Mark Neumayer

author of the Valda & the Valkyries series

Tag: jotun

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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