Old Norse askr literally means "ash tree" but the etymology of embla is uncertain, and two possibilities of the meaning of embla are generally proposed. The first meaning, "elm tree", is problematic, and is reached by deriving *Elm-la from *Almilōn and subsequently to almr ("elm"). The second suggestion is "vine", which is reached through *Ambilō, which may be related to the Greek term ámpelos, itself meaning "vine, liana". The latter etymology has resulted in a number of theories.
According to chapter 9 of the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning, the three brothers Vili, Vé, and Odin, are the creators of the first man and woman. The brothers were once walking along a beach and found two trees there. They took the wood and from it created the first human beings; Ask and Embla. One of the three gave them the breath of life, the second gave them movement and intelligence, and the third gave them shape, speech, hearing and sight. Further, the three gods gave them clothing and names. Ask and Embla go on to become the progenitors of all humanity and were given a home within the walls of Midgard.
A Proto-Indo-European basis has been theorized for the duo based around the etymology of embla meaning "vine." In Indo-European societies, an analogy is derived from the drilling of fire and sexual intercourse. Vines were used as a flammable wood, where they were placed beneath a drill made of harder wood, resulting in fire. Further evidence of ritual making of fire in Scandinavia has been has been theorized from a depiction on a stone plate on a Bronze Age grave in Kivik, Scania, Sweden.
A figure named Æsc (Old English "ash tree") appears as the son of Hengest in the Anglo-Saxon genealogy for the kings of Kent. This has resulted in an amount of theories that the figures may have had an earlier basis in pre-Norse Germanic mythology.
Connections have been proposed between Ask and Embla and the Vandal kings Assi and Ambri, attested in Paul the Deacon's 7th century CE work Origo Gentis Langobardorum. There, the two ask the god Godan (Odin) for victory. The name Ambri, like Embla, likely derives from *Ambilō.
A preceding stanza to the account of the creation of Ask and Embla in Völuspá provides a catalog of dwarves, and stanza 10 has been considered as describing the creation of human forms from the earth. This may potentially mean that dwarves formed humans, and that the three gods gave them life.