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Norse mythology is full of fantastic creatures, many of which have been the basis of beings and myths in other religions as well as in much of the modern fantasy literature genre. Yet few Norse mythological creatures are as pivotal, fascinating, and confusing as the jötunn. In this article, let’s take a look into this interesting mythological monster.
What is a Jötunn?
A superfluous reading of some Norse myths can leave the impression that a jötunn is just an ordinary monster. Most myths portray them as huge, lumbering, ugly, and evil beasts that torment humanity as well as the Æsir and Vanir gods.
And, indeed, even if we look just at their name, they come across as stereotypical evil monsters. Jötunn or jötnar (plural) are said to come from the Proto-Germanic etunaz and etenan, meaning “to eat”, “consuming”, and “greedy”. Another word for them you can encounter is þyrs, meaning “devil” or “evil spirit”.
Are The Jötnar Just Giants or Trolls?
A common and very understandable misconception is that “jötunn” is just the Norse term for a giant or a troll. Depending on the poem or translation you read, those exact words can be used instead of jötunn. Does this actually mean a jötunn is just a giant or a troll?
Not at all.
Jötnar are much more than that. To find out why, we need only to read the story of the first jötunn Ymir which also just so happens to be the very creation myth of all of Norse mythology. In it, we learn that Ymir is actually the first being to come into existence out of the emptiness of the cosmic void. Not the gods – a jötunn.
A jötunn of gargantuan proportions, Ymir then gave “birth” to other jötnar from his own sweat. Simultaneously with that, however, the second major being to come into existence was the celestial cow Audhumla. This beast nursed Ymir while she herself fed by licking a giant cosmic lump of salt. And, through those licks, Audhumla eventually uncovered or “birthed from the salt” Búri, the first god.
Why are Audhumla’s and Buri’s stories important to understand the jötnar?
Because Buri and later his son Borr both mated with the jötnar to produce the next generation of gods – Odin, Vili, and Ve. This quite literally makes the Æsir and Vanir gods of Norse mythology half-jötnar.
From there, Ymir’s story ends rather quickly – he is killed by Odin, Vili, and Ve, and the trio fashion the world from different parts of his enormous body. Meanwhile, Ymir’s offspring, the jötnar, spread across the Nine Realms although they come to call one of them – Jötunheim – their home.
As the first beings in existence, the jötnar can be seen as the forefathers of many of the other beasts, monsters, and beings in Norse mythology. In that sense, we can see them as proto-giants or proto-trolls? They are also proto-gods, after all.
For a bit of an extra etymological connection, we can point out that the etanan term for jötunn is associated with the word ettin – an archaic word for giant. Similar connections can be made between þyrs and “troll”. Nevertheless, the jötnar are very much more than just either of those creatures.
Are The Jötnar Always Evil?
In most myths and legends, the jötnar are almost always shown as enemies of both the gods and humanity. They are either outright evil or they are mischievous and tricky. In other myths, they are just dumb monsters that the gods battle or outwit.
There are also exceptions. In fact, it’s interesting to note that there are even jötnar living alongside the gods or even in Asgard. For example, the jötunn Skadi comes to Asgard to seek revenge after the gods kill her father Thjazi. However, Loki lightens up the mood by making her laugh and she eventually marries the god Njord.
Ægir is another famous example – he’s married to the goddess of the sea Ran and he frequently throws huge feasts for the gods in his halls. And then there’s Gerdr, another beautiful female jötunn. She’s often seen as an earth goddess and she won the love of the Vanir god Freyr.
We also can’t forget Jörð, another female jötunn that’s worshipped as an earth goddess. She’s also famously the mother of Thor from the Allfather god Odin.
So, while there are many more examples of “evil” jötnar or at least ones that are aligned against the gods, there are enough described as “good” to throw a wrench into the idea that all jötnar are just evil monsters.
Symbolism of the Jötunn
With all of the above being said, it’s clear that a jötunn isn’t just a big hulking monstrosity for the gods to battle. Instead, these beings can be seen as the primordial elements of the cosmos, the first living creatures to come into existence.
Older than even the gods, the jötnar represents the chaos that rules most of the cosmos despite the gods’ efforts to spread order.
From that point of view, the frequent conflicts between gods and jötnar aren’t so much clashes between good and evil as they are the struggle between order and chaos.
And, when we consider the myth about Ragnarok and the end of the world, the gods are defeated by the jötnar, and the cosmic chaos finally overcomes the short-lived order. Is this bad or good? Or is it just subjective?
Either way, it seems like the ancient Nordic people had an intuitive understanding of the entropy principle that governs the universe.
Symbols of the untamable wilds and the uncontrollable chaos of the universe, the jötnar can be seen either as “evil” or just as the inevitability of nature.
Importance of the Jötunn in Modern Culture
While many Norse mythological creatures such as elves, dwarves, and trolls are more popular than the jötnar today, the latter have also made a pretty serious dent in modern literature and pop culture. For some examples, you can check out the 2017 movie The Ritual where a jötunn appears as the bastard daughter of Loki.
The third season of the TV show The Librarians also features jötnar in human disguises. The 2018 God of War game also makes frequent mentions of the jötnar and other games such as SMITE, Overwatch, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, and Destiny 2 do the same either through creature designs, weapons, items, or other means.
The Vrykul giants in World of Warcraft are also undeniably jötunn-based and their settlements also include jötnar-inspired names such as Jötunheim, Ymirheim, and others.
The jötnar are fearsome giants in Norse mythology and the originators of the gods, humanity, and pretty much all other life. Either way, they are enemies of the Asgardian gods in most myths as the latter try to sow order across the Nine Realms. Whether we view the efforts of the Asgardians as good, as futile, or as both is irrelevant, for the jötnar are fated to prevail.