Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Ask and Embla

The creation of Ask and Embla, on a Faroese postage stamp

[Image source: https://no.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ask_og_Embla ]

17. Unz þrír kvámu ór því liði
öflgir ok ástkir æsir at húsi,
fundu á landi lítt megandi
Ask ok Emblu örlöglausa.

18. Önd þau ne áttu, óð þau ne höfðu,
lá né læti né litu góða;
önd gaf Óðinn, óð gaf Hœnir,
lá gaf Lóðurr ok litu góða.

From the Poetic Edda (trans. Andy Orchard):

Until there came three from that company,
powerful and pleasant Æsir to a house.
They found on land, lacking vigour,
Ash and Embla, free of fate.  *

Breath they had not, energy they held not,
no warmth, no motion, nor healthy looks;
breath gave Odin, energy gave Hœnir,
warmth gave Lódur, and healthy looks.

("empty of might", according to H. A Bellows' translation)

From the Prose Edda (trans. A. G Brodeur):

Har answered as follows: As Bor’s sons went along the sea-strand, they found two trees. These trees they took up and made men of them. The first gave them spirit and life; the second endowed them with reason and power of motion; and the third gave them form, speech, hearing and eyesight. They gave them clothes and names; the man they called Ask, and the woman Embla. From them all mankind is descended, and a dwelling-place was given them under Midgard. (Gylfaginning Ch IX)

So the idea in both poetry and prose seems to be that two trees were found on the shore. Evidently these were driftwood tree-trunks. Bleached and stripped of bark, they often do resemble bodies. At the heart of this myth is a remarkable naturalism. The image would be particularly telling in an Icelandic context, where occasional driftwood is the only kind of large tree that you'd ever see. So maybe this was a late adaptation from what was originally a forest myth. But if so, it makes the myth better.

The names of the first man and woman in this Norse creation myth have the same initials as Adam and Eve, and maybe Snorri and other Christianized late narrators brought the Norse names a little closer to the Hebrew ones.

The man's name, "Ask", means ash. (the same word is used a couple of stanzas later to talk about Ygradrasil, the world ash tree.)

It's reasonable to suppose that the woman's name also means some sort of tree, and in older translations this is assumed to be the elm.  More recently that assumption has been questioned - the philology is not perfect - and another theory is that Embla originally meant (grape)-vine.  (Perhaps this would link it to ancient fables about a vine twining around a tree.) If this idea is right it might suggest older Indo-European roots since there are no vines in northern Europe. In Iceland there are no ash or elm trees either, but they do grow as far up as southern Norway.

[The European Ash, I had not realized, is a very well named tree. Its native region coincides almost exactly with Europe -- apart from Iceland...]

[Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/31dec/15328822578 . Stig Blomberg's 1948 statue of a distinctly young-looking Ask and Embla in Sölvesborg, Blekinge in Sweden.]

[Image source: https://alfitude.com/tag/ask-embla/. Ask Embla, the electropop duo (Norwegian-born Ina Wroldsen and Icelandic-born Arnthor Birgisson.]


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