The historical religion of the Norse people is identified as Norse mythology, which is also referred to as Nordic mythology, North Germanic mythology, or Scandinavian mythology. Norse mythology features a set of religious stories that give meaning to how the Vikings and the Norse people lived their lives, and why they valued highly complex characters, such as gods, goddesses, and giants.
There are different races of beings in Norse mythology. There are humans, gods, trolls, elves, dwarves, and giants. Out of all these races, the gods and the giants feature the most in Viking myths and legends. Many people are acquainted with some of the gods such as Thor, Odin and Freyr, but do not know so much about the giants. So, who are the giants and what role do they play in influencing Norse culture and religion?
Generally, in Norse mythology, the gods represented order, and the giants (Jotun) were associated with chaotic instances. Just like the Norse gods, the giants in Norse mythology had supernatural powers. At the same time, they had significant flaws, including greed, vanity, jealousy, and arrogance alongside other traits. To understand Norse giants, we need to acquaint ourselves with their roles in Norse culture and the Viking age.
According to Norse mythology and Germanic folklore, giants are a tribe of spiritual beings with powers equal to the two tribes of the gods, the Aesir and Vanir. Even so, they greatly differ from the gods, in terms of their character.
In modern English, the word ‘giant’ means something of enormous size. At the same time, the word ‘giant’ describes a mythical or imaginary being of human form but superhuman size. In Old Norse, giants are known as ‘jotunn’ (singular) and Jotnar (plural). The word ‘jotunn’ comes from a Germanic word that means ‘devourer’. Also, the same word means powerful and injurious being, and further describes the being as ‘thorn-like.
In 1066 CE, when the Norman William the Conqueror took over England, the English language was filled with French words. One of the words that were borrowed directly from Old French was ‘geant’ which gave rise to the word ‘giant’. The word ‘geant’ described giants of Greek mythology, who were more or less a group of spiritual beings and were enemies of the gods. The same description stands in Norse mythology. Also, the same word ‘geant’ was used to describe the enormous beings in the Bible, and eventually, the word ‘giant’ became the universal word that describes beings of superhuman nature or size.
The Germanic worldview identifies two fundamental concepts when discussing supernatural beings, the innaguard (within the enclosure) and the utangard (beyond the enclosure). Asgard, which was associated with the Aesir gods, was said to be within the enclosure and described as law-abiding and orderly. Midgard, which was the world of men, was also considered the innaguard and a civilized and orderly section. The world of the giants, known as Jotunheim, was seen to be beyond the enclosure. The giants resided here and the place was described as a chaotic and anarchic region. Based on this description, Norse giants were seen as devourers and predators who constantly tried to drag the Germanic people into primordial chaos, which is why the Aesir gods needed to constantly protect the order of civilization and interact with them closely.
Despite so, there were several instances when the Jotnar played constructive roles in the Norse religion. The cosmos was created from the corpse of the first giant, Ymir, so were dwarves. Also, some gods were half-giant, which allowed for some kind of balance in the two worlds. While the giants needed to keep off the human world at all times, they were still so valuable to the Vikings and the gods.
Giants in Norse mythology
Generally, Norse giants were the enemies of the Aesir and Vanir gods. Giants are often considered enormous and often easy to trick, but this isn’t the case with Norse giants. Norse mythology describes the giants as supernatural beings possessing the same ancestry as the gods and could see the universe better than the gods. Also, not all the Norse giants are big.
At the top of the Norse family tree, is the giants who represent cosmic forces. The Aesir and Vanir gods were, therefore, direct or indirect descendants of these giants. Further, Norse mythology identifies that the giants and the gods are in opposition and balance, which explains their struggles between creation and destruction. While the two are quite different, sometimes, it was difficult to tell the differences between the gods and the giants. For example, Loki was half-god and half-giant and accepted by both deities. Also, Skadi (goddess of the wild) and Jord (mother-earth figure) were considered giants as well but were excluded from gatherings in Asgard.
Some giants, such as the first primeval giant, was considered so enormous, which is part of the reason why the gods made the world from his corpse. Another giant known as Skrymir is also described as so massive, to an extent that even Thor who was seen as a massive being, could sleep inside Skrymir’s gloves comfortably. All the other giants, however, weren’t as big as Odin, Freyja, Thor, or Tyr. More often than not, the giants intermarried with the gods and humans, so their descendants were more or fewer hybrids of the same. Also, their ability to change size and shape often depended on their parent’s abilities.
The majority of the time Norse giants are described as ice giants or frost giants. The association between giants and ice comes from the state of their homeland, Jotunheim, which was mountainous and had heavy snowfall.
Intermarriage with the Gods
The Jotnar were a pretty diverse race. Some were enemies of the gods, while others were their allies. Most giantesses intermarried with the Aesir and Vanir gods, which sometimes had the giantesses identified as goddesses. The giantesses were said to be very beautiful and graceful, which is one of the reasons why many of the gods were attracted to them. The table below gives an account of the giantesses who married the gods.
|Name of Giantess||Who she was married to/ Had a family with||Situation|
|Skadi||Njord – Vanir god of wealth, seas, wind, and fishing||It was an arranged marriage after her father, Thiazi died|
|Gerd||Freyr – god associated with peace and prosperity, good harvest, virility, sacral kingship and fair weather||It was love at first sight when Freyr saw her|
|Jarnsaxa||Thor- god of thunder||She was the mother of Magni, and daughter to Aegir and Ran|
|Bestla||Gave birth to Odin – god of poetry, wisdom, healing, death, the gallows, battle, victory||Among the earliest jotnars born to the first primeval giant, Ymir|
|Grid||Odin- god of poetry, wisdom, healing, death, the gallows, battle, victory||Mother to Vidar, and gave Thor the magical weapon during the fight with Geirrod|
|Rindr||Odin- god of poetry, wisdom, healing, death, the gallows, battle, victory||Mother to Vali|
From the table, we can deduce that the giantesses were mistresses, wives, and mothers of the gods. Some were closely allied to the Aesir and helped them achieve specific tasks and were sometimes mistaken for deities. Anytime a giant and a god intermarried, their children were all considered gods instead of giants. Also, if any king married a giantess, then their children were fully human. In that regard, intermarriage was a common thing in the Norse culture.
The Land of the Giants
Most of the giants either lived in a primordial realm or among the gods. The giants simply lived in a world of their own known as Jotunheim. The gods would occasionally travel to Jotunheim to run a few errands but because it had hostile residents, it was quite dangerous for them to move freely, so they needed assistance from the giants. The world of the giants is described as a world full of mountains with thick forests and heavy snowfall. Even so, some parts featured lavish halls where the wealthiest giants lived. For some reason, it was easily compared to th
e world of men, where some parts seemed so rugged while others featured luxury buildings where the royals resided. The main difference between the two was the residents. Asgard was associated with gods, the world of men was associated with Vikings and other Norsemen, and Jotunheim was associated with the giants.
Aside from that, some sources and folklore stories imply that Midgard and Jotenheim were adjacent to each other. For this reason, giants and humans would come into contact with each other quite frequently. Kings, gods, and heroes would sometimes marry giant women, and there were also instances where enemies would fight with the giants in the mountains. There wasn’t necessarily a bridge that linked the land of the giants to that of the men, but the fact that the two worlds were adjacent made it easier for migrations.
There was an enclosing wall that was made from Ymir’s (the first giant) eyebrows to differentiate the two worlds, but still, specific humans and the gods would always travel to encounter the giants when necessary. The wall was to be a clear separation between humans and the giants because humans often feared the giants and considered them wild, but the gods freely associated with them.
Norse Giants and Giantesses
Norse giants and giantesses played an essential role in nearly all stories about the Aesir and Vanir gods, and sometimes they were considered to have the same powers as the gods. The Jotunn all have different features and represented a more chaotic and harsh side. Some of the most popular Norse giants and giantesses are;
Ymir was the first primeval giant and was identified as the frost-giant by Aurgelmir. He was the first creature to have been created, and the frost giants were his descendants. His son was a six-head giant nourished by a giant cow. Thrudgelmir was also his son.
Loki was the son of Farbauti and Laufely, and he was a frost giant who resided in Asgard among the Norse gods. He had the ability to change his shape and sex, and he is identified as a cunning trickster. His father was a frost giant, and his mother was a god, which made him a half-god and a half-giant. He was a companion of the great gods’ Thor and Odin and was supposed to assist them in their plans, but somehow he always caused disappointment and embarrassment. Some tales mention that he and Odin were blood brothers, which could be one of the reasons why the Aesir gods could not kill him or chase him away anytime he was involved in great mischief.
Giantess Angrboda was one of Loki’s wives, and she was the mother of the monsters. Her name means ‘the one who brings grief’ in Old Norse. She and Loki had three children, but the Aesir didn’t like the idea because they were always worried about the trouble that their children would cause, especially because they must have inherited terrible traits from their parents. For this reason, the Aesir felt the need to keep Loki’s children away from the world of the gods and that of men. So, they sent Hel (Loki’s daughter) to the underworld, Jormungandr (their son) into the sea, and chained up Fenrir (their last-child) using a magical rope made by the dwarves.
Surt was a fire giant, and he lived in the world of fire (Muspelheim), where he led all the fire giants. He killed Freyr, who was the ruler of peace, fertility, and the sun, and Freyr was the first god to die in Ragnarok. Surt nearly destroyed almost every creature in battle by setting all 9 worlds on fire.
- Aegir and Ran
Aegir was a sea giant and was considered a spirit by the Vikings. He is associated with the brewing ale, and he regularly hosts the gods in his halls. The Vikings saw him as a cruel and murderous creature that would smash Viking ships to obtain gold from their treasure boxes. For this reason, the Vikings would keep prisoners (slaves) in their ship so that they can sacrifice them to Aegir in exchange for their freedom and safety.
He was married to the sea goddess, Ran, who had several nets that she used to pull men down into the depths of the sea. Aegir and Ran sired nine daughters who personify the waves and a son who personifies snow. The two giants were a threat to the world of men, and Vikings always avoided them all the time. However, the Aesir gods kept them close because they always threw lively and large parties that were almost always enjoyable.
According to Poetic Edda, there is a poem that describes Vafthrudnir as the wisest of all the giants. He got himself into a fix with Odin and found himself in a game of questions and answers. Odin disguised himself as Gagnard, and Vafthrudnir only recognized him towards the end of the game when he was unable to answer some questions.
Hyrrokin was a giantess that lived in Jotunheim, which is considered the darkest forest that was lonely and quite dangerous. There were no rules in the forest, and it was such a free world. She owned a mighty horse that would sometimes transform into a wolf. When in wolf form, the horse would be so difficult to control, so she had to use reigns made from poisonous snakes. She was considered one of the strongest giantesses, which is why she was the one who pulled Balder’s funerary ship out to sea because no one else could.
Hrimthurs built walls around Asgard, and he owned the intelligent and magical stallion known as Svadilfari. He told everyone that he could easily build the wall within 6 months. The deal was that if he won, he would receive Freyja (goddess associated with beauty, fertility, sex, and love, among other things) as his bride, and he would also get the moon and the sun. Out of greed, he quickly agreed to the deal, and unfortunately, he lost his wagers against the gods, so Thor had to kill him.
He was a somehow greedy frost giant. He had tension with Fjalar and Galar, who were the two dwarves that killed his father Gilling. He wanted to kill the dwarves in revenge, but relented when he was given the Mead of Poetry as compensation. When he got the mead, he asked his daughter to guard it on his behalf, but she betrayed her father and chose to engage with Odin instead. After spending about 3 nights with Odin, she ended up giving him the mead, so her Suttung pursued Odin in Asgard. It was easy for Suttung to catch up with Odin because he could transform into an eagle and fly, but his efforts were in vain. He was never able to capture Odin nor recover his mead.
Thrym was the king of Jotunheim, and he stole Thor’s hammer. Thor was the god of thunder and fertility, and he could disguise himself. Thrym, however, was easily attracted to women and lacked self-control. So Thor took Freya’s falcon feathers and pretended to be her. and Thrym fell for it and agreed to marry ‘Freya’. When the hammer was brought to bless their wedding, Thor used it to kill all the giants in the wedding hall.
Gerroid had two daughters, Greip and Gialp, who tried to kill Thor, using Gerroid’s help. He chose to convince Thor to leave behind his weapon, so they thought he would be much weaker. However, a giantess names Grid gave Thor an unbreakable magic staff, which Thor used to kill both daughters. Afterward, Thor used an iron glove to kill Geirrod. In some instances, people confuse Geirrod the giant with the king in Grimnir’s saying that you find in the Poetic Edda.
Hrungnir, a giant living in Griotunagardar, was regarded as the strongest giant in the world because his heart and head were made from stone. He owned the fastest horse in the Giantland and called it Gullfaxi because it had a golden mane. Because Hrungnir always boasted about his horse, Odin began competing with him. Due to the competition, Hrungnir claimed that he would destroy Asgard and the other Aesir gods after moving Valhalla to Jotunheim. He even went further and claimed that he would make Sif and Freyja his concubines.
Following Hrungnir’s declaration, Thor challenged him in a duel but Hrungnir was unarmed at the time so he suggested that they meet at his home in Griotunagardar. Hrugnir then instructed the giants to make another giant out of clay, which would serve as a weapon in the duel. They called the clay giant Mokkurkalfi and made sure it was nearly the size of Thor or bigger because Hrungnir had to win. However, the plan flopped. Thor was mighty and ended up breaking Hrungnir’s whetstone in half, and it shattered Hrungnir’s head, and he died.
Thiassi was a frost giant and the son of Allvadi, who was a very rich man. They lived in Thrymheim, and shared his father’s inheritance was divided among him and his three brothers. Thiassi could easily transform into an eagle when he needed to escape danger or go on an adventure. He liaised with Loki to abduct Idun, who kept the apples of youth. Later on, Loki had to rescue Odin, so Thiassi took him to Asgard in form of a giant eagle, but was killed as he passed over the wall.
After his death, his daughter Skadi wanted to avenge her father but the Aesir already made peace with her by giving her to an Aesir husband. Two stars were created from Thiassi’s eyes after Odin threw them into the sky.
The giants and giantesses didn’t have much power so they weren’t worshiped by anyone in the past. For example, while Loki was half-god and half-giant, he was not worshipped by anyone. Several people hold the belief that giants are an incarnation of evil, but Norse culture sees it differently. They are more or fewer representatives of the untamed nature and depending on their role and character, they were either harmful or helpful to both the Aesir and humans.