahishn, it does not seem to occur in earlier texts) – but suffice to say that there are multiple potential flavours of ‘odd’ going on there. Either the Bovine in question has somehow combined both a (female) Cow figure with a (masculine) bovine (whether ox or bull) in a way that means that what then happens draws instead from some bull-sacrifice myth … or the bovine figure dying is, itself, the ‘innovation’. It doesn’t matter too much to our purpose to get bound up considering these things.
Although we must once again observe that it is most peculiar that the Zoroastrian myth, despite being clearly an ‘outlier’ and of observably late textual formation, is somehow presented as being a good guide to the ‘most archaic’ formulation of the myth despite contradicting the other Indo-European myths that are most relevant here.
Instead, let us introduce several further figures that are much more directly relevant.
These are, in no particular order, the Cow Auðumbla, the Goat Amalthea (Also, rather intriguingly, Adamanthea – albeit not usually thought of as a Goat) … and a most particular Cow hailed in the Vedas as Aditi, Vak, and other Names besides.
Now, Auðumbla is rather pointedly relevant for us as, we may say, the Primordial Mother. It would be tempting to suggest, in light of Vedic evidence, the true First Being – but strictly speaking, if we are going just by the textual evidence of the Gylfaginning … well … that would lead to a bit of an argument. Ymir is mentioned first in the text, and you can certainly suggest that Ymir emerges first from the ice. However the fact that the Cow emerges, to quote the Brodeur translation, “Straightway after the rime dripped”, I think means one can read it the other way, too – that is to say, there is enough latitude within the text to allow for the Cow to have come forth immediately following the beginning of that thawing process, and Ymir having resulted from the ‘dripping’ that had gone on long enough to actually thaw a suitably ‘giant’ specimen.
But again, let us not get bogged down here.
The key points for our ‘cosmological narrative’ that we shall restrict ourselves to are the overt ones:
i) Primordial – either First Being or pretty close to.
ii) Cow (i.e. Female, Mother-coded);
iii) provides Milk – importantly, in four divisions or streams;
iv) exercises an effective … I hesitate to say ‘primogenitorial’ role – as it is, quite literally, more of a ‘sculpting’, in this case, with the tongue.
Now, the obvious question becomes … can we identify another figure out there that might seemingly ‘fit the bill’ on these four criterion?
And, of course … I’ve given the game away earlier by mentioning Vak Aditi Saraswati.
This is, as you might presume, a ‘Primordial’ Goddess (there are several … intertwined and not-necessarily-mutually-exclusive cosmogonical narratives in the Vedas about Who / What comes first), potentially the First deific, and Mother of the Gods and everything else that comes next. And yes, yes most definitely represented as a Cow. One with, as it should happen … four streams of milk.
And that’s where things get interesting
Per RV I 164 45 [Griffith Translation]:
“Speech hath been measured out in four divisions, the Brahmans who have understanding know them.
Three kept in close concealment cause no motion; of speech, men speak only the fourth division.”
That whole hymnal that one line’s drawn from is a fantastically complicated one. Yet it has a continual leitmotif of the Cow – and Speech. And cosmology, so that’s handy. But we digress.
The theme is further clarified in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:
“One should meditate upon speech (the Vedas) as a cow (as it were). She has four teats—the sounds ‘Svāhā,’ ‘Vaṣaṭ,’ ‘Hanta’ and ‘Svadhā.’ The gods live on two of her teats—the sounds ‘Svāhā’ and ‘Vaṣaṭ,’ men on the sound ‘Hanta,’ and the Manes on the sound ‘Svadhā.’ Her bull is the vital force, and her calf the mind.”
[V 8 1 Swami Madhavananda translation]
Now we shan’t go into what is meant by each of those four designations. Suffice to say that it pertains to the liturgical ‘pathways’ for metaphysical engagement in the relevant directions.
That is to say – forms of Speech.
You see, in the Vedic perception, the Universe is, as it were, both ‘Sound’ and ‘Sculpted’. Hence why Sanskrit, spoken, is the Empowered Speech – because it can resonate so directly with .. well .. what the universe actually is. It is not too dissimilar to the mechanism, perhaps, via which the Runes function within the Nordic reckoning. ‘Patterns’ within reality – the fundamental building-blocks. But more upon that some other time.
The succinct point to be made here is that Aditi Vak Saraswati does, most definitely, ‘bring forth’ an ensuing generation (and tribe) of Gods. It is a station directly comparable, we may say, to the ‘Danu’ that is the ‘Danann’ of ‘Tuatha De Danann’ (‘Tribe of the Gods (De) of Danu) – and we note the similar ‘Streams’ implied therein via the theonymy !
Whether by acting in the more conventional maternal fashion, or ‘sculpting’ and ‘crafting’ what comes next (in terms of the universe entire) via Speech – it is not hard to see how this resonates with the Gylfaginning account for Auðumbla; even if some might say that there’s a bit of a spectrum between ‘carving from the (icy) firmament) using a tongue, and speaking into being.
But let us move forward in earnest.
We had earlier invoked a Greek figure with which to further attest our thinking here. That of Amalthea – also known as Adamanthea or Adamanteia (‘Unconquerable’, ‘Unbreakable’ … which would make for an interesting potential synergy viz. ‘Aditi’ – ‘Undivided’), and spoken of in the same breath as Ida and Adrasteia. I have my own thoughts as to just why that might be (particularly how this pertains to the Aegis & Gorgoneion device) … but more upon that at some other time.
The major occurrence for Amaltheia is in the context of nourishing the young Zeus via Her Milk. And we observe that this makes for a clear and pertinent point of coterminity with Aditi etc. … even despite the fact that Amalthea is often thought of as being a goat. Clearly the ‘maternal’ and ‘lactoral’ dimensions are rather more important than simply being a member of the most specifically boomorphic clade bovidae (goats .. are, in fact, bovidae, strictly speaking, but are clearly a rather different grouping than cows and oxen).
So why am I mentioning this particular female figure here? Well, take a look at what Pseudo-Hyginus has to say in his Fabulae:
“When he had asked [Rhea] for what she had borne, in order to devour it, [Rhea] showed him a stone wrapped up like a baby; [Kronos] devoured it. When he realized what he had done, he started to hunt for [Zeus] throughout the earth. [Hera], however, took [Zeus] to the island of Crete, and Amalthea, the child’s nurse, hung him in a cradle from a tree, so that he could be found neither in heaven nor on earth nor in the sea. And lest the cries of the baby be heard, she summoned youths and gave them small brazen shields and spears, and bade them go around the tree making a noise.”
[139, Grant translation – alterations to Greek theonymics my own]
Now, if we observe closely, what we find is remarkable. We have very good theological grounds to assert that Rhea, Hera, etc. – Mother Goddess. Indeed, rather frequently a Bovine Mother Goddess in various characteristics.
Zeus, it seems, is Hung from a Tree – and in directly proximal connexion to this most mystically empowering Divine Milk.
That Divine Milk, as you may recall from our Vedic comparanda, being empowered quite specifically with Divine Speech.
That ‘Divine Speech’, as we have previously observed, being co-expressive not only in terms of the famed Galdr formulas – but also in terms of the inscribed formulations that we would term Runes. Which Odin does obtain as the result of the time He spent Hanging from said Tree. How about that.
And that’s before I start doing interesting things viz. the Meliae, Ash-Nymphs, Milk-And-Honey, and the White Waters of the Well of Urdr. Which we’ve covered at quite some length elsewhere, thank you.
Or the circumstance of those Kouretes aforementioned per Pseudo-Hyginus in relation to the Emanation of the Manyu / Rudra in a certain Shatapatha Brahmana section – which I keep intending to look at in greater depth and detail at some other point in time.
Or these Streams of the Milk of the Goddess in relation to Soma – and, for that matter, the Nordic ‘Mead of Poetry’ … Empowerment and Eloquence, all in One, you see.
It also presages me mentioning that intriguing circumstance of Lord Shiva at the Churning of the Sea of Milk, likewise carried out at the Axis Mundi (a Mountain, rather than a Tree this time) – wherein before the life-giving Amrit can be obtained … He must endure a particular action that leaves quite the dark blue-black marking upon His Neck (indeed, in various tellings, He is strangled by Parvati in order to prevent the Halahala poison from being ingested further).
Effectively, what we are witnessing with these various Myths – Eddic, Vedic, and Hellenic – is the same basic pattern, refracted in somewhat ‘broad’ fashion.
The Mother Goddess – and by this we mean Mother of, well, All – looks after and nourishes a most particular young God. This God – the Indo-European Sky Father – then goes forth to war.
Odin, ably assisted by Vili and Vé, takes the fight direct to Ymir. Zeus strides forth to smite down Kronos. And Rudra … roars screaming forth for the precise point of meting forth Divine Justice against the outrages of Prajapati against Diva (‘Dyaus’ in feminine equivalent).
This opens up some very intriguing potential lines of examination and/or ‘reconciliation’ for the otherwise somewhat fragmentary Nordic detailing upon the myth via the (literal star)light of the Vedic (and more especially Jyotisha) perspective. If that ‘squaring’ is correct, then the familiar scenario of Rudra (Sirius, Ardra) stalking and slaying Mrgashira (Prajapati) utilizing His Trikanda (‘Three-Arrow’ – identified with the Stars of Orion’s Belt) in order to protect or avenge the Great Cow (Rohini – Alpha Tauri / Aldebaran), and followed by Two Rudras further (the Asvins, effectively – the Gemini Stars of Punarvasu … interestingly, a Nakshatra ruled over by the Great Mother, Herself – Aditi).
And by ‘familiar scenario’, I of course mean that we have demonstrated several (co-)occurrences of that same evidently archaic Indo-European Myth occurrent in each of the Hindu and Greek spheres. See my earlier ‘Of Artemis And Actaeon, The Wolf As Defender Of The Goddess – A Forensic Theology Examination Of A Classical Myth In The Vedas And In The Stars‘ for further details.
Now, of course, there are … other elements we ought consider here for a more comprehensive and accurate summation of the likely adherences of the Nordic case, in particular, to underlying (Proto-)Indo-European typologies of myth and mythic structure.
I have previously observed that the situation of Ymir appears to bear interesting – and at the very least, probative – potential linkage to the situation of the slaying of a certain Demonic-Draconic adversary (viz. Vala slain by Brihaspati; Typhon / Typhoeus dealt to by something of a variety of Sky Father deific expressions dependent upon source material).
Certainly, there are an array of details that do not fit with the Vedic mythology around the Slaying of Prajapati – but do fit with the other ‘Dragon-Slaying’ typology immediately aforementioned. (See my earlier ‘A Brief Comparanda On Ymir And Purusha – A Demon Dismembered versus the Sky Father As Cosmos Himself‘ for some additional details thereupon)
It should seem to me quite likely that what we in fact observe in the major account for Ymir – that of the Gylfaginning – is Sturluson weaving together several narratives in order to produce something approaching a ‘cohesive’ and more detailed perspective than that offered by any single pre-Christianization Nordic text that has come down to us. One which may, indeed, through accident or authorial fiat, have drawn from other narratives about other beings (whether identified as such or otherwise) in the process.
Given what he did viz. Jormungandr – wherein we have the source material from the pre-Christianization period that shows Jormungandr has already been slain by Thor … only for Sturluson to handwave this away in favour of putting forward an entirely different view of an epic clash yet to come … well, it can be safely said that Sturluson, upon occasion, did not seem too troubled about ‘letting the facts get in the way of a Cool Story’.
Yet one detail that would, therefore, nevertheless remain a constant between both skeins of myth is also the ‘fulcrum’ around which this article has turned.
That of this Cow Goddess – The Sky Father’s Cow – that, whether Prajapati or Vala, we should seem to see placed under imminent threat, or even captured and stolen outright, by a soon-to-be-marked-for-death foe.
It is well, then, that She has already empowered and encharged Him to be Her Defender and Liberator.
And Well, Also, for All of Us.
The only ‘Sacral Killing’ involved being that righteously undertaken to Win Her Back !
जय माता दी !