Jotunheim: Outsized Tales from the Norse Land of the Giants
In Norse mythology, the cosmos consisted of nine realms. Some realms we know a lot about, others remain largely a mystery. Jotunheim, the land of the frost giants, is one of the better-recorded realms. Not only is it an interesting setting in its own right, but it served as the setting for several high-profile Norse stories. So what was Jotunheim, and why was it so important in Norse mythology?
What was Jotunheim?
Jotunheim is most commonly considered the home of the giants in Norse mythology, especially the frost giants, the Jotnar or Jotun. It was located close to Asgard (home to the Aesir family of gods) and Midgard (home to humanity). Jotunheim was considered to be a wild world of magic and chaos, where many of the threats to humanity and the gods lived.
Although Jotunheim did not have a ruler, several important Norse characters hailed from there. Perhaps the most famous was Loki, the trickster god. Separating Jotunheim from Asgard, and acting as a type of defense, was the river Iving. The river never froze and was incredibly difficult to cross, but this didn’t stop the Norse gods from adventuring into Jotunheim.
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Jotunheim is depicted as an icy realm dominated by the Jotnar giants (SmallvilleAntonio / CC BY SA)
Tales of Jotunheim: Thor and Geirröd
The Aesir gods and the Jotnar had a very combative relationship. In any myth featuring a Jotnar and one of the Aesir, it is likely the two will come to blows. The story of Thor and Geirröd is one of the most popular Norse myths. Like most Norse myths there are many variations but they tend to follow the same outline.
The tale began with Loki donning a suit of falcon feathers and traveling to Jotunheim. Disguised as a falcon, he visited Geirröd’s castle. Geirröd was no fool, however, and saw through Loki’s disguise, locking him in a cage. Imprisoned and starving, Loki was forced to reveal his true identity to the Jotnar. Geirröd agreed to release Loki on the condition that he brought the mighty Thor to his castle, without his hammer.
Upon his return to Asgard, Loki easily convinced Thor to visit the castle. He informed Thor there were two beautiful maidens awaiting him there: Gjálp and Greip. It never crossed Thor’s mind that this could be a trap, and he foolishly agreed to leave his hammer behind.
On their way to the castle, Thor and Loki spent the night at a friendly Jotnar’s home, Grior. She warned Thor that he was in danger and lent him her belt, magical staff, and a pair of iron gloves. Upon leaving Grior’s home, Thor attempted to cross the river Vimur.
As he was crossing, the giantess Gjálp entered the river and attempted to raise the water level and drown Thor. Thor used the magical staff to save himself and then launched a boulder at the fleeing giantess in retaliation.
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Thor's Journey to Geirrodsgard in Jotunheim. He is hanging by a rowan tree while preparing to throw a rock at the giantess upstream. (Public Domain)
Upon arriving at the castle, Thor was placed in a room with a single chair. Tired from his travels, and more than a little foolish, Thor sat in the chair and decided to take a nap. Of course, this was another trap.
Thor awoke to find himself rapidly approaching the ceiling. The two giantesses were below him and intended to squash him against the ceiling like a bug. Thor thrust the staff against the ceiling and pushed with all his might, crushing the two giantesses beneath his chair. This was the end of Gjálp and Greip.
At this point, Thor decided enough was enough and approached Geirröd, ready for a fight. The giant attacked straight away, launching a ball of molten iron at Thor. Thor caught the iron using the gloves he had been lent. Geirröd hid behind a pillar, but it was no use, as Thor launched the molten ball straight through the pillar and into Geirröd’s head.
How Thor Lost and Retrieved His Hammer in Jotunheim
Thor is most commonly associated with his hammer, Mjolnir. In Norse mythology, Thor and his hammer were the only absolute defense against the Jotnar. If Thor were ever to lose his mighty hammer, it would spell doom for all of Asgard.
So, of course, Thor lost his hammer. Upon discovering his hammer was lost, Thor’s enraged shouts were loud enough to grab the attention of Loki. Loki soon realized that this time he must actually help rather than hinder. So Loki visited the beautiful goddess Freyja, and asked to once again borrow her suit of falcon feathers.
Loki used the suit to fly to Jotunheim. Once there, he visited the king of the Jotnar, Þrymr, who readily admitted that he had stolen Thor’s hammer. Mjolnir had been hidden deep below the ground where Thor would never find it. Loki promptly flew back to Asgard to fill in the gods on what he had learned.
The gods convened a meeting so that they could form a plan on how to get the hammer back, without starting a war they feared they could not win. Heimdallr, guardian of the rainbow bridge Bifrost, came up with the only sensible plan: Thor must be dressed up as a bride and meet Þrymr while pretending to be Freyja. They could swap “Freyja’s” hand in marriage for Mjolnir.
Þrymr was so excited to meet the most beautiful of the goddesses that he ordered a great feast in her honor. Thor almost instantly spoiled the ruse by eating everything in sight. Þrymr was astounded by his bride’s appetite, but Loki reasoned that “Freyja” was just hungry as she hadn’t eaten for eight days due to her nerves.
Over the moon at this news, Þrymr lent over to kiss “Freyja” but was terrified to see Thor’s glaring eyes staring back at him behind the veil. Loki calmed the Jotnar king by telling him that “Freyja” was just tired, as she hadn't slept for eight nights due to her excitement.
Now very excited, the foolish king ordered “Freya’s” wedding gift to be brought to her, Mjolnir. The second the hammer was placed on his lap, Thor fully broke character, massacring every jotun in sight.
Thor’s Battle against the Jotnar, 1872 oil painting by Marten Eskil Winge (Public Domain)
Thor is tricked by Utgarda-Loki in Jotunheim
This Jotunheim adventure began with Thor traveling with Loki and his human servant Thjalfi to Jotunheim’s capital, Utgard. They encountered a giant named Skrymir, who offered to travel with them and carry their food bag. However, when they agreed, he tied the drawstring of the bag so tightly that not even the mighty Thor could open it.
This provoked Thor into a rage (not entirely uncommon). He waited until the giant was sleeping and struck him on the head with his hammer. His first blow did nothing, so he kept hitting the giant. Each time, Skrymir simply woke up and mocked Thor, asking if a leaf had fallen on his head while he was sleeping. After growing bored of his game, the giant left the three foodless and went on his own way.
The giant Skrymir took off with the food of Thor and his companions (Public Domain)
The three soon arrived at the stronghold of a giant called Utgarda-Loki. Tired and with no food, they asked the giant lord if they might stay the night and eat some food. Never missing a chance to anger the Aesir gods, the giant mocked the three of them. He demanded they prove their worth in several trials if they wished to stay.
The first trial was an eating contest between Loki and one of Utgarda’s retinue, Logi. Although Loki managed to eat all the meat in front of him, Logi won by eating not only the meat but the bones too, and even the trough in which his meat was served. The second trial was a foot race between Thjalfi and another courtier, Hugi. Again, Team Thor lost, with Thjalfi losing to Hugi three races in a row.
Finally, it was Thor’s turn, and knowing his strengths, he opted for a drinking competition. He lost. However much he tried to drink, he could not empty his drinking horn. Mocking Thor for being a weakling, Utgarda-Loki offered Thor a second task: he must simply lift the giant’s fat, gray cat. As much as he tried, Thor could not lift the animal, barely managing to raise the cat's foot off of the ground.
Finally, Utgarda-Loki offered one final task, Thor must wrestle an old woman called Elli. Thor was humiliated when the old woman easily wrestled the mighty god to the ground. Despite their failures, the giant allowed the three to stay the night regardless.
The next morning, Utgarda-Loki revealed it was all a trick. He had disguised himself as Skrymir and used magic to trick Thor. Every time Thor thought he had been striking the sleeping giant, he had actually been leveling mountains with his mighty blows.
The ruse had continued within the stronghold. Logi had been a magical wildfire that had burnt up the trough and the food within it. The fleet-footed Hugi, on the other hand, had been thought itself, which no one can outrun.
The drinking horn Thor used had its base in the sea, so no matter how much he drank there was always more. Thor had drunk so much that he had lowered the sea level, creating the first tides. The old woman Elli had been old age itself, something that no one can best.
The giant Skrymir tricked Thor in his challenges, like attempting to defeat old age (Public Domain)
The fat cat had been Jormungandr the world snake, a being so large no one had a hope of lifting it. Thor is enraged at Utgarda-Loki’s deception and moves to attack the trickster but the giant and his castle vanish, leaving Thor and his companions to mull over the lesson.
Thor attempts to lift Jörmungandr in the guise of a cat, 1872 drawing (Public Domain)
Odin Loses an Eye
One of the most important locations in Jotunheim was Mimir’s well. Mimir was an ancient giant of almost limitless wisdom, and it was believed he drew that wisdom from his well. The well was located under one of the great tree Yggdrasil’s roots in Jotunheim. Odin, seeking wisdom, visited the well and asked Mimir if he could drink from the well. Mimir responded that Odin could only do so if he offered up one of his eyes as payment.
Jotuheim played an incredibly important role in Norse mythology. As the home of the giants, it served up most of the antagonists that both the Aesir gods and mankind had to battle against. During Ragnarok, when the forces of chaos went to war with the gods, much of the chaos army originated in Jotunheim.
Furthermore, the most well-recorded and best-remembered myths tend to be set in Jotunheim, especially myths dealing with Thor. Without Jotunheim, Norse mythology would have been incredibly short on antagonists.
What makes the Jotnar so interesting is that despite their great size and might, more often than not they use their wisdom and magic to trick the often arrogant Aesir gods. This, in turn, is what made the Aesir gods so relatable: their almost constant fallibility.
Top image: Jotunheim, land of the giants in Norse mythology, was the source of many antagonists and adventures for our mythical heroes. Source: lobard / Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell
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Mark, J. December 20, 2018. Nine Realms of Norse Cosmology. World History Encyclopedia. Available at: https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1305/nine-realms-of-norse-cosmology/#:~:text=Jotunheim%20
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