Where there are gods, there are also likely to be devils, and we know this to be apparent in Norse mythology.
In this ancient mythology, we see Asgard and Vanaheim the home to the Aesir and Vanir gods, such as the well-known Odin and Thor, and Midgard the home to humankind. It is on the outskirts of the universal realms that we find six other worlds that accommodate unknown spiritual beings, dark beings shrouded in mystery and deeply feared by the ancient Norse people.
One of these worlds is called Jotunheim, home of the jötnar (singular jötunn), the first living being. The jötnar are also called giants, or giantesses, although this is said to be an inaccurate description of these powerful beings, a result of ambiguous translations into English. In truth, the word ‘jötunn’ is derived from the Proto-Germanic word ‘etunaz’, which means “devourer”.
The jötnar are distinctly different to the Norse gods. Neither do they hold any similarity to humans nor to other mythical creatures, such as elves or dwarves. In fact, the jötnar are especially unique in their diversity, with some being enormous in size, some described as breathtakingly beautiful, and others perceived as quite grotesque. While jötnar are typically seen as antagonistic towards the gods and therefore evil - and for the most part they are - this isn’t the case with every single jötunn.
Ancient tales depict that these devourers sought to wreak havoc on the realms, and to bring the universe into a state of primordial chaos. This tension between chaos and order was ironically the dynamic needed to maintain a cosmic balance. This was the task of the gods: to keep the jötnar in check, yet allowing their existence.
It needs to be noted that, according to legends, the very first being that existed was a jötunn, named Ymir. Originally benevolent in nature, Ymir is said to have deteriorated into evil, and was eventually brought to his knees by Odin and his two brothers, who killed him, dismembered him, and used his remains to create the world – his head, the sky; his blood, the ocean; and his hair, the trees.
With Ymir being the father of all, the paradox is that all descended beings, even the gods, are part-jötunn.
So, who are the jötnar?
From humble trickery, to powerful forces of nature, each jötunn possesses an immense strength that makes them a formidable foe to encounter. Some of the jötnar have complex and fascinating chronicles, which paint colourful - often bloody - murals of ancient Norse history…
Aegir – Lord of the Ocean
Living in the depths of the ocean, Aegir is a mighty jötunn who controls the seas. Sporting white hair and a white beard, Aegir is said to possess potent magical powers. He was reportedly married to his sister, Ran, and together they produced nine mythical daughters, the spirits of the waves.
The Vikings believed that when they encountered dangers at sea, such as stormy waters, it was a sign that the treacherous jötunn Aegir was nearby. They were also fearful of the goddess, Ran, who they believed would use an enormous fishing net to captured whole ships, dragging all aboard to murky graves in the depths.
Although feared by man for their ruthlessness, Aegir and Ran supposedly held splendid feasts beneath the waves that even the gods would attend.
Loki the trickster, and Angrboda
Loki is sometimes mistakenly identified as a god, as he lives beside the gods and goddesses in Asgard. However, he is undoubtedly a jötunn, hailing from the world of Jotenheim. Loki’s power is that of shapeshifting and trickery, and he’s known to enjoy terrorising the gods of Asgard with his pranks and malicious mischief. Unfortunate for the gods in Asgard, Loki is Odin’s brother by way of blood covenant.
Loki is said to have married twice. His one wife is fellow jötunn, Angrboda. Her name, which means “foreboding”, or, “the one who brings grief”, is indeed indicative of her character in Norse mythology. Often described as having hair the colour of dried blood, and being tall and muscular, Angrboda is called the Hag (wise woman) of the Iron Wood. Somewhat more impressive than her slippery husband Loki, she is a fierce warrior and shapeshifter, bloodthirsty and passionate. Although she does not lack in sympathy altogether, she is known to be intolerant of weakness and cruel to those who suffer this trait.
Together, Loki and Angrboda are said to have produced three monstrous offspring, all of whom were harshly dealt with by the gods at Asgard. The children are: Hel, who is sometimes known as the goddess of death; Fenrir, the wolf-shaped god of destruction, and Jörmungandr, the great snake that encircles the earth.
Hel, goddess of Death
Far from a goddess, Hel is one of the most sinister jötnar in traditional Norse legends. The child of Loki and Angrboda, Hel is said by some to only possess half a face –one side of her face is magnificently beautiful, and the other is absolute darkness. It was the god Odin who cast Hel into the underworld. Here, she created her own realm, Helheim, and crowned herself queen.
According to myths, Hel receives the dead who have perished of illness or old age – the causes of death that denote a cowardly death, and not the valiant death of warriors. Those who enter Helheim become part of an army of the dead, a powerful troop that will play a role in the legendary Ragnarok, a series of battles and natural disasters that culminate in the complete collapse of the realms as they were known.
The legends go on…
There are stories upon stories of the jötnar, and their encounters with the gods. While seemingly at odds with each other, their journeys cross and interweave into the tapestry of the Norse mythology and religion that we read today. Read more about these chronicles on our blog!