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The Giants of Norse Mythology
There are different races of beings in Norse mythology: gods, humans, dwarves, elves, trolls, and giants. Of these, the gods and the giants figure most prominently in Viking myths and legends. Many people are familiar with some of the gods, like Odin and Thor. But what about the giants? Who were they?
The giants in Norse mythology were supernaturally empowered like Norse gods, and like their god counterparts, they had their flaws as well, including but not limited to arrogance, greed, jealousy, and vanity. Generally, the gods in Norse mythology represent order while the Jotnar are associated with chaos.
To fully understand the complex ideologies of Norse mythology, you must have an appreciation for the role that the Jotnar played in Viking lore. They were more than just the antagonists in Norse myths and foils to beloved Viking heroes like Odin, Thor, Heimdall, and Freyja. Norse giants and giantesses were as vital to the body of work that is Norse mythology as the popular gods that the Vikings revered and worshiped.
Interested in Norse Mythology? See 14 Great Books on Norse Mythology that explain the gods, heroes, and villains of these ancient stories of Scandinavia.
Norse Giants And Gods Explained
The Giants, were the chief enemies of the gods, particularly the Aesir.
In the Norse world, a giant was called Jotun or Iotun. There are several different types of giants. The frost-giants were the most common giants they lived in Jotunheim, one of the nine worlds. The capital of Jotunheim was Utgard, the citadel of the frost-giants and home of Utgard-Loki or Utgardaloki. Often writers just simply called the home of the giants as Giantland.
Giantland or Jotunheim was supposedly large world, but void of actual physical geographical location. All that we know is that Giantland was east of Midgard, separated by rivers and the forest known as Jarnvid (Iron Wood). Jarnvid was inhabited by troll-wives, known as the Jarnvidjur, where they breed giants in wolf forms.
There are many places within Jotunheim other than Utgard. The giant Hrungnir lived in a frontier of Giantland, called Griotunagardar. The giant Thiassi lived on the mountain called Thrymheim, with his daughter Skadi.
The other giants were the fire giants, who lived in Muspelheim. The fire giant named Surt ruled in Muspelheim.
Note that some of the giantesses had become deified because of the their relationship with the Norse gods, like Jord, Grid, Gerd and Rind. These giantesses became Asyniur or goddesses in their own rights, so I have list some of these in this page and some in the Aesir page.
Many of the Aesir also had heritage from the giants, where at least one parent was a giant or giantess. These included Odin, Thor, Tyr and Heimdall. Perhaps the most important of these giant/god was Loki. Both of Loki’s parents come from the race of giants, yet he was considered by most as an Aesir god. Loki became the leader of the frost giants at the time of Ragnarök.
Giants and giantesses were sometimes called troll and trollwives.
First, Ymir was father of six-head giant (unnamed) that was nourished by a giant cow, Audumla. Audumla found nourishment through licking stones. This stone shaped like a man, became the primeval god, named Buri. Buri was the father of another primeval god (or giant) Bor. Bor and Bestla became parents of the 3 gods: Odin, Vili and Ve.
Odin and his brothers, Vili and Ve, had killed Ymir. They used his body to create the world (universe). His skull was used to create the heaven and his eyebrows to create Midgard, or Middle Earth, home of the mankind.
Apart from Vafthrudnir being the son of the giant Im, not much is known about Vafthrudnir. He is not mentioned in any other poems.
Vafthrudnir was involved in a game of questions and answers, between himself and Odin. However, Odin had disguised himself as human wanderer, calling himself Gagnrad, and seeking Vafthrudnir’s wisdom. Vafthrudnir accepting Gagnrad’s challenge, only recognising Odin at the end of the poem, when the giant couldn’t answer the last question from Odin.
The Building of Asgard’s Walls
During the feast, Thrym and the other giants was stunned when they saw Thrym’s bride (Thor) ate an ox, eight salmons, and three large tankards of mead. Loki made a silly excuse, telling Thrym that Freyja had not eaten in eight days, because she was excited to be wedded to the king of giants. When Thrym peeped under his bride’s veil, the giant was taken back by the fire in Freyja’s (Thor’s) eyes. Again, Thrym demanded explanation from Loki Loki answered that Freyja was just excited about the wedding.
Hrungnir owned a horse called Gullfaxi (“Golden Mane”), the fastest horse in the Giantland, but Odin boasted that his horse (Sleipnir) was better.
This led to Hrungri declaring he would move Valhalla to Jötunheim, destroy Asgard and all the Aesir gods, except for Freyja and Sif, whom he would take as his concubines.
Thor challenged him in a duel, but Hrungnir has come to Asgard unarmed. Hrungnir told Thor to meet him at Griotunagardar. The other giants created a giant made of clay, which they called Mokkurkalfi. They hoped to use Mokkurkalfi to frighten Thor, with enormous size Mokkurkalfi stood nine leagues high and three leagues wide.
Armed with a large whetstone, he hurled it at Thor. Though, Thor’s Mjollnir broke the whetstone in half, one of the piece was lodged in Thor’s head. The Mjollnir shattered Hrungnir’s stone head and fell dead on top of Thor’s neck.
Thor could not push Hrungnir off him, but Magni removed Hrungnir’s body off his father. Thor gave Gullfaxi to Magni.
The Hymiskvida was slightly different from the version found in the Prose Edda (written by Snorri Sturluson. The poetic version say that he possessed a magic cauldron, which Thor needed to fetch, so they can brew almost unlimited supply of ale for Aegir’s feast. Snorri left all details about the feast and cauldron out of his story.
Geirrod and his two daughters tried to kill Thor. Though Geirrod managed to get Thor to leave behind his weapon, Thor received an unbreakable magic staff a girdle of might and iron gauntlets from a giantess named Grid. Thor used the staff to defeat Geirrod’s daughters, and the iron glove (Járngreipr) to kill Geirrod.
See Geirrod in Of Thor and Giants for more detail about Thor’s adventure.
Thiassi had the ability to turn himself into an eagle. Thiassi had a beautiful daughter named Skadi.
Thiassi was the giant who had abducted Idun, keeper of the apples of youth, with the help of Loki. Loki was later forced to rescue Idun. Thiassi pursued Loki to Asgard in a form of a giant eagle, but was killed by the Aesir, as he passed over the wall of Asgard.
Skadi would have avenged her father, had the Aesir not made peace with her, by offering to her an Aesir husband. Odin had also taken Thiassi’s eyes and threw them in the sky, and two new stars were created.
Suttung set his daughter Gunnlod to guard the precious mead, but she betrayed him, when Odin copulated with her for three nights. Odin drank the whole mead, after three days before escaping to Asgard. Suttung had the ability to transform himself into an eagle and pursued Odin. However, Suttung could neither capture Odin nor recover the mead.
Aspilian ravaged some of the farmlands, owned by the monastery. Aspilian challenged the abbot to send him a warrior to face him, if the monks wish to recover the stolen land.
At the time, the hero Heimir was staying in the monastery, to repent from his past sins. Heimir once again, took up the weapon, killing the giant with his sword, Naglhring.
Skadi was about to go to war against the Aesir, when the gods killed her father. The Aesir made peace with Skadi, only if one of them could make her laugh and that she had a choice of choosing a husband among the Aesir.
Loki easily made her laugh, but the choice of husband little more difficult. Skadi had to choose her new husband by his feet. She thought she was choosing beautiful Balder, when he chose the god with beautiful feet. Instead her new husband was Njörd (Njord).
The marriage did not last long, because Njörd preferred to live in Noatun at the sea, while Skadi preferred her mountain home in Thrymheim, so they divorced. Sometimes, Skaldi was mistaken as the mother of Freyr and Freyja. Skaldi was usually described as their stepmother.
Skadi was later married to another Aesir god, named Ull. However, in the Ynglinga Saga, Snorri Sturluson wrote that when Skadi remarried, she had married Odin, not Ull, and supposedly had many children with Odin.
Like Gerd and some other giantesses, Skaldi became an goddess and an Asyniur. Skadi became the goddess of mountain, or of skiing and snowshoes.
Freyr fell in loved with Gerd, when he sat on Hlidskialf, Odin’s throne in the hall called Valaskialf. Hlidskialf allowed the person to see the entire world, no matter the distance. Freyr sent his shield-bearer, named Skirnir, to woo her for him.
At first, Skirnir offered rich gifts to Gerd, which she refused, claiming to dislike all the gods. Not even when Skirnir threatened to cut off her head with Freyr’s sword, cause her any fear. It was only when Skirnir threatened to put a curse, to make her old and ugly, that she even considered meeting Freyr in nine days later at a grove called the Barri.
Though the story never says that Freyr and Gerd married, other writers say that they had a son named Fiolnir.
Gerd with Skirnir
Her name means “iron sax”. Her name appeared in Sturluson’s list of giantesses, and in a couple of Eddaic kennings.
Every difficulty increases Iarnsaxa’s wind in Olaf’s father, so that praise is due.
Here, Iarnsaxa’s wind means “courage”.
He reddened with gore the chops of the dark-looking steed of Iarnsaxa….
Frodi was a son of Fridleif and grandson of Skiold. Skiold was the founder of the Danish dynasty, known as the Skioldungs. Skiold was a son of Odin.
Frodi was famous king because he was the one who brought the Frodi’s Peace to the northern countries, just as his contemporary Augustus brought the Roman Pax (Roman Peace) to the Mediterranean and other provinces. Therefore, Frodi lived in the time of Christ.
His residence was in Denmark, but at that time his kindgom was called Gotland.
His reign also brought great wealth to the kingdom. One of the reasons for Frodi’s immense wealth is that he had bought two female slaves from King Fiolnir of Sweden, to work in the mill, which is called grotti. This mill can produce just about anything, and one of the things that the mill usually produces for the king is gold. This is the reason why gold can be identified as “Frodi’s Meal”.
The slaves were actually giantesses. They were given no rest, producing item after item.
Though, Frodi’s Peace came to an end, when Mysing, a sea-king (Viking), murdered Frodi, this didn’t ended the slavery of Fenia and Menia. Mysing was just as merciless as the giantesses’ former master he forced Fenia and Menia to work day and night, without rest. They continued to work in the mill, but on Mysing’s ship. It was salt that Mysing desired not gold.
Thor, God of Thunder | History / Origin / Facts | Norse Mythology
Odin was the chief of the gods, but Thor may have been the most popular. A few experts have postulated that this was because Odin demanded occasional human sacrifices while Thor did not, but the real reason for Thor's popularity is fairly obvious. While Odin was the Allfather, it was no real secret who his favorite children were. The men to which he was patron were kings, jarls, poets, and outlaws – individuals (rather than equal members of a community) who could see themselves in Odin's often-egocentric activities. Thor, by contrast, was the great protector of all that was good, as the Vikings defined it. Where Odin was wise, Thor was strong. Where Odin was cunning, Thor was straightforward and stalwart. While Odin was wandering the nine worlds seeking insight into the arcane, Thor was riding across the skies in his goat-drawn chariot smashing giants with his hammer. Thor was a merry warrior. He was indomitable, indefatigable, and steadfast. If Thor were a mortal, every Viking would have wanted to raise an ale horn with him. He was the paragon to which Vikings aspired.
Evidence of Thor's popularity and status as a role model can be seen clearly in Iceland, where more than a quarter of the founding population had some form of his name in theirs (i.e., Thorkill, Thorgest, etc.). Hundreds of Mjölnir (“Lightning,” Thor’s mighty hammer) amulets have been discovered in Viking graves and other Norse archeological sites. Norsemen continued to wear these hammer amulets even after converting to Christianity, suggesting that Thor's role as a hero and protecting influence had not diminished. Of course, he is still in that role today in our culture.
Thor's chariot was pulled by his two flying goats (Tanngrisnir "teeth barer" and Tanngnjostr "teeth grinder). Likewise his father Odin had a chariot pulled by a flying 8-legged horse named Sleipnir. Many believe that Odin and Thor were the original inspiration for Santa. And of course, most know that the day 'Thursday' comes from the Old Norse term Þorsdagr, meaning "Thor's Day."
No god was stronger than Thor. Some of the giants were, but that only made the challenge of beating them more enjoyable for the red-bearded god. His hammer, Mjölnir, was able to destroy mountains, and he used it to smash the heads of the giants that threatened Asgard (the realm of the gods) and Midgard (the world of humanity). When the Vikings saw the skies flashing and felt the rumble of the storm, they knew that Thor was fighting for them again. But Mjölnir was not just a weapon. Thor used Mjölnir to hallow – that is, to restore, make holy, or to bless. With Mjölnir, Thor could even bring some things back to life. Thor was invoked at weddings, at births, and at special ceremonies for these abilities to protect and sanctify.
Thor is often called the God of Thunder. This is not wrong, as his name means “Thunder,” but his role was bigger than that. Thor was a sky god, like Zeus or Marduk, and the god of weather. Thor was the son of Odin and Fyorgyn (also called Jord, as well as other names). Fyorgyn is called a giantess in some narratives but seems to be associated with the older Indo-European tradition of the Great Mother earth goddess. That Thor was the principal male deity celebrated at Yule (a winter solstice festival with very deep roots) reinforces this association.
They say men marry women who are like their mothers, so Thor married Sif (one of the only mellow, “nice girl” goddesses one finds in Norse myth) who seems to also be an earth/agricultural goddess. Herein lays another reason for Thor’s popularity and importance in the lives of ordinary Vikings. For the Vikings, favorable weather at sea could give them great advantages over enemies (and competitors) while bad weather could be deadly. When they returned to their homelands in Scandinavia or their colonies, many Vikings were farmers. The relationship between the weather and the fertility of the land (often seen as a conjugal union in Indo-European faiths) is the basis of feast or famine. So Thor did not just protect humankind from the giants – the destructive cosmic/natural forces – his efforts and his favor blessed them with safety at sea and bounty on land. It is no wonder that he was loved, idolized, and revered.
Though Thor was profoundly strong, he was never reluctant to go out of his depth. In the stories, we often see him venturing far into the giant's territory with nothing to protect him but a disguise. In one tale, he rows a giant's boat out into the ocean, beyond where anyone else has ever been, all so that he can pick a fight with the Jormugund, the World-Coiling Serpent.
This story, or the inspirations behind it, may be one of the reasons old maps had "here be dragons" scrawled on the watery edges of the known world. It is unclear in the story whether Thor already knew that this same monster was fated to be the death of him, but the battle was so terrifying that the giant accompanying Thor cut the god's fishing line and Jormugund slipped back into the deep. Thor was so angry the giant intervened that he killed the luckless wretch and went home in disgust. Here we again see Viking values of bravery and exploration, as well as complete intolerance of what they considered weakness or cowardice.
We can see Viking values in Thor's personality. Thor had great strength, both of body and of character. Strength was essential to the Vikings. Thor was undeniably an alpha male, but he was also a team player – another indispensable quality for Vikings whose success or failure relied on their ability to work together on the ship and in the shield wall. He had a strong sense of community with his fellow gods. He had a violent temper, and most of his stories end up with him cracking the skull of the giant who galled him, but he was usually cheerful and could be forgiving. While Thor's children out of wedlock were further testament to his hot-blooded, virile nature, he was fundamentally a "family man" and was fiercely protective of his wife. Thor was the god the other gods often turned to and counted on, and this was how any good Viking would want to be thought of by his peers.
Most of these characteristics are still valued today, and Thor’s archetype is still visible in the action heroes of our books and movies. What is completely missing in Thor is the self-doubt or any of the “reluctant hero” aspects that are so popular in our culture. Thor’s ethics of whom he killed and why are also those of a Viking god, and not something most modern people would be comfortable with in their heroes.
Every Norse man and woman would probably know all the stories of Thor by heart and would see in these stories what they should be. This exaltation of taking action, of going beyond boundaries, and of finding glory in battle were contributing factors to both the proliferation and the success of the Vikings. Of course, models are just models, and there were undoubtedly plenty of Vikings who were the antithesis of Thor. But in the stories of their most-beloved god, we can see how the Vikings saw themselves and what they wanted to be.
David Gray Rodgers is a career fire officer who holds a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in business administration. He has published several books, including Sons of Vikings: A Legendary History of the Viking Age (which we believe is one of the best Viking history books ever compiled) and Usurper: A Novel of the Fall of Rome
- McCoy, D. The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion. Columbia. 2016
- McCoy, D. Norse Mythology for Smart People. Norse Mythology Accessed January 9, 2018. Norse-mythology.org
- Zolfagharifard, E. Hammer of Thor' unearthed: Runes on 1,000-year-old amulet solve mystery of why Viking charms were worn for protection. Daily Mail. Published July 1, 2014. Accessed January 9, 2018 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2676386/Hammer-Thor-unearthed-Runes-1-000-year-old-amulet-solve-mystery-Viking-charms-worn-protection.html
- Brownworth, L. The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings. Crux Publishing, Ltd. United Kingdom. 2014
Thor in battle
By Mårten Eskil Winge - 3gGd_ynWqGjGfQ at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22007120
Thor fighting Jormungandr
Thor und die Midgardsschlange. A scene from Ragnarök, the final battle between Thor and Jörmungandr. Published ca. 1905. Doepler, Emil. ca. 1905. Walhall, die Götterwelt der Germanen. Martin Oldenbourg, Berlin. Page 56. Photographed and cropped by User: Haukurth.
The Battle of the Gods and Goddesses and the Giants - History
Loki's darker side, in the end, proves him to be more closely connected to the giants than to the gods. He is both father and mother to a brood of supernatural creatures three of his children prove to be the bane of the gods, although one – the mystic horse Sleipnir – becomes the steed of Odin. Mating with the wicked giantess Angrboda ("harm-bidder"), Loki produces the three great monsters of Norse mythology: Fenrir, Jörmungand, and Hel.
Fenrir ("fen-dweller") is a giant and vicious wolf. As he grows from a pup, the gods realize that he will eventually be large enough to threaten them. They attempt to bind him, but he twice breaks the fetters they tie him with. Eventually, they present him with a dwarf-wrought magic fetter and challenge him to break it. He agrees to let them try it on him, as long as one god puts a hand into his mouth as insurance. Týr bravely offers his right hand, which is bitten off when the bonds prove unbreakable. Snorri writes, matter-of-factly, "when the wolf kicked, the bond became firmer, and the more he struggled, the harder the bond became. Then they all laughed, except Týr. He lost his hand." The wolf remains bound, with an upright sword between his jaws, until he is freed during the final battle of Ragnarök, in which he kills Odin.
Týr, as he survives in the Norse mythological corpus, is an enigmatic figure who is known mostly for this encounter with the wolf. Like all of the other gods, he is handicapped going into the final battle with the giants and monsters. He has only one hand, Odin has only one eye, Frey has given away his magic sword and must fight with an antler, and Thor has a hammer with a handle that is too short. Týr is thought to be a diminished version of an older sky-god, the very early Germanic god whose name has been reconstructed as Tîwaz. This god may once have been a primary god of certain tribes, as his name means "god" and is related to both the Greek Zeus and the Latin deus.
Jörmungand ("mighty wand") is the Midgard Serpent, the giant snake that lies beneath the oceans and encircles the world. He has several run-ins with Thor in the mythology, and is considered the archenemy of the Thunder God. At Ragnarök, his final contest with Thor will result in both of their deaths. Loki, as the father of both the wolf and the snake, is literally the "father of evil" – his children kill the two most powerful gods in the Norse cosmology.
Hel is the goddess who rules the underworld of the dead known as Niflheim ("mist-home"). While Odin and Freya divide fallen warriors and Thor gets the common folk, Hel receives those who die of sickness or old age. Old vikings were known to mark themselves with a spear-tip in their final moments in attempt to avoid a "straw death" – an inglorious end while lying on a mattress filled with straw rather than in the heat of battle. Snorri describes Hel: "She is half black and half the colour of flesh, and so she is easily recognized, and rather sad and grim-looking." Like her monstrous siblings, Hel helps assure the destruction of the gods by depriving them of Baldur, the bright and beautiful god.
|Loki and Höðr by Emil Doepler (1905)|
Several Eddic poems refer to the story of Baldur. The tale begins with the god's dreams of his own demise. Troubled, his mother Frigg extracts oaths from all things that they will not harm him - from fire and water, metal and stone, beasts and birds, diseases and poisons, snakes and trees. The other gods make a game of throwing weapons and stones at him, amusing themselves as the implements glance harmlessly off the blessed god. Loki, ever jealous, disguises himself as a woman (he is often seen changing gender) and finds out from Frigg that the one thing that can harm Baldur is the mistletoe, which the goddess considered too small and harmless to bother with. Loki gives a dart of mistletoe to the god Höðr, who has been unable to participate in the game on account of his blindness. Höðr ("warrior") is another character who is thought to descend from an older and larger god, in this case a god of war as a god bereft of sight, he represents the arbitrary nature of success in battle. Loki eggs on the blind god, who throws the dart and instantly kills Baldur.
Odin sends Hermóð ("war-spirit"), who is either his son or his servant, down to Hel to bring Baldur back to the living. The goddess of the dead agrees, if everything that is in the world will weep for him. Everything does, except one mean-spirited giantess, who is suspected to be Loki in disguise. The gods lose Baldur forever, and Snorri says, "Odin took the loss the hardest, since he knew most clearly how great a damage and deprivation there was for the Æsir in Baldur's death." This is usually taken to mean that Baldur's death signals the beginning of Ragnarök, but make more sense in light of the handicapping of the gods as they enter their final battle they are not only deprived of body parts and weapons, but also of their brightest ally, the Light God who could have combated the forces of darkness.
Baldur can also be seen as a god of the sun or of summer. When he descends, as the sun does at night or the summer does in winter, the world "weeps" – dew and frost are seen on all things – and his brightness and warmth are beloved by all things. In the poem Völuspá, the prophetess describes the birth of a new world after the destruction of Ragnarök:
In a new era, free of giants and monsters, the killer and the victim will live together in harmony, all wrongs forgiven.
|Sigyn and Loki by Emil Doepler (1905)|
After the death of Baldur and his imprisonment by Hel, Loki flees but is eventually captured. By this point, the playful Trickster is gone, and Loki is revealed as a giant and a mortal enemy of the gods. The Æsir murder a son he bore with the goddess Sigyn ("victorious girl-friend"), use the child's entrails to bind Loki to three stone slabs, and hang a snake above him who drips poison into the god's face. Loki's loyal wife holds a bowl over him to catch the poison whenever she turns aside to empty the bowl, the poison drips on his face and his writhing causes earthquakes – one final Just-So Story of the god, who is now associated with rock and earth as an elemental giant.
As the bound Fenrir breaks free at Ragnarök, so the bound Loki. According to Völuspá, Loki will steer the mystic ship Naglfar ("corpse-ship") that brings all the enemies of the gods to the final battle. Snorri describes how the world will be flooded by the thrashing of the furious Midgard Serpent, and that the Naglfar will ride the waters. The prophetess of Völuspá says that the ship will come from the East, and that its passengers will be "Muspell's people." Muspell is the land of fire in the Norse creation myth, but the name derives from the Old High German muspilli ("doomsday") – a name that, at this point in the mythology, finally makes sense. "Muspell's people" are the giants who have, inevitably, come to fight the gods and bring about the end of all things. At the head of the monstrous forces, Loki has shed all aspects of godhood and allied himself completely with the giants.
Who Can Stop Magne Now?
With his powers returned and him now being equipped with a hammer seeded with ancient artifacts and forged in the eternal flame, Magne is more powerful than he has ever been. Even without the hammer, he was seen to be a worthy opponent to Vidar, who appeared to be the most powerful of the Jutuls. The way Fjor and Ran scatter to save themselves from Magne also shows that the surviving members of the Jutul family are no match for him. So, what could stand in the way of the budding God of Thunder now?
A lot, it seems. Magne has still not made his peace with the fact that as a god, he will be required to kill. He continues to vehemently oppose the act as evil and is likely permanently scarred by the repercussions of him killing Vidar. This is also a significant aspect in which Magne continues to be different from the Thor of Norse mythology, and when faced with the ruthless giants who will not hesitate to kill him, he might be at a disadvantage.
Magne is also seduced by Saxa, who has shown herself to be ruthlessly cunning in her search for power. Though he doesn’t agree to join her, he does hold a soft corner for her, which she will most likely try to exploit. Magne’s biggest threat, however, is his brother Laurits. As explained to the Jotuls by the mischievous half-giant, he is the only one that knows of Magne’s weakness. This is also why Ran and Fjor spare Laurits’ life. It is likely that to save his life, Laurits has agreed to help the Jutuls defeat Magne. He is also secure in the knowledge that Magne would never hurt him. Despite his motivations remaining elusive, therefore, Laurits continues to be the chink in Magne’s armor.
The Battle of the Gods and Goddesses and the Giants - History
Zeus wasn't always the king of the Greek gods. Ouranos was the king of the first generation of gods, but he was overthrown by Kronos, who was his son. Kronos was father to Zeus and the Olympians, and he, too, was overthrown by his son. Even after Zeus took charge, succeeding generations and different races of gods still competed for control of Olympus.
While Zeus was establishing himself, the Earth gave birth to a new, monstrous set of gods, the Giants, which were fathered by the Sky. The Giants were as tall as mountains and so strong as to be unbeatable. The Olympian gods were anthropomorphic, which means that they looked a lot like human men and women. But the Giants were frightening to look at. According to Apollodorus, their shaggy hair drooped from their heads and chins, and they had dragon scales on their feet.
Cleveland 78.59, Attic red figure lekythos, c. 480 B.C.
The shaggy giant Enkelados
Photograph courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art
The mightiest Giants were Porphyrion and Alkyoneus. Alkyoneus could remain immortal as long as he fought in the land of his birth, Pallene, in the region of Thrace. A bold troublemaker, Alkyoneus dared to steal some cows owned by the Sun. The Giants tossed house-sized boulders and burning oak trees at Mount Olympus to pass the time. They were not yet ready for an all-out attack.
Long ago the gods had received an oracle, or prediction of the future. This oracle declared that the gods could kill the Giants only if they had the help of a mortal. This mortal was Hercules. The Earth, who was the mother of the Giants, learned this too, and she tried to prevent Hercules from going to help the gods.
But Zeus had a plan. First he forbade the Sun from shining, then the Moon and the Dawn. Before anyone knew what was happening, he sent Athena with her chariot to bring Hercules up to Mount Olympus.
Alkyoneus was climbing up Mount Olympus, leading the other Giants. Hercules came to the cliff where he could see the monstrous Giants approaching. He drew his bow and shot Alkyoneus with an arrow that sank completely into the giant's shoulder. The giant lost his grip and fell to the ground unconscious, with an enormous crash.
Toledo 1952.66, Attic black figure lekythos, c. 510 B.C.
The giant Alkyoneus, unconscious at the base of Olympus
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art
Soon Alkyoneus began to revive. But before he woke up completely, Athena told Hercules that Alkyoneus would not die unless he was outside of his birthplace, in Thrace. So Hercules dragged Alkyoneus far away, and there he died.
Munich 2590, Attic red figure kylix, c. 525 B.C.
Hercules sneaking up on the unconscious giant Alkyoneus, with Hermes helping at right
Photograph copyright Staatl. Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, München
Meanwhile, Porphyrion had reached the top of Olympus. He had Hera cornered between the rocks and the sheer cliff. When Porphyrion began to attack the goddess, Hera called for help. Zeus cast his thunderbolt at Porphyrion, leaving him dazed, and Hercules, who had just rejoined the battle, shot him dead with an arrow.
Louvre G 204, Attic red figure Nolan amphora, c. 470-460 B.C.
Zeus with his thunderbolt
Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Musée du Louvre
Now all the gods and Giants entered the fight. Apollo shot one of the Giants in the right eye, and Hercules shot him in the left eye. Dionysos killed one by whacking him with his thyrsus, or staff. Hecate set another Giant on fire with torches. Hephaistos eliminated one by pelting him with white-hot metal.
Two of the Giants turned to flee. Athena caught the first one and imprisoned him under the island of Sicily Poseidon broke off a piece of the island of Cos and threw it at the other. Hermes wore Hades' helmet and slew a Giant as he ran away, and Artemis killed another. Even the Fates killed a couple of Giants, fighting with clubs made of bronze.
Finally it was all over. Zeus had struck down the rest of the Giants with his thunderbolts, and Hercules finished them off where they lay.
Munich 596, Chalcidian black figure hydria, c. 540 B.C.
Typhon, the monstrous Giant
Photograph copyright Staatl. Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, München
Earth, who had seen her children slaughtered by Hercules and the gods, was enraged. She now brought forth Typhon, a super-Giant. Typhon was half man, half beast. He was larger and stronger that any of Earth's other children. He was so tall that he towered over the highest mountains, and his head often brushed the stars. He was of human form down to his thighs, but he had huge snake coils instead of legs. When the coils were drawn out, they reached all the way to his head and let out a loud hissing. One of his hands reached out to the west and the other to the east, and from them projected a hundred dragons' heads. His body was winged: scruffy hair streamed on the wind from his head and cheeks and fire flashed from his eyes. There would be a final contest between Typhon and Zeus, but that is another story.
- Hercules and Hesione, the princess of Troy
- Hercules and the struggle for the Delphic tripod
- Hercules and the Giants
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The Vikings worshiped many gods and goddesses, each with their own personality and stories. Viking gods looked just like regular people and had their faults. These gods were not immortal, but they did live for a very long time with superhuman powers.
Norse gods belonged to two groups originally: the Aesir and the Vanir. Aesir gods were usually worshiped in connection with victory and war while the Vanir were connected with harvest and prosperity. These two families of gods were at war for a long time but eventually made peace.
The main gods of the Vikings were Odin, Thor, and Frey, but there were many minor gods like Loki. Viking or Norse gods lived in a kingdom in the sky called Asgard in palaces made of gold and silver. The largest of these palaces was Odin’s home called Valhalla. The Vikings believed that warriors who died bravely in battle were transported to Valhalla by Valkyries, or warrior women, where they feasted every night.Midgard or Middle Earth was another realm occupied by humans as well as elves, giants, dwarves, and goblins. The Norse believed most monsters in Midgard were invisible to humans, but not the gods. Midgard was connected to Asgard by a rainbow bridge called the Bifrost, which was guarded by the Viking god Heimdall.
The Vikings believed that the world was flat and surrounded by a large sea. At one time, the world was anchored in place by a giant tree called Yggdrasil or the world tree. Its branches reached into the heavens and its roots made their way to the land of the dead.
Most Vikings converted to Christianity by the 11th century, ending worship of the Viking gods.
Baldur or Balder was the son of Odin and Frigg who owned the ship Hringhorn, the greatest ship in existence. Baldur the Good was beautiful and loved by everyone. He was known as a very gentle god, but he was tormented by dreams of terrible things that shouldn’t happen.
The only story of Baldur is the story of how he died. He went to Frigg to make a spell to protect him from harm after a terrible dream of his death. Unfortunately, the trickster Loki found out how to get through the spell and tricked another god into killing Baldur.
The Vikings believed in three goddesses called the Three Norns or the Fates. The Goddesses of Fate were named “What has been,” “What is,” and “What must be.” Vikings believed that each person was connected to their fate by a thread that was cut with scissors by the Norns when it was time for them to die.
The Viking Fates are practically the same as the Greek Fates. More than one thousand years before the Vikings, the Greeks had three goddesses called the Fates who did the same thing.
Freya and Frey
Freya and Frey were sister and brother and members of the Vanir family of gods. Freya was the goddess of love, war, and fertility and she was known for crying golden tears when she was sad, especially when Viking warriors died in battle. To make her happy, Odin allowed her to help half of the fallen warriors recover from their injuries while the other half were delivered to Odin’s Hall or Valhalla. Freya rode in a chariot pulled by two wild cats.
Frey was the leader of the elves and dwarves. He had a ship he could fold into his pocket and a sword that could battle on its own. He also rode a chariot, although his was pulled by a golden pig.
The English word Friday is named for Freya and mean’s Freya’s day.
Frigg was the wife of Odin and the queen of the goddesses. She was the goddess of marriage and love and closely connected with the earth. Frigg was also known for her temper, once even driving Odin from his home and into exile after a fight. Despite that, Frigg and Odin had a happy marriage. Odin gave Frigg some of his wisdom and confided in her above everyone else.
Heimdall was the guardian of the Bifrost or the rainbow bridge connecting Middle Earth (where humans lived) with Asgard (the home of the gods). Heimdall had such great hearing, he could hear grass growing. He could also see for 100 miles. Heimdall was a son of Odin and he had nine mothers, all of them sisters.
Idunn was a minor goddess but she did something very important for the Viking gods. As the goddess of beauty and youth, she grew magical golden apples that the gods ate to stay healthy and young. Without Idunn’s apples, the gods would age very fast.
Loki was the adopted son of Odin and a trickster. Loki was not technically a god he was actually the son of a fire giant whom Odin took as his own child. This shapeshifter god was very mischievous and turned himself into an old woman, a fish, a fly, and a horse in different myths. Loki loved to prank humans and other gods, but not always in a fun way. Sometimes his tricks resulted in someone’s death.
In one story, Loki tricked Odin’s wife Frigga into telling him how to kill Baldur. Frigga had cast a spell on Baldur to block anything that might hurt him from touching him. When other gods heard of the spell, they thought it was fun to use Baldur as a target for darts, knives, arrows, and axes because everything bounced off without harm. One day, Loki shapeshifted into an old woman and complimented Frigga on the spell. Happy with the compliment, Frigga revealed that the only thing she left out of the spell was mistletoe, saying mistletoe could do no harm and it wouldn’t be sporting to block everything. Loki cut a sharp point into a mistletoe twig and helped the blind god Hod have fun throwing objects at Baldur. Loki gave Hod the mistletoe stick that pierced Baldur’s heart.
Njord was a Norse god of the Vanir race who was very wealthy and had the power to give money and land to anyone he wanted. While he was the god of fertility, this job passed to his son, the god Frey. Njord was married to the giant Skad, the daughter of Thiasi. The Viking gods had killed Thiasi but offered to allow his daughter to marry a god as compensation, but she could only choose her husband among the gods by looking at their legs. When she saw a beautiful pair of legs, she was sure they belonged to Baldur and made her choice. It turned out that she chose Njord and they were married. They were not happy together and wanted to live in their own lands, not together. They eventually separated when Njord moved back to the sea and Skad returned to the giants.
Odin, or Woden, was one of the most important Viking gods. He was the god of knowledge, wisdom, war, and poetry and the ruler of the gods, which also earned him the name All-Father. Odin had two ravens named Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Mind) who sat on his shoulder. Every day, the ravens would fly around the world to spy on humans and monsters — and the other gods! Every night, they returned to Odin and reported everything they saw.
Odin was known to travel among regular people in disguise and went by many names. His hall, Valhalla, was a great palace with 640 doors. During Ragnarok or the end of the world, it was said that 960 warriors who had died in battle would come through each door to fight the giants. Odin was known to meddle in human affairs to stir up fighting. By doing this, he would have more warriors in Valhalla to fight by his side.
Odin loved knowledge and wasn’t satisfied with just his ravens. He made a deal with a wise and ancient giant named Mimir, trading one of his eyes in return for all of the world’s wisdom. This is why Odin is also called the One-Eyed God.
The English word Wednesday is named for Odin or Woden and comes from Old English for “Woden’s day.”
Sif was the wife of Thor and goddess of the harvest. Proud of her beautiful, long hair, Loki one day played a prank on her by cutting off her hair. She cried so much that her tears fell to Middle Earth and stopped the crops from growing. Loki then asked the dwarves to spin her new hair.
Thor was the son of Odin and the god of thunder, storms, and strength. Thor protected Asgard with a magical hammer that caused thunder and lightning. Thor was a major god of protection who protected not only Asgard but other realms from cold, hunger, and giants. He was also the strongest of the gods with his hammer, Mjölnir, the finest weapon among all gods and humans. His strength was also increased by his belt and iron gloves. Thor had one daughter (Thrudur) and two sons (Mangi and Modi).
Thor was in a constant battle with the giants and his hammer Mjölnir helped him fight. Once, the giants were able to steal Thor’s hammer and the gods became frightened that Thor would not get it back and the giants would break into Asgard. Loki then went to Freya who let him borrow a feather coat that allowed him to fly to the land of the giants. While there, he heard the giant Thrym say the hammer was being kept safe. Loki asked Thrym why he did such a foolish thing as stealing the hammer and the giant said they were desperate for a break. Thrym said he would accept Freya as payment for the hammer but Freya refused, saying Thor should marry the giant for being so foolish as to lose his weapon. Heimdall thought it was a great idea and they sent Thor back disguised as a bride. As soon as Thor got close to his hammer and before they married, he killed Thrym.
The English word Thursday is named for Thor and means “Thor’s day” in Old English.
Tyr was a son of Odin and considered the bravest of all the gods. Tyr could decide the outcome of battles and he was often worshiped by warriors. Tyr was so brave that he would take risks even when he knew the odds were not in his favor. Tyr was also the god who upheld justice and law. While Tyr was considered a minor god, evidence shows he was once one of the major gods of the Norse people.
The only story remaining that features Tyr in a major role is the story of Fenrir the wolf. The dreadful wolf was only a puppy but growing very fast. The gods were afraid of the wolf and wanted to tie Fenrir up so he could not escape and hurt them. When Fenrir saw the chain, he was very suspicious and said he would only allow the chain to go around him if one of the gods agreed to put their arm in his mouth as a show of good faith. Only Tyr volunteered. When Fenrir discovered he could not escape the chain, he bit off Tyr’s arm.
The English word Tuesday is named for Tyr and comes from Old English for “Tyr’s day.”
What Does the Norse Apocalypse Tell Us?
The apocalyptic story of Ragnarok shows the battle between gods - with severe consequences for both humans and the gods. The humans are the ‘collateral damage’ in this war, much like in Hindu mythology. This distinguishes Ragnarok from the Christian apocalypse, in which humans are punished for not being loyal and faithful to God.
Mankind has been fascinated with the ‘end of times’ since as long as history has been recorded. In Christianity, it is the ‘Judgment Day’ described in the Book of Revelations in Judaism, it is the Acharit hayamim in Aztec mythology, it is the Legend of the Five Suns and in Hindu mythology, it is the Story of Avatars and the Man on the Horse.
Most of these myths maintain that when the world as we know it ends, a new incarnation of the world will be created. Are these myths and legends simply a metaphor for the cyclic nature of change seen in the rotations of day and night, the seasons, and the chains of life and death? Were they possibly based on real events in the ancient past? Or maybe they are meant to be a warning that humanity meet its end in the not so distant future?
Top Image: Ragnarok is a key event in Norse myth. Source: YouTube Screenshot
Tiamat Becomes the World
Finally, Marduk created the world using the remains of Tiamat,
He divided the monstrous shape and created marvels (from it) / He sliced her in half like a fish for drying: / Half of her he put up to roof the sky / Drew a bolt across and made a guard hold it / Her waters he arranged so that they could not escape. / … He opened the Euphrates and Tigris from her eyes, / … He piled clear-cut mountains from her udder, / Bored waterholes to drain off the catchwater. / He laid her tail across, tied it fast as the cosmic bond,
Neo-Assyrian cylinder seal impression from the eighth century BC identified by several sources as a possible depiction of the slaying of Tiamat from the ‘ Enûma Eliš.’ (Ben Pirard/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Top image: Detail of ‘Tiamat.’ Source: Pearlpencil/ Deviant Art