Lif and Lifthrasir

"Lif and Lifthrasir" by Lorenz Frølich (1895)
“Lif and Lifthrasir” by Lorenz Frølich (1895)

Lif (pronounced “LEEF”; Old Norse Líf, “Life”) and Lifthrasir (pronounced “LEEF-thrahss-eer”; Old Norse Lífþrasir, “The One Striving After Life”[1]) are a human male and female pair who survive Ragnarok, the cyclical destruction of the cosmos.

The main reference to them in Old Norse literature comes from the Vafþrúðnismál, one of the poems in the Poetic Edda. In the 45th stanza, we are told that Lif and Lifthrasir survived Ragnarok by hiding “in Hoddmimir’s forest” (í holti Hoddmímis) and consuming the morning dew for their food. When the cataclysm passed and the cosmos began to reemerge, the couple went on to repopulate the world.[2]

The emergence of the progenitors of humanity from wood – trees, logs, or a forest – has several parallels in the ancient and medieval sources that form the basis for our present knowledge of the worldview and religion of the Norse and other Germanic peoples. The first and most obvious is the creation of the first two humans, Ask and Embla, from tree trunks on a beach. The Roman historian Tacitus relates that at least one continental Germanic tribe of the first few centuries AD held that their first ancestors emerged from a particular grove of trees in their territory.[3] And in a later German folktale, a shepherd hid in a tree as humanity was ravaged by a plague. When the epidemic had passed, he came out again, and he and his family repopulated the world.[4]

Lif and Lifthrasir are therefore one manifestation among many of a very ancient and widespread idea in the heathen Germanic world. As philologist Rudolf Simek notes, “This is clearly a case of the reduplication of the anthropogeny [the creation of humankind], understandable from the cyclic nature of Eddic eschatology [views on the end of the world].”[5] Lif and Lifthrasir aren’t so much standalone figures as they are “reduplications” of the original human couple, much in the same way that Gefjun, Jord, Fjorgyn, Sif, and various other goddesses are Germanic reduplications of the Indo-European “earth mother goddess” type.

Wood, Water, and Destiny

This still leaves a crucial question unanswered. Why, in all of these various tales of the emergence of the first human pair, do humans come from wood rather than some other element? Why not, for example, clay, from which humanity was created in many ancient Near Eastern worldviews (as in the Israelite Genesis or the Mesopotamian Atrahasis)?

A clue to solving this puzzle is the emphasis placed on the presence of water in many of these Germanic narratives. In the Ask and Embla narrative, Embla’s name means “Water-Pot,”[6] and the tree trunks from which Ask and Embla were fashioned had washed up on a beach that had just risen out of the primordial waters.[7][8] Lif and Lifthrasir survived by taking nourishment from the dews they found in the forest.

All of this imagery, as well as other imagery found in these two tales, links the human couple to Yggdrasil and the Well of Urd, the tree and the pool that stand at the center of the Germanic cosmos, in ways that would have been as clear to a period hearer or reader of the poems as describing someone with wings and a halo would indicate an angel to us.

The story of Ask and Embla comes from another poem in the Poetic Edda, the Völuspá. The stanza following the creation of Ask (Old Norse Askr, “Ash Tree”) begins with the word Askr, but this time as a reference to Yggdrasil. Someone hearing or reading the poem would hear or see the word Askr and immediately think of the human Askr of the preceding stanzas, and only in the next line would it become clear that the poet is talking about a different Askr: the ash tree Yggdrasil, commonly referred to throughout Old Norse literature as Askr Yggdrasils. This stanza and the one after it describe Yggdrasil and the Well of Urd – the “water pot” over which it stands.[9] The poetic devices used, not to mention the names and the circumstances of the human pair’s creation, make the analogues between Ask and Embla on the one hand and Yggdrasil and the Well of Urd on the other quite explicit.

These same stanzas from the Völuspá also describe the “dews that fall in the dales” (döggvar, þærs í dala falla) that originate in Yggdrasil’s upper branches and drip down to the well below. Lif and Lifthrasir, of course, survived on dew. And they did so while living in the forest of a certain “Hoddmimir,” who is surely none other than Mimir, a being who lives next to the well below Yggdrasil.

This leaves little doubt that Lif and Lifthrasir emerged from Yggdrasil and the Well of Urd. Given the prevalence of this same set of symbolism throughout the Germanic world, the other reduplicated progenitors of humanity mentioned above should surely be understood likewise. As the case of Ask and Embla shows, they were even, in a sense, identified with the phallic tree and the vaginal well; men and trees, and women and bodies of water, were perceived to correspond to the same cosmic principles.

As I describe in the main article on Yggdrasil and the Well of Urd, the cyclical flow of water through the image – the waters of the well nourishing the roots of the tree, whose branches then drip dew back into the well and replenish it – is a symbol of the cyclical course of time, and of the ways in which destiny permeates the cosmos.

So, then, why do Lif and Lifthrasir and their counterparts in the heathen Germanic world emerge from trees and water? It is because their spiritual essence is inseparable from that of trees and water. Like engenders like, and wherever trees and water come into being, so must men and women, too. Destiny, the inscrutable force that links all agency throughout the cosmos, assures that. The question “Where did humanity come from?” could have been answered: “From wood and water, and, more fundamentally, from destiny. Humanity is destined to exist; therefore we exist.” Humanity does not stand apart from or above the rest of the more-than-human world. Our essence is inextricably bound up with the essence of the greater whole.

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[1] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 189.

[2] The Poetic Edda. Vafþrúðnismál, stanza 45.

[3] Tacitus, Cornelius. Germania 39.

[4] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 189.

[5] Ibid.

[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. 59-60.

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

[8] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning 9.

[9] The Poetic Edda. Völuspá, stanzas 19-20.

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