Ask & Embla: How Two Trees Become the First Norse Humans

Although the gods had from the beginning designed Midgard, or Manaheim, as the abode of man, there were at first no human beings to inhabit it.

One day Odin, Vili, and Ve, according to some authorities, or Odin, Hoenir (the bright one), and Lodur, or Loki (fire), started out together and walked along the seashore, where they found either two trees, the ash, Ask, and the elm, Embla.

Ask and Embla, the first Norse humans created from an ash and an elm
Ask and Embla, the first Norse humans created from an ash and an elm

In a slightly different version, they find two blocks of wood, hewn into rude semblances of the human form.

The gods gazed at first upon the inanimate wood in silent wonder, then perceiving the use it could be put to, Odin gave these logs souls, Hoenir bestowed motion and senses, and Lodur contributed blood and blooming complexions.

This newly created man and woman were then left to rule Midgard at will. Midgard, or the middle court, was so called from being in the centre of the Scandinavian system, the fifth of the nine worlds of which the universe was composed. It was also called Mannheim, because Odin had given it as a place of residence to Askur and Embla and their progeny.

The term Midgard was sometimes applied to the atmosphere, and, in this sense, Thor, the thunder-god, is called the defender of Midgard.

They gradually peopled it with their descendants, while the gods, remembering they had called them into life, took a special interest in all they did, watched over them, and often promised and gave their aid and protection.

In a different passage, where biblical influence may be seen, the Prose Edda says that All-father made man, giving him spirit which shall never die, though the flesh-frame rot or burn to ashes.

The shaping of human beings out of trees may have been suggested by wooden images, such as those which the speaker in the Norse poem Havamal says that he found and on which he put clothes.

Such images, called tremadr, are mentioned in other documents.

The Norse myth of human creation is an Indo-European tradition

Many religions descended from Indo-European traditions, such as the Indian Hinduism and Christianity, distinguish the creation of the first human pair in a very similar way to the Norse religion.

As with Adam and Eve in the Bible, so in the Norse Eddas (the Prose and Poetic Eddas are the primary source of Norse mythology, and date from the 13th century) humans appear from a very simple material (meaning it’s not a composite) that is quickened by a divine figure.

The Norse word “trê”  means both tree and wood, while “askr” means ash-tree (fraxinus).

If by the side of Askr, the man, there stood an Eskja, the woman, the balance would be held more evenly. The two would be related as Meshia and Meshiane in the Persian myth (another Indo-European tradition), man and woman, who likewise grew out of plants. But Norse mythology calls them Askr and Embla.

Interestingly, Embla comes from the word embla, emla which signifies “busy woman”, or in Old High German emila, as in fiur-emila (focaria), a cinderella (a woman neglected).Another relevant Old High German word is amr, ambr, aml, ambl (continual labour).

Regarding Askr however it should be noted that legend claims the first king of the Saxons, Aschanes (Askanius), grow up out of the Harz rocks, by a fountain-head in the midst of the forest.

Saxons themselves take their name from sahs (“saxum”, meaning stone), that a divine hero bears the name of Sahsnôt is no surprise. In other traditions, the word Germani comes from the latin  “germinare”, because the Germans are said to have grown on trees.

Plainly there existed primitive legends, which made the first men, or the founders of certain branches of the Germanic nation, grow out of trees and rocks, that is to say, which endeavoured to trace the lineage of living beings to the half-alive kingdom of plants and stones.

Even the German word for people (leut), derived from Old High German liut, has for its root liotan (meaning “growth”), and the sacredness of woods and mountains in from old German tales time is heightened by this connexion.

Similar notions of humans appearing from natural substances is also present in Greek mythology, where humans were created by Prometheus from mud and Athena breathed life in them.

An interesting comparison to humans are Germanic wood-wives and fays, who, like the Greek meliads and dryads, had their sole power of living bound up with some particular oak or ash, and, unlike the tree-born man, had never got wholly detached from the material of their origin.

Then, a creation out of stones is recorded in the story of Deucalion. In this Greek tale, after Zeus had destroyed manking in a massive flood (or deluge), Hermes asked Deucalion tothrow stones behind his back: those that he threw, all turned into men, and those that his wife Pyrrha threw, into women.

In the Edda, after the great flood comes a new creation; only in this case the rescued people are themselves the actors. Even the Jews appear to have known of a mythical creation out of stones.

Atlas Mythica

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