Even the name sounds BIG doesn’t it? There’s a word for that – Onomatopoeia – where a word sounds like its meaning. When I think of the word giant, I immediately picture a huge 30ft tall man. However, in the Norse world giants are very different. For one, they’re not all towering beings, sometimes they are normal sized and at others they’re bigger than the whole of Midgard.
I have decided to write up a post about the giants that live within Norse mythology. I personally love giants as a fantasy creature and having recently read Shackled Fates by Thilde Kold Holdt I wanted to learn more about them. In Norse mythology, the giants are considered enemies of the gods. From modern mediums, like Jack & the beanstalk, we picture giants to be huge lumbering idiots who stomp around the earth putting holes in everything before being outsmarted by a much smaller but smarter hero. This is not the case in Norse mythology.
The First Giant
Norse mythology teaches us giants are actually the original “founding” beings at the top of the Norse family tree. The gods you know such as Odin or Thor are actually direct or indirect descendants of these giants.
The very first giant is called Ymir (pronounced E-MIR)(also called Aurgelmir) and he came to be when ice of Nilfheim met the fires of Muspelheim. Ymir then gave birth to further giants, which sprung from the sweat of his armpits. His legs produced a six-headed son. His offspring are called Jötunn (singular) or Jötnar (plural).
Ymir was the biggest giant that ever lived – so big in fact that when he was murdered by Odin and his brothers Vili and Ve, our world (Earth/Midgard/Manna-Heim) was created from his body! Ymir’s blood formed the seas and oceans and drowned all the frost giants (except for one, Bergelmir who escaped in a wooden ark and who all giants are descended from). Ymir’s bones became boulders and rocks. Ymir’s skull became the sky, his brain the clouds and his hair transformed into forests. From the wood, humans were created. Even his eyelashes were used to create boundaries and enclosures to keep future giants contained.
I don’t know what Odin’s motivations were in killing Ymir. Was it for the sake of creation or was it because if he didn’t kill him other giants would continue to spawn everywhere (legend says that the first giants treated gods badly)? Another large giant was called Skrymir who was so big that Thor spent the night sleeping inside one of his gloves – and he tells Thor that when he gets to Utgard, he will meet giants who are bigger still.
The Different Types of Giants
In the Scandinavian language the term Jötnar covers all and any giants. In the English language though, there are two types of elemental based giants.
Frost giants (Jötnar) are probably the most famous since they have appeared in the Thor film. Typically made to be an ice blue and tall, they hail from Jötunheim (or Jötunheimr in old Norse), the frost world. Their world is separated from Asgard (home of the gods) by the river Ifingr (Loki becomes the leader of the frost giants at the time of Ragnarok). The frost giants were ruled over by King Thrym.
Fire giants are found in Muspelheim (or Múspellsheimr in old Norse) which is located in the southern region of Ginungagap which is a primordial void, with Jötunheim located in the northern region. The fire giants were ruled over by Surtr (Surt in English).
There are some well known giants and I’m going to list some of them here with a little bit of information about them.
First up is Farbauti who is the husband of Laufey and together they created Loki, Byleifer, and Helbindi. Farbauti is really just known for being the father of one of the most annoying (or entertaining) gods ever created.
Ægir (anglicised as Aegir; Old Norse ‘sea’) (pronounced EYE-GIR) and Rán are essentially husband and wife. They are believed to have dwelled in a magnificent hall in the ocean. Ægir is normally seen as the power of the sea and he would frequently smash ships to get at the gold and treasure inside. Ran meanwhile is thought to have dragged unlucky seafarers down to an underwater grave. The pair apparently had good relations with the gods, regularly inviting them to their underwater hall for feasts. Together the couple have had nine daughters (Himinglaeva, Dufa, Blodughadda, Hefring, Udr, Hronn, Bylgja, Drofn and Kolga) and these are usually interpreted as being spirits of the waves.
Angrboða is a jötunn who is the mate of Loki and the mother of monsters. She bears three children with Loki, Hel, Fenrir and Jörmungandr, the latter two slay major gods during the last great battle, Ragnarök.
Loki is someone you will know but did you know he is a half-giant? He is often depicted as a god but his mother is a god. The three children he conceived with Angrboða cause lots of trouble. 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.
Thrym was King of the frost giants. He once stole Thor’s hammer to extort the gods into giving him Freyja (the goddess of love, beauty, fertility, sex, war and gold). At the wedding Thor gets his hammer back and proceeds to kill almost everyone in a brutal massacre.
Surtr was the leader of the fire giants and King of Muspelheim. During the battle of the gods and giants, Ragnarok, Surtr brings his fire sword and fights against Freyr (god of kinship, sunshine, virility, peace, prosperity, fair weather and good harvest). His flames are those that engulf Midgard once Ragnarok ends.
Hyrrokkin is a female Jötunn who was known for launching the largest of the ships at the funeral of Baldr after he was killed by the blind god Höd who had been deceived by Loki. The boat was stuck and none of the gods could launch it so when Hyrrokkin arrived riding a wolf using vipers to steer it, she stepped in. Her movement of the boat caused the earth to quake and the rollers to set on fire, which angered Thor. He was about to kill Hyrrokkin with his hammer Mjöllnir, but the other gods insisted that he spare her.
There are many giants and if this has interested you then I would implore you have a dig and see what you can find out about them for your own education and enjoyment. I have never been into Norse mythology that much but after taking the time to write up this post for Norsevember I can genuinely say I am quite fascinated by the amazing stories.