From the biblical tale of Adam and Eve to Lord Vishnu's separation of a lotus flower to the Aboriginal dreamtime and the great Inca myth of Viracocha, world history is littered with as many creation myths as there are people on this earth. 

Humans have tried to fill the gap between the familiar and unfamiliar by offering explanations for natural phenomena, societal structures, and human existence itself. 

Although these stories were often shared with literal interpretations, many modern academics and scholars analyze their symbolic value to help shape cultural beliefs, values, and traditions in cultures throughout the world and history. 

People from Viking societies were no different in their quest for the answer as to where we humans came from. 

Emerging from late Iron Age Germanic societies, Viking societies inherited many similar cultural values and traits from their Germanic ancestors. 

What modern historians call the Old Norse religion – never a transcribed religion but more a collection of values, beliefs, and mythology – was fashioned as a means of trying to understand the world and our place within it. 

If you flick open the Poetic Edda – compiled long after the last Viking ship ever sailed by Snorri Sturluson in 13th century Iceland – you'll find one of the oldest and most important poems, the Völuspá

This epic poem tells the tale of Ask and Embla, the first two humans created by the Norse gods. 

Ask, crafted from an ash tree, is believed to embody qualities of strength and resilience, while Embla, made from an elm, represents grace and adaptability. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Crafted from wood, bestowed with life 

Like so many others littered throughout the rich tapestry of Norse mythology, the story takes place eons ago, at the very dawn of time. 

Not long after the events that led to the origins of life itself, partly attributed to the myth of a primeval cow named Audhumla bringing life into existence by licking ice, the Norse god Odin and his two brothers, Vé and Vili, were walking along a shoreline. 

They soon came across two logs washed up on the shore. These logs were from an ash (Ask, in Old Norse) and an elm tree (Embla). 

Now, let's pause here to appreciate the scene. 

Nothing would have excited people from Viking societies more than coming across two logs known for their sturdiness, flexibility, and strength. 

In fact, these were invaluable to the creation and construction of their feared longships, which terrorized much of Europe and its surrounds for nearly three centuries. 

The three godly brothers obviously knew a good thing when they saw it, for they, too, valued this fortuitous flotsam. They took these logs and bestowed them with life, creating the first two human beings. 

Each god endowed them differently: the first with the breath of life, the second with movement and intellect, and the third with form, speech, hearing, and sight. 

This divine work led to the creation of the first man, Ask, and the first woman, Embla, marking humanity's beginnings on earth. 

Ask was said to embody strength, resilience, and vitality – the qualities of the mighty ash tree from which he was crafted, whilst Embla was associated with beauty, adaptivity, and grace, reflecting the feminine spirit of the elm tree. 

Their significance also extends beyond their role as the progenitors of humanity; they embody the duality of existence itself. 

Ask represents the masculine principle, embodying strength and power. 

On the other hand, Embla embodies the feminine principle, representing beauty, nurturing, and the intuitive connection to the environment and natural world. 

The gods then placed them in the realm of Midgard – one of the nine realms of Norse cosmology – from which people in Viking societies believed that all humans were descended. 

More than just a creation myth 

The creation myth of Ask and Embla underscores people in Viking societies' belief in the cyclical nature of existence. 

For them, life emerges from the elements and then returns to them in an eternal dance of renewal and transformation. 

This was no doubt thought of by many when they fell and chopped down trees to fashion into boats and ships, and this added spiritual dimension only made their pieces of maritime technology even more impressive. 

The ash and elm trees, from which the first two humans were formed – much like many Viking longships – symbolize the sacred bond between humanity and the natural world, being quite literally rooted deeply in the earth yet reaching towards the heavens. 

This tale emphasizes themes of creation, the relationship between the Norse pantheon of gods and we mere mortals, and the origin of human life in Norse mythology. 

Ask and Embla represent, more broadly, the foundational figures from which all humans are believed to descend, embodying the interconnectedness of the natural world and the divine. 

For those wanting to delve further into this story and understand the broader context of the beginnings of the Old Norse religion, look no further than Neil Price's marvelous book, The Children of Ash & Elm: A History of the Vikings (available to buy on Amazon here). 

In 1948, Swedish artist Stig Blomberg crafted the sculpture 'Ask och Embla,' which stands in Sölvesborg, Sweden, and portrays the mythological first humans from Norse legends. Photo: Henrik Sendelbach (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A very human desire and a source of artistic inspiration 

The story of Ask and Embla is one of many similar creation myths that originate from Indo-European cultures and civilizations. 

Before we dismiss people in Viking societies as highly superstitious and ignorant, remember that it was only two centuries ago that a majority of the Western world believed that humanity was descended from Adam and Eve, the first humans created by God according to the Christian bible. 

Their tale speaks of the very human desire to try and understand how we got here and where we came from. A desire as old as humanity itself. 

Long after their tale was first told, Ask and Embla have continued to be a source of inspiration in our modern world. 

Should you be lucky enough to visit Oslo, pop into the stunning City Hall – where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded each year – and you will see two wooden panels carefully crafted depicting this ancient tale. 

With most of the other panels depicting historical events in Norwegian history, it is a great nod to this Viking tale by the artist Dagfin Werenskiold. 

There is also a brilliant statue by Swedish artist Stig Blomberg that takes pride of place in the center of the Swedish city of Sölvesborg. 

For more information on Norse mythology, legends, and sagas with Neil Gaiman, visit ABC here

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