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ASK AND EMBLA

Ask and Embla are the first humans – male and female, respectively – to
be created in Norse mythology.

The story of how they were created, as it has come down to us in Old Norse
literature, goes like this:

Not too long after the world itself was created, Odin was walking along the
coast of one of the new land masses. With him were two other gods: in one
version, these were his brothers Vili and Ve,[1] and in another version, they
were the obscure figures Hoenir and Lodurr.[2]

The three deities found two tree trunks, perhaps pieces of driftwood, lying
on the beach. They were shaped like a man and a woman, but they were
lifeless and powerless. So the three gods decided to give them what they
lacked and make them true humans. Odin blew into them the breath of
life, while his two companions imparted inspired mental activity, a
“Ask and Embla” by Robert Engels
healthy complexion, and the ability to speak, hear, and see.[3] They dressed (1919)
them in suitable clothes and named the man “Ask” and the woman
“Embla.” Ask and Embla were then given Midgard, the world of human civilization, for their dwelling-place.
They became the father and mother of the entire human species.[4][5]

In the Viking Age, there was surely more to this story that has since been lost due to the rather sparse and
fragmentary nature of the primary sources. One of the two extant Old Norse versions of this myth comes
from a poem (the Völuspá in the Poetic Edda) which seems to be missing one or more stanzas that would
have come directly before the two stanzas that recount the creation of Ask and Embla. [6] In the form in
which the poem has come down to us, the stanzas before these have to do with dwarves, and the transition
from them to this myth is abrupt and seemingly arbitrary. However, a few scholars have interpreted those
preceding stanzas as implying that the dwarves – the master craftsmen of the cosmos – had fashioned the
initial forms of Ask and Embla, which the gods then brought to life.[7]

The meaning of the name Ask is very straightforward: the original Old Norse form of the word is Askr, “Ash
Tree” – a fitting name, since the pair was made from tree trunks.[8]

The meaning of Embla’s name is more elusive. Some of the main scholarly guesses so far are “Elm,”[9] “Water
Pot,”[10] and “Vine.”[11] If “Vine” is correct, it could be a sexual metaphor. Vines were used as kindling and the
drills were made of harder wood, so the drill, which corresponds to Ask, would make a fire, which
corresponds to life, by boring into the vine, which corresponds to Embla.[12]

Trees are frequently used as metaphors (kennings, more precisely) for humans in Old Norse poetry, which
suggests a strong association between humans and trees in the Norse mind. Perhaps this is an indirect
corroboration of the myth as we find it in the Eddas.[13] Old Norse scholar Henning Kure interprets this
association thusly: “Man has his feet on the ground, anchored in this world, with roots – ties – to death and
chaos in his nature. But his crown, his head or mind, is in the mental or spiritual world. Like the world tree,
man possesses the capability of connecting the world above with the world below. But it takes the way of
the god to create the link…”[14]
References:
[1] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning 8.

[2] The Poetic Edda. Völuspá, stanzas 17-18.

[3] The meanings of a few of the corresponding Old Norse words in these passages aren’t entirely clear, and
are disputed by scholars. My rendering of them here is largely based on:
Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 21.

[4] The Poetic Edda. Völuspá, stanzas 17-18.

[5] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning 8.

[6] Hultgård, Anders. 2006. “The Askr and Embla myth in a comparative perspective.” In Old Norse Religion
in Long-Term Perspectives: Origins, Changes, and Interactions. Edited by Anders Andrén, Kristina
Jennbert, and Catharina Raudvere. p. 58.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 21.

[9] Ibid. p. 74.

[10] Hultgård, Anders. 2006. “The Askr and Embla myth in a comparative perspective.” In Old Norse Religion
in Long-Term Perspectives: Origins, Changes, and Interactions. Edited by Anders Andrén, Kristina
Jennbert, and Catharina Raudvere. p. 59-60.

[11] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 74.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Kure, Henning. 2006. “Hanging on the world tree: Man and cosmos in Old Norse mythic poetry.” In Old
Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspectives: Origins, Changes, and Interactions. Edited by Anders
Andrén, Kristina Jennbert, and Catharina Raudvere. p. 70-71.

[14] Ibid. p. 71.