Norse mythology giants

Norse mythology giants: An introduction to Jötunn

Norse mythology giants are a common topic in Scandinavia. A region of pretty tall people themselves, the Scandinavians have some of the best stories in the world about giants, creatures they define as “enemies of the gods”. 

Though there are many creatures in Norse mythology worth learning about, from gnomes and fairies to a unique version of Santa Claus, giants have some of the most intriguing history. 

Otherwise known as the Jötunn (singular) or Jötnar (plural), the Norse giants are strong, daunting, and often highly misunderstood. 

Today, we’re going to introduce you to some of the basics of giants in Norse mythology, their stories, and where they came from.

Defining Norse mythology giants

Giants in Norse mythology aren’t the same creatures you’d expect from stories like Jack and the Beanstalk. These supernatural beings date back through the centuries and have a unique intelligence. 

Some can even see the future or understand the universe better than the gods themselves. 

The Norse word for giant is Jötunn, though there are many different types of giant (which we’ll come back to shortly). The frost giants are probably the best-known of all Norse giants. These creatures lived in Jotunheim, one of the nine worlds of Norse mythology. 

Although Jotunheim was apparently a large world, there’s not much information about it in stories. We do know it was to the east of Midgard, however, where man lived.

In Norse mythology, the giants were among the first “founding” beings in the creation of the Norse universe. The very first Norse giant, Ymir, was created when the ice of Nilfheim met the fires of Muspelheim. 

As giants began to breed (springing to life from the sweat of Ymir’s armpits), the gods grew concerned. 

Odin, and his two brothers (Ve and Vili) murdered Ymir, despite the fact they were part giants themselves. Odin and his brothers apparently used the body of Ymir to create the Norse cosmos. His skull created the heavens, and his eyebrows made Midgard, the world of men.

The giants in Norse mythology

The Norse giants were pivotal in the creation of the Norse cosmos, but they also appeared in a lot of stories about the Aesir gods. The giants and gods were often involved in huge battles, according to Norse legend. Depending on the stories you read, you’ll find the descriptions of giants often differ. 

After Odin and his brothers killed Ymir, they created various worlds, including their own, and cast the Jötnar out into the Utgard, where they longed for the time when they ruled. 

Perhaps due to a desire for revenge, or because they were simply “fierce and cruel” according to some poems, the giants are often described as dreaming of ruling over Asgard and Midgard. 

Interestingly, Norse mythology giants will apparently have an opportunity to march against the gods in “Ragnarok”, which is essentially the end of the worlds for gods and men, and the time when giants will overthrow the world, according to an Icelandic poem, Sibyl’s Prophecy. 

The gods and giants aren’t constantly at war, however. There are stories about the two tribes forming alliances and even marriages.

Types of giants in Norse mythology

There are scores of Norse giants described in Norse mythology — too many to keep track of here. As mentioned above, there are different types of giant in Norse mythology, though all were referred to as Jötnar in most cases. The most common giants were the frost giants, who lived in Jotunheim. 

Ice giants being more common in Scandinavia makes sense when you consider the general atmosphere of the Nordic region. The Vikings believed the giants and Norse creatures were similar to them, often living in cold environments covered by frozen mountains and glaciers. 

Not all giants were frost giants, however. Norse fire giants aren’t as well known in mythology. Compared to the Norse ice giant, which appears all throughout various stories, the Norse fire giant is only mentioned once or twice. 

The most feared of all giants is a fire giant named Surt, a massive create almost made entirely of fire. 

Surt is the Norse fire giant set to bring the end of the world in Ragnarök. The Poetic Edda for Norse mythology also mentions Thor killing “lava giants”, although there aren’t a lot of stories about those in particular. 

Sometimes, giants and trolls have also been described in very similar terms, although most Norse mythology agrees they’re separate beings.

Who are the giants in Norse mythology?

Interestingly, giants in Norse mythology aren’t always what you might imagine. Some Jötunn are extremely large, like Ymir — the original giant so large the gods constructed the entire cosmos using his corpse. 

There are also stories of a giant named Skrymir, who was so large, Thor could sleep in one of his gloves. 

Many other giants were no bigger than counterparts like Thor or Odin. Most of the gods also had giants in their family tries, and Ymir was even said to be Odin’s grandfather. Giants like Thyrmir even attempted to woo Freyja, while Freyja’s brother was obsessed with a giantess himself. 

While there are plenty of well-known Norse giants out there, some of the most common are:

Norse mythology giants

Loki

Probably the best-known of all the giants, Loki lived in Asgard among the Norse gods, but he was actually a frost giant, the son of Laufely and Farbauti. Loki was adopted by Odin and brought back to live with the gods, but he’s often described as a trickster who likes to cause trouble. 

While Loki isn’t always described as an antagonist in Norse mythology, he has caused death and destruction because of his terrible behavior. Though dangerous, Loki was never cast out of Asgard by the Aesir gods because of his connection with Thor.

Norse mythology giants
Credit: vkngjewelry

Angrboda

Among Loki’s (many) wives was a giantess named Angrboda, a name meaning the “bringer of grief”. The couple had three children, and the gods were deeply concerned about the trouble these children might cause. 

This led the gods to send each of the children to where they might cause less trouble. For instance, Hel was given the underworld of her domain, while Jormungandr was thrown into the sea of Midgard. Fenrir, a huge wolf, was chained in Asgard with magical rope. 

Norse mythology giants
Credit: Nationalmuseum

Aegir

Another well-known Norse giant, Aegir was the brother of Loki, and often referred to as a god of the sea by the Vikings. Aegir was unforgiving and cruel. He would frequently smash ships to get the treasure and gold from within. Sometimes, Vikings would even sacrifice their prisoners to Aegir. 

Aegir had a partner in the sea in the form of the giantess Ran. She used huge nets to pull men into the depths. While the world of men feared the couple, the gods apparently visited them frequently because they threw amazing parties.

Norse mythology giants
Credit: Matt Cavotta

Thrym

As enemies of the gods, the giants would often trial to foil their plans. The king of Jotunheim and the frost giants, Thrym, once managed to steal Thor’s impressive hammer. To retrieve it, Thor had to disguise himself as his sister, Freya, who Thrym was deeply in love with.

Thor agreed to marry Thrym as Freya, and when the hammer was brought to bless the nuptials, it was also a chance for Thor to take the hammer back. He retrieved his hammer, and Thor killed all of the giants in the hall. 

Norse mythology giants
Credit: Die nordischen Göttersagen. Illustrated by Ludwig Pietsch.

Hyrrokkin

A giantess said to live in one of the darkest forests of Jotunheim, Hyrrokkin was a somewhat terrifying Norse giant. 

According to legend, she had a huge horse which could also transform into a wolf. She would often use reigns made of poisonous snakes to control her horse when it was in wolf form. 

Hyrrokkin was strong enough; she once visited Asgard to help pull Balder’s ship out of the sea, as no god was strong enough — not even Thor. 

Celebrating Norse giants

Norse mythology is an incredible thing. 

The more you learn about Scandinavia, the more you’ll discover incredible things about creatures like gnomes, giants, and gods. Although all of the mythology is compelling, the stories of Norse giants are some of the most complex. 

Tails of giants in Norse mythology offer an interesting insight into how the Vikings saw the world around them. 

If you’re keen to learn more about the Norse giants, make sure you stock up on some great reading materials. 

We’d recommend:

Remember to check out our other articles for more insights into Norse mythology too. 

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