All about Jotunns: Giants in Norse Mythology

The Norse people imagined that the giants were the first creatures who came to life among the icebergs filling the vast abyss of Ginnunga-gap, the primordial void out of which all things were created.

These giants were from the very beginning the opponents and rivals of the gods, and as the latter were the personifications of all that is good and lovely, the former naturally served to denote all that was ugly and evil.

Jotunns: Norse Mythology Giants
Surtr, a Fire Giant and an enemy of the Aesir, the Norse Gods

Origin of the name “jötun” or giant

There are different names applied to giants in the Eddas and Sagas, as well as in German tradition.

Old Norse jötun, Anglo-Saxon eoten, Old Dutch jaetten, from eta, to “eat” perhaps express their gluttony, and these names are continued in the “Etin” of Scots folklore.

Old Norse thurs, Anglo-Saxon thyrs, Old High German thuris, perhaps mean “powerful” (cf. Sanskrit turás, strong), though the corresponding Danish “tosse” means “simpleton”.

The Old High German “risi” (sanskrit “uršan”), meaning “strong” appears in Old Norse in “Berg-risi”,  meaning Mountain-giant.

The Middle High German “hiune“, German “hüne“, signified in its root-meaning strength and daring, or perhaps great size, but was confuscd with the name of the dreaded Huns.

The word “troll” formerly a more or less demoniac being, is now used in Scandinavian speech for “giant’ or “ogre”.
Female giants were called thursa-meyjar (giant-maids), gygr, and occasionally gifr or grithr.

Appearance of the giants

The first giant, Ymir or Aurgelmir, existed before earth and sea were formed, and he was made from venom dropping from Elivagar (Stormy Waves) into Ginnunga-gap, the primordial void out of which all things were created.

Ymir, the First Giant emerging from ice in the Ginnunga-gap

This venom congealed into ice, and the ice melted in contact with warm air from Muspellheim.

Life quickened in it and Ymir was the result. Subsequently, Ymir was nourished with the milk of the cow Audhumla.He and all his descendants, the Frost-giants, were evil.

Initially, all giants were male, to which Odin’s question: “How did Ymir beget children without a giantess?”

The wise giant Vafthrudnir replied that beneath his arms a male and female grew, and foot with foot formed a six-headed son. This son was probably Thrudgelmir, mentioned in an earlier stanza of Vafthrudnismal.

His son was Bergelmir, and Vafthrudnir remembered how he was born in a boat long ago.

When Ymir was slain so much blood flowed from him that all the Frost-giants were drowned save Bergelmir who, with his wife, escaped in a boat (or mil-stone).

In a different version, giants are an ancient people, the first of three races in far off time.

Jötunheim, the home of the giants

The giants dwelt in Jötunheim, or in Utgard outside the limits of earth and sea, assigned to them by the gods. It is on the edge of Heaven, beyond Elivagar.  The river Ifing, which never freezes, separates the realms of giants and gods.

Depending on which Norse mythological poem one reads, the region lies in the North or North-east, or East.

It has fields with cattle, regions where hunting and fishing are carried on, and halls where the giants dwell. According to Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, giants also have herds or goats.

A Norse giant, tending to his cattle
A Norse giant, tending to his cattle

On Jötunheim’s frontier, on a hill, sits Eggther, warder of the giants, and the cock Fjalar, whose crowing wakes them at Ragnarock, the Doom of the gods. At the end of Heaven, hence probably near Jötunheim, the giant Hrasvelg, “Corpse-eater”, sits in eagle’s form and makes the winds with his wings. His hill overlooks Hel.

Jötunheim was a mountainous region, and this, coupled with the tact that in later tradition mountains are the home of giants, explains the names Bergbui, Bergrisi, translated as ” Mountain-giant.”

But any distant region was apt to be called the home of giants and monsters.

Saxo says that a wild region north of Norway and separated from it by the sea, was peopled with monsters. The land Saxo Grammaticus is reffering to is most likely modern day Greenland.

The Prose Edda speaks of giants, dwarfs, and “blue men”, dragons and wild beasts, as existing in Sweden. Saxo also thought that Denmark had once been cultivated by giants, andfound proof of it in megalithic remains and boulders on hill-tops.

The statement in Grimnismal that the Frost-giants dwell under one of the roots of Yggdrasil, and beside Mimir’s well, according to the Prose Edda, is due to the systematizing of Norse mythology.

The giants had separate dwellings in Jötunheim, such as Gymir’s abode,  before whose house fierce dogs were bound.

Thrym is called lord of the giants, and has many giants under him, and Utgard-Loki is lord of Utgard.

Svipdagsmal also speaks of the seat of the giant race. Hence giants lived in some kind of community.

The giants rarely ventured to leave Jotunheim, or Giant-land, unless by night, when their influence predominated.

Giants were huge and powerful

Giants are of great size and are sometimes monstrous. This is shown by Skirnir’s vast glove and by other indications. They have many heads, varying from three to the nine hundred, as possessed by Tyr’s grandmother.

According to Saxo, they are shaggy, monstrous beings, who can alter their shape or size.

The hero Starkad, sprung from giants, had many hands. Thor tore four of these off and now his giant’s body was contracted and made human. In another account, Starkad had eight arms, but perhaps the hero is confused with a giant of the same name overcome by Thor.

Giant women were sometimes beautiful, and beloved by gods or heroes.

The giants were of great might.

Vidblindi drew whales out of the sea like little hsh. Others tossed huge rocks as if they were small stones. The giantess Hyrokkin could alone move Balder’s funeral ship.

To giants as to dwarfs the sun was fatal, turning them to stone.

The monstrous Hrimgerd was thus transformed, and men will “mock at her as a harbour-mark”. In one of many stories of Saint Olaf’s encounters with giants, he cursed a giantess so that she became stone.

Adjectives applied to giants indicate aspects of their character: haughty,  insolent, dangerous,  joyous, morose, fierce, hard, energetic, warlike.

In later tradition they are stupid, but in Norse mythological poems they have a wisdom of their own, due to their great antiquity and early origin. Hence they are wise, sagacious, full of wisdom, as Vafthrudnir was. Suttung owned the poetic mead, and runes were given to giants by the giant Alsvith, “All-wise”.

Giants were often violent, especially when thwarted, and their rage was called jötunmodr, “giant frenzy”. Saxo tells how a giant fell into such a trenzy, biting his shield, gulping down fiery coals, and rushing through fires.

They were nevertheless often good-natured, merry as a child, like Hymir in Hymiskvitha.

Most giants were human-like, but some were animal shaped

However monstrous the giants may be, their bodies are described as having the shape of a human. However, few other beings called giants are described as having animal shapes, such as the brood of Loki, himself called a giant and the son of a giant.

The giantess Angrboda bore to him the Fenris-wolf and the Midgard-serpent, giant animals of a supernatural kind.

The wolves Hati and Skoll, who pursue the sun and moon, are giants, offspring of the Fenris-wolf and a giantess.

The giant Hraesvelg, who causes the winds, is in eagle form and is called the tawny eagle who gnaws corpses at the Doom of the gods. Giants also took animal form occasionally, and some of them had animal names Hyndla, “She-dog” or Kött, “Cat”.

Jotuns were the enemies of the Aesir, the Norse gods

The giants believed they had the first right to the sovereignty of the universe, so when the Aesir banished them to the Jotunheim, they started viewing the gods as usurpers, and hence bore a deadly hatred to them and to their creation.

Although there were some instances of intermarriages between the inhabitants of Asgard and of Utgard, these ill-as-sorted unions never caused any long suspension of hostility.

Jotuns were hostile to gods and men, and Thor was their great opponent, his hammer the great detence of the gods against the Frost-giants. The gods feared that the Hill-giants might cross Bifrost bridge (the rainbow) into Asgard. Hence what was red in it was burning fire, and Heimdall was its guardian.

Yet a giant rebuilt their citadel for the gods that it might be strong against the giants.

The breaking of the gods pledges to this giant, however, leads to their attack upon them at the Doom of the gods, when the Frost-giants come out with Loki and Hrym against the Aesir.

The giants sometimes out witted the gods, as in the story of Skrymnir, but more usually gods, especially Odin, were cleverer than giants and cheated them, just as Thor overcame them by force.

Yet Odin’s birth was traced from giants, and at Balder’s funeral Frost-and Hill-giants were present.

Gods also married giantesses or had amours with them-Frey, Njord, Odin, and Thor (with Grid and Jarnsaxa). Giants also sought to unite with goddesses, Thjazi with Idunn, Thrym with Freyja.  Gefjun had four sons by a giant.

Saxo tells several stories of giants who carried off princesses; and the giantess Hardgrep, who had nurtured Hadding, sought and obtained his love when he was grown up.

The Norse giants also stole mortal women, as Hrimgerd says her father Hati did. Hrimgerd herself desired Atli as a lover.

Other famous giants and their tales

Besides the giants who figure in the myths of Thor and Odin, others are named and described.

These include Farbauti and possibly Laufey, the father and mother of Loki.

Farbauti, a thunder giant and the father of Loki
Farbauti, a thunder giant and the father of Loki

Brimir had his beer-hall in Okolnir ( “the not-cold”, presumably a volcano in the frost regions). From his blood came the dwarfs, and Odin has his Sword, unless Brimir is here the name of the sword itself.

Hrimnir, a Frost-giant, has children called Heith, “Witch” and Hross-thjof, “Horse-thief”.

Skirnir told Gerd that Hrimnir would stand and stare at her fate if she refused Frey.

Hrimgrimnir, “the Frost-shrouded”, dwells by the door of Hel, and Gerd was threatened with him as her possessor.

Helgi told the monstrous Hrimgerd that she would be mistress of the giant Lothen, who dwelt in Tholley, “Pine Island”. This very wise giant was yet worst of all dwellers in the wild.

Alvaldi was father of Thjazi, Idi, and Gangr. He was rich in gold, and at his death his sons agreed to take the gold each in the same number of mouthfuls so that all should share equally.

Giants and the elements

Hill and mountain giants

The Hill-giants were connected with hils and rocks. Suttung and Gunnlod dwelt in rocks, and the rocks were called the giants’ paths.
Thrymheim, “Home of clamour” where Thjazi dwelt, was in the mountains. The giantess who accosted Brynhild had her home in the rocks.

The titles Bergbui, Bergrisi, Berg-daner point to hills as the giants’ dwelling, and some hills were regarded as petrified giants, while some names of giants suggest a connection with stone.  Hrungnir had a stone head and heart, and a shield made of stone.

Frost giants

Frost-giants or Hrimthursar, are personifications of frost, snow, and ice, or of the mountains covered with snow and ice.

As Ymir himself originated out of ice, so his descendants are the Frost-giants, who appear at the Doom of the gods in a body, led by Hrym.

Fire giants

Fire-giants are the dwellers in the Fire-world who, led by Surt, come forth to fight the gods. Surt’s fire will destroy the world; meanwhile he sits at the frontier of Muspell, the region of heat, to defend it, brandishing a flaming sword.

lcelandic folklore knows that in the Surtarhellir, a great lava cave, there once dwelt the giant Svart or Surt.

The giantess Hyrokkin has a name which means “Fire-whirlwind”. Loki in Utgard is fire which consumes everything. Ægir’s servant was Eldir, “Fire-man”, and other giants have names pointing to the same element. Eruptions were even thought to be caused by giants.

Forest giants

Some giants were connected with the wild forest regions. Vitholf, “Wolf of the wood” named in Hyndluljod, may be the Vitolfus of Saxo, skilful in leechcraft, and living in the wilds.

Those who sought him with flattering words to cure them he made worse, for he preferred threats to fattery. When the soldiers of Eirik menaced his visitor Halfdan, Vitolfus led them astray by a delusive mist.

His name is derived from Old Norse “tiþr” (Old High German “witu”) meaning “a wood”, and he resembles the Wild Man of the Tirol who aids by leechcraft only when he is threatened.

He is akin to the giant Vidolf in Thidriks-saga and to the Bavarian giant Widolt, “the Wood-lord”. The Ivithjar, “Wood-giantesses” of whom Hyndla was one, and the giant Welderich, “Lord of the woods”, belong to the category of forest giants.

The Norse poems speak of an old forest called larnvith, “Iron-wood”, in which lived the giantess who bore Fenrir’s monstrous brood. In that wood dwelt troll-women called Iarnvithjur, “Iron-wood women”.

These giants of the woods resemble the shaggy Wood-spirits or Schrats of German folk-lore. Such giants resented the cutting down of timber in their domain, threatening the wood cutter with death if he persisted.

Water giants

There were also giants of the waters, like Grendel and his monstrous mother in Beowulf, called eoten and thyrs.

Grendel might be a personification of the storm-food which devastates the low-lying coasts of the North Sea. As Beowulf slew the mother of Grendel in the mere, so Grettir, as is told in the Grettis-saga, dived into a waterfall and entered a cave where he slew a giant who dwelt there. Both incidents are variants of a common theme.

Other giants associated with the waters are Ægir and Ran. Akin to Ran is Hrimgerd who, with her mother, lay in wait for ships, and is called corpse-hungry giantess. Possibly other elements of nature were typified in certain giants.

The role of giants in Norse religion

The giants were from the very beginning the opponents and rivals of the gods, and as the latter were the personifications of all that is good and lovely, the former naturally served to denote all that was ugly and evil.

A curious genealogy of giants shows how the forces of nature were conceived of as giants, though the genealogy itself is of comparatively late date.

Fornjöt, “the old giant”, was progenitor of the giants, the first dwellers in Norway. He was father of Kari, the wind ; of Hler, Ægir, or Hymir, the sea; and of Loki, the fire. Kari had a son lökul, “Icicle”, whose son was Snær, “Snow”. Snær had four children: Snow-heap, Snow-drift, Black Frost, and Fine Snow.

Some of these are interepreted as kings in the Heimskringla and in Saxo, but the genealogy suggests an old myth of the cold north wind producing ice and snow in their different forms.

Different theories have been advanced regarding the origin of the giants. They have been regarded as an earlier and wilder race of men, with stone weapons, opposed to the more cultured race which uses the plough, as in stories where a giant’s daughter carries home a ploughman and his plough and learns that he and his kind will yet do the giants harm.

The wilder traits of giants suggest a savage race, but the theory does not explain the universal belief in giants nor the great stature ascribed to them. They are also regarded as an older group of gods dispossessed by newer deities and therefore hostile to them. This theory might apply to some giants, eg, Thrym and Hrungnir, who are almost counterparts of Thor himself, but it cannot apply to all.

No trace of a cult of giants is found in tradition, in spite of attempts to discover this.

Another theory comes from interpreting the word jötun in its sense of “devourer”, meaning that giants, the Jötuns, were originally corpse-devouring demons of the Under-world, or Jötunheim, originally a realm of the dead.

The giants may be looked upon as mainly personifications of the wilder elements and phenomena of nature, as these might be supposed to be arrayed against men and gods whose rule and attributes were those of order and growth. Probably no one theory accounts for the archaic belief in giants, but, if this one does not fit all the facts, it has the merit of htting many of them.

To this personification must be added the power of imagination, creating those strange and monstrous forms, and giving them such intense life and movement.

In some stories, Jotuns created mountains and hills

The Germans fancied that the uneven surface of the earth was due to the giants, who, treading upon it while it was still soft and newly created, marred its smoothness, while  the giantesses, seeing the valleys made by their huge footprints, shed copious tears, which formed the streams.

As such was the Norse belief, the people imagined that the giants, who were their personifications of the mountains, were huge uncouth creatures, who could only move about in the darkness or fog, and were petrified as soon as the first ray’s of sunlight pierced through the gloom or scattered the clouds. This belief made them call one of their principal mountain chains the Riesengebirge (giant mountains).

The Scandinavians also shared this belief, and to this day the Icelanders designate their highest mountain peaks by the name of Jokul, a modification of the word Jötun.

In Switzerland, where the everlasting snows rest upon the lofty mountain tops, the people still relate old stories of the time whea the giants roamed abroad; and when an avalanche comes crashing down the mountain side, they say the giants have restlessly shaken off part of the icy burden from their brows and shoulders.

Giants and their massive ship, the Mannigfual

The giants were not supposecd to remain stationary, but were said to move about in the darkness, sometimes transporting masses of earth and sand, which they dropped here and there, thus forming the sandhills in northern Germany and Denmark.

A North Frisian tradition relates that the giants also possessed a colossal ship, called Mannigfual, which constantly cruised about in the Atlantic Ocean. Such was the size of this vessel that the captain was said to pace the deck on horseback.

The rigging was so extensive and the masts so high that the sailors who went up as youths came down as grayhaired men, having rested and refreshed themselves in rooms fashioned and provisioned for that purpose in the huge blocks and pulleys.

By some mischance it happened that the pilot once directed this immense vessel into the North Sea, and wishing to return to the Atlantic as soon as possible, yet not daring to turn around in such a small space, he steered into the English Channel.

Imagine the dismay of all on board when they saw the passage grow narrower and narrower the farther they advanced.

When they came to the narrowest spot, between Calais and Dover, it seemed barely possible that the vessel, drifting along with the current, could force its way through. The captain, with laudable presence of mind, promptly bade his men soap the sides of the vessel, laying an extra-thick layer on the starboard, where the rugged Dover cliffs threateningly rose.

These orders were no sooner carried out than the vessel entered the narrow space, and, thanks to the captain’s precaution, it slipped safely through. The rocks of Dover scraped off so much soap, however, that ever since then they have been very white indeed, and the waves dashng aganst them still have a particularly foamy appearance.

This exciting experience was not the only one which the Mannigfual passed through, for we are told that it once, nobody knows how, penetrated into the Baltic Sea, where, the water not being deep enough to keep the vessel afloat, the captain ordered all the ballast thrown overboard.

Such was the amount of material thus cast on either side the vessel into the sea that it formed the two islands of Bornholm and Christiansoë.


Resources:

  • The Mythology of All Races – Eddic by John Arnott MacCulloch, Louis Herbert Gray
  • The Norsemen Myths and Legends by Guerber Helene Adeline
  • Asgard and the Norse heroes by Katharine Boult
  • Old Norse stories by Sarah Powers Bradish
  • Teutonic Mythology by Viktor Rydberg & Anders Rasmus Bjorn
  • Teutonic Mythology by Jacob Grimm

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