The first humans, in Norse myth, were made from two pieces of wood. Trees, humans and gods are closely connected, and the guardian god Heimdall and the world-tree Yggdrasil have a particularly strong bond. Humans, too, are a special care of his, as he intervened at time’s beginning to make them his kin.
The First Humans
The myths about how humans were created don’t tell how they were named, but since Ask means “ash”, his name is a pun on his origin, like Adam’s. Embla is harder to decode. “Elm” has been suggested, but it’s difficult linguistically.1 It could mean “vine”, another kind of wood, by connection to the Greek word “vine”, ἄμπελος (ámpelos).
As Bor’s sons walked along the sea shore, they came across two logs and created people out of them. The first gave breath and life, the second consciousness and movement, the third speech and hearing and sight; they gave them clothes and names. The man was called Ask, the woman Embla, and from them were produced the mankind to whom the dwelling-place under Midgard was given.
(Gylf. 13, Faulkes’ trans.)
17. Until three gods, strong and loving,
came from that company to the world;
they found on land Ash and Embla,
capable of little, lacking in fate.
18. Breath they had not, spirit they had not,
character nor vital spark nor fresh complexions;
breath gave Odin, spirit gave Haenir,
vital spark gave Lodur, and fresh complexions.
(Völuspá, Larrington’s trans.)
The two sources disagree on exactly who helped Odin to create the first humans – Bor’s three sons were Odin, Vili and Ve – but they do concur that the creation was a male one. Norse myth, unlike Greek, tends to avoid reproduction as a means of creation. The gods and giants frequently use non-sexual ways of making more gods and giants, unlike humans, whose repertoire is more limited.
The names Ask and Embla may themselves hide a reference to sexual reproduction. John Lindow, among others, connects the names Ash and Vine, hardwood and softwood, with the hand drill method for fire-making. In that link uses wild clematis and elder wood, which isn’t that far off vine and ash, although I question how much vine wood there would be in Scandinavia. (Watch a video of hand drill fire making here. It’s a lot of work.)
The skaldic poets took up the idea of humans as trees and elaborated on it. A woman could be a forest or specific trees like linden or birch, while men tended to be oaks, elms, ashes, or evergreens like spruce and fir. (Skald. 47-8) Kennings such as battle-tree for warrior were common, as well as more elaborate ones like:
The powerful shield-danger-[sword]wielding grove with hair for foliage provides Ull’s ash [shield] firs [warriors] in the east with greater security. (Hallfrod vandræðaskáld, quoted in Skald. 47)
Ursula Dronke argued that the “grove” with hair for foliage referred to Heimdall, but given how often the tree = man trope figures in skaldic poetry, Hallfrod could mean any man or god. His poem, Hakonsdrapa, praises Earl Hakon by comparing him to Odin, so one of those two would be most likely.
Heimdall and the world’s edge
While both humans and Heimdall had their beginning at the water’s edge, Heimdall’s beginning couldn’t be more different. While humans were given life by three gods, Heimdall is the son of nine mothers, all giantesses.
We have Snorri’s word for this (Gylf. 26-7). A passage in the Eddic poem Hyndluljod, called The Shorter Völuspá, seems to refer to Heimdall and his nine mothers. It says that he was born at the world or earth’s edge, and that the earth and sea gave him strength.
35. ‘One was born in bygone days,
with enormous power of the sons of men;
then nine women gave birth to him, to the spear-magnificent man,
the daughters of giants, at the edge of the earth.
38. He was empowered with the strength of earth,
with the waves of the sea, and sacrificial blood.
Heimdall is the only god whose birth is commemorated in a myth. This may be chance, or it may be a way to emphasize his connection to humanity. His birth at the water’s edge, and in such strange circumstances, shows his godhood (he can cross boundaries) and his association with the world tree, which often has a lake or spring beside it. (Tolley: 374)
The water’s edge was also the place for creation: humans were created there, Heimdall was born there, and Rig began begetting humans after meeting an old couple living on the beach.
This myth, Rigsthula, tells how Heimdall, going by the name Rig, went among humans and begat three generations, who became the three social classes. His byname Rig can be read two ways. Old Norse rígr means stiffness, and you could read that as phallic, given that he spends the poem engendering sons, or more speculatively, as tree-like.
He begins at the water’s edge, where he meets Great-Grandfather and Great-Grandmother, and has a son with Great-Grandmother, who is the first of the slave class. He continues this with Grandmother, who gives birth to the first free farmer, and Mother, whose son is the first noble. The poem breaks off when Rig begins to train one of the noble’s descendants, who will be the first king.
So unlike Odin, Heimdall is direct kin to humans, as the sibyl mentions at the beginning of Völuspá:
Attention I ask of all the sacred people,
greater and lesser, the offspring of Heimdall…
Just as a side note: Tacitus records a myth that a god, Mannus, had fathered the three great Germanic tribes, the Ingavones, Hermiones, and Istavaeones. Not to say that Mannus is Heimdall, but the Germanic myth shows that the idea of an ancestor god was part of the culture.
Yggdrasil and Heimdall
The name Heimdall is usually translated as something like “World-Gleam” (Lindow) or “World-Brightener” (Orchard), but Cleasby/Vigfusson says, “[t]he etymology has not been made out.” One persistent idea is that it means “World-Tree” although that’s never really caught on.2
Hugo Pipping first suggested it as an answer to the etymological riddle, but later Ursula Dronke took up the idea of Heimdall as world-tree from a mythological viewpoint. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work from a linguistic view, so the name Heimdall doesn’t equal “World-Tree”, attractive as the idea is.
However, another possible interpretation of his name might work. Jan de Vries linked the name to dallr, linked to Greek words for blooming and profusion. Clive Tolley (372-3) takes de Vries’ etymology and links it to an Icelandic gloss of dallur calling it arbor prolifera, a prolific tree. He connects –dallr to the Greek θαλλω, “young shoot”, with a related verb meaning “to flourish”, and to a Gothic word dulþs, “sumptuous” (describing something like a feast). One of the Greek Horae was named Θαλλω (Thallo), goddess of buds and green shoots.
Hemdall and Freyja’s byname, Mardoll, would be part of a Germanic pattern, along with Delling, the god of day. He suggests that Heimdall’s name could mean “one connected with the home’s/world’s flourishing”.
So Heimdall isn’t the world-tree itself, but like it he helps the world to thrive and grow. Their fates are linked, and they have a certain amount in common. Three wells lie under its three main roots, and it is sprinkled with wet mud by the Norns, three women who care for it. Both are early warnings of Ragnarök:
Heimdall blows loudly, his horn is in the air.
Odin speaks with Mim’s head.
47. Yggdrasil shudders, the tree standing upright,
the ancient tree groans and the giant is loose;
(Völuspá 46-7, Larrington’s trans.)
Grumpy Lokean Elder sees Loki’s taunt in Lokasenna that Heimdall has a mucky backside and cannot leave his place as connecting Heimdall and Yggdrasil, rooted in one spot and plastered with white mud. (He also says that sprinkling offerings on holy trees was an ancient custom.)
The Ash as Protector Tree
Voluspa takes in the beginning and the end of the world, and ends with its rebirth. But it’s another Eddic poem, Vafthrudnismal, that mentions another two humans surviving to populate the new world. The poem is a wisdom contest between Odin and the giant Vafthrudnir, and Odin asks him which humans will survive Ragnarok:
45. Vafthrudnir said:
‘Lif and Lifthrasir, and they will hide
in Hoddmimir’s wood;
they will have the morning dew for food;
from them the generations will spring.’
Nowhere does it say that Yggdrasil died during the war between gods and giants, so given the close connection between Mimir and the World Tree, it seems most likely that the tree has saved some small remant of humanity, and kept them fed until the worst is over.
Ash trees could be protective in other ways, too. According to the Trees for Life website:
Newborn babies were popularly given a teaspoon of ash sap. Ailing children, especially those suffering with rupture or weak limbs, would be passed naked through a cleft in an ash tree or ash sapling, to cure them. The cleft was often specifically made for the purpose and bound together again after the ceremony to heal over as the child also healed. Some folklore then suggested an intimate bond between the welfare and fate of the now related tree and person, with harm to the tree being reflected in the healed person’s life, leading people to become understandably protective of ‘their’ ash tree.
I think the association with babies and children may be significant given Heimdall’s association with flourishing life, and his role as father of humanity (see below). It may also reflect Heimdall’s own relationship with the world-tree Yggdrasil, as their fates are bound together. (One of Heimdall’s by-names is Vindhlér, wind-shelter, a fitting name for a god associated with a tree.)
I mentioned a gloss on dallur as a prolific tree; you might wonder if the scribe meant an ash, whose winged seeds can be plentiful enough to be a nuisance. (Click here for a really impressive image of a whole tree full of seeds.) You can imagine a god associated with an ash as a prolific father.
1. *Elm-la from *Almilōn to alma, elm. The mysterious goddess Ilmr may also be related to elm-trees, if her name derives from alma..↩
2. A variant form, Heimdalr, could mean world-bow (dalr, bow) suggesting the rainbow bridge.↩
References and Links
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman Press, Penguin, 1992. (reprint) (pdf here)
The Poetic Edda, Carolyne Larrington (trans.) Oxford UP, 1996.
Dronke, Ursula 1992: “Eddic Poetry as a Source for the History of Germanic Religion”. Germanische Religionsgeschichte: Quellen und Quellenprobleme, eds. Heinrich Beck, Detlev Ellmers and Kurt Schier. Ergänzungsbände zum Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde 5. Berlin: De Gruyter: 656-84.
Dronke, Ursula 1997: The Poetic Edda II: Mythological Poems. Edited with translation, introduction and commentary. Oxford: Clarendon/Oxford University.
Hultgård, Anders 2006: “The Askr and Embla Myth in a Comparative Perspective”. In Andrén, Anders; Jennbert, Kristina; Raudvere, Catharina (editors).Old Norse Religion in Long-term Perspectives. Nordic Academic Press: 58-62. (parallels in Iranian and Phrygian myth) (pdf here)
Lindow, John 2001: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, OUP, New York and Oxford.
Orchard, Andy 2002: Cassell’s Dictonary of Norse Myth and Legend, Cassell Reference.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall) 1996: Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.
Tolley, Clive 2009: Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic vol 1, Academia Scientiarum Fennica. (Questia)