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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.)
- What, if anything, does it mean that Yggdrasil is an ash tree ("Yggdrasil and the Nine Worlds")? Is Yggdrasil meant to have masculine characteristics?