From Academic Kids

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The giants seize Freya.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham.

In Norse mythology, the giants were a mythological race with superhuman strength, described as standing in opposition to the gods, although they frequently mingled with or were even married to these, both Ęsir and Vanir. Their stronghold is known as Utgard, and is situated in Jotunheim, one of the nine worlds of Norse cosmology, separated from Midgard, the world of men, by high mountains and dense forests. When living in other worlds than their own, they seem to prefer caves and dark places.

In Old Norse, they were called jotnar (sing. jotun), or risi (sing. and pl.), in particular bergrisi, or žursar (sing. žurs), in particular hrķmžursar. A giantess could also be known as a gżgr.

Jotun probably derives from the same root as "eat," and accordingly had the original meaning of "glutton" or "man-eater." Following the same logic, žurs might be derivative of accutal "thirst" or "blood-thirst." Risi is probably akin to "rise," and so means "towering person." The word Jotun first appeared in Old English as Yotun, and eventually spawned the variants such as Geottin, Eottan, and Eontann, whence we get Yettin, Ettin, and Ent, respectively. Yettin is a false cognate with Yeti.

"Thurs" is also a the name of the rune ᚦ, which later evolved into the letter Ž.


Norse giants


The first living being formed in the primeval chaos known as Ginnungagap was a giant of monumental size, called Ymir. In his first ever sleep, a giant son and a giantess daughter grew from his armpits, his two feet copulated and gave birth to a monster with six heads. Supposedly, these three beings gave rise to the race of hrķmžursar (rime giants or frost giants), who populated Niflheim, the world of mist, chill and ice. The gods instead claim their origin from a certain Buri. When the giant Ymir subsequently was slain by Odin, Vili and Ve (the grandsons of Buri), his blood (i.e. water) deluged Niflheim and killed all of the giants, apart from one known as Bergelmir and his spouse, who then repopulated their kind.

Character of the giants

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Giantesses Fenja and Menja from the Grottisöng.
The giants represent the forces of the primeval chaos and of the untamed, destructive nature. Their defeats by the hands of the gods represent the triumph of culture over nature, albeit by the cost of eternal vigilance. Heimdall perpetually watches the Bifrost Bridge from Įsgard to Jotunheim, and Thor often makes a visit in the world of the giants, to slay as many of their kind as he is able to.

As a collective, giants are often attributed a hideous appearance – claws, fangs, black skin and deformed features, apart from a generally hideous size. Some of them may even have many heads or an overall non-humanoid shape; so was Jormungand and Fenrir, two of the children of Loki, viewed as giants. With bad looks comes a weak intellect; the Eddas more than once liken their temper to that of children.

Yet when giants are named and more closely described, they are often given the opposite characteristics. Unbelievably old, they carry the wisdom from times gone by. It is the giants Mimir and Vafthruthnir that Odin seeks out to gain this pro-cosmic knowledge. Many of the gods' spouses are giants. Njord is married to Skadi, Gerd becomes the consort of Frey, Odin gains the love of Gunnlod, and even Thor, the great slayer of their kind, loves Jarnsaxa, mother of Magni. As such, they appear as minor gods themselves, which can also be said about the sea giant Ęgir, far more connected to the gods than to the scum occupying Jotunheim. None of these fear light, and in comfort their homes does not differ greatly from the gods'.

Ragnarök and the fire giants

A certain class of giants were the fire giants, said to reside in Muspelheim, the world of heat and fire, ruled by the fire giant Surtur ("the black one") and his queen Sinmore. Fornjót, the incarnation of fire, was another of their kind. The main role of the fire giants in Norse mythology is to wreck the final destruction of the world by setting fire to the world tree Yggdrasil at the end of Ragnarök, when the giants of Jotunheim and the forces of Helheim shall launch an attack on the gods, and kill all but a few of them. Perhaps influenced by Christian eschatology, a new world will purportedly arise after this event, where the giants shall be no more.

Giants in Scandinavian folklore

In later times, giants were more commonly known as trolls in Scandinavia. They can't stand the sound of church bells, and therefore must live far from civilization, in the mountains or the most remote forests. When they sometimes travel to human society, their main objective seems to be the silencing of this clamor by throwing large boulders at churches.

The giants were however mainly seen as a race of the past, whose remains could still be seen in the landscape. Saxo Grammaticus attributed the raising of dolmens to the giants, and a large stone lying about seemingly randomly in the country (actually a remnant of the Ice Age) was called "a throw of the giants." This concept survived in folklore to a late date, demonstrated by a story from Swedish folklore, according to which a giant in elder times pulled up two huge chunks of land, forming lake Vänern and Vättern, and threw them out into the Baltic Sea, where they became the islands Gotland and Öland, respectively.

List of giants and giantesses in Norse mythology

  1. Aegir
  2. Baugi
  3. Bergelmir
  4. Bestla
  5. Bolthorn
  6. Geirrod
  7. Gerd
  8. Gilling
  9. Gjalp
  10. Greip
  11. Gunnlod
  12. Gymir
  13. Hrod
  14. Hrungnir
  15. Hymir
  16. Ivaldi
  17. Jarnsaxa
  18. Kari
  19. Narve
  20. Loki
  21. Olvaldi
  22. Saxa
  23. Skadi
  24. Surtur
  25. Suttung
  26. Thiazi
  27. Thrudgelmir
  28. Thrym
  29. Utgardaloki
  30. Vafthruthnir
  31. Ymir

Template:NorseMythology Missing image
Owl Edition

This article contains content from the Owl Edition of Nordisk familjebok, a Swedish encyclopedia published between 1904-1926 now in Public Domain.da:Jętte de:Thurisaz fr:Géant (mythologie nordique) ja:霜の巨人 no:Jotun sv:Jättar uk:Йотун


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