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Giants: The Anti-Gods of Norse Mythology

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In Viking lore, the giants were the enemies of the gods. Though numerous movies and pop culture themes have made this divine enmity well-known, the giants themselves are widely misunderstood by many modern Viking enthusiasts.  Growing up on stories like Jack and the Beanstalk and the like, we tend to think of giants as massive, brutish creatures whose steps shake the ground and bake people into pies, but are easily duped by a clever hero.  But the giants of Norse lore are not “creatures” – they are supernatural beings, with much the same ancestry as the gods themselves.  They are usually not stupid, but in some cases, understand the universe or see the future even better than the gods can.  Most surprisingly to those newly-acquainted with Viking lore, not all the “giants” are necessarily big.

Viking Giants represent Cosmic Forces as a type of anti-gods.

In Norse mythology, giants are the original "founding" beings at the top of the Norse family tree. The more commonly known gods (such as Odin, Thor) are all direct or indirect descendants of these giants. Giants were called Jötunn (singular) or Jötnar (plural). The word Jötunn originally came from the Proto-Germanic word that meant “devourer.”

Another name for them was þursar or þurs (pronounced thurss), which means something like "powerful and injurious one" or simply something like "piercer" or "thorn."  In the rune poems, the Thurisaz rune ( ᚦ ) is associated with the Jötnar (giants), as well as sickness, tragedy, and pain.

The very first giant, Ymir (pronounced EE-mir), arose from primordial chaos when the worlds of fire and of ice came together in a tremendous, hissing scream.  His offspring, the Jötnar, were spirits of this chaos, representing the destructive cycle of the natural universal order.

The Aesir and the Vanir tribes of gods also arose partially from this same race of giants (though they also had another ancestor, Buri – a being of unknown origin that had been bounded in ice until he was eventually set free from Ymir's cow named Auðumbla who licked at the ice for three days). By the gods’ own nature and choice, the giants became the positive or creative aspect of universal order.  In Viking lore, it is not so much that the gods are good and the giants evil, but rather that the gods and giants are in opposition and balance.  This is not to say that Norse belief observed a strict dualism (as some ancient religions did), but they understood their world through their stories of struggle between the gods and the Jötnar, between creation and destruction,   

Sometimes, the difference between giants and gods is itself obscure.  For example, Loki is often thought of as the Viking god of trouble.  He was an adopted member of the Aesir tribe of gods and blood-brother to Odin, but Loki was the son of giants and is only ambiguously called a god in the primary sources.  None of his offspring are gods but are giants or supernatural beasts.  Similarly, Jörð (a “Mother Earth” figure) and Skadi (the ski-borne goddess of the wild) appear in the Eddas as Jötunn in origin. They are later called goddesses, but then often excluded from lists or gatherings of goddesses in Asgard. 

Some experts see in this interplay between gods and giants a parallel of how the Vikings themselves interacted with the cultures around them.  Whether this is accurate or not, the lore is clear that the gods and giants are not distinct races of beings but rather opposing and competing forces.  These competing forces' cosmic nature can easily be inferred from the names, attributes, and actions of the individual members within these "warring tribes."    

“Giants” by Association

As the Viking Age ended, northern Europe was dominated more by the hybrid Normans and other Viking descendants. They had cultural memory but Christianized Latin leanings.  The Normans took their ancestors' tales in Old Norse and retold them in their newly-acquired language of Old French.  In that language, the closest term to Jötunn was “geant” from the Latin “gigans” which referred to the Greek/Roman Titans.  While Norse lore is quite different from Greco-Roman mythology, Titans do have many similarities to Jötnar.  However, now that the word was linked into the broader European cultural milieu - and "geants” like Chronos and Atlas started to share space (over the centuries) with “giants" of Grimm Fairy Tales - the Jötnar were dragged along with them.  Thus, their original nature was obscured by the later connotations of a superimposed name.

Big and Not-So-Big Giants   

Indeed, some Jötnar were really big – like Ymir, a giant so massive that the gods constructed our entire world from his corpse.  A giant named Skrymir was so big that Thor spent the night sleeping inside one of his gloves – and he tells Thor that when he gets to Utgard, he will meet giants who are bigger still.

Many other giants, though, were no bigger than Odin, Thor, Freyja, or Tyr.  Most of the gods have giants in their family trees.  Giants were often taken as lovers, wives, or husbands by gods.  Giants like Thrymir made numerous attempts to woo, marry, or even carry off Freyja.  Meanwhile, Freyja’s brother Freyr was obsessed with the giantess, Gerðr. He even gave up his magic sword to coerce her into marrying him. 

There are even some instances of giants interbreeding with humans, just as the gods sometimes do.  The famous family of human heroes, the Volsungs, had a female Jötun in their lineage.  Many of the stories of the Jötnar make no mention of unusual scale.  In others, changing size (and changing shape) is well within a god’s or giant’s abilities.  While Jötnar could be very, very big, size was not an essential characteristic of the Jötnar.

Frost Giants

It is common to hear the Norse giants referred to as frost giants or ice giants.  The Prose Edda seems to refer to Jötnar as frost giants (hrimþursar) much of the time.  This is only part of the story, though. 

The association between giants and ice is understandable considering that the giants first arose from the meeting of fire and ice in the yawning void at the dawn of time and because the giants live beyond the realm of gods and mortals.  People living as close to nature as Vikings did usually associated intense cold with death and hardship.  The inhabited parts of the Viking world were hemmed by glaciers and frozen mountains to the north.  Meanwhile, the Giants were said to live in Jotunheim or Utgard (which means a place outside or beyond the boundaries of the worlds of humans and gods).  One Eddic poem describes a hall in Utgard this way:

I saw a hall that stands far from the sun
On the beaches of corpses the doors face north
Drops of poison fall from the roof
The walls are encircled by serpents

(Voluspa, verse 37, Crawford’s 2015 translation)

Despite these associations with cold and ice, not all giants are “frost giants” as such.  One of the most feared giants of all is Surt, a massive being of fire that will bring great destruction to the world at Ragnarok.  The Poetic Edda mentions Thor killing “lava giants” as well as frost giants, and sometimes presents them in juxtaposition, as in the poem For Skirnis: “hear me, giants, hear me, frost-trolls, hear me, fire-trolls!”  In this same poem, some giants are presented as radiantly beautiful, while others are ghastly and horrifying.  Indeed, the Jötnar may be the most diverse of all the beings that haunt the Viking imagination.

Are Trolls and Giants the Same Thing?

Viking lore makes many mentions of trolls and seems to often use the word interchangeably with giants, as in the passage quoted above.  The term ‘troll’ is often applied to other things, though.  In Beowulf (which is Anglo-Saxon but still shares many linguistic and cultural elements with the Vikings), the nemesis Grendel is referred to as a troll at times, as is a dragon-like flying creature in the Norse Saga of Hrolf Kraki.  Wicked witches (as opposed to the respected – albeit feared – seeresses and sorceresses of Viking society) are called Troll-Wives in the lore.  In some sagas, trolls are portrayed as monsters living in caves or under waterfalls.  In short, the term “troll” is used to describe many different types of monsters or evil things. 

The Vikings did not have the same impulse to rigidly classify all the beings in their belief system the way that modern people do. So terms are used much more fluidly.  Troll ultimately refers to the horrifying, loathsome nature of a thing, though and not the “species” of the thing itself.  So, while some giants are trolls, not all trolls are giants.  

The War between the Giants and the Gods

At the dawn of time, Odin and his two brothers killed the giant Ymir and created the world from his body.  As usual, a god’s motivations are difficult to determine.  Did Odin simply need Ymir dead for the sake of creation?  Or did the Alfather reason that if Ymir continued to spawn giants that any order in the universe would become impossible?  In any case, as the three gods tore the massive giant to pieces, a vast deluge of blood burst forth.  This blood became all the world's oceans, and the torrent swept away every giant – except for one family who escaped in a wooden ark.  This giant was named Bergelmir, and all the later giants were descended from him. 

Odin and his brothers made the land from Ymir’s corpse, with his teeth and broken bones forming the stones and the mountains, the great dome of his skull forming the sky, and even his thoughts forming the clouds – thin and wispy or dark and brooding.  They called this world Midgard (Middle Earth), and they encircled it with a mighty barrier made from Ymir's eyelashes.  They also made their own realm, Asgard.  Asgard and Midgard (along with several other of the Nine Worlds) became “innangard," a place of protection where the gods ruled.  Beyond, as we have mentioned, were places the giants ruled – Jotunheim, Hel, and the other realms that formed “utangard” or, as both Utgard and utangard would be translated, “beyond the enclosure.”

Cast out into the darkness of Utgard, the Jötnar remembered a time when they ruled.  Either out of a need for revenge or because - as the Eddic Poem says - they really were “born of venom and thus fierce and cruel," the giants dream of a time when they will overcome Asgard and Midgard.  

The time for them to unite and march against the gods will come in Ragnarok.  In the meantime, many giants try their luck raiding the territory of the gods.  The bravest of them sometimes appear in Asgard, with a challenge or a trick for the Aesir gods, or they come to terrify us mortals in Midgard.  When the Vikings and other Nordic/Germanic peoples took shelter from howling storms, they knew it was Odin leading the gods in "the Wild Hunt" against the giants.  When they saw thunder's flash and the pound of lightning, they knew Thor was smiting giants with his mighty hammer, Mjolnir.

Sometimes, the gods and giants live in an uneasy peace.  Not only did gods and giants often form marriages, liaisons, and alliances, but there were times when giants were even able to show some sympathy with the gods.  For example, when the most beloved god, Baldr, died because of Loki’s treachery, even the giants wept.  Peace never lasted long, though.  Whether because giants would make incursions into Asgard, or because Odin or Thor would venture into Jotunheim on their adventures, the hostility between giants and gods was always kept alive. 

This enmity and ages-long struggle will come to fruition at Ragnarok (read about it here).  There the gods and giants will destroy each other.   Like the opposing forces of creation and chaos they seem to be, they will cancel each other out, and oblivion will resume before the universe is – perhaps – born anew.


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Image References

Ymir: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ymir#/media/File:Ymir_gets_killed_by_Froelich.jpg

Buri: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B%C3%BAri#/media/File:Treated_NKS_audhumla.jpg

Hyrrokkin: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J%C3%B6tunn#/media/File:Kulturen_-_Riesin_Holdrykka.jpg

Thor: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thor#/media/File:M%C3%A5rten_Eskil_Winge_-_Tor's_Fight_with_the_Giants_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

The Wild Hunt: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f5/%C3%85sg%C3%A5rdsreien_%281868%29_by_Peter_Nicolai_Arbo.png

 

References

  1. The Poetic Edda. Crawford, J. (translator). Hackett Classics. 2015.
  2. The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson. Brodeur, A. G. (translator). Retrieved from http://www.redicecreations.com/files/The-Prose-Edda.pdf. Published 1916, Accessed November 3, 2017.
  3. McCoy, D. The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion. Columbia. 2016
  4. The Saga of Grettir the Strong. Scudder, B. (translator). Penguin. London. 2005.
  5. Rodgers, D.G. & Noer, K. Sons of Vikings: History, Legends, and Impact of the Viking Age. KDP. USA. 2018
  6. Price, N. Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings.  Basic Books, New York, 2020.