Jǫtnar and Other Large Beings of Norse Mythology
August 28, 2020 — The Jǫtnar of Norse myth are often described as exceedingly beautiful, not necessarily as large giants. Several deities, including Skaði and Hyrrokkin, are described as Jǫtnar, and even Óðinn is said to be descended from them since Óðinn’s mother Bestla was a Jǫtunn. In the sagas, many Norse gods are described as taking Jǫtunn females as brides and had normal children.
The height of Jǫtnar is never described in the Old Norse literature, but in a tale from the Gylfaginning (a highly important source of Norse myth) Þórr (Thor) and Loki travel to Útgarðr, which is a stronghold in Jǫtunheimr, the land of the Jǫtnar. Shortly after Þórr and Loki walk through the gates of Útgarðr, they find themselves in a great hall where “many generally large people sit on two benches.” The reference to large people is intriguing since it does not suggest huge giants, but individuals that appear larger than most men.
Norse myth traces the forefather of the Jǫtnar to Ymir, which, on the contrary, gives the impression of an enormous being. He is the primeval Jǫtunn from which earth itself was created. Ymir could be a kenning related to the last Ice Age — a theory we might explain in a future post.
In the tale from Gylfaginning mentioned above, it is also described how Þórr and Loki seek shelter for the night on their way to Jǫtunheimr. They discover what appears to be a large building and find refuge in a side room. Þórr and Loki experience earthquakes throughout the night, and it turns out the building is a huge glove of Skrýmir, a giant that has been snoring throughout the night, causing what seemed to be earthquakes.
So, where do we draw the line between giants and Jǫtnar? It appears the key difference is their relationship with humanity. The enormous beings of Norse myth are kennings (metaphors) used to convey wisdom and also serve the function of relaying important events of the past to younger generations. The Jǫtnar, however, can be interpreted as a people that were not giants, but perhaps a bit larger than normal men, who might have existed in ancient Fennoscandia — perhaps as far back in time as the last Ice Age.
Also, the translation of Jǫtunn to giant is not accurate and is based on just a few stories and sagas. As per our own research, Jǫtunn appears to be etymologically related to a Proto-Uralic language. In modern Finnish, words related to ice and frost provide interesting translations. The translation of “icebound” reads ”jäihin juuttunut” in modern Finnish and pronouncing “juttunut” shares obvious similarities with the term Jǫtunn.
The geographical origin of Proto-Uralic has, as of the date first above written, not been confirmed.