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.