Who were the Jötnar in Norse Mythology?
According to Old Norse Mythology, Jötnar (plural for Jötunn) were the Frost Giants of Norse Myth. They are a type of entity contrasted with gods (Aesir and Vanir) and other non-human figures, such as dwarfs and elves. Although the term giant is sometimes used to gloss the word Jötunn, the Jötnar are not necessarily large and may be described as exceedingly beautiful or alarmingly grotesque.
Although the Jötnar might more commonly be known as giants and generally portrayed in popular culture as hulking creatures that are the enemies of the gods, the Jötnar actual role in Norse mythology is slightly more nuanced than that.
Well, it is true that most of the Jötnar were opposed to the Aesir gods living in Asgard and will ultimately battle them in a great war at Ragnarök, pop culture has taken extensive liberties with the residents of Jotunheim.
This article will cover what exactly the Jötnar are, and certain individual Jötnar are within Norse mythology.
Giants or Jötnar
First, to clear up a misunderstanding involving the term “Giant”.
The Old Norse word, Jötunn, used to describe the inhabitants of Jotunheim, derives from an older Germanic word meaning “consumer” or “devourer”. As languages developed over the years and English began borrowing words from other languages, the term giant became the dominant word for describing the enemies of the gods and various mythologies, including Greek mythology.
While you might often hear the Jötnar referred to as Giants or Frost Giants, this is hardly an inaccurate description. —so, what exactly are the Jötnar?
Who were the Jötnar?
In many ways, rather than being a different type of entity than the gods of Asgard, they can be seen as a different family of the same species.
Jötnar can vary in their descriptions quite a bit as some are known for their great strengths, while others, such as Loki, are more known for their intellect.
Some did resemble what we imagine giants to look like, while others were known for their incredible beauty. Many of the Jötnar are capable shapeshifters, with Loki being renowned for his skill, and are also capable of casting illusions and other tricks such as the Jötnar Útgarða-Loki (anglicized as Utgard-Loki).
As you can see, there’s no clear, easy definition for the Jötnar, and their appearance and role in the story can vary wildly.
The Jötnar are often regarded as the enemies of the Aesir gods, continually making efforts to invade Asgard, kill the gods or take the goddesses as their wives. Thor, the god of thunder and son of Odin, is usually the principal defender of Asgard and often goes on trips to hunt Jötnar.
Many of the Jötnar fear Thor and his mighty hammer and believe there is little they can do to stop him. However, they are seemingly capable of stealth or other tactics, as they managed to steal Thor’s hammer while he was sleeping in Asgard.
Only one Jötunn ever challenged Thor to a duel, and he was easily dispatched.
The Jötnar Within Norse Mythology
However, there are many examples of the Aesir gods and the Jötnar coexisting in some fashion.
Both the Aesir and the Jötnar come from the same place—the mixture of Ice and Fire in the great void at the beginning of time.
Ymir, the first giant, created the Jötnar, and the great cow brought about the first Aesir god.
Odin was born from the relations of a god and a Jötnar, and many of the Aesir throughout Norse mythology would end up marrying and having children with Jötnar, including Thor himself.
Loki is the Jötnar that formed a blood bond with Odin, allowing him to walk among the Aesir in Asgard and often appear in tales with Thor and others.
Aegir and Ran
Aegir and his wife Ran are two Jötnar that live in a majestic hall underneath the ocean and often hosts great feasts for the gods. On one occasion, Thor spent the night at the home of a Jötunn and went fishing with him the next day. Although, he did end up slaughtering him along with many other Jötnar.
Mimir is another of the more notable Jötnar if he is meant to be a Jötunn. Practically, no existing sources explain what Mimir is, but as he dwells in Jotunheim, some believe him to be an exceptionally wise Jötnar.
Mimir is the master of a well, located in Jotunheim, underneath one of the roots of the world tree, Yggdrasil. This well contains wisdom and intelligence and bestows these qualities upon those who would drink its waters—this is the source of Mimir’s wisdom, and Odin sought to drink from this well himself.
Asking Mimir for a single drink from the well, Mimir agreed but required one of the all seen eyes of Odin as a pledge first. So Odin plucked one of his eyes from his head, placed it in the well and then drank deeply, becoming even wiser.
Later, after the war between the Aesir gods and the Vanir gods, the two sides traded hostages to live among the other tribe, as was the custom. The Aesir sent Hœnir to Vanaheim as the Vanir gods believed him worthy of being a chieftain, along with Mimir.
They immediately made Hœnir a chieftain and found that he provided incredibly wise advice for any issue presented to him but failed to notice that there was actually Mimir counselling him.
When Mimir wasn’t with him and asked Hœnir a question, he could only respond with “let others decide.”
After enough occasions of Hœnir only responding with that unhelpful advice, the Vanir believed that they had been cheated in the treaty, and so they went to Mimir, beheaded him and sent the head back to Asgard.
Odin took the head of Mimir, embalmed it with herbs and chanted magical phrases over it. This gave Mimir’s head the power to speak, and Odin would often bring it to his ear for counsel.
At the time of Ragnarök, the Jötnar will launch their great attack against Asgard, led by Loki at the helm of the ship of the Dead. With the assistance of the fire god, Surt, they will ravage Asgard and lead to the destruction of the cosmos.
It may seem that with the events of Ragnarök and their frequent opposition to the Aesir gods, the Norse peoples viewed the Jötnar as evil entities, but that isn’t exactly the case.
Although the Jötnar were certainly feared and often presented negatively, they were a vital part of the mythology to keep the cosmos in balance. More importantly, the cycle of Ragnarök and the role the Jötnar play in it is essential for existence to continue as the doom of the gods and the realms inevitably lead to rebirth.
Even though the Jötnar have generally been portrayed negatively, especially in modern culture, it’s important to remember that every act of creation is first an act of destruction.
Image Sources: Stepan Makarov, David Szabo, JiaNan 李, Sam Flegal.