The Giants of Norse mythology are important in many respects. They're also varied in the way people describe them. Whether you know them as Frost Giants, Norse Giants, Jötnar, or another name from Viking lore, you're probably curious about the exact nature of these Giants.
This article covers who the Giants of Norse mythology are, why they're significant, and explores some of the various interpretations found from different sources.
Who Were the Giants in Norse Mythology?
Let's dive into who the Giants were, what they symbolize, and how they tie into the greater Norse pantheon.
Ymir: The First Giant
Ymir, pronounced as "EE-mir," is considered the first creature to emerge into existence in old Norse myth. According to the poetic Edda scholar Snorri Sturluson, Ymir was birthed from the primordial chaos of fire and ice in Muspelheim and Niflheim, respectively.
Musphelheim and Niflheim are two of the nine worlds of Nordic myth. They floated through the abyss called Ginnungagap, a vast emptiness existing before the creation of this cosmos. When Muspelheim and Niflheim floated into one another, Ymir emerged from the chaos of their collision.
Other interpretations tell us that Ymir formed as the ice from Niflheim thawed and dripped in the presence of Musphelheim's warmth. The thawed ice slowly built the shape of a man, and this was Ymir. That process continued and formed Auðumbla, who we'll discuss soon.
Birth of The Gods
Ymir contained both male and female aspects, allowing him to reproduce asexually. He quickly gave birth to numerous Giants from the sweat of his armpits or the folds of his legs. In the early days of his creation, Ymir was nursed by the goddess Auðumbla.
Auðumbla was a primeval cow goddess. She is integral to the Norse creation myth, as she nurtures Ymir and unveils Búri (first of the Aesir gods) from a salt lick. Over the course of three days, Búri emerged from deep within the salt lick as Auðumbla enjoyed its flavor.
This connection is important because Búri had a son named Borr who procreated with Bestla, one of the children or grandchildren of Ymir. Their offspring would become some of the most important figures in Norse lore.
From Ymir and Búri to Odin
Borr and Bestla give birth to Odin, who would be the key figure in the Norse pantheon and the highest of the Aesir gods. Odin also goes on to have Thor, Höðr, Baldr, and other children that would turn out to be extremely important Norse gods.
The key thing to note is that almost all Norse gods are related to Ymir, the first Giant. Even though all the Frost Giants and Aesir gods were related, they become deep enemies. So much so that Giants are considered anti-gods
Ymir's importance as one of the first beings didn't lead him toward compassion or kindness, unfortunately. He was a controlling, abusive Giant that disdained the three gods (Thor, Höðr, and Baldr) who were distantly related to him at that point.
Thor, Höðr, and Baldr eventually kill Ymir. The sea of blood that flowed from him was so vast that it drowned nearly every jötnar. Only two remained; Bergelmir and his wife who was not named. The two of them lived on to repopulate the race of Giants.
The Creation of Earth in Norse Myths
After killing Ymir, Thor and his brothers transported his body through Ginnungagap. When they reached the center of the void, they set out to create Earth with Ymir's body. The shape and substance of the earth were made from his body, and his blood was used to fill the sea.
His shattered bones became ragged cliffs and rocks protruding from the sea of his blood. His hairs turned into trees, and all of this new earth was placed in the setting of his skull, which served as the night sky. Finally, his brains floated in the atmosphere as clouds.
Thor and his brothers also used Ymir's eyelashes to guard the areas of earth that they wanted to keep the Giants from entering. After creating earth with Ymir's body, the brothers fashioned two people from seashore logs. One of the people was responsible for giving life and the other was responsible for motion and conscious awareness.
According to Snorri Sturluson, Norse mythology cites these as the first two humans.
Are The Norse Giants Good or Bad?
The Jötnar are often described as enemies of the gods, so we tend to think of them as negative forces. That said, every Frost Giant aren't necessarily bad, and they're not always against the gods. In fact, there are so many interweavings between Norse Giants and gods that it's difficult to differentiate them in some cases.
Many gods have a friendly Giantess for a mother or a Giant for a father. As we mentioned, the Giant Ymir was one of the original beings, from which most Aesir gods are descended. The prose Edda shows us numerous examples of friendly Giants and interactions between the Jötnar and Aesir god pantheon.
That said, it's easy to look at Fire Giants like Surtr and see them as villains.
Surtr is known as the "Swarthy one" and yields a monstrous flaming sword. He also rules Musphelheim (the world of fire) which one can compare to Hell. He's supposed to kill Freyr (male fertility god) during Ragnarok.
The Hell-ruler that sleighs the symbol of male fertility can't be a "good guy," right? Further, Loki is the Norse trickster god, and both of his parents were Giants. He was raised by Odin and Frigga but comes from Jötnar parents and holds a devilish and problematic spot in the Norse pantheon. There's even an Utgard Loki, or "Loki of the Outyards" who is an adversarial figure to Thor on a couple of occasions.
Giants as Symbols in Norse Mythology
We can think of Giants as symbolic beings, referring to the chaotic or destructive nature of the cosmos. Similar to Shiva The Destroyer, Loki is constantly recking the work of the gods and causing them to change their plans.
Similarly, the first Giant to come from the cosmos was a cruel leader that had to be killed. Without Ymir's body, however, the earth wouldn't have formed and the first humans wouldn't have lived. Without Loki, the gods wouldn't have the essential back and forth of good and evil to strengthen them and allow them to prove themselves.
If you imagine the Yin-Yang symbol, you note that both elements are contained in one another. Within the Yang, there's a small circle of Yin, and vice versa. In the very same way, Norse gods are intertwined with Giants just as Giants are intertwined with the gods. This is true both in terms of their combined heritage as well as their actions.
The Jötnar have the "negative" or "destructive" position, but they're necessary for the alternative position to exist.
Frost Giants and Fire Giants
Many references to Giants cite them as "frost Giants" or "fire Giants." The popularity of these terms could come from the Marvel Universe which leans heavily on the idea of monstrous frost Giants that oppose the Aesir gods.
The same is true for the Fire Giant Surtr. The reality is that you couldn't classify all Giants as "fire" or "ice," and most of them wouldn't fit into that categorization at all. There's a heavy intermingling between gods and Giants, and the adjective used to describe them tends to come from the world they originate from.
For example, Surtr is associated with fire because he comes from Musphelheim. The Giants from Niflheim are associated with ice for the same reason. The myth tells that there are two groups of Giants that come to occupy these worlds because they're both suited to the respective climates.
Ice and Fire Symbolism
Ice and fire are two extremes of nature. The Giants that occupy the worlds of ice and fire take on the symbolism of those natural forces. In both cases, humans and the human-like Aesir gods are vulnerable to these extremes. There are a couple of simple ways we can interpret these symbols.
For one, the Fire and Ice Giant groups occupy the far reaches of the natural world. As symbols, extreme heat and extreme cold mark the dangerous extremes that people should stay away from. With intense fire and ice come death, chaos, and destruction.
These polar extremes both get personified as Giants in Norse mythology. It makes sense, then, that these Giants are eternal adversaries to the Gods and have to battle during the end times, known as Ragnarok. The constant tension between good, bad, hot, and cold, is contained between the Gods and the Giants.
Another way of looking at the Giants is as essential counterparts to humans and gods, even counting themselves as hybrids at times. The freezing cold and blistering heat are necessary for one another and lean on each other.
Without heat, there isn't any cold to speak of. Without the cold, the heat ceases to exist. These elements are opposite but essential to one another. Between them exists a middle range that's occupied by humans.
You could substitute "hot" and "cold" for any number of other polarizing terms. They're symbolic of the extremes of chaos that must be there for the middle range to exist. If we lose either end of the spectrum, our middle-range reality can't keep existing.
In this way, Giants hold the counterweight to keep things in balance.
The Giant in the God, The Good in The Bad
The fact that Giants are intertwined with the gods is another possible reference to the grey areas of morality, fortune, and life in general. It's often clear to us in hindsight that things aren't necessarily good or bad.
For example, someone breaks their leg on their walk to work. They find out that, had they gone to work that day, they would have died. It's bad to break your leg, sure, but it's better to be alive! In this scenario, breaking your leg is the absolute best thing that could have happened.
Maybe you're a person who's had a difficult family life. Different people in your family have been difficult to be around, causing lasting trouble to the way you see the world. One thing that your struggles left you with, however, was overwhelming compassion.
As a result, you become a therapist and help countless lives.
In that scenario, the difficult family life contributes to a net positive of good in the world. You couldn't say that any of it is good or bad. In the very same way, Giants intermingle with the Gods and humans all of the time. Their behaviors aren't necessarily good or bad all of the time.
There are certainly a lot of antagonistic Giants, but the middle-range of them are more nuanced and difficult to pin down. They're necessary for the good and the bad to exist, though. In fact, Giants are necessary for the greatest altruistic gods to exist in the first place.
You can look for particulars in different stories and come to the conclusion that Giants are pesky villains. When you look at the big picture and think of Giants as symbols, though, they hold a more important and valuable role in the Norse mythology pantheon.
Jötnar: Connecting The Norse Word
We can learn a lot about who the Giants were by looking at the way their terminology developed.
The term "Jotün," plural for "Jötnar" likely comes from the Proto-Germanic word "itunoz" or the English word "ettin." These terms are both used to describe something called a "man-eater" or monster creature that might enjoy devouring people.
Other Old English and Proto-Germanic terms closely associate with "Jotün" to imply words like gluttony, eating, enormous, greedy, evil, or devil.
There's a connection with the old Norse þurs, which could describe a mountain Giant, ogre, troll, or some other Giants. The term is found in the Poetic Edda and is thought to be from pre-1200s Scandinavia. This would have been a term used during the Viking Age (793-1066 AD).
Giants and Trolls
Interestingly enough, there's also a close connection between Giants and Trolls. Different types of Scandanavian folklore actually call trolls "Jontar," which are the Giant forms of trolls and troll wives. The alternative type of troll is called "Huldredfolk" which means little folk.
Trolls are another branch of Norwegian legend and evolved directly from the idea of a Giant. The difference with trolls is that they're dimwitted, brutish, unfriendly in all cases, and stay clear of humankind.
Their interest is in eating human beings rather than tricking them or helping them.
Trolls also have an ugly appearance. Giants, on the other hand, might be extraordinarily beautiful, depending on the Giant or Giantess in question.
Let's start out by saying that this is impossible to prove with our current understanding of history and culture. That said, some people draw connections between neanderthals and the giants and trolls of Norse myth.
There's some speculation about the date at which neanderthals became extinct, but there's no doubt that, somewhere in human history, there was a lot of comingling and reproduction between humans and our thick-browed cousins.
In fact, you probably have a little Neanderthal in your genome.
It turns out that our estimations of the way neanderthals looked are strikingly close to the way we depict trolls and Giants. Some people make a little reach and speculate that our idea of the big bad human-eater comes from our collective memory of Neanderthals.
Ideas of the Yeti, Sasquatch, or other Giants might also be influenced by this. It's not impossible that Giant-like humans existed at some point during our evolution.
Ideas and lasting myths could likely have been passed down through oral traditions and solidified in the mythologies to come. There's no telling whether or not that's true. It is true, however, that there are Giant human-esque creatures hiding out in the lore of cultures across the world!
Do You Want to Learn More About Norse Mythology?
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