The Jötnar are the first race to have arisen at the creation of the Universe. Just like the Æsir, there is hardly a story or poem that does not contain a run-in with a jötunn … they are the prime antagonists in much of the lore, but they are also the wives, parents, grand-parents, and friends of the Æsir and Vanir gods.
Ýmir was the first of this mighty race, born out of the rivers that formed in Ginnungagap. Snorri describes the event in Gylfaginning:
“Just as from Niflheimr there arose coldness and all things grim, so what was facing close to Muspelheim was hot and bright, but Ginnungagap was as mild as a windless sky. And when the rime and the blowing of the warmth met so that it thawed and dripped, there was a quickening from these flowing drops due to the power of the source of the heat, and it became the form of a man, and he was given the name Ýmir.”
As the first and only being at the time, Ýmir begat children from the pits of his arms and the rubbing together of his legs, and in this way the race of giants was spawned. The children of Ýmir produced many children of their own, and intermingled with the first of the gods to appear – Búri, who’s son married a jötunn named Bestla. There seems to have been a lot of animosity and competition between the races after that, and eventually Ýmir was slain by Bestla’s sons, Óðin, Vili and Vé.
Out of the enormous body of the jötunn the brothers created Miðgarðr. The dome of his skull formed the sky arching over the Earth, and his blood became the seas, rivers, and lakes. Ýmir’s brains became the clouds, his hair the trees, and his bones the mountains and hills. At this point in the lore, the race of Dwarfs also appears, growing into a more human-like form from little worms or maggots, out of the giant’s flesh.
The gods erected a fence of sorts out of Ýmir’s eyelashes, separating the giant’s land of Jötunheimr from what was to become the realm of human kind. It was the duty of the gods, then, to watch over this border and ensure the safety of their new creations from the destructive elemental forces of the jötnar.
Many jötunn villains are described in the lore, and they are all destructive and chaotic forces to be reckoned with. The most famous of them all is Loki, the son of Fárbauti and Laufey, and friend and companion to Thor. He is accepted into the tribe as one of the Æsir, but is a duplicitous character who causes as much trouble as he does good. Loki’s stories are very popular, as they are usually filled with humour and suspense, often resulting in magical boons for the gods. Eventually his giant nature wins out, however, and he betrays the gods and helps bring about Ragnarök.
Other antagonistic jötnar include Skaði and her father Þjazi, who kidnapped the goddess Iðunn and held her captive. Thor has a run-in with King Útgarða-Loki, ruler of a great jötunn kingdom who horribly embarrasses the god by cheating at contests of strength and vitality. Thor’s duel with the great Hrungnir is so fierce that he has a piece of the giant’s whetstone permanently lodged in his head, and the wily Þrymr steals Mjölnir and ransoms it for Freya’s hand in marriage.
For every dastardly jötunn in the lore, there is a beautiful giantess who joins the Æsir and works towards the greater good. Many of the gods marry giantesses, and in fact most of the gods have giant’s blood running through their veins. Óðin, Frigga, Váli, Víðarr, and Thor are all directly descended from jötnar (Frigga and Thor even have the same mother, the giantess Jörð) and Sleipnir and Hel are also both children of a giant – Loki. Freyr marries Gerð, with whom he falls in love at first sight, and Njörðr marries the feisty giantess Skaði after the gods kill her father. Mímir, the renowned counselor of Óðin and guardian of the well of wisdom, is also thought to have been a jötunn.
The differences between the giants and the gods are sometimes very distinct and dramatic, and sometimes they are indistinguishable. Some of the jötnar are hideous or horrific in appearance, with claws, fangs, and deformed faces or bodies. They can be enormous in size or normal sized. Some of them are described with many heads, such as Þrívaldi who had nine of them, and still others are not humanoid at all, such as Jörmungandr, Sleipnir, and Fenrir. The relationship between the gods and giants is always a complex one.