For anyone lucky enough to have experienced any amount of time in the Scandinavian wilderness, you will know it is as vast and untamed as it is beautiful. 

Whilst the urban centers of Scandinavia are at the very forefront of 21st-century technological, cultural, and social advancement, a meander through the many mountains or forests that dot the peninsula will send you back to an almost prehistoric time. 

Out in the vast expanse of the Scandinavian wilderness, the sound of silence is deafening, and you become quickly aware of human beings' insignificance in this awe-inspiring environment. 

Given that people in Viking societies held a deep reverence for nature, it should be no surprise that a key character in many mythical tales, stories, and sagas was the jötnar – giant mythical beings. 

These supernatural beings were often associated with the untamed forces of nature, wilderness, and chaos. 

The jötnar are described as having similar powers to the Norse gods, yet descriptions of them are hard to find. 

Scouring the sagas and myths, we find only brief mentions of their gigantic stature. Their origins, however, trace back to the Norse creation story involving the first primordial being, Ymir, who is considered a jötnar

Despite this lack of detail on their physical appearance, much has been written on their ambiguous nature, especially with their dealings with the Gods. 

Within Norse mythology, jötnar come in various forms, from towering giants to powerful supernatural beings, and are said to dwell in their own realm known as Jötunheimr. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Harmful or helpful? 

Throughout the rich tapestry of Norse mythology, we encounter a variety of jötnar, or a jötunn in the singular form. 

They not only come in a variety of sizes – though most are gigantic in stature, some are human-sized or even smaller – but they also differ in their nature. Some are helpful, while others are harmful. 

The majority live in their own realm, one of the nine universes in Norse mythology, Jötunheimr. However, they often pop up in unexpected places throughout the Norse sagas and poems. 

In the Old Norse poem Lokasenna, Loki – known as the Norse god of mischief – engages in a verbal tirade during a feast for the god Aegir.

Being a terrible party guest, he mocks and ridicules all present with cutting verbal barbs, foreshadowing modern-day rap battles. 

Among his poetic tirade, he also boasts of his "interactions" with several giantesses (Loki clearly likes big women), including one named Angrboda. 

The result of this "interaction" was three children – a giant wolf, Fenrir; a world serpent, Jörmungandr; and the ruler of the realm of the dead, Hel. 

In this regard, it is clear that some of the gods had a remarkably close relationship with the jötnar. Definitely helpful. 

Contrasting with this familial tale is the Thrymskvida poem found in the Poetic Edda

One of the most beloved tales of Norse mythology, it starts with a theft. The giant Thrym steals the Norse God of Thunder, Thor's mighty hammer, Mjöllnir

Now, Thrym is a fairly reasonable giant thief and is willing to return the hammer for one small request – the hand of the goddess Freyja in marriage. 

While Thor tries to convince her to commit to a giant life, she is less than thrilled. 

What ensues is a tale of hijinks, with Thor and Loki hatching a scheme to win back the hammer. 

This harebrained scheme involves Thor masquerading as Freyja and – with a change of clothes and a wig – almost fools Thrym. 

However, Thor's ravenous appetite reveals the truth, and though Thrym is enraged, Thor and Loki manage to escape with Mjöllnir. 

In Norse mythology, the giant Thrym is renowned for his audacious theft of Thor's mighty hammer, Mjöllnir, which sets the stage for a legendary quest to recover the prized weapon. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Influence of Christianity and demonization 

With the advent of Christianity in Viking societies, the nature of the jötnar in tales evolved to become increasingly malevolent. 

Later material, composed from the 11th century onwards, portrays the jötnar as wildly uncivilized and cannibalistic. 

They are also said to consume horse flesh – which is associated with earlier "pagan" practices of the Old Norse religion

There is even mention, in one of the sagas, of a female jötunn being baptized before she is allowed to marry the hero of the story.

As the influence of Christianity grew throughout Scandinavia, there was a need to demonize the mythical beings of Norse mythology. 

For Christianity to gain a foothold in these societies, it needed to differentiate itself from the Old Norse religion, and it did this primarily through demonization. 

These mythical beings were "pagan" creations and thus had no place in these new Christian societies – only as demonic beings worthy of utter scorn and disgust.

The most famous jötunn, however, is Skaði – sometimes even described as a Norse goddess. She is closely associated with skiing, winter, hunting, and the alpine environment. 

Though she married the god Njörðr, their union was ultimately doomed due to incompatible lifestyles and desires. Skaði, a goddess and jötunn associated with winter, skiing, and mountains, preferred the cold, rugged landscapes of the mountains. 

On the other hand, Njörðr, being a sea god, loved the seashore and the ocean. This stark difference in their preferences led to discord in their marriage. 

Sadly, the appearances of jötnar in sagas and stories seem to dry up from the 12th century, robbing Norse literature of one of its more remarkable characters. 

The Yetnasteen, a large standing stone in Rousay, part of the Orkney archipelago, is steeped in local folklore as a jötunn mythically petrified into stone. Photo: Ingwina / Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

Physical evidence littered throughout the Nordics 

Despite jötnar being creatures of fictional creation, a surprising amount of architectural work contradicts this... if you have a small dose of imagination. 

Even though the Christian church demonized them, a jötunnJätten Finn – is credited with the construction of one of the most important cathedrals in Sweden, Lund. 

An agreement was made between the Holy Men and the jötunn, and the cathedral houses two statues said to be the petrified remains of the giant responsible for its construction and his wife.

Across the North Sea in the Orkney Islands, there is a huge stone (Yetnasteen) said to be the remains of a jötunn

According to local folklore, the jötunn awakens every New Year at midnight to drink from a nearby lake. 

Many modern wits have mused that this seems to occur only on the one night when alcohol consumption is plentiful, and sight can often be blurred. 

Finally, there are several places in England – that were once part of the Danelaw – named after thurs (another Old Norse term for jötnar), including the village of Thursford in Norfolk and Trusey Hill in Yorkshire. 

Across the North Sea, the famous Jotunheimen mountain range in southern central Norway is said to be where some jötnar reside. It's worth a visit just for the stunning mountain hikes. 

Jötnar in Norse mythology are portrayed with a complex mix of fear, respect, and ambiguity, evolving from sometimes helpful to purely demonic beings with the spread of Christianity. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Adding color to a rich mythological tapestry 

The portrayal of jötnar in Norse mythology is complex, reflecting a mixture of fear, respect, and ambiguity towards these powerful beings. 

Their literary evolution, with the advent of Christianity, saw them change from sometimes harmful, sometimes helpful beings to being portrayed as purely demonic. 

Though they may well be mythical beings, the jötnar add important color to the rich tapestry of Norse mythology, embodying the varied and multifaceted aspects of the ancient Norse world. 

For more information on mythical Norse creatures, visit Sky History here.

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