JÖTNAR (giants) constitute a supernatural tribe in Scandinavian mythology. Since the tribe includes fire giants and ice giants, the concept may have originated in the observation of natural phenomena. Giants are natural spirits and among the original inhabitants of the world. In Germanic cosmogony, life originated from the body of the primeval giant Ymir, who was eventually dismembered to create the world. A fire giant, Surtr, helps bring about the end of the current world age at Ragnaro̜k, the giants' final conflict with the gods, in which both the Æsir and the giants perish. Although the mutual hostility of the gods and giants is implacable, they are biologically related and occasionally intermarry. The Æsir (the dominant group of gods) trace their descent from the giantess Bestla, and Óðinn's mistress Jörð, the mother of Þórr, is a giantess. Njo̜rðr and Freyr, hostages from the second group of gods, the Vanir, marry giantesses, although the unions do not last. Óðinn also seduces a giantess as part of his efforts to steal the mead of poetic inspiration.
The Æsir fear that, left unchecked, giants will take over their citadel, Ásgarðr, and destroy all life on earth. Characteristically, Óðinn uses wisdom as his weapon, turning the giants' magic chants against them and stealing the mead of poetry, whereas Þórr uses brute strength to kill giants and giantesses. Heimdallr is another guardian of the gods against the giants. Yet giants are also depicted as brave and strong, old and wise, wealthy and (some at least) of high social status. For example, the Æsir enjoy drinking bouts at the home of the sea giant Ægir. It is a giant who builds Ásgarðr, the Æsir's stronghold. Giants are aligned with the natural when it is contrasted with the cultural, but this shows the natural to be unnatural and monstrous; superior to it is the cultural, which is of course associated with the Æsir.
Jötnar have been viewed as objects of cultic worship; as ancestors and primeval spirits; as the gods of a pre-Germanic population; as the powers of wintertime; and as forces of untamed nature, of death and infertility, and of chaos and destruction. It has also been argued that the giants continually try to steal the goddesses and symbols of order such as the sun and moon not because they are essentially disorderly, but because they have no opportunity for reciprocal exchange with the gods. Conversely, the Æsir practice violence, theft, deception, and oath breaking to gain what they want from giants, but their actions are depicted as justified. As time passed, the negative side of the giants became predominant in the mythology. A differentiation of the various types of giants was apparent in heathen times (jötunn is the generic term, whereas as þurs and troll designate malevolent giants), but the sources, which date from the late heathen or early Christian era, probably also reflect the Christian demonization of pagan mythological figures. Overall, Scandinavian mythology shows that the giants are not an external threat but are ineradicably part of divine society, both as mothers and monsters.
Hilda R. Ellis emphasizes the benevolent aspects of giants in "Fostering by Giants in Old Norse Sagas," in Medium Aevum 10 (1941): 70–85, and Lotte Motz reassesses older views in "Giants in Folklore and Mythology: A New Approach," in Folklore 93 (1982): 70–84. Margaret Clunies Ross takes a sociological approach in Prolonged Echoes: Old Norse Myths in Medieval Northern Society, vol. 1 (Odense, Denmark, 1994). John Lindow surveys the scholarship in Scandinavian Mythology: An Annotated Bibliography (New York, 1988).
Elizabeth Ashman Rowe (2005)