The Norse term Jotun is traditionally translated as “Giant” as in the giants who lurch through fairy tales, like the one in Jack and the Beanstalk. Fairy tale giants are crude, often blood thirsty and usually not too bright. The Jotuns are far more complex, playing significant but contradictory, mysterious parts in Norse mythology.
The very first being in the cosmos was the frost-giant, Ymir. Jotuns emanated from parts of his body. The first deities (Odin and his brothers) destroyed Ymir, grinding his corpse up in a mill and fashioning the universe from it. The Jotuns are enemies of the Aesir but also their parents, teachers, lovers and spouses. Unlike the Aesir spirits, the Jotuns are permanent and eternal: spirits who are destined to survive the apocalyptic battle Ragnarok are at least half Jotun.
Norse mythology was not written down until the 13th century; its scribes were mainly Christian scholars who identified and empathized with the Aesir gods and so Norse mythology is re-told from their perspective. The Jotuns were the enemies of the Aesir and so come off badly: other names for them include trolls and ogres. Female Jotuns are called troll-hags and ogresses, both words eventually synonyms for “witch.”
Jotuns are wild, nocturnal beings, identified with ice, stone and hailstones. They hurl boulders and hailstones as weapons.
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Male Jotuns are stereotypically depicted as ugly, fierce, harsh and haggard; but many giantesses are very beautiful in a huge, wild, powerful kind of way. Female giants manifest as fierce hags but also as beautiful warriors and nurturing mothers. Jotuns generally are master shape-shifters; favoured forms include eagles and wolves.
Jotunheim (literally Giant’s Home), a mountainous, freezing, harsh realm. Many, if not all, Jotuns may originally have been mountain spirits.
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by : Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.