Mark Neumayer

author of the Valda & the Valkyries series

Tag: giants

Five Mighty Women from Norse Mythology

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series Norse Mythology Quick Hits

Women had a large degree of freedom during the Viking Age, especially when compared to their European contemporaries. So it comes as no surprise that the sagas and legends feature some powerful females.  There are a lot to choose from. Which of them top the list when it comes to power? Here are my choices:

Ludwig Pietsch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ludwig Pietsch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hyrrokin

When Baldr died, the Norse gods needed to launch his ship Hringhorni to use it as a funeral pyre. There was just one problem – Hringhorni was the largest ship in the Nine Worlds and no one was able to make it budge. So the gods sent to Jotunheim, the land of the giants. They summoned one particular giantess called Hyrrokin (her names means Smoke-Withered or Fire-Stained.) Hyrrokin knew how to make an entrance. She arrived riding on top of a wolf, using a bridle made out of twisted snakes!  The wolf was so tough that it took four beserkers to hold it down.

Was Hyrrokin able to move the ship? She walked over to it and gave it a single push. The movement was so intense that “fire sparkled from the rollers, and the earth shook all around.” That is one strong woman!

Elli Wrestling Thor from Ars Poetica

Elli Wrestling Thor from Ars Poetica

Elli

When Thor, Loki and Thjálfi visited the hall of the giant Utgard-Loki. The giant sets each of his visitors a challenge. Thor ends up with three challenges (He is Thor, after all.) For his third challenge he announces that he will wrestle any one in the hall. Utgard-Loki says that since Thor is kind of small he can wrestle one of the nurses – Elli. An old woman shuffles up and the wrestling match begins. As hard as Thor struggles, he can not move the giantess Elli. Thor tries and tries but not only can he not defeat the woman, she drives him back until Thor has one knee down on the ground.

Afterwards it is revealed that Elli is the personification of Old Age. Utgard-Loki marvels that Thor did so well because everyone eventually falls to Old Age.  Just look at the story of Idunn. goddess of youth. When she was kidnapped and taken away from Asgard the gods went into a panic as they began to turn withered and gray. Old age frightens even the gods, earning Elli her place on this list.

freyja-scieth

Freyja – detail from work by Scieth-Ailm

Freyja

When warriors die in battle they are brought to their heavenly reward, but not all of them go to Valhalla. Half of the warriors go to Folkvang the hall of the goddess Freyja.  What makes this goddess so powerful that even Odin shares with her? Her anger once made  the halls of the gods shake. She is associated with love, sex, beauty, fertility, gold, magic, war, and death.  That is a pretty potent combination. The Prose Edda says that she is ranked second only to one other goddess – Frigg, but I Frigg seems to get more of her power from being the wife of Odin while Freyja earned my ranking all by herself

 

The Norns by Arthur Rackham

The Norns by Arthur Rackham

Urdr, Verdandi and Skuld

The Eddas refer to a race of Norns but the three most famous are Urdr (fate), Verdandi (happening or present) and Skuld (future). How do the sagas describe these three? We are told in Voluspa they are “Huge of might” and “mighty in wisdom.” The Norns are the weavers of Fate and even the gods are under their power and influence. One of the reasons why Odin travels so much is that he knows the fate which awaits the gods at Ragnarok. While he knows he can not escape that fate he travels and seeks knowledge to ease some of it’s consequences.

The Norns’ importance to Norse mythology is also represented by their role in taking care of the literal center of the universe – Yggdrasil, the World Tree that runs through each of the Nine Worlds. Each morning they draw water from the Well of Fate and create a soothing poultice that they apply to the bark of the World Tree to keep it healthy. They might not be able to lift massive ships or crack skulls in a fight but it is said that no one can fight the fate that Urdr, Verdandi and Skuld have woven for them.

Hel by Thalia Took

Hel by Thalia Took

Hel or Hela

There is not many people that scare the gods. There are not many that the gods have to ask for what they want instead of just taking it. Hela, the goddess of death, is at the top of both those lists. The gods of Norse mythology can and do die.  Hela has power over them all. As one of the three children of Loki and a giantess, she inspired so much fear and concern among the gods that she was cast into Nifleheim where she created great mansions to house the dead.

Brave warriors also fear Hela because her realm is filled with those who have died of sickness or in bed. If they are in her realm it is because they have died a “straw death” and were not worthy to earn a place in the heavens.  During Ragnarok Hela will send her legions of the dead to fight against the gods

 

Summary

I’ve only touched briefly on each of these powerful women. I hope I’ve piqued your interest enough to get you out there and reading more on your own. Be sure and drop me a comment if you have any other powerful females from Norse mythology that you feel deserve a mention.

Fast Facts About the Jotun

Giants are often thought of as monsters. We have them serving the role of villain in folk tales and myths from around the world. The Norse myths are no exception with Thor, the defender of man, defeating numerous giants throughout his adventures. But if you think of the Jotun as nothing more than cardboard cutout bad guys then you’re making a big mistake.

The First Creatures
The first creature who was not a god was a giant. Ymir’s body arose out of the region where the cold of Niflheim met the fire of Muspelheim, although we are also told that Elivigar, the rivers that existed in Ginungagap, cast forth drops of venom and these formed the body of Ymir. Either way “all giants (come) from Ymir.”

It Does a Giant’s Body Good
If he was born before the world was formed, what exactly did Ymir survive on? Luckily for him, after the drops of vapor condensed to form his body they also produced a cow named Audhumla. Ymir survived on the milk that came from the cow.

They Were Useful
The sons of Bor (Vee, Vili and Odin) killed Ymir. We aren’t told the specific reason for them doing this although earlier in the saga it is mentioned that Frost-giants are inherently wicked. The three brothers then used Ymir’s blood to create the seas and all the waters, his flesh became the land, his bones became the mountains and his skull was used to form the sky.
A giant built the walls of Asgard. Granted, he was in disguise at the time, and he had the help of a magical horse that could pull tremendous loads of stone, and Thor killed him when his deception was uncovered, but he built the walls.

They Were Worthy Foes
During Balder’s funeral the gods can not move the laden funeral-ship because it is too heavy. The gods had to summon a giantess to move it for them so we know the giants could be stronger than the gods.
When Odin wanted to test the extent of his knowledge he traveled to see the giant Vafþrúðnir and entered into a battle of wits. Odin won, but only with the final question whereby he asked something that only he could know the answer to.
Giants were also behind the defeat of of Thor and Loki in the hall of Utgard-Loki. Loki lost an easting contest when his opponent ate not just the food but the plates and table the meal was set on. Thor lost both a drinking contest and a wrestling match. They were tricked and only discovered this when Utgard-Loki volunteered the information after they had left his hall.

 They Could Be Beautiful
Yes, the giantess Angrboda gave birth to the Midgard Serpent, the Fenrir Wolf, and Hela, so Jotun had the capacity to be monstrous with a capital “M.” But we also have several instances of gods falling in love with giants. The most notable one is probably Frey who fell head over heels in love with the giantess Gerd and eventually married her. In addition to Loki (who fathered those three children with Angrboda) Thor and Odin also had their dalliances on the giant side of the street.

So the story of the Jotun, like many parts of Norse myth, is a lot more nuanced and varied than popular culture would lead you to believe. It’s definitely worth your time to do some further digging on your own.

How Big Were the Norse Giants?

The other day I was wondering “How big is a giant?” It is a simple question and I can give you a simple answer – it varies. The giant who built the walls of Asgard was able to change his size so that the gods did not suspect his true nature. This ability prevents us from getting a satisfying answer to our question. Unfortunately, the Eddas don’t have a section that comes right out and lists the heights of the giants, or jotnar. We have to settle for bits and pieces. A description of Jotunheim mentions that the place is filled with men of “prodigious stature.” That doesn’t tell us much. Utgard-Loki, the king of the giants, says “Thor is little in comparison to our men.”  I assume Thor had to be at least six feet tall so we’re starting to make some progress here. There are other sections where we can pick up clues from comparisons but ultimately we learn that there are jotnar of all different sizes. Here are some of them:

Big
Whether naturally, or by altering themselves with some sort of shape-changing ability, the Jotnar could not have been that much taller than the gods because several of the gods married giantesses and had children with them. There was Loki and Angrboda. Now we could discount this since Loki was half-giant and a shapeshifter himself, but Thor fathered a child with Jarnsaxa, Odin seduced Gunnlod, Frey married  the giantess Gerda, and Skadi married Njord. So due to simple biology we have to assume at least some of the jotnar were close in size to the gods.

Bigger
During the funeral of Balder the Good he was laid to rest in his ship Hringhorn. The ship was “the largest in the world” and was filled with all manner of goods and treasures. But when it came time to launch the ship it was so heavy that no one was able to budge it. They summoned a giantess named Hyrrokin. She arrived riding a wolf. Her mount was so big that it took four beserkers just to hold it down. Hyrrokin was able to get the boat unstuck with a single push. Considering that Odin and Thor were already there and they still had to send out for help, we begin to get the idea this had to be a seriously massive woman.

But can we find a clearer example of size? Sure. Thor and Loki and two human companions were on one of their adventures when they were forced to take shelter for the night. They found a strange hall which was all open on one side. During the night they were awakened by strange noises and retreated into one of the side rooms so Thor could more easily stand guard at the entrance. When morning came and they ventured outside they discovered the giant Skrymir. The strange noises were caused by the giant’s snoring. The giant talked with them a bit and then picked up his glove at which point Thor realized that the “hall” they had spent the night in was the in fact the giant’s glove. The side “room” had been the thumb of the glove. Four people had fit into that “room.” If his thumb was that big, imagine how big the rest of him was.

Biggest
How big could the giants get? Consider this – the world was formed from the body of the giant Ymir. The sons of Bor (Odin, Villi and Ve) slew the first giant and used his flesh to make the earth, his bones to make the mountains, his blood to make the sea, and they used his skull to make the sky. Now that is big!

Posted by Mark Neumayer

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