The Jötnar are the first race to have arisen at the creation of the Universe. Just like the Æsir, there is hardly a story or poem that does not contain a run-in with a jötunn … they are the prime antagonists in much of the lore, but they are also the wives, parents, grand-parents, and friends of the Æsir and Vanir gods.
Ýmir was the first of this mighty race, born out of the rivers that formed in cosmic Ginnungagap. Snorri describes the event in Gylfaginning:
“Just as from Niflheimr there arose coldness and all things grim, so what was facing close to Muspelheim was hot and bright, but Ginnungagap was as mild as a windless sky. And when the rime and the blowing of the warmth met so that it thawed and dripped, there was a quickening from these flowing drops due to the power of the source of the heat, and it became the form of a man, and he was given the name Ýmir.”
Though labelled a male by Christian writer Snorri, Ýmir has since become thought of as genderless. As the first and only being at the time, Ýmir begat children from the pits of their arms and the rubbing together of their legs, and in this way the race of giants was spawned. The children of Ýmir produced many children of their own, and intermingled with the first of the gods to appear – Búri, who’s son married a jötunn named Bestla. There seems to have been a lot of animosity and competition between the races after a few generations, and eventually Ýmir was slain by Bestla’s sons, Óðin, Vili and Vé.
Out of the enormous body of the fallen jötunn the brothers created Miðgarðr. The dome of their skull formed the sky arching over the Earth, and their blood became the seas, rivers, and lakes. Ýmir’s brains became the clouds, their hair the trees, and their bones the mountains and hills. At this point in the lore, the race of Dwarfs also appears, growing into a more human-like form from little worms or maggots, out of the giant’s flesh.
The gods erected a fence of sorts out of Ýmir’s eyelashes, separating the giant’s land of Jötunheimr from what was to become the realm of human kind. It was the duty of the gods, then, to watch over this border and ensure the safety of their new creations from the destructive elemental forces of the jötnar.
Many jötunn villains are described in the lore, and they are all destructive and chaotic forces to be reckoned with. The most famous of them all is Loki, the son of Fárbauti and Laufey, and friend and companion to Thor. He is accepted into the Æsir tribe as one of the gods, but is a duplicitous character who causes as much trouble as he does good. Loki’s stories are very popular, as they are usually filled with humour and suspense, often resulting in magical boons for the gods. Eventually his giant nature wins out, however, and he betrays the gods and helps bring about Ragnarök.
Other antagonistic jötnar include Skaði and her father Þjazi, who kidnapped the goddess Iðunn and held her captive. Thor has a run-in with a giant called King Útgarða-Loki, ruler of a great jötunn kingdom who horribly embarrasses the god by cheating at contests of strength and vitality. Thor’s duel with the great giant Hrungnir is so fierce that he has a piece of the giant’s whetstone permanently lodged in his head, and the wily giant Þrymr steals Mjölnir and ransoms it for Freya’s hand in marriage.
For every dastardly jötunn in the lore, there is a beautiful giantess who joins the Æsir and works towards the greater good. Many of the gods marry giantesses, and in fact most of the gods have giant’s blood running through their veins. Óðin, Frigg, Váli, Víðarr, and Thor are all directly descended from jötnar (Frigg and Thor even have the same mother, the giantess Jörð) and Sleipnir and Hel are also both children of a giant – Loki. Freyr marries Gerð, with whom he falls in love at first sight, and Njörðr marries the feisty giantess Skaði after the gods kill her father. Mímir, the renowned counselor and uncle of Óðin, and guardian of the well of wisdom, is also thought to have been a jötunn.
The differences between the giants and the gods are sometimes very distinct and dramatic, and sometimes they are indistinguishable. Some of the jötnar are hideous or horrific in appearance, with claws, fangs, and deformed faces or bodies. They can be enormous in size or normal human-sized. Some of them are described with many heads, such as Þrívaldi who had nine of them, and still others are not humanoid at all, such as Jörmungandr, Sleipnir, and Fenrir. The relationship between the gods and giants is always a complex one.
Thoughts on the Jötnar
The jötnar are associated with the natural world and the elemental forces which shape it. The destructive, chaotic energies of nature were literally lethal to our ancient ancestors, and so the giants were portrayed as deadly, destructive beings who didn’t play well with us humans – or with others. They often had conflicts with the gods, dwarfs, and each other.
Some of the realms of nature could be both friend and foe to humankind, and these were portrayed in jötnar like Ægir and Rán. Ægir was a giant god of the sea, considered a friend of the gods, who often hosted grand banquets in their honour. Since the sea was just as often destructive as it was generous, Ægir’s wife, the moody Rán, was known for sinking vessels and claiming all the goods on board for her own hoard, as well as the lives of the sailors.
Just as the giant Ýmir was the source of our world at its beginning, in the lore it is a giant who is fated to end it. The fire giant Surtr will ravage the world with his burning sword, leveling the green and all of civilization with his flames. Freyr will stand against him and fall. Ragnarök wipes clean the slate, and a new world springs up from the ashes. The giants embody the cyclical nature of the Universe, on both minute and massive scales. The destruction that ends the world also births a new one. The sun sets only to rise again. A second passes and another takes its place. This constant cycling is a familiar theme to many other religious traditions and philosophies.
In the time of the ancients, nature was all around. It was expansive and the farthest ends of the world were inaccessible to most. The natural world provided in abundance, and destroyed with impunity. As the race of Jötnar, the various wild, unconquerable forces of nature and elements of the world could be our friends or foes – and sometimes both in the same instant. For this reason, it fell to Thor to maintain this balance in favour of his human wards. The jötnar may not have been worthy of worship – we don’t know if they were venerated for sure – but they were definitely worthy of placation and respect from a healthy distance.
In the modern world, nature has become an isolated collection of parks, reserves, and overgrown plots of land. It has become far removed from the everyday – something “out there” and outside ourselves. The balance has swung the other way, and now the destructive force to be reckoned with is … us. Human kind has nearly extinguished the mighty jötunn race, and this has led to our own decline and worrisome future. Modern Heathens can work with Thor to minimize damage still, but now as a protector of humans from our own callous and short-sighted actions. For the world to sustain itself, human and jötunn must exist harmoniously.
Signs and Symbols
Snow, snowstorms, ice, and hail. Earthquakes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters. Nature in its most primal state. Jagged mountains and steep cliffs. The rune Þurs.
Jötunn, Jotunn, Jotun, Giant, Risar, Þursar, Gýgjar, Íviðjur, and Ettin. Leirjötnar (clay giants), Eldjötnar (fire giants), Bergrisar (mountain giants), Sjórisar (sea giants), Hrímþursar (rime giants), Windþursar (wind giants).