Part two: Gods and Giants
Disclaimer: The following is only one heathens opinion, mine, and I’m learning as I go just like everyone else. Different opinions by better educated folks are available.
Out of Ymir’s flesh
was fashioned the earth,
And the ocean out of his blood;
Of his bones the hills,
of his hair the trees,
Of his skull the heavens high.
– Bellows, ‘Grimnismal’
In Norse mythology, we have the Aesir, the Vanir, and the Jötnar ( the giants.) The Aesir and Vanir are the gods that are worshiped, holy powers of creation, prosperity, and order, and the giants are older powers, who like to break things; they are wildfire, avalanches, floods, the hag in the dark wood and the serpent under the sea.
In the Poetic Edda, the giants were here first. The creation of the earth is described as an act of violence against them – the gods Odin, Villi, and Ve kill the giant Ymir and use his various dismembered body parts to make the world, and this theme, this tension between chaos and order, creation and destruction, is common throughout the Norse stories. The Eddic poem Völuspá speaks of monsters, long held in check by the gods, breaking loose from their bonds and making a terrible mess.
Now Garm howls loud
The fetters will burst,
and the wolf run free;
In Anglo – Saxon, Eotenas is cognate with the Old Norse Jotunn. Giants in English folklore are often portrayed as hostile, powerful, and greedy. Like the Norse Jotnar, they were from the edges of the world, outside of civilization.
‘The outside was considered a place of wildness and chaos where untamed spirits dwelt and danger lurked around each and every corner.’
The giants are not just wild, but because of their great age, they are a source of ancient wisdom, and there are several tales of Odin visiting to question them and find out what they know. The Vanir god Frey marries the giantess Gerd, and his father Njord marries the giantess Skadi; there’s no clear, all – out war between the two groups. The giants are dangerous enemies, but the gods are frequently seen tricking them, loving them, stealing from them, or, if you’re Thor, hitting them with a really big hammer.
‘Nor did he only fight these battles on behalf of the gods… he was struggling for mankind, and for the precious civilization which men had wrested from a hard and chaotic world.’
– H R Ellis Davidson, ‘Gods and Myths of Northern Europe’
Despite being firmly on the side of the gods, Thor travels often with Loki, who is portrayed in the Völuspá as one of those monsters who breaks free, riding with the giants at the end of the world. In Asatru the gods are not wholly good, or the giants wholly evil, and neither are people. We do not need to be saved, or fixed; there is no need to be purified, or for a spiritual journey towards perfection. We can just enjoy good soil, good weather, good friends, and develop strong communities to support us when life is bad.
In Norse mythology, change and conflict are often necessary to create new things. The environment on Earth is stable enough for human life to flourish, but without the occasional catastrophe, such as the extinction of the dinosaurs, we might not have got here at all. It is like ice and fire; ice is unmoving, fire is destructive. Too much of either and nothing can live. But in the Prose Edda, it is in the space where those opposites meet that life begins.
The year turns between cold and hot, stillness and movement, order and chaos, and we make time in each season to give thanks to the gods, to those powers of nature that carved stability from the primordial giant.
‘The victory of the gods over the Eotenas was the re-assuring victory of order over chaos, the assertion of human values over disorder… the giants were elemental forces of nature, temporarily held at bay but never to be finally overcome.”
– Stephen Pollington, ‘The Elder Gods – The Otherworld of Early England’
Further reading –
The Jötnar in more detail –
Were the Jötnar worshipped? Maybe 🙂