What are jotunns in Norse mythology?
The Jotnar (singular Jotunn) are human-shaped beings from Norse mythology that are commonly described as giants.
The origin of the name “jotunn” is uncertain, but it most likely derives from the Proto-Germanic “itunoz” meaning “giant” or “monster” or as a compound word meaning “immense eater”.
As the name implies, jotnar were usually gigantic in size, but many of them, such as Skadi or Loki, had more normal, human-like proportions since they were able to intermingle with the Norse gods.
As for their physical appearance, most giants were said to look oafish, dull or shaggy. Some are said to possess multiple heads, such as Tyr’s grandmother who had hundreds of heads, or the giant Starkad who possessed eight arms.
However, there were also exceptions to this, with some giants said to be hauntingly beautiful, such as Skadi, Gerd, or Princess Ise.
From a symbolic and religious perspective, giants represented the chaotic and destructive forces of nature that put mankind at risk. By contrast, the Norse gods represented the forces of order and stability that kept the giants at bay and allowed mankind to flourish.
For instance, Norse sailors believed that the giantess Ran, who took great pleasure in destroying ships and drowning sailors, was to blame for stormy seas and powerful waves.
By contrast, Njord, the god of water, was said to have the power to calm the seas, direct the winds, and produce bountiful catches for fishermen.
Thus, at the core of the Norse religion was the conflict between order and chaos, where the gods represented constructive order and the giants destructive chaos.
- What are jotunns in Norse mythology?
- The most famous & important Jotunns in Norse Mythology
- What are the different types of Jotunn giants?
- Giants can shapeshift into animals
- How did the Norse giants appear?
- The gods slew Ymir and made Midgard out of his remains
- Why the Jotnar and the Gods hate each other?
- Not all giants were at war with the gods
- The Jotnar’s ship, the Naglfar
The most famous & important Jotunns in Norse Mythology
Ymir: Ymir is the primordial giant and the progenitor of the race of Jotnar. Arising from the melting ice of Niflheim when it met the fires of Muspelheim, Ymir was nourished by the milk of the primeval cow Audhumla.
From Ymir’s body, the first race of giants was born. Eventually, Ymir was slain by Odin and his brothers, who then created the world from his body parts.
Surtr: Surtr is a giant who presides over the fiery realm of Muspelheim. He is prophesied to play a major role during Ragnarok, the end of the world.
Surtr will lead the giants in a battle against the gods, wielding a flaming sword that shines brighter than the sun. He will slay the god Freyr in single combat and then set the skies on fire using the fire sword.
Loki: Loki is the trickster god of Norse mythology, often causing trouble for the gods. Though he lives with the Aesir, he is the son of the giant Farbauti and the giantess Laufey (although some say Laufey is a lesser Aesir god).
Loki is involved in numerous adventures, often displaying a cunning and deceitful nature. He is also the father of Jormungandr, Fenrir, and Hel. During Ragnarok, he will fight against the gods and meet his end.
Skadi: Skadi is a giantess associated with winter, skiing, and bow hunting. She went to Asgard in search of retribution after the gods killed her father Thjazi, but she eventually agreed to a truce and married the sea god Njord.
Jormungandr: Jormungandr, the Midgard Serpent, is the offspring of Loki and the giantess Angrboda. Odin threw Jormungandr into the great ocean that encircles Midgard.
The serpent grew so large that it was able to surround the earth and grasp its own tail. It is said that when Jormungandr releases its tail, Ragnarok will begin. Thor and Jormungandr are prophesied to kill each other during the end times.
Fenrir: Fenrir, the great wolf, is another child of Loki and Angrboda. The gods raised Fenrir but bound him with magical chains when they realized his growth and strength.
It was prophesied that Fenrir would kill Odin during Ragnarok, which he eventually does. However, he is then slain by Odin’s son, Víðarr.
Aegir: Aegir is a giant associated with the sea and known for his skill in brewing ale. He is a personification of the sea, usually its calmer aspects but, on occasion, its turbulent ones as well.
He is often friendly towards the gods and hosts them in his underwater hall, providing lavish feasts.
Ran: Ran is Aegir’s wife and is the personification of the wrathful, turbulent sea. She is known for capturing sailors with her net and drowning them to her underwater abode. She and Aegir had nine daughters, who personify the different aspects of ocean waves.
Angrboda: Angrboda is a giantess and the mother of three of Loki’s most fearsome children: Jormungandr, Fenrir, and Hel. She lives in Ironwood, Jotunheim, where she fosters and raises an army of monsters to fight the forces of the gods during Ragnarok.
Vafthrudnir: Vafthrudnir is a wise and powerful giant renowned for his knowledge. Odin, disguised as a wanderer named Gagnrad, visits Vafthrudnir to engage in a contest of wisdom.
They exchange questions and answers about the cosmos, with Odin ultimately revealing his true identity by asking a question only he would know the answer to: what did Odin whisper into the ear of his son Baldr as he lay on his funeral pyre.
Realizing he has been speaking with Odin, Vafthrudnir acknowledges the god’s greater wisdom.
What are the different types of Jotunn giants?
Mountain and Hill Giants: These Jotnar are typically depicted as dwelling in mountains and hills, and some, such as Hrungnir, were said to be entirely made from stone. They are commonly portrayed as large and strong, sometimes hostile to gods and humans.
In some Nordic countries, some rocky hills were thought to be petrified giants. Titles such as Bergbui, Bergrisi, and Berg-daner indicate that locals believed some hills and mountains were inhabited by giants.
Frost Giants: The Frost Giants, or “hrímþursar” in Old Norse, reside in the realm of Niflheim or Jotunheim, the land of the giants. They embody the destructive and chaotic forces of winter and cold.
Their lineage traces back to Ymir, the first of their kind, although most are now descended from Bergelmir. They are often in opposition to the Aesir gods for their murder of Ymir. They are a symbol of the natural hardships of winter, with the onset of the cold season sometimes attributed to their influence.
Fire Giants: The Fire Giants are primarily associated with the realm of Muspelheim, a land of fire and heat. Surtr is the most notable among them, a fearsome giant with a flaming sword who is prophesied to lead the fire giants in battle against the Aesir at Ragnarok.
These giants embody the destructive force of fire, a dangerous phenomenon for the Norse, since they were surrounded by vast forests and had homes made from timber.
Water Giants: Jotnar associated with bodies of water are less commonly mentioned, but they represent the various aspects of water such as the ocean, rivers, and waterfalls.
Aegir and his wife Ran are prime examples of water-associated giants; Aegir represents the sea’s more benevolent aspects, while Ran is known for drowning sailors.
Grendel, the monster from the epic poem Beowulf, is likewise thought to be a water giant.
Forest Giants: Forest Giants would be akin to spirits of the woods, embodying the untamed nature of forests. They are less defined in the myths but are thought to represent the natural forces of growth and decay within the forest realm.
They might be seen as protectors of animals and trees, potentially antagonistic to those who would harm their domain. Angrboda might be considered a forest giant, as she dwells in the Ironwood, a forest in Jotunheim.
Giants can shapeshift into animals
In Norse mythology, the ability to shapeshift, known as “hamingja,” is a power possessed by many beings, including the gods, giants (Jotnar), and other creatures.
The Jotnar in particular use this power quite often, and there are several examples where they transform into animals:
Thiazi: Thiazi, a powerful Jotunn, transformed into a great eagle to kidnap the goddess Idunn, who possessed the apples of youth.
Loki: Usually described as either a full giant or a half giant, Loki is well known for his shapeshifting abilities. He frequently changes his form in the myths, including into that of animals. For instance, he turns into a mare to distract the horse Svadilfari, resulting in the birth of Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged steed.
How did the Norse giants appear?
In Norse mythology, the giants are some of the earliest beings to come into existence.
In the beginning, there was Ginnungagap, the great void. To the north of Ginnungagap lay Niflheim, the realm of ice, and to the south lay Muspelheim, the world of fire.
The ice of Niflheim melted from the heat that came from Muspelheim, and out of the water arose Ymir, the first jotunn.
During that time, Ymir consumed the milk from the primeval cow Audhumla. As he lay asleep, he sweated a male and a female from his armpits, and one son after another was born from his feet.
These were the children of Ymir and the descendants of the Jotnar.
In the meantime, Audhumla licked away at the salty ice stones of Ginnungagap and freed Buri, the first of the Aesir gods.
Buri then produced a son called Borr. Borr then married a daughter of Ymir called Bestla. Together, Borr and Bestla produce three children: Odin, Vili, and Ve.
This narrative establishes the Jotnar not only as some of the first creatures in the universe but also as ancestors of the gods themselves, the first rulers of the Universe.
The gods slew Ymir and made Midgard out of his remains
Upon reaching maturity, Odin and his brothers come to the conclusion that their grandfather Ymir was“he was evil and all his descendants”.
As a result, the three brothers slew Ymir, and out of his body they produced Midgard, the “Middle-court”.
From Ymir’s body, they fashioned the world: his flesh became the earth, his blood the seas, his bones the mountains, his teeth the rocks, his skull the sky and his scattered brains the clouds. The maggots from Ymir’s flesh turned into dwarves
Why the Jotnar and the Gods hate each other?
According to the Norse myth, the slaying of Ymir by Odin and his brothers produced so much blood that nearly all of the giants of the world were washed away and drowned.
Those that survived were driven away from their ancestral home and fled to Jotunheim, a place far removed from the destructive Aesir gods.
Among these fleeing giants were Bergelmir and his wife, who boarded a vessel towards a distant land, presumably Jotunheim, where they could refound the race of frost giants.
In this sense, the story of Odin, Vili, and Ve defeating the giants and taking their place is incredibly similar to the Greek tale of Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades.
Just like their Norse gods, the three Greek gods engage in a war with the Titans and their leader, Cronus. After their victory, the Titans are banished to Tartarus, in much the same way the Jotnar are banished to Jotunheim.
This overthrow of the Jotnar by the Aesir gods sets the stage for the enmity between the gods and Jotnar.
From the perspective of the giants, Odin and his gods were invaders who took over their realm and deposed their ruler. The giants only option now is to fight back and reclaim their lands.
However, this is not the only reason for their rivalry:
Desiring the Immortality of the Gods: In some myths, the giants desire the gods’ apples of immortality, which are guarded by the goddess Idunn. The giants’ attempts to seize these apples bring them into direct conflict with the gods.
Betrayals by the Asgardians: In one story, the Aesir gods employed a famed builder to construct the walls of Asgard. The builder agreed on one condition: that he be given Freya as a bridge, as well as the sun and moon, if he completed his task on time.
Alarmed that the walls were almost done on time and not willing to part with Freya, the sun, and the moon, the gods employed tricks to delay the building, discovered the builder was in fact a giant, and then slew him.
This act of betrayal further caused enmity between the gods and giants and proved that the gods cannot be trusted.
Prophecy and Ragnarok: In Norse mythology, it’s prophesied that the Jotnar will fight against the gods during Ragnarok. The knowledge of this prophecy and the events leading up to it (such as the birth of Loki’s monstrous children who are destined to do battle with the gods) also contribute to the tension and hostilities between the two groups.
Not all giants were at war with the gods
Even though gods and giants were, in a sense, at war with one another, there were still situations where members of the two groups had friendly relationships with one another.
Freyr and Gerd: Freyr, the god of fertility, fell in love with Gerd, a beautiful giantess. After negotiations and some persuasion, Gerd agreed to become his wife, and their union can be interpreted as a balancing act between the chaotic and ordered forces of nature.
Skadi and the Gods: Skadi, a giantess, came to Asgard seeking revenge upon the gods for their killing of her father Thjazi.
The gods, however, were struck by her beauty, and as compensation for the loss of her father, they offered that she remain in Asgard and even choose a husband from among the gods. Thus, Skadi married the sea god Njord.
Odin and Jotnar Wisdom: Odin often sought the wisdom of the Jotnar. He visited Mimir, a being thought to be a giant or closely associated with giants, to gain knowledge from Mimir’s well of wisdom.
In exchange, Odin sacrificed an eye. Another time, Odin sought out the giantess Gunnlod to gain the mead of poetry, staying with her for three nights in a rather friendly manner before escaping with the mead.
Aegir and the Gods: Aegir, a giant associated with the sea, was known for hosting the gods in his hall under the waves. He and his wife Ran were generally friendly with the gods, and Aegir’s feasts were famous for their splendor and the presence of all the gods—save Loki, who caused trouble.
Thor and Jarnsaxa: Thor is famous for his numerous conflicts with the giants, but this did not stop him from producing two sons, Magni and Modi, with the giantess Jarnsaxa.
The Jotnar’s ship, the Naglfar
The Naglfar, or Naglfari, is a ship from Norse mythology that plays a pivotal role in the events of Ragnarok, the end of the world. The name “Naglfar” translates to “nail ship,” which is quite literal in its construction.
According to myth, Naglfar is made entirely of the nails and toenails of the dead. This is why the Norse had a tradition of trimming the nails of the dead before they were buried, as an act to delay the completion of this ominous ship. If the ship were completed, it would signal that Ragnarok was near.
During Ragnarok, Naglfar is said to sail from the north, carrying an army of giants to the battlefield, with Loki as the steersman and the giant Hrym as the captain.
The ship’s arrival marks the joining of forces with other destructive beings like Fenrir, Jormungandr, and the armies of Hel, led by Loki’s daughter, to wage war against the gods of Asgard.
This ship is not to be confused with Skidbladnir, the best of all ships belonging to the god Freyr, which is said to be large enough to hold all the gods with their equipment, yet can also be folded up like a cloth and carried around when it’s not in use.
Naglfar, on the other hand, is a grim symbol of decay and destruction, a fitting vessel for the enemies of the gods to ride to their final battle.
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