There are two passages in surviving Norse lore about the first two humans. I find them particularly fascinating.
From Vǫluspá 17 and 18:
Unz þrír kvámu
ór því liði
öflgir ok ástkir
æsir at húsi,
fundu á landi
Ask ok Emblu
Until there came three mighty and benevolent Æsir to the world from their assembly. They found on earth, nearly powerless, Ask and Embla, void of destiny.
Önd þau né áttu,
óð þau né höfðu,
lá né læti
né litu góða;
önd gaf Óðinn,
óð gaf Hænir,
lá gaf Lóðurr
ok litu góða.
Soul they possessed not, sense they had not, blood nor motive powers, nor goodly colour. Soul gave Óðinn, sense gave Hœnir, blood gave Lóðurr, and goodly colour.
In chapter nine of Gylfaginning it is said:
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.
When the sons of Borr1Presumably Óðinn, 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 soul and life; the second, wit and feeling; the third, countenance, 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 Miðgarð.
Despite the differing list of gods, the two passages are largely in agreement. My fascination only grows because of the basic similarity to Mašyā and Mašyānē, the first two humans in Zoroastrianism who grew from the branches of a tree.
While Askr is unambiguously “ash tree”, Embla is more of an issue. It’s been supposed to mean “elm”, derived from *Elm-la < *Almilōn < *elmaz, but this is not without its problems. A competing theory is that it means “vine” from an unrecorded *Ambilō, which may be related to Greek ἄμπελος “vine”.2Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology (2007) pg. 74
Possibly also related, but hardly with sufficient proof, is Æsc of Kent, son or grandson of Hengest, the ancestor of the Æscingas.3Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology (2007) pg. 21 I’m personally not inclined to agree with the interpretation. Elsewhen and elsewhere, the Braak Bog Figures may be related, but nothing can be definitively said.
As for why any of this is fascinating, it’s because this is an indication that the gods have taken an interest in us. I don’t take any of this literally, of course, as we were never trees, but it’s a good way to describe us. They shaped us and made us into something useful, just as we would for a tool or a godpole. I see this as being something over the long term. It wasn’t overnight; it was over countless generations. It was our evolution from earlier primates into anatomically modern humans.
Unlike Christian creationists, I don’t take this idea of divine involvement very far. Evolution is real and undeniable. I see it as the gods poking about here and there, moving us in certain directions for a desired outcome. Fascinating, indeed.