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The Giants of Norse Mythology (Literally!)

Updated on December 10, 2015
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

The jötnar Fafner and Fasolt seize Freyja in Arthur Rackham's illustration to Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen
The jötnar Fafner and Fasolt seize Freyja in Arthur Rackham's illustration to Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen | Source

In Norse Mythology, giants are not exactly "giants." Some are huge while others are the size of the average human being. They're not the lumbering, blood-thirsty beasts -- often represented in other folklore and world myths -- either. While some have nasty reputations , others – such as the giantesses – have personal relationships with the Aesirs - the main Norse gods who happen to be their arch enemies..

Known as Jutons or Lotun, the Norse giants are enigmatic deities. Not only are their roles complex within the Norse cosmology, they are extremely different from all other giants found throughout the world’s religions, myths and folklore. They can be cast as the creators of the universe, as well as its destroyer. Either way, giants are an essential part of the ancient Nordic beliefs.

Breaking the Stereotypes of Giants

Throughout the world, giants have played a dubious role in almost every religion and mythology of the ancient world. Many are physically huge, strong and brutish human-like monsters sent by some evil force to destroy humanity.

The popular folktale “Jack and the Beanstalk” personified the modern world’s view of giants as being dumb, greedy and hungry for human flesh. In Greek mythology and literature - such as Homer’s The Odyssey - giants were portrayed in a negative light. Even one of the Old Testament’s nemeses, Goliath, was a giant.

In Norse mythology – especially those recorded in the Eddic poems by Snorri Sturlusson - the giants can be good or bad, have their own physical world to live in, and are related to the gods through marriage or birth. Also, there are particular races of giants.

In Norse mythology – especially those recorded in the Eddic poems by Snorri Sturlusson - the giants can be good or bad...

Starting with Ymir

Possibly the most important giant is Ymir. It was believed that the human race was born from his flesh. Much of this giant’s stature and importance can be traced back to the first significant recorded writings of the eddic poems, “Voluspa” and “Grimnismal.” The 11th century Icelandic poet, historian and politician, Snorri Sturlusson, took some poetic license when he put the oral poems onto paper. In his version, Sturlusson combined several sources along with his own interpretation to tell the story of how this giant created humanity.

death of Ymir by Odin by Lorenz Frølich
death of Ymir by Odin by Lorenz Frølich | Source

Race of Giants

Ymir is considered a frost giant. Frost giants are one of three main groups of giants (there are also subcategories of giants). The other two are the fire giants and the mountain giants. These particular giants are huge and are often associated with the weather or environment. Sometimes, they are allied with a set of earthly gods known as the Vanirs (Aesir are heavenly gods who live in the main world of Asgard). In some cases, they are the gods.

In the Norse cosmology, there are nine worlds. One of these worlds is Jotunheim (also known by modern scholars and writers as Giantland) This is the home of the giants. Jotunheim is a featureless place that is subdivided into particular areas for the various types of giants. One such place is called, Muspelheim. This is where the fire giant Surt rules.

The mountain giants have Griotunagardar (frontier of Giantland). This particular region was the home of Hrungnir, the strongest of all the giants. Hrungnir was one of the most important giants in this place. Made partly of stone (his head and heart) he was a formidable enemy to the Aesir, including to the ever popular Thor. Magni, Thor’s son, eventually killed Hrungnir in order to save his father.

Another popular inhabitant of Griotunagardar is Thiassi and his daughter Skadi who live on the mountain called Thrymheim. Thiassi is a frost giant who was once allied with Loki before being betrayed by him. Skadi was about to take revenge for this betrayal until she was offered -- ans wedded -- an Aesir.

The capital of Jotunheim is where the frost giants can be found. This place is known as Utgard, a place commonly described as a citadel. Here, an important giant – and god – is Utgard-Loki, or better known as the trickster god Loki.

A subdivision for lesser-known giants has a place in this world, as well. They exist on the outer edge of this world. Jotunheim is separated from the other worlds by rivers and forests known as Jarnvid. This forest is the home of giants known to a modern public as trolls and troll-wives (known as Jarnvidjur). The troll-wives breed giants in wolf forms in this place.

The giantess Skadi represents another form of giant. The giantesses are not the average type of giants. Many found favor from the gods, including Skadi who would eventually be married to an Aesir. Many of these giantesses were deified and became Asyniur, or goddesses.

The relationship helped to create some of the Aesir gods. Loki, for instance, has giants for parents, despite being known as an Aesir god (this was illustrated in the movie version of Thor). Even the most powerful Aesir gods, Odin, Thor, Tyr and Heimdall, are part giant.

The Destroyers

If giants like Ymir were the beginning of humanity, the presence of giants is also the end of the Norse gods. In an omen, it is written that the giants will go to war with the Aesir and will eventually win. This battle is known in the mythology as Ragnarok. This apocalyptic war will bring an end to the rule of Asgard and the death of the gods, thus leaving open a new beginning for a new world (as a note: this particular part of Norse mythology was used by early missionaries to help convert the Vikings and Nordic people of Scandinavia to Christianity by indicating that they [the missionaries] were a part of this new world coming to the Nordic people).

Importance of Giants

There’s no doubt that giants are an important part of Norse mythology. They helped to create it, and will help to destroy it. They differed from other mythologies, for they played a more active role than their compatriots in other myths and legends.

They may not be the classic prototypes of giants, but they can be just as frightening, and important, than any other giants roaming the mythological landscape.

Frost Giants attack!
Frost Giants attack! | Source

© 2015 Dean Traylor

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    • Pollyanna Jones profile image

      Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      I enjoyed this read, it's a nice summary! I'll be sharing this on FB. Voted up!

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      This was both an interesting and enjoyable read Dean. I am of Scandinavian/Norse heritage but I don't know enough about the mythology, so thanks for this.

    • James Slaven profile image

      James Slaven 12 months ago from Indiana, USA

      Great read! Thanks!

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