Ask and Embla

“Ask and Embla” by Robert Engels (1919)

Ask (Old Norse Askr, “Ash Tree”) and Embla (Old Norse Embla, “Water Pot”[1]) are the first two humans (male and female respectively) in Norse mythology.

After the Aesir gods created the cosmos, they fashioned Ask and Embla from two tree trunks that had washed up onto the beach of the landmass the gods had recently raised out of the primordial waters. The gods, in this case led by Odin, endowed these newly-enlivened beings with önd (“breath/spirit”), óðr (“ecstasy/inspiration”), and (an otherwise unattested Old Norse word; no one really knows what means, but most scholarly suggestions have something to do with vital processes and health). 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.[2]

As sparse as this tale is, it’s bristling with meaning. We’ll look at two of these shades of meaning below.

Ask and Embla as Gender Archetypes

One of our two main sources for the narrative of Ask and Embla’s origin is the Völuspá (“The Insight of the Seeress”), one of the poems in the Poetic Edda. The stanza that follows the account of Ask and Embla reads, in English translation:

There stands an ash called Yggdrasil,
A mighty tree showered in white hail.
From there come the dews that fall in the valleys.
It stands evergreen above Urd’s Well.[3]

In the original Old Norse text, the first word of this stanza is “Askr.” As Henning Kure has pointed out, someone hearing this poem for the first time would have immediately assumed that “Askr” referred to the human male of the preceding verses until it became clear that this “Askr” is the ash tree Yggdrasil, the central pillar of the cosmos that holds the Nine Worlds in its branches and roots.[4] Yggdrasil rises above the Well of Urd, a body of water whose depths hold several mysterious powers. Among these are the Norns, “three exceedingly wise maidens” who have more sway over the course of destiny than any other beings, and the runes, immense cosmological forces that are symbolized by the shapes of the earliest Germanic alphabets. The waters of the Well of Urd nourish Yggdrasil, and dews drip from the tree’s leaves back into the well, replenishing it.

In addition to being a model of the cyclical unfolding of time, the tree and the well provide an image of what historians of religion call a “hierogamy” or divine marriage between a sky god and an earth goddess, a conception common to all of the Indo-European peoples – including, of course, the Norse and other Germanic peoples. The rain (or, in this case, dewdrops from a tree whose crown reaches high enough to be compared to a snow-capped peak) is analogous to semen, and the earth (or, in this case, the well) is analogous to the womb. From the union of earth and sky come fertility and new life, something which we observe in the physical world – literally or metaphorically – every time it rains.

This sexual symbolism works on what one might call a visual level as well. The upright trunk of the ash tree is quintessentially phallic, and the concave basin of the well is quintessentially vaginal.

By calling the first man Askr (“Ash Tree”) and the first woman Embla (“Water Pot”), and by linking this first human couple to the image of the tree and the well in the structure of their mythic poetry, the heathen Norse were showing masculinity and femininity to be complimentary, intertwined, and reciprocal cosmological principles, both of which are just as essential to the promotion of life and well-being as the other. One need only peruse the first few chapters of Genesis to see how favorably this model of the relation between the two sexes compares to that envisioned by the monotheistic religions whose ideology dominates the modern world.

Humanity’s Place in the More-than-Human World

We have records of several different versions of the pre-Christian mythology of the Norse and other Germanic peoples. Some of these variants present what, at first glance, are contradictory accounts of the origins of humanity. In several places, humans are described as descending from gods.[5][6][7] In another instance, humanity (or at least a particular tribe) comes from a certain grove of trees.[8]

However, when viewed more closely, these accounts, including the tale of the creation of Ask and Embla, all ultimately convey the same idea. Stating that humankind comes from trees, whether on a beach or in a grove, and stating that we come from gods are, in a traditional Germanic perspective, different ways of saying the same thing. As the Roman historian Tacitus wrote of the Germanic tribes of the first century CE, “Their holy places are the woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to that hidden presence which is seen only by the eye of reverence.”[9] In this view, gods and goddesses aren’t distinct from the world, as they are in monotheistic religions. Rather, they’re the invisible animating forces that lurk behind and within the visible world – trees and forests very much included. Even in the late Viking Age narrative of Ask and Embla, the visible world had earlier been shaped from the corpse of the slain giant Ymir. All life, including trees and by extension humanity, is descended from this divine figure.

Just as there isn’t any sharp line that divides deities from the world that manifests them, there’s no sharp line between humans and the rest of the world. “Nature,” a part of the world from which humanity is by definition excluded, is a concept foreign to the indigenous Germanic worldview. All species are unique in some way, of course, but there’s nothing that sets humanity apart as being uniquely unique. Humanity is as much a part of the normal order of the more-than-human world as are trees. Our origins lie in this greater realm, our lives are lived entirely within it, and we remain within it when we die. We’re not strangers in an alien “vale of tears;” the more-than-human world is our home.

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References:

[1] The etymology and meaning of Embla’s name are notoriously controversial. I accept the arguments in favor of “Water Pot” put forth by Karl G. Johansson and Henning Kure, as discussed in:

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.

[2] This is a summary and harmonization of the two (somewhat confused and contradictory) accounts of this tale in Old Norse literature:

The Poetic Edda. Völuspá, stanzas 17-18.

Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning 9.

[3] The Poetic Edda. Völuspá, stanza 19. My translation. The original Old Norse text reads:

Ask veit ek standa,
heitir Yggdrasils,
hár baðmr, ausinn
hvíta auri;
þaðan koma döggvar,
þærs í dala falla,
stendr æ yfir grænn
Urðarbrunni.

[4] 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.

[5] Tacitus, Cornelius. Germania 2.

[6] The Poetic Edda. Rígsþula.

[7] The Poetic Edda. Völuspá, stanza 1.

[8] Tacitus, Cornelius. Germania 39.

[9] Tacitus, Cornelius. 1948. The Agricola and Germania. Translated by Harold Mattingly. p. 109 (Germania 9).

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