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In Norse mythology, Askr and Embla (from Old Norse Askr ok Embla)-male and female respectively-were the first two humans, created by the gods. The pair are attested in both the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources, and the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson. In both sources, three gods, one of whom is Óðinn, find Askr and Embla and bestow upon them various corporeal and spiritual gifts. A number of theories have been proposed to explain the two figures, and there are occasional references to them in popular culture.

Etymology

A depiction of Askr and Embla (1919) by Robert Engels.

Old Norse askr literally means "ash tree" but the etymology of embla is uncertain, and two possibilities of the meaning of embla are generally proposed. The first meaning, "Ulmus glabra|elm tree", is problematic, and is reached by deriving *Elm-la from *Almilōn and subsequently to almr ("elm").[1] The second suggestion is "vine", which is reached through *Ambilō, which may be related to the Greek term ἄμπελος (ámpelos), itself meaning "vine, liana".[1] The latter etymology has resulted in a number of theories.

According to Benjamin Thorpe "Grimm says the word embla, emla, signifies a busy woman, from amr, ambr, aml, ambl, assiduous labour; the same relation as Meshia and Meshiane, the ancient Persian names of the first man and woman, who were also formed from trees."[2]

Attestations

In stanza 17 of the Poetic Edda poem Völuspá, the völva reciting the poem states that Hœnir, Lóðurr and Óðinn once found Askr and Embla on land. The seeress says that the two were capable of very little, lacking in ørlög and says that they were given three gifts by the three gods:


Old Norse:
Ǫnd þau né átto, óð þau né hǫfðo,
lá né læti né lito góða.
Ǫnd gaf Óðinn, óð gaf Hœnir,
lá gaf Lóðurr ok lito góða.[3]


Benjamin Thorpe translation:
Spirit they possessed not, sense they had not,
blood nor motive powers, nor goodly colour.
Spirit gave Odin, sense gave Hœnir,
blood gave Lodur, and goodly colour.[4]


Henry Adams Bellows translation:
Soul they had not, sense they had not,
Heat nor motion, nor goodly hue;
Soul gave Othin, sense gave Hönir,
Heat gave Lothur and goodly hue.[5]


The meaning of these gifts has been a matter of scholarly disagreement and translations therefore vary.[6]

According to chapter 9 of the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning, the three brothers Vili, Vé, and Odin, are the creators of the first man and woman. The brothers were once walking along a beach and found two trees there. They took the wood and from it created the first human beings; Askr and Embla. One of the three gave them the breath of life, the second gave them movement and intelligence, and the third gave them shape, speech, hearing and sight. Further, the three gods gave them clothing and names. Askr and Embla go on to become the progenitors of all humanity and were given a home within the walls of Miðgarðr.[7]

Gallery

Notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 Simek (2007:74).
  2. Thorpe (1907:337).
  3. Dronke (1997:11).
  4. Thorpe (1866:5).
  5. Bellows (1936:8).
  6. Schach (1985:93).
  7. Byock (2006:18).
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