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Who Gets to be Human

(I want to preface this with the caveat that I am writing this pretty much stream of consciousness in between workshops and classes today. This is not a polished piece and I think there is much more intellectual and practical work to be done on this as on many topics. I’m putting this here as a place to begin articulating my thoughts on this issue). 

This morning I attended a Racial Equity/diversity workshop geared toward faculty and grad students who will be teaching introductory courses in theology over the next year or so. It was an excellent course and raised a lot of really good and necessary questions about how we approach our materials, how we teach theology, and how theology has been used – past and present—to define the boundaries of what constitutes the human. 

The question isn’t what constitutes human in relation to the Gods, but quite simply, what is categorized and recognized, acknowledged as human by those in power, particularly by those in theological and religious positions of power. Rightly, we are urged as theologians and teachers to push ourselves and our students to consider not only this question of power and privilege, but to look for ways to productively challenge that status quo. I don’t argue that. I think it is part and parcel of the work of being a theologian. Here is where I digress from many of my colleagues, however: I don’t think the problem began with race. I think racism is a wicked symptom of something quite different. 

Because this didn’t start out as a racial question, I don’t believe that the answer toward deconstructing racism and systemic structures of racism is ever going to happen by focusing on race alone. The problem didn’t start with race. It started with a particular way of looking at the world. It started with monotheism, specifically Christianity (1). It began with the spread, at first through rhetoric and then, after 313 C.E. through imperium and often violent coercion by and to Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. It started with the destruction of temples and the extortion (2) to conversion of the devout. It started with slaughter of all those who would not abandon their indigenous polytheisms and embrace the new religion (of their conquerors). Christians were human. All others…weeeeeelll, not so much; and that “not so much” opened the door to genocide, slaughter, expansion of slavery, and the theft and torture of children (3).

I hear a lot of talk about ‘problematizing whiteness.’ Maybe. I think that ‘whiteness’ is a rather artificial construct (and one that lets monotheistic religions off the hook, I might add). If I’m looking for ancestral identity, I’m going to look to my Lithuanian, Russian, German, Swiss, Scots-Irish, Huguenot, and Appalachian forebears. I’m going to look at culture and what soils hold the bones of my dead. I’m going to look at language and customs, and most of all, I’m going to tell the stories of my dead. Not all of those dead had white skin. What does it matter? What we should be interrogating, “problematizing” if you will, is monotheism. That is where, I firmly believe the true impetus toward racializing and dehumanizing began, that moment when Christianity began to look at those non-Christians around them as less than human (4). 

There is no reason that Christianity had to assume a dogmatic monotheistic stance. Had it been satisfied to be one religion amongst many, a henotheistic tradition privileging only the Trinity, I do not believe that would have led to the same blood-stained place. It’s the monotheism, a worldview that is based on exclusivity and intolerance that I think is the problem. Specifically, when that worldview twinned itself with militaristic imperium (i.e. after 313 C.E.), it transformed both imperium and Christianity into something quite vicious, quite dehumanizing, quite hungry for conquest and power. That hasn’t changed. Just ask an altar boy. 

Ok. That was low but I think my point stands and it’s not just polytheists who have suffered under monotheistic hegemony but Christians too. It’s been no better a system for the Abrahamic faiths living under its dominion than it has for the rest of us. Monotheism is a brutal equation. It’s a simple equation, an uncomplicated one, which is perhaps part of its appeal. Here’s how I break it down:

You’re only human if your humanity feeds the machine. Or let’s turn that around, you don’t get to be human if your lack of humanity likewise benefits the monster, instantiating and reifying its lust for power. This is not a condemnation of Christianity. There are very good and sacred aspects of practice and thought, devotion extant across the spectrum of Christian traditions from which we could benefit greatly by studying. Likewise, I know many, many good, compassionate, and devout Christians (and Jews, and Muslims) who are well aware of their respective traditions’ failures. That is theirs to carry and many people that I know are working to rectify where they can. Moreover – there are a lot of ‘moreovers’ in this – there were early iterations of Christianity that were polytheistic, iterations that elevated women to positions of power, iterations that approached the body and sexuality very differently from what became the norm. As with every religion, the reality was never monolithic. What I am condemning is a system: the structure of monotheism, the eradication of the sacred from the world, from our minds, leaving only the smallest, narrowest channel through which we can define that which is sacred…and by extension our humanity in relation to it. Christianity was, in many respects, one of the first victims of monotheism. 

I have said in the past (most likely in the heat of debate) that I don’t think someone is a fully realized human being unless they are honoring their ancestors and their Gods and are engaged in some kind of devotion. I never however, said that they weren’t *human*. I never question the humanity of those who aren’t polytheists. I don’t see that in the antique texts with which I work either from the polytheistic side. You may not be one of *my* people, but obviously you’re a person, a human being. Your humanity doesn’t end where my religion begins. I’m not sure that monotheism, and by extension traditions under its domination, can say the same. 

Nor is this a question of hierarchy. There will always be hierarchies and in many respects, hierarchy is good. It allows us to function effectively and well. Hierarchies occur in nature, and when they are properly organized can be extremely productive and positive — that is, when they don’t exclude from the human people on the basis of race, gender etc. So in no way do I advocate an abolition of hierarchy. The Gods after all are hierarchically above us and that is good and holy and proper. That represents the cosmic order and architecture instantiated by Their will. I do have a problem when hierarchies exist solely to diminish the humanity of others. I don’t think that’s inevitable though. 

I think what I find most frustrating as a theologian is the unwillingness I see in so many circles to interrogate the structure of monotheism. It’s not that I think restoring our polytheisms will fix everything, but I think that doing so will restore a way of looking at the world that is not predicated on domination and eradication of everyone and everything that is different (5).


  1. Though to be fair, if one reads the bible, it’s clear that it actually started with Judaism attacking various neighboring tribes in the name of their newly minted “one God.” That didn’t last, however, and by the time Christianity began its life as a Jesus movement within Judaism, there was not the call to active, violent proselytizing found in the parent faith anymore.  
  2. And yes, I mean extortion not exhortation. After all, often families – children, elderly would be threatened. Some people were given the choice: convert or everyone you love will be killed. One does have to question how sincere such conversions were. Of course this is still the modus operandi of Christian missions in poorer parts of Africa and India, etc.: you’re starving? Well, I’ll give you food but first you need to be baptized. Just look at how evangelicals responded to Haiti after the earthquake a few years ago.
  3. Not a single early Christian source that I have found condemns slavery. Not a single one and  slavery was pandemic in the Roman world, (though to be accurate, one must note that it was not race based slavery. Anyone, including other Romans might become slaves. They could eventually win, buy, or be granted their freedom). The theft and torture of children began with Charlemagne forcing the conquered Saxons to send their sons to monastic schools. It continued in the Americas with Native schools where children were beaten, starved, abused, and tortured as a matter of course, but especially for speaking their native tongues and practicing their native faiths. 
  4. Yes, ancient polytheists saw the differences between skin tones and racial identifiers but these were not problematized in the way that we see in later monotheistic cultures.  They recognized them, were curious about them, but you don’t see religion being used to dehumanize the people bearing them – at least not in the part of the ancient world with which I engage. I can’t speak for others. I think the Alexandrian and Christian theologian Origen (184-253 C.E.) was the first to equate “the devil” with an Ethiopian boy, hence blackness. It’s an association that stuck well into the early modern period. 
  5. Moreover, there is room in polytheism for all the Abrahamic traditions to exist and thrive. The opposite is most assuredly NOT the case. 

What Can Our Creation Story Tell Us – Part II

Picking up where we left off in Part I, this is the conclusion of my initial inquiry into our creation story. After the Prose Edda, the story is recounted in the Voluspa, stanzas 17-18 (in some versions, the pagination gives this as 18-19):

fundu á landi lítt megandi
Ask ok Emblu örlöglausa.
Ǫnd þau né átto, óð þau né hǫfðo,
lá né læti né lito góða.
Ǫnd gaf Óðinn, óð gaf Hœnir,
lá gaf Lóðurr ok lito góða
…[They] found on land ash and elm,(7)
with little strength, empty of fate.
Soul they had not, sense they had not,
Life-warmth nor proper bearing, nor worthy appearance.
Soul gave Odin, sense gave Hoenir, 
Life-warmth gave Loður and worthy appearance. 
(my translation)

The Gods – and here, they are not the more primordial Odin, Vili (will), and Ve (holiness), but Odin, Hoenir, an Loður again transform bits of wood into functioning human beings. Epithets matter in reading our sacred stories. They tell us something about the traits and nature of that Deity, they show us what to infer from the Deity’s actions, guiding us through the text as surely as any translator. So, here, the Gods again give gifts and the first gift given is Ǫnd (my apologies to Icelandic readers. I’m having a horrible time with my very old laptop in making the appropriate diacritical marks.), breath or essence of life. Without this gift, the exhalation of a God, the other gifts would not matter, nor in fact would they be capable of being animated and utilized. The word Ǫnd actually translates as soul, not just breath. This word, especially read against its Indo-European cousins is complicated and would lend itself to this interpretation: Odin gave these proto-humans their souls. That is certainly my reading, and it’s backed up by Anthony Faulkes and Michael Barnes in their glossary for A New Introduction to Old Norse (8)I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it translated as ‘soul’ in any Heathen discussion, nor indeed, in most translations. Why do we resist that translation so much? Did Odin really breath into us breath and with that breath soul? Yes, He did. What is a soul? What does it mean that the first gift given by the Gods, before anything else, was the gift of the human soul? What effect did this have? 

Only after receiving soul carried on the breath of a God (Odin), were they given sense. They were given functioning intellects, the ability to process and articulate their experiences. Then they received life-warmth and a worthy appearance. They are given a sensorium – life-warmth endows these first humans with the capacity to experience the world through the senses. They are no longer inert. A worthy appearance (lito góða) has a certain moral dimension to it (góða). What does it mean to have a goodly or worthy appearance? Is it an appearance blessed by the Gods? Is it an appearance that reflects the touch/Presence of the Gods? Is it an upright appearance reflective of the capacity to cultivate virtue? What does “worthy” mean in this context? What does it mean to have worth? This phrasing implies an ontological change occurred via the blessing of the Gods, not just in form and function but from one type of being to another, inherently (8). 

 The order of the divine gifts is also different from the Prose Edda where they receive 1. Breath and life, 2. Wit and movement, 3. Appearance, speech, hearing, and eyesight. In the Poetic Edda, Ask and Embla receive souls, which are the essence of life (9) first as in the Prose Edda, but then the Voluspa simply notes “sense” being given by Hoenir. The word óð is probably better translated as ‘movement’ than as ‘sense.’ It comes from the verb vaða, which actually means to ‘wade ashore.’ I haven’t really considered the meaning behind the Gods presence on a sea shore when They discovered the trees that became man and woman, but this would imply there’s something quite significant there (don’t worry. I’ll tackle it in another article when I’ve had a chance to consider it more fully). It’s movement in the sense of movement out of the murk, movement from unknowing to knowing, unbeing, to individual consciousness. The above passage is followed immediately by : 

19. Ask veit ek standa, heitir Yggdrasill
hár baðmr, ausinn hvíta auri;
þaðan koma döggvar þærs í dala falla;
stendr æ yfir grœnn Urðar brunni.
I know an ash tree standing, it is called Yggdrasil
Grey tree, wet with white water poured out;
Then comes glistening dew that falls in the dales;
It stands green over Urda’s well. 

The immediate mention of Urda’s well ties the state of being human directly into the flow of wyrd. Prior to the creation of materiality and temporality, especially the latter, wyrd was not in play. It is only with the movement from unbeing to being that wyrd becomes active and we’re told this by the specific mention of Urda, the Norn associated with memory. Without temporality there is no memory. Memory automatically implies the flow of time. This also implies that human beings are yoked to temporality – we’re mortal. This sounds obvious to say but nowhere in the text until this particular point is there anything clearly articulating human mortality. 

There is also an implied connection with  Yggdrasil. Now, this could simply be that all trees are in some way part of Yggdrasil (this is how a northern tradition spirit-worker would interpret it) but I think there is more here. Water pours out from the tree, white and clear (white- hvíta– is often used in medieval writing to indicate not skin color, but pure and shining brilliance. Heimdallr, for instance is sometimes called the “white God” but this is not a reference to skin color so much as to His shining, brilliant, blinding countenance). This water, we know from other passages, nourishes Yggdrasil. It is the water of Urda’s well, the water of memory. Memory is a gift of temporality, its passage held and ordered by a Norn Who is, by Her nature, above the passage of time (10). If the well is filled with the water of memory, then what is that water that flows from the Tree? If it is memory and it is pure (we know this by the use of the word hvíta) then one can posit a connection with both the Gods and human beings. We are defined by our memory. Our character, our personality, our drive are all impacted by our experiences, which are held in our own internal well of memory. In the Grimnismal, we read that Odin has two ravens named Thought and Memory and while both fly free daily to do His bidding, He always fears for their return, but – as the Edda tells us – He fears the loss of memory the most. Why is memory more important than thought? I posit that it is because it is the sum total of our collected experience, the totality of who we are, who we have formed ourselves to be, good and bad, victory and failure, it is the tapestry of our life. In some way this transforms into the gleaming and pure water that nourishes the Tree and fills the well of Urda. What has once occurred after all, always rests in the wyrd and can be read and discovered by canny diviners. 

I think this says something crucial about the state of being human though; namely, that we nourish the tree by our experiences, by the quality of our experiences. We come from the Tree, having been crafted first and foremost from ash and elm (all trees being part of Yggdrasil), so there is that ontological connection already. More than that though, we nourish Yggdrasil through our deeds that become enshrined, transformed into memory and because there is this double emphasis on character (first with the word worthy –goðaand then with pure and shining white – hvíta), I posit that we specifically nourish the Tree by perfecting our piety. The proper state then of being human is that of pious reverence because we are always connected to both the Well and the Tree, and how we live matters. Not only do we come from the Tree in this way, but some part of us – memory, also a soul part in the Northern Tradition – returns to nourish it. That is brilliantly interlocking design. 

I will take this a step further. Those proto-humans only become fully and properly human when the Gods interact with them. Up until that point, they are inert pieces of wood. It takes interaction with the Gods, proper and fruitful interaction (which only happens on our end, when we approach Them in a pious and reverential head and heart space) to make us fully human. I would further posit that this devotional equation continues to hold throughout our lives. We make choices every day that have the potential to reify that moment of creation, that initial moment of creative engagement with the Gods. Now in our creation story, that moment is initiated by the Gods, but then the human beings are given the trappings of civilization (which I note in Part I): names, clothing, homes. They’re given identity, craft and creativity, beauty, security. Then the choice becomes what to do with those things and how to live rightly (later stories have the God Rig coming to walk and sleep amongst mortals, teaching us how to live and infusing our bloodlines with that of the Gods (11)). Clearly – for me at least!- it is continued interaction with our Gods that teaches us how to live rightly and well. We need that continued, repeated infusion of the divine Presence to truly cultivate our humanity in ways that elevate us above the inert. 

Finally, there is a parallel between Ask and Embla in our creation story, and Lif (life) and Lifthrasir (stubborn will to live/love of life), the two humans who conceal themselves within Yggdrasil and in so doing survive Ragnarok (12). They survive by returning to the source. They are renewed as the world is renewed. I don’t put much stock in the Eddic account of Ragnarok. It is so obviously Christianized that I think picking out the Christian apocalypticism from the story is nearly impossible. Instead, I think we may interpret this allegorically. Through that conflagration Ask and Embla are reborn. They go to the Tree, to the Well, to the holy places of the Gods and find sanctuary and through that experience they are renewed in life, humanity, and their ability to thrive. In the conflagrations that consume our lives, be those times of trouble large or small, we are given a productive model of how to behave: we should go to our Gods, to the places that nourish Them and us, and seek shelter by reifying our connection to and alliance with Their holy architecture. We are part of that order and acknowledging that renews a primal connection that has the potential to nourish us on every level, when we let it; and we “let” it through cultivating piety and reverence and an awareness of our place in that architecture, our place and the rightness of our beings in the sight of the Gods. They made us, breathed soul into us, infused us with our minds, our sensoria, goodly form, goodly character. They named us, bringing us into collectively articulated being with each 

I’ll stop here, because I did after all posit from the beginning of this two part series, that this was only an initial and brief examination of our human creation story. There is so much more to look at here and in the future, I hope to return to this subject in a deeper way. My sister asked me once if I believed these stories are objectively true. Yes and no. What is truth? There are different kinds of truth. A thing can be true without being scientifically true after all. These are stories our Gods have inspired, ways of explaining our world and the grace of our Gods, ways of better understanding our role in relations to Them, our obligations vis-à-vis the divine architecture. Are they true? Absolutely. Are they literal? That’s a totally different kind of truth and not really relevant in the realm of μυθος. Learning in what register to read and how to interpret after all, is just as important as learning the actual abc’s of language. 

I will close as we all should close (and begin and do everything in between!), that is, with a prayer:

For the gift my soul I am grateful. 
For the life that I have been given to craft, 
I am grateful. 
For my mind, will, and sensoria,
my goodly form, and worthy being, 
I give thanks. 
May I tend these treasures well, 
cultivating a good and pious character
ever rooted in the soil of devotion
from which the Tree of my being 
may flower. 
Hail to the Gods
and all the glory They have wrought,
now and always.  

Notes – Continuing from Part I:

(7) Most translations give “Ask and Embla” as proper names, but it occurred to me looking at this, that it could just as easily refer to the trees as the people created from them or perhaps the audience would have heard it that way, with the double meaning embedded, particularly since they are referred to as ‘empty of fate.’ No human being is empty of fate. 

(8) In the Northern Tradition, the physical body (like) and its vitality (litr) are actually considered by some to be parts of the soul. The physical body particularly is the part sloughed off after each incarnation, given back to the earth to nourish it for all that we have taken for our own sustenance. This is not articulated in the Eddas but is something spirit-workers in the Northern Tradition take on faith and it affects our practice in very specific ways (both in divination and in soul workings – practices designed to strengthen specific parts on the soul in which diagnostic divination has determined there is a weakness).

(9) The word can mean breath, essence of life, or soul. I follow Faulkes and Barnes in giving precedence to the last. 

(10) I wonder if the Nornir are time, if somehow the passage of time – past, present, future – are somehow contained within Them, flowing from Them, ordered by Them. I hesitate to say They were formed by it, because Their position in the lore seems to set Them above temporality in some way, yet They are intimately connected to it (and yet have no connection that we know of with the House of Mundilfari, Deities connected to the daily passage of time). The role of the Nornir in creation has not come down to us. Like the primordial cow Auðumla, They just appear. 

(11) Scholarly arguments abound over whether Rig is Odin or Heimdallr. The modus operandi fits Odin quite well, but for a number of reasons, I tend to fall into the Heimdallr camp. 

(12)They hide in Hoddmimis Holt, Hoddmimir’s wood with some scholars, most notably Carolyne Larrington assert is another name for Yggdrasil. 

What Can Our Creation Story Tell Us — Part I

In the class I for which I gta, we just discussed the creation of man in Islamic theology, and this fascinating discussion has me thinking about our own creation account. I don’t think many have examined our creation account from a theological perspective, so I’m going to remedy that lacuna in brief right now. 

In Norse cosmology, humankind was created by the three creator Gods, Odin, Hoenir (Vili), and Loður (Vé) respectively. We learn this from two specific sources, chapter 9 of the Gylfaginning in the Prose Edda, and Stanzas 17-18 of the Voluspa in the Poetic Edda. The prose account is the longer of the two, so let’s address that one first. 

In Chapter 9 of the Gylfaginning, part of the Prose Edda, we learn the following : 

9. Borssynir skópu Ask ok Emblu. The sons of Bor sculpt Ask and Embla.


Þá mælti Gangleri: “Mikit þótti mér þeir hafa þá snúit til leiðar, er jörð ok himinn var gert ok sól ok himintungl váru sett ok skipt dægrum, ok hvaðan kómu mennirnir, þeir er heim byggja?” 


 Þá mælti Hárr: “Þá er þeir gengu með sævarströndu Borssynir, fundu þeir tré tvau ok tóku upp trén ok sköpuðu af menn. Gaf inn fyrsti önd ok líf, annarr vit ok hræring, þriði ásjónu, mál ok heyrn ok sjón, gáfu þeim klæði ok nöfn. Hét karlmaðrinn Askr, en konan Embla, ok ólst þaðan af mannkindin, sú er byggðin var gefinn undir Miðgarði.


Then Gangleri said: it seems to me that much had been done, when earth and heaven were made, when sun and heavenly bodies were set in place and days marked out, and from where came the people who settled the world? 


Then spoke Hár: As Bor’s sons went along the sea-strand, they found two trees and they took them up and shaped human beings from them.  The first gave them breath and life; the second wit and movement; and the third appearance, 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.

(all translations mine unless otherwise specified).

Sometimes instead of “heavenly bodies,” I’ve seen himintungl translated as ‘moon’. My dictionary did not support that quite so directly, but it is a common thing that I’ve seen in English versions of the Eddas.  

So, first, we learn something about the context for the creation of humanity, namely that this occurred after both the architecture of the worlds, some sense of a structured afterlife, and temporality, the passage of the days, weeks, years, and seasons, in other words a limitation on the flow of material becoming, had been put in place by Odin. The process of creation is thus controlled, contained, and channeled. The sun (sól) is specifically named, though one gets the sense from the term used (sól instead of sunna) that this refers to the actual celestial body of the sun rather than the Goddess Sunna herself (1).

“Much had been done,” the text tells us. Does this mean that humanity was an afterthought? I don’t read it that way, but rather as indicating that humanity is part of that divine architecture, another expression of divine will, and moreover of divine creative impulse (2). In fact, the opening to this section implies that the creation of humanity was a necessary part of putting the finishing touches on that creative project. 

So, the Gods prepared a landscape in which time was no longer irrelevant to existence. This allowed fate to come into play, which we will discuss below when we get to the Poetic Edda. This place in which humanity will be crafted, is one bordered and bounded by a very clear-cut temporality. “From where came the people?” the text asks. Well, they came naturally from that cosmic architecture, part of it, enclosed by it, bordered by it. They were created and birthed from it and from within it. They are one of the last things created, but there is no indication that humanity is placed above the natural or cosmic order of things at all. Rather they are part of its functioning order. 

There is a shift in epithets used for Odin at this point, from Gangleri, the wandering God to Hár, the high one. This really emphasizes Odin’s role as architect and establisher of Divine Order. It emphasizes His role in the sacred hierarchy, and in maintenance of the worlds. After all, He has dozens of heiti from which the poet might have chosen, each of which emphasize a different part of His nature, or a different duty. Hár is Odin as sovereign power, and there is a sense of the capacity for destruction and moreover, creation through destruction inherent in this term. As Hár, the word means “high, elevated, magnificent, lofty.” As Hàrr, it means grey-haired, grey. I actually question the text here, at least the version that I used had the name Hárr. While the latter meaning certainly applies and gives the impression of age and wisdom, I think the former is more accurate for this context. It’s worth keeping in mind that these texts were recorded two hundred years after Christianization, and it makes a certain amount of sense that the visual impression given in the poet’s use of epithets might instinctively correspond to that of typical iconography of the high God in Christianity. Still, I personally question the text here, wondering if – given how close the pronunciation is for these two words—whether it wasn’t Hár in the original. Scribal error is a thing (and, I only looked at two transcriptions of the ON text).  Either way, the sense of age and power holds. Moreover, in the Hárbarðsljoð and the Hávamal, we have the use of Hár. 

Hár says that Bor’s sons went along the sea strand. Bor is mentioned one other time in the Poetic Edda, in stanza 4 of the Voluspawhere the poem describes the sons of Bor creating Midgard (3). This mention of the sons’ patronymic emphasizes their connection to the creation of being, to the moment materiality moved from potentiality and possibility into actuality. Why? Because Bor is the son of Bùri, who was licked from the ice and loam of proto-creation by the embodiment of all the potentiality and promise of that creation: the primordial cow Auðumla (4). When Odin suddenly becomes one of the Sons of Bor, this signifies a shift in register. Now we are speaking about matters of creation, about a God rising up and establishing His sovereignty over processes that began before His own differentiation into Independent Being. Now, we are moving from having all the building blocks of the worlds as static processes, to processes having been set into motion by the will of a holy Power. 

The three Sons of Bor (Odin, Vili, and Vé) find two trees along the seashore. Many readings in English give this as ‘pieces of driftwood’, but the Old Norse just reads tré (tree). How these trees were selected (was it random chance?) is not explained but the three Gods take them up and sculpt or shape each tree into the form of human beings. One, named Ask (ash) is created male and the other Embla (elm) female (5). 

There is a truism in northern tradition spirit-work that all elemental powers are connected to all elemental powers of the same nature that ever were or will be. In other words, the fire you kindle now, at this moment, is connected to every fire that ever was or will be – consciously connected. We are animists, after all, who engage with the spirits of the natural world, and fire is a tribe of Beings with their own nature and capacity to engage. So, if that is true about earth, or fire, water, or air – the elements of classical medical and magical theory – how much more significant is it that we were created from trees? Each tree, by this rubric, is connected directly to Yggdrasil. I’ll return to this below when we move on to the Poetic Edda. For now, suffice it to say that the creation from trees is significant. 

So, having shaped these two trees into the semblance of people, each God bestows a gift. Odin breathes into them önd, spirit or the breath of life. Vili (the name means ‘will’ and this is an epithet of Hoenir) gives wit – functioning synapses, an ability to intellectually process one’s environment and experiences, consciousness on every level and a functioning nervous system, without which movement would be impossible. Vè (proper spelling – I often leave off the accent because it’s a pain in the ass on my keyboard to do them), another name for Loður (Loki) puts the piece de resistance on the whole project and bestows upon that first man and woman a sensorium (6). He gives them a proper appearance, goodly complexion, beauty, an aesthetic, and most importantly of all, the ability to see, smell, taste, hear, and touch. This implies the ability to make rational decisions and judgments. They can experience and reason.  The passage doesn’t mention the ability to feel via touch but this may be implied in the articulation of the rest of the sensorium. Likewise, aesthetic beauty isn’t directly mentioned but given that the Gods had already fashioned these trees into the image and shape of human beings, why bother with complexion unless an awareness of beauty was part of what defines us as human. Certainly, the Gods Themselves are master artisans, given to the creation of a diversity of beautiful forms. 

Nor did the Gods just abandon Their creations once the latter were sensate and cogent. Before anything else, They provided names – a sense of individuality and being—and clothing –  a marker of civilization. They provided for Ask and Embla a place where they belonged, Midgard. They were given Midgard as a home, a place to live but there is nothing comparable to Genesis where Ask or Embla were given sovereignty over this world; quite the opposite in fact. Sovereignty belongs to the Gods alone here. 

 While more can be said about this, I did promise that this was going to be a relatively brief excursion into our creation mythos so I’ll conclude here and next week, in part II, move on to the Poetic Edda. 


  1. Though perhaps not, as in the second Merseberg Charm, we see Sól used in place of Sunna when the Goddess is clearly indicated. 
  2. One is tempted to say by inserting humanity into the worlds they verschlimbesserten the whole thing. 
  3. He is also referenced once in chapter 6 of the Gylfaginning in the Prose Edda when the story notes that Bor’s origins, his wife and her genealogy, and the birth of three sons, the creator Gods Odin, Vili, and Vé.
  4. There is a certain degree of numerology in the Eddic texts. Three and nine often recur as particularly powerful numbers. Here, there is creation and then three generations later Odin, Vili, and Vé rise up and destroy Ymir, creating the architecture and scaffolding of the worlds. This may or may not be significant, but it is worth noting. 
  5. I wonder how many times the Gods did this. This primordial couple is otherwise undifferentiated, save by their elevation to a new and different ontological state. They’ve been moved by the will and creative attention of the Gods from tree to human. Did they do this as many times as there were ash and elm trees present on the shore? Was it only this couple? We all read this through an unconscious Abrahamic lens, growing up as we did in a world where this is still (for the West) the dominant worldview. We may project Adam and Eve onto these figures and most assuredly Snorri probably did too when he recorded these stories, being Christian and consciously or unconsciously shaping these oral stories into a form deeply impacted by his Christianity. Just because we do this though, presuming ONE primordial couple, is that necessarily the case in the understanding of our pre-Christian ancestors?
  6. There is skaldic evidence that Loki and Loður were the same Deity. See my article here

The image of Ask and Embla is a stunning sculpture by artist Timothy Schmaltz. 

What More Needs to Be Said?

I saw a passing question on twitter: ‘What makes a God worthy of worship?’ 

Here are my thoughts. 

I believe it is hubris to even ask that question. As human beings, I do not believe it is for us to determine the worth or lack thereof of a God. Our portion rather is to fall on our knees and venerate. 

Better that we should ask if we are worthy to approach the Holy, and what we can do to better prepare ourselves and to make ourselves so.