There are different names applied to giants in the Eddas and Sagas, as well as in German tradition. ON jötun, AS eoten, OD jaetten, from eta, “to eat,” perhaps express their gluttony, and these names are continued in the “Etin” of Scots folklore. ON thurs, AS thyrs, OS duris, OHG thuris, perhaps mean “powerful” (cf. Sanskrit turás, “strong”), though the corresponding Danish tosse means “simpleton.” The OHG risi (sanskrit uršan), “strong,” appears in ON in Berg-risi, “Mountain-giant.” The MHG hiune, German Hiine, signified in its root-meaning strength and daring, or perhaps great size, but was confused with the name of the dreaded Huns. The word “troll,” formerly a more or less demoniac being, is now used in Scandinavian speech for “giant” or “ogre.” Female giants were called thursa-meyjar, “giant-maids,” gygr, and occasionally gifr or grithr.
Giants appear in the Eddic cosmogony. The first giant, Ymir or Aurgelmir, existed before earth and sea were formed, and he was made from venom dropping from Elivagar, “Stormy Waves,” into Ginnunga-gap. According to Snorri, this venom congealed into ice, and the ice melted in contact with warm air from Muspellheim. Life quickened in it and Ymir was the result. He and all his descendants, the Frost-giants, were evil.1 To Odin’s question: “How did Ymir beget children without a giantess?” Vafthrudnir replied that beneath his arms a male and female grew, and foot with foot formed a six-headed son. This son was probably Thrudgelmir, mentioned in an earlier stanza of Vafthrudnismal. His son was Bergelmir, and Vafthrudnir remembered how he was born in a boat long ago.2
Snorri gives the same account and says that Ymir was nourished with the milk of the cow Audhumla.3 When Ymir was slain so much blood flowed from him that all the Frost-giants were drowned save Bergelmir who, with his wife, escaped in a boat (or mill-stone).4 Saxo also makes the giants an ancient people, the first of three races in far off time.5
The giants dwelt in Jötunheim, or in Utgard outside the limits of earth and sea, assigned to them by the gods. It is on the edge of Heaven, beyond Elivagar. The river Ifing, which never freezes, separates the realms of giants and gods. This region lies in the North or North-east, or East, according to various accounts in the poems and in Snorri.6 It has fields with cattle, regions where hunting and fishing are carried on, and halls where the giants dwell. Saxo’s giants have also herds or goats.7 On its frontier, on a hill, sits Eggther, warder of the giants, and the cock Fjalar, whose crowing wakes them at the Doom of the gods.8 At the end of Heaven, hence probably near Jötunheim, the giant Hræsvelg, “Corpse-eater,” sits in eagle’s form and makes the winds with his wings. His hill overlooks Hel.9 Jötunheim was a mountainous region, and this, coupled with the fact that in later tradition mountains are the home of giants, explains the names Bergbui, Bergrisi, “Mountain-giant.” But any distant region was apt to be called the home of giants and monsters. Saxo says that a wild region north of Norway and separated from it by the sea, was peopled with monsters, and perhaps Greenland is intended. Snorri speaks of giants, dwarfs, and “blue men,” dragons and wild beasts, as existing in Sweden. Saxo also thought that Denmark had once been cultivated by giants, and found proof of it in megalithic remains and boulders on hilltops. The statement in Grimnismal that the Frost-giants dwell under one of the roots of Yggdrasil, and beside Mimir’s well, according to Snorri, is due to the systematizing of Norse mythology.10
The giants had separate dwellings in Jötunheim, e.g., Gymir,
before whose house fierce dogs were bound. Thrynn is called “lord of the giants,” and has many giants under him, and Utgard-Loki is lord of Utgard. Svipdagsmal also speaks of “the seat of the giant race.” Hence giants lived in some kind of community.11
Giants are of great size and are sometimes monstrous. This is shown by Skirnir’s vast glove and by other indications. They have many heads, varying from three to the nine hundred possessed by Tyr’s grandmother. According to Saxo, they are shaggy, monstrous beings, who can alter their shape or size.12 The hero Starkad, sprung from giants, had many hands. Thor tore four of these off and now his giant’s body was contracted and made human. Saxo records this, but discredits it. In another account, Starkad had eight arms, but perhaps the hero is confused with a giant of the same name overcome by Thor.”13 Giant women were sometimes beautiful, and beloved by gods or heroes. The giants were of great might. Vidblindi drew whales out of the sea like little fish. Others tossed huge rocks as if they were small stones. The giantess Hyrokkin could alone move Balder’s funeral ship.14 To giants as to dwarfs the sun was fatal, turning them to stone. The monstrous Hrimgerd was thus transformed, and “men will mock at her as a harbour-mark.” In one of many stories of S. Olaf’s encounters with giants, he cursed a giantess so that she became stone.15
Adjectives applied to giants indicate aspects of their character — “haughty,” “insolent,” “dangerous,” “joyous,” “morose,” “fierce,” “hard,” “energetic,” “warlike.” In later tradition they are stupid, but in the Eddic poems they have a wisdom of their own, due to their great antiquity and early origin. Hence they are “wise,” “sagacious,” “full of wisdom,” as Vafthrudnir was. Suttung owned the poetic mead, and runes were given to giants by the giant Alsvith, “All-wise.”16
Giants were often violent, especially when thwarted, and their rage was called jötunmodr, “giant frenzy.” Saxo tells how a giant fell into such a frenzy, biting his shield, gulping down
fiery coals, and rushing through fires.17 They were nevertheless often good-natured, “merry as a child,” like Hymir in Hymiskvitha. Mostly they were hostile to gods and men, and Thor was their great opponent, his hammer the great defence of the gods against the Frost-giants. The gods feared that the Hillgiants might cross Bifrost bridge (the rainbow) into their abode. Hence what was red in it was burning fire, and Heimdall was its guardian. Yet a giant rebuilt their citadel for the gods that it might be strong against the giants. The breaking of the gods’ pledges to this giant, however, leads to their attack upon them at the Doom of the gods, when the Frost-giants come out with Loki and Hrym against the Æsir.18 The giants sometimes outwitted the gods, as in the story of Skrymnir, but more usually gods, especially Odin, were cleverer than giants and cheated them, just as Thor overcame them by force.19
Yet Odin’s descent was traced from giants, and at Balder’s funeral Frost- and Hill-giants were present. Gods also married giantesses or had amours with them — Frey, Njord, Odin, and Thor (with Grid and Jarnsaxa).20 Giants also sought to unite with goddesses, Thjazi with Idunn, Thrym with Freyja. Gefjun had four sons by a giant.21 Saxo tells several stories of giants who carried off princesses; and the giantess Hardgrep, who had nurtured Hadding, sought and obtained his love when he was grown up. The Eddic giants also stole mortal women, as Hrimgerd says her father Hati did. Hrimgerd herself desired Atli as a lover.22
Besides the giants who figure in the myths of Thor and Odin, others are named and described. Brimir had his beer-hall in Okolnir (“the not-cold,” presumably a volcano in the frost regions). From his blood came the dwarfs, and Odin has his sword, unless Brimir is here the name of the sword itself.23 Hrimnir, a Frost-giant, has children called Heith, “Witch,” and Hross-thjof, “Horse-thief.” Skirnir told Gerd that Hrimnir would stand and stare at her fate if she refused Frey.24 Hrimgrimnir, “the Frost-shrouded,” dwells by the door of Hel, and
Gerd was threatened with him as her possessor.25 Helgi told the monstrous Hrimgerd that she would be mistress of the giant Lothen, who dwelt in Tholley, “Pine Island.” This very wise giant was yet worst of all dwellers in the wild.26 Alvaldi was father of Thjazi, Idi, and Gangr. He was rich in gold, and at his death his sons agreed to take the gold each in the same number of mouthfuls so that all should share equally.27
However monstrous the giants may be, they are anthropomorphic. A few other beings called giants are theriomorphic, e.g., the brood of Loki, himself called a giant and the son of a giant. The giantess Angrboda bore to him the Fenris-wolf and the Midgard-serpent, giant animals of a supernatural kind.28 The wolves Hati and Skoll, who pursue the sun and moon, are giants, offspring of the Fenris-wolf and a giantess.29 The giant Hræsvelg, who causes the winds, is in eagle form and is called the tawny eagle “who gnaws corpses at the Doom of the gods.30 Giants also took animal form occasionally, and some of them had animal names — Hyndla, She-dog,” Kött, “Cat.”31
The Hill-giants were connected with hills and rocks. Suttung and Gunnlod dwelt in rocks, and the rocks were called “the giants’ paths.” Thrymheim, “Home of clamour,” where Thjazi dwelt, was in the mountains. The giantess who accosted Brynhild had her home in the rocks.32 The titles Bergbui, Bergrisi, Berg-daner point to hills as the giants”dwelling, and some hills were regarded as petrified giants, while some names of giants suggest a connexion with stone. Hrungnir had a stone head and heart, and a shield made of stone.
Frost-giants or Hrimthursar, are personifications of frost, snow, and ice, or of the mountains covered with snow and ice. As Ymir himself originated out of ice, so his descendants are the Frost-giants, who appear at the Doom of the gods in a body, led by Hrym.33
Fire-giants are suggested by the dwellers in the Fire-world who, led by Surt, come forth to fight the gods. Surt’s fire will destroy the world; meanwhile he sits at the frontier of Muspell,
the region of heat, to defend it, brandishing a flaming sword. Icelandic folk-lore knows that in the Surtarhellir, a great lava-cave, there once dwelt the giant Svart or Surt.34 The giantess Hyrokkin has a name which means “Fire-whirlwind.” Logi in Utgard is fire which consumes everything. Ægir’s servant was Eldir, “Fire-man,” and other giants have names pointing to the same element. Eruptions were thought to be caused by giants.
Some giants were connected with the wild forest regions. Vitholf, “Wolf of the wood,” named in Hyndluljod, may be the Vitolfus of Saxo, skilful in leechcraft, and living in the wilds. Those who sought him with flattering words to cure them he made worse, for he preferred threats to flattery. When the soldiers of Eirik menaced his visitor Halfdan, Vitolfus led them astray by a delusive mist. His name is from ON viþr (OHG witu), “a wood,” and he resembles the Wild Man of the Tirol who aids by leechcraft only when he is threatened. He is akin to the giant Vidolf in Thidriks-saga and to the Bavarian giant Widolt, “the Wood-lord.”35 The Ivithjar, “Wood-giantesses,” of whom Hyndla was one, and the giant Welderich, “Lord of the woods,” belong to the same category. The Eddas speak of an old forest called Iarnvith, “Iron-wood,” in which lived the giantess who bore Fenrir’s monstrous brood. In that wood dwelt troll-women called Iarnvithjur, “Iron-wood women.”36 These giants of the woods resemble the shaggy Wood-spirits or Schrats of German folk-lore. Such giants resented the cutting down of timber in their domain, threatening the wood-cutter with death if he persisted.37
There were also giants of the waters, like Grendel in Beowulf, called eoten and thyrs, and his monstrous mother. Grendel might be a personification of the storm-flood which devastates the low-lying coasts of the North Sea. As Beowulf slew the mother of Grendel in the mere, so Grettir, as is told in the Grettis-saga, dived into a waterfall and entered a cave where he slew a giant who dwelt there. Both incidents are variants of a common theme.38 Other giants associated with the waters are
Ægir and Ran. Akin to Ran is Hrimgerd who, with her mother, lay in wait for ships, and is called “corpse-hungry giantess.”39
Possibly other elements of nature were typified in certain giants.
A curious genealogy of giants shows how the forces of nature were conceived of as giants, though the genealogy itself is of comparatively late date. Fornjöt, “the old giant,” was progenitor of the giants, the first dwellers in Norway. He was father of Kari, the wind; of Hler, Ægir, or Hymir, the sea; and of Logi, the fire. Kari had a son Iökul, “Icicle,” whose son was Snær, “Snow.” Snær had four children — Snow-heap, Snowdrift, Black Frost, and Fine Snow. Some of these are euhemerized as kings in the Heimskringla and in Saxo, but the genealogy suggests an old myth of the cold north wind producing ice and snow in their different forms.40
Different theories have been advanced regarding the origin of the giants. They have been regarded as an earlier and wilder race of men, with stone weapons, opposed to the more cultured race which uses the plough, as in stories where a giant’s daughter carries home a ploughman and his plough and learns that he and his kind will yet do the giants harm.41 The wilder traits of giants suggest a savage race, but the theory does not explain the universal belief in giants nor the great stature ascribed to them.
They are also regarded as an older group of gods dispossessed by newer deities and therefore hostile to them. This theory might apply to some giants, e.g., Thrym and Hrungnir, who are almost counterparts of Thor himself, but it cannot apply to all. No trace of a cult of giants is found in tradition, in spite of attempts to discover this.42
Another theory is that of Schoning, who, taking the word jötun in its sense of “devourer,” considers that this group of giants at least, the Jötuns, were originally corpse-devouring demons of the Under-world, viz., Jötunheim, originally a realm of the dead.43
The giants may be looked upon as mainly personifications of the wilder elements and phenomena of nature, as these might be supposed to be arrayed against men and gods whose rule and attributes were those of order and growth. Probably no one theory accounts for the archaic belief in giants, but, if this one does not fit all the facts, it has the merit of fitting many of them. To this personification must be added the power of imagination, creating those strange and monstrous forms, and giving them such intense life and movement.
In folk-tradition giants were favourite subjects of story. Boulders, rocks, even islands were said to have been dropped by them as they were carrying them from one place to another. To this corresponds Saxo’s theory of boulders on hill-tops and the Eddic myth of the rocks formed from Hrungnir’s stone club.44 Other stories tell of the huge print of a giant’s hand or fingers on rocks which he had thrown.45 Tradition also tells of rocks or even stone circles which were once giants turned to stone, sometimes because they opposed the preaching of Christian saints, e.g., S. Olaf.46 As in other parts of the world, so in Scandinavia and Germany, the remains of archaic ages, old and (to the folk) mysterious buildings or ruins, were ascribed to giants, the wrisilîc giwerc of the Heliand and the enta geweorc of Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poetry, both phrases meaning “giants’ work.” Hence a giant is spoken of as a smiþr, “artificer” in the wide sense, like him who rebuilt Asgard, not merely “a smith.”47 Even old weapons were sometimes said to have been made by giants, as the phrase in Beowulf shows — eold sweard eotenisc.48 Older tradition made giants fight with stone clubs and shields or with boulders flung at their enemies.
Apart from Eddic myths of giantesses, Snorri gives a prose account and cites an old poem, the Grottasong, about two giant-maidens, Fenja and Menja. Their story is mingled with versions of two wide-spread folk-tales, “The Magic or Wishing Mill” and “How the Sea became Salt,” and it is also linked to the myth of Frodi and the golden age of peace. Frodi bought
the two maids, huge and strong, and set them to grind the mill called Grotti, the stones of which were so large that no one could turn them, though whatsoever one asked for would be ground by this mill. Frodi bade the giantesses grind out gold, and this they did along with peace and happiness. Frodi allowed them no rest for longer than the time that the cuckoo was silent or a song might be sung. So they sang the magic Grottasong and ground out a host against Frodi. The sea-king Mysing (Hrolf Kraki) came and slew Frodi, ending the celebrated “Peace of Frodi.” He took the mill and the giantesses, and bade them grind out salt. They ground so much that the ship on which they sailed sank, and from that day there has been a whirlpool in that place in the sea where the water falls through the hole in the mill-stone. So the sea became salt.
In the song Fenja and Menja tell their story. They, mighty maidens who know the future, are in thrall to Frodi and must grind. So they will sing of what they are doing, and, since Frodi is so hard, they tell how unwise he was in buying them for their strength, without enquiring about their kindred — Hrungnir, Thjazi, Idi and Aurnir. These were brothers of Hill-giants, and of them were the maidens born. The mill-stone would not have come from the mountain, nor would Menja have been grinding, had her origin been enquired about. For nine winters the sisters had been playmates beneath the earth, moving huge rocks from their places. They had rolled the stone over the giants’ garth: the ground shook beneath them: they slung the mighty stone till men took it. Then in Sweden they, as Valkyries, went to fight, caused wars, casting down and setting up kings. For years this continued and many wars did they cause. Now they are thralls, but they prophesy how they see fire and hear war-tidings, and how a host is coming against Frodi. Their song becomes a magic charm by which evils are ground out for the king. So they ground in giant frenzy, until the stone was broken, and Menja told Frodi that now they would cease from grinding.49
This poem is of the tenth century, and references to the story occur in skaldic poetry. The whirlpool is in the Pentland Firth, and traditions of the giant-maids still linger in the Orkneys. The mill-stone (which is not broken in the prose version) came to men through them, a stone which they had thrown, and possibly, as Boer suggests, they were identified with the mill-stones which they turned, as giants often are with the nature elements which they personify.50 The appearance of giantesses as Valkyries is curious. In this myth, as in the story of Volund, supernatural beings held in bondage are content to work for a time, until their wild nature breaks out and causes disaster.