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In Neil Gaiman's adaptation of the Norse myths, Norse Mythology, it is sometimes clear that certain elements are used in the stories as a way for the Norse people to transmit useful information and skills to their children. For example, in "The Last Days of Loki," Loki invents a net, and Kvasir deduces what it was (both its use and its manner of construction) from the pattern of the ashes. This small exchange can ensure that children understand the skill of net-making (and also, possibly, to teach them deductive reasoning).

One of the earlier stories, "Before the Beginning, and After," describes the creation of human beings. Odin and his brothers, realizing that the world of Midgard must be inhabited, set out to create humanity. They collect two logs that had floated to shore:

The first log was a log of ash wood. The ash tree is resilient and handsome and its roots go deep. Its wood carves well and will not split or crack. Ash wood makes a good tool handle, or the shaft of a spear.

The second log they found, beside the first on the beach, so close to the first log they were almost touching, was a log of elm wood. The elm tree is graceful, but its wood is hard enough to be made into the toughest planks and beams; you can build a fine home or a hall from elm wood.

The godly brothers then give the logs first life, then will, intelligence, and drive, and finally shape (one male, one female). Then they give them clothes, for they were cold, and finally they gave them names.

Last of all they gave the two people they had made names: the man they called Ask, or Ash Tree; the woman they called Embla, or Elm.

  1. Does this description of man as Ash, and woman as Elm, tell us anything about how the ancient Norse people understood gender and the differences between men and women?
  2. If the story does tell us something about the ancient Norse views on gender, is there something in the first passage I quoted, about the suitable uses for ash and elm wood, that is relevant to this? The explanation of the differences between the two woods (both are useful, but in different ways) might reveal a similar attitude toward men and women (neither is superior, but they have different roles), or it might only be a practical description of the materials available to the Norse, and nothing else.
  3. Is this description of man and woman as Ash and Elm changed in any way from the original Norse myths? (I know there's been some discussion about the accuracy of Gaiman's transmission of the myths, but I haven't yet seen any discussion of particular discrepancies in Norse Mythology.)
  4. What, if anything, does it mean that Yggdrasil is an ash tree ("Yggdrasil and the Nine Worlds")? Is Yggdrasil meant to have masculine characteristics?
  • I know that the third question is the least connected of the numbered questions here; I still felt that it was connected enough to allow it to stay as part of this post. If you want, we can discuss this on meta, with a specific-question post. – Shokhet Jun 19 '17 at 1:14
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    Also, I know that this is partly a question about mythology; however, since the main part of my question is about literary analysis, I asked it here rather than on Mythology. (I'm also familiar with this site, and totally unfamiliar with Mythology, so that also likely played a part.) – Shokhet Jun 19 '17 at 1:20
  • (My first comment applies equally to the fourth question.) – Shokhet Jun 19 '17 at 1:32
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I will start with question 3, as it is the most straightforward. Gaiman has done a whole lot of elaboration on a passage that is in fact rather short. I will quote the relevant passages from the primary sources, as they are rather short. First Völuspá:

  1. To three there came
    from the land
    this high and mighty
    Aesir to the house,
    found they on land,
    less mighty,
    Ask and Emblu
    void of destiny.

  2. Mind they not own,
    reflection they had not,
    no vision nor cover
    or colour fine;
    mind gave Odinn,
    reflection gave Hænir,
    vision gave Lódurr
    and colour fine.

Second, from Snorri's Gylfaginning, chapter IX:

When the sons of Borr [Odin, Vili and Vé] were walking along the sea-strand, they found two trees, and took up the trees and shaped men of them: the first gave them spirit and life; the second, wit and feeling; the third, form, speech, hearing, and sight. They gave them clothing and names: the male was called Askr, and the female Embla, and of them was mankind begotten, which received a dwelling-place under Midgard.

Thus, the original Norse myths does not really make any connection between the trees and the characteristics of the genders.

Furthermore, it should be noted that while the original "Ask" is the same name as for the ash tree, the etymology of "Embla" is not clear, and the connection to elm, coming from Snorri, is not universally accepted.

Now, as for what the passages tells us of Norse mythology and the Norse worldview, this is even more difficult. For start, it is not even sure that the names are originally Norse, as some scholars have wanted to connect the names with Adam and Eve.

If you want to see how the Norse thought about men and women, at least in terms of what work they did, Rígsþula is probably the most explicit (it tells of how the three hereditary groups of thralls, yeoman farmers, and aristocrats were formed). If we look at the names of the children of the yeoman farmers, we see the boys being given names with meanings like "The Strong", "The Holder of Land", "Craftsman" or "The Broad-Shouldered", while their sisters had names such as "Bride", "The Slender", "The Proud", "The Fair", and "The Graceful." (it is possible that these should be the names of the daughters of the aristocrats; the sons in that family all have meaning denoting kinship and inheritance, so they are not useful for this analysis).

So, Gaiman's explanation seem to line up decently with what can be found in other sources. Note that the question about how highly women were valued in the Viking age is a contentious topic, where you can find views influenced by the politics of today, or views on Christianity, or other issues.

  • I did not address question 4, as I think it really has very little to do with the rest, and would be better of as an independent question. – andejons Jun 19 '17 at 7:30
  • Thank you for your answer. I thought it was better to include the fourth question here, because if ash trees are not associated with masculinity (as, I think, your answer implies), then I see no reason to assume that the choice of ash for Yggdrasil means anything. – Shokhet Jun 19 '17 at 14:53

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