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‘Nótt riding Hrímfaxi’ by Peter Nicolai Arbo. Nótt is the daughter of a jötunn from Jötunheimr by the name of "Norfi or Narfi."

A Jotunn Did Not Have to be Giant to be a Big Problem for Norse Gods

The jötnar (plural for jötunn) are a race of beings found in Norse mythology. The word jötnar is often translated into English to mean ‘giants’, though this is somewhat misleading, as not all of the jötnar are large in physical stature. A jötunn was not necessarily an antagonist to the Norse gods either, but myths show they were more often than not.

The status of the jötnar was not always negative, in fact it is a bit more ambiguous, as some of them have been portrayed in a more positive light. The jötnar are believed to live in Jötunheimr, one of the nine worlds in Norse cosmology. This world is traditionally regarded to be a dark, foreboding place where winter never ceases. Some of the best-known jötnar are Ymir, Skaði and Gerd.

"[The] Giant Skrymir and Thor, by Louis Huard. (Public Domain)

"[The] Giant Skrymir and Thor, by Louis Huard. ( Public Domain )

There Were Different Types of Jötunn

In Norse mythology, the jötnar are a race of beings distinct from the gods, as well as other creatures such as humans, elves, and dwarves. Unlike these other races, however, they are somewhat ambiguously described, both in their physique and their character. Some jötnar, such as Skrymir (who is known also as Útgarða-Loki), are depicted as being of an immense size, thus giving rise to the translation of the word ‘jötunn’ into English as ‘giant’. Additionally, some jötnar, such as Skaði, are said to be extremely beautiful, though others, such as Hyrrokkin, exceedingly ugly.

"I am the giant Skrymir" by Elmer Boyd Smith. ( Public Domain )

"I am the giant Skrymir" by Elmer Boyd Smith. ( Public Domain )

The nature of the jötnar is not an entirely clear-cut matter either. Most of these beings have been depicted as malevolent, due to their opposition to the Norse gods. This is especially so in the Ragnarök, the Norse version of the end of the world.

In this series of future events, a great battle will be fought between the gods and the jötnar, resulting in the death of several major gods, including Odin, Thor, and Freyr. Some of the well-known jötnar who will partake in this final battle against the gods include Surtr (a fire jötunn of Muspelheim), and Hel (the ruler of the Norse underworld).

"Battle of the Doomed Gods". Ragnarök occurs: Odin rides to battle and aims his spear towards the gaping mouth of the wolf Fenrir, Thor defends against the serpent Jörmungandr with a shield while wielding his hammer Mjöllnir, Freyr and the flaming Surtr fight, and an immense battle goes on around and atop the rainbow bridge Bifröst behind them. ( Public Domain )

"Battle of the Doomed Gods". Ragnarök occurs: Odin rides to battle and aims his spear towards the gaping mouth of the wolf Fenrir, Thor defends against the serpent Jörmungandr with a shield while wielding his hammer Mjöllnir, Freyr and the flaming Surtr fight, and an immense battle goes on around and atop the rainbow bridge Bifröst behind them. ( Public Domain )

Nevertheless, some jötnar were depicted in a more positive light. The sea jötunn Ægir, for example, is regarded to be a friend of the gods.

Three Famous Jötnar

One of the best-known jötnar in Norse mythology is Ymir, who is believed to be the father of all the jötnar. According to Norse belief, Ymir was the first being to exist, and was formed from the drops of water produced when the ice of Niflheim came into contact with the fire of Muspelheim.

Eventually, Ymir is said to have turned into an evil being, and Odin and his two brothers, Vili and Ve, were forced to kill him. Interestingly, the mother of these three brothers was Bestla, a descendant of Ymir, and therefore a jötunn.

Ymir gets himself killed by Odin and his brothers. (Public Domain)

Ymir gets himself killed by Odin and his brothers. ( Public Domain )

Having slain Ymir, Odin and his brothers proceeded to dismember the jötunn, and created the world using the different parts of his body. His blood, for instance, became the sea, his skull, the sky, and his hair, the trees.

Two other well-known jötnar are Skaði and Gerd, whose stories are closely associated with the gods. Skaði, for instance, was the daughter of a jötunn by the name of Þjazi. After her father was killed by the gods, Skaði sought to avenge him. The gods, however, offered to compensate her loss, and one of the promises they made was that she could marry any one of them, on the condition that she picked her husband based on his feet. In the end, the jötunn married the sea god Njord. As this was a disastrous match, they later separated.

Skade (1893) by Carl Fredrik von Saltza. ( Public Domain )

Skade (1893) by Carl Fredrik von Saltza. ( Public Domain )

Gerd was another jötunn married to a god, in this case, Freyr, Njord’s son. Freyr’s courtship of Gerd is another interesting story, as the god had to woo the jötunn (through one of his servants) first through gifts, and, when that failed, using harsh threats.

A depiction of the meeting between Skírnir and Gerðr.

A depiction of the meeting between Skírnir and Gerðr. ( Public Domain )

Top Image: ‘Nótt riding Hrímfaxi’ by Peter Nicolai Arbo. Nótt is the daughter of a jötunn from Jötunheimr by the name of "Norfi or Narfi." Source: Public Domain

By Wu Mingren

References

Black, J., 2014. The story of Ragnarok and the Apocalypse. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/story-ragnarok-and-apocalypse-001352

dhwty, 2017. Skaði, The Norse ‘Giantess’ with a Godly Vendetta. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends-europe/ska-i-norse-giantess-godly-vendetta-008258?li_source=base&li_medium=content-widget

dhwty, 2018. Freyr and Gerd: Lovesick Norse God Seeking Giantess. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends-europe/freyr-and-gerd-lovesick-norse-god-seeking-giantess-009672

McCoy, D., 2018. Jotunheim. [Online]
Available at: https://norse-mythology.org/cosmology/the-nine-worlds/jotunheim/

McCoy, D., 2018. Ymir. [Online]
Available at: https://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/giants/ymir/

New World Encyclopedia, 2008. Ymir. [Online]
Available at: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Ymir

Prof. Geller, 2017. Ymir. [Online]
Available at: http://mythology.net/norse/norse-creatures/ymir/

www.Norse-Mythology.net, 2018. Giants and Giantesses in Norse Mythology. [Online]
Available at: http://norse-mythology.net/giants-and-giantesses-in-norse-mythology/

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