As compared with the elves, the giants maintain a less constant intercourse with mankind, and are to a lesser extent objects of worship. They are, however, equally well represented in the Märchen, take a more active part in the heroic saga, and also play a far more important rôle in Norse mythology. They are personifications of savage, untamed natural forces, such as the storm and the wild roaring sea. Their real home is, accordingly, in regions that are mountainous and near the coast, in Tyrol and Norway, and to a slighter degree in England and the plains of Northern Germany. Giants are on the whole invested with a more pronounced individuality than the elves: they usually appear singly, less often in groups or large collective bodies. Not a few giants, especially those of particular mountains, such as Watzmann and Pilatus, are wholly bound to a single spot, and may be regarded as mythical personifications of specific locations. It frequently happens, therefore, that giants and elves (dwarfs) inhabit, though in a different manner, the same realms of nature. Nor are they always kept entirely distinct. Regin and Fafnir are brothers, but the former is represented as a dwarf, the latter as a giant.
The following designations for giants may be noted: 1. Old Norse jtunn (plural jtnar), Anglo-Saxon eoten, Swedish jätte; 2. Old Norse Thurs (Middle High German türse); 3. Swedish troll; 4. German Riese; 5. Anglo-Saxon ent; 6. hüne (in Westphalia and part of Drenthe). Here and there we also meet the loan word gigant. To designate giantesses the Old Norse employs gýgr.
Giants differ greatly in form and stature; their general characteristics are huge body and superhuman strength. They are frequently beautiful: witness Gerdhr, Skadhi, and numerous other giantesses who move the hearts of both gods and men to love. There are monsters among their number, with many heads and hands, one-eyed, ugly, misshapen, and repulsive. The dogs and wolves that bring about the eclipses of sun and moon (Managarmr, Hati, Skll) are also thought of as giants, and such names as Ktt (tomcat), hyndla (bitch), Trana (crane), Kraka (crow), likewise contain a reference to animal shape.
The traits of character that are ascribed to giants reveal similar contradictions. They are kind of heart and possess a childlike joyousness, but are uncouth and awkward. They possess a great store of wisdom, as e.g. Vafthrudhnir, who is visited by Odhin, and Hyndla, who informs Freyja concerning the genealogies, but their knowledge differs in character from the shrewdness and nimbleness of the elves and dwarfs. They are preëminently faithful: trolltryggr (faithful as a giant) became proverbial. They reward services done them, but if their wrath (jtunmódhr) has been provoked, nothing is secure against their violent onslaughts.
These various phases in the character of giants, their faithfulness and kind-heartedness as well as their frightful wrath, play a part also in Märchen. They are immoderate in the use of food and drink, and at times hanker after human flesh, as in the tale of Tom Thumb. Their hostility to agriculture is likewise frequently mentioned,—a trait that is not at all surprising in the case of spirits representing the forces of wild and inhospitable nature.By the elements is hated
What is formed by mortal hands.
this antithesis between giants and tillers of the soil is encountered in numerous sagas, as e.g. in that well-known story from Alsatia in which the daughter of a giant playfully captures a farmer in the act of ploughing and puts him in her apron, and is greatly delighted with her new-found toy. But her father admonishes her that this is not a fit toy, for if the farmer does not till the soil bread will be lacking also in the rocky castle of the giant.
Giants are famous builders. They do not produce works of art like the dwarfs, but colossal structures, castles, walls (compare the Cyclopean walls of antiquity), hünenbedden, roads built from blocks of stone, and bridges across rivers. Under this same category falls also the account of the giant builder of the burgh of the Æsir to which reference has repeatedly been made.
We now turn to a consideration of the giants as identified with the various domains of nature. There are first of all the water giants. The North Sea is especially rich in these: Grendel and his mother from Beowulf and Wate from Kudrun will at once occur to the reader. In part they are monsters, like the eight-handed giant of the Alu waterfalls in Norway, and Starkad, who has been blended with the hero of the saga. The shape of horses and bulls assumed by giants is also of common occurrence, the former, for example, in the case of the giantess Hrimgerdhr. The midhgardh-serpent and the Fenris-wolf are likewise examples of sea monsters belonging to the race of giants. With the former we may compare the stories abounding in sea lore of sea-serpents that have been seen rising to the surface.
Chief among the sea giants is Ægir (called also Hler and Gymir), whose name the scalds in a few instances even employed appellatively to designate the sea. His relations with the Æsir are of the most friendly character: he prepares a banquet for them at which Fimafengr and Eldir are the attendants, and is in turn Odhin's guest on Hlesey, the isle of Hler. He is generally regarded as personifying the calm open sea. Less benign in nature is his kin. His wife is the fierce Ran, who with her net draws drowning men to the depths. She is the death deity of the sea. The nine daughters of Ægir and Ran represent, as is evident from their names, the surf and the turbulent waves of the sea. Gerdhr too is called a daughter of the giant Gymir, and her beauty is highly extolled, but there is nothing in the myth of her union with Freyr that suggests the water demon; on the contrary, it is rather reminiscent of the earth in springtime.
The principal water giants that play a rôle in the god-myths have already been mentioned. Among them was the wise Mimir, between whose wisdom and his character as water demon there is doubtless a connection. The inhospitable nature of the sea is personified in Hymir, who with frosty beard dwells in the midst of icy peaks, as is graphically told in the Eddic song that bears his name. The myth itself has been treated under the head of Thor. Hymir should not be identified with the primeval giant Ymir, who is also associated with the water, but whose chief place in the cosmogony. Fenja and Menja, the giantesses with the quern, are likewise to be classed among the water demons.
The wind giants are no less numerous, although not all beings that move about in the air are to be grouped under this category, certainly not Odhin with the souls constituting his train. There is an utter lack of such evidence as would connect the Wild Hunt with the giants, and the views of those more recent mythologists who assume such a relationship are erroneous. Nor are the demons of vegetation, mentioned under the rubric "Elves" to be classed as wind giants. With greater show of reason, certain poetical expressions used by the scalds for the wind, such as brjótr (shatterer), bani (slayer), skadhi (harm), might be cited under this head, but the personification contained in these kenningar is after all of too incomplete a character to serve as the basis for such conclusions.
The wind giants are really storm giants, so e.g. Ecke and Vasolt of the German heroic saga, with whom Dietrich of Bern enters into combat. Norse mythology boasts of a large number of wind giants. Thrym and Thjazi, who in the shape of an eagle carries off Loki, have before been referred to. At the edge of heaven, in the form of an eagle, sits Hræsvelg, who sets the sea in motion and fans the flames of fire. Kari causes ice and snow, and in general wind giants are frequently giants of winter, Hrímthursar, rime or frost giants, several names being compounds that have hrím as first component part. Hrungnir has also been counted among the wind giants, because he rides on the stallion Gullfaxi, but the myth dealing with him is even less simple and transparent than those of Geirrödhr and Suttungr, which we discussed in connection with Thor and Odhin. In these and other accounts the elaboration of the story-motif at the hands of the mythographers and poets has entirely obscured the nucleus of the original nature-myth which they may contain. It is, at any rate, impossible to determine to what sphere of nature these giants belong.
The mountain giants (bergrisar), although necessarily restricted to definite localities, are very numerous. By their fantastic and grotesque forms certain rocks involuntarily suggest the idea of petrified giants, and stories are accordingly told of savage giant kings who on account of their cruelty were changed into rocks. On the other hand, we also hear of benevolent giants and giantesses inhabiting the mountains, such as Dofi and his daughter Fridhr in Norway. While giants also dwell in the forest, there are hardly any instances of individual forest giants.
There is no need of continuing this enumeration of giants. Among them are some figures that belong only in part to the race of giants; thus Jrdh and Rindr are sometimes classed among the giantesses and again among the Asynjur. The giants of night and day that inhabit Jtunheim do not rest on a basis of popular belief: their genealogy is artificial.
It would, however, be a mistake to suppose that giants in general did not constitute an integral part of popular belief. Such was most decidedly the case, the more so because they were, even to a greater extent than the elves, identified with definite localities. They stand in all manner of relations to mankind, friendly as well hostile, but are generally feared and held in awe. There are, however, only slight traces of giant cult, too slight to warrant the conclusion that there existed at an earlier period a widespread giant worship. Giants are invoked now and then in incantations, as e.g. Vasolt in a weather charm of the eleventh century, and a certain Tumbo, who is called upon to heal wounds and to staunch blood. In Norway a certain giant, Dumbr, is styled heitgudh (i.e. a god who is invoked) and bjargvættr (guardian spirit), and in the Kormaks Saga, Chapter 27, a blótrisi (a giant to whom sacrifices are made) is mentioned, whose indigenous character is, however, not above suspicion. Finally, in the North, at Yuletide, beer is also brought to the giants' hill for the giants.
It is of more importance, therefore, to inquire what position literature has assigned to the giants. Norse literature has provided them with a systematic genealogy: they are descended from Fornjotr (the ancient giant), whose three sons, Hler, logi, and Kari, represent respectively water, fire, and wind, trilogy, accordingly, that is parallel to that found in the world of the gods. This genealogy is unquestionably specifically Norse, the parallels among other Teutons that have been claimed for it being extremely weak. Its home is in the region of the Cattegat. Norr, also, the eponymous hero of Norway, is stated to be a descendant of this ancient giant. Kari is furthermore made the ancestor of a number of semi-personified beings, the appellative origin of whose names is still perfectly clear. They are: Jkull (glacier), Frosti (cold), Snær (mountain snow), Fnn (heap of snow), Drifa (snow-whirl), Mjll (snow-dust). A number of these personifications of nature are at the same time thought of, in euhemeristic fashion, as ancient kings, of whom various stories are told and whom numerous Norwegian families regard as their progenitors. Sporadically we also find Fornjotr identified with Ymir, from whom the giants are descended according to Hyndluljódh 34, and again with Thrivaldi or with Allvaldi, the father of Thjazi.
The home of the giants was regarded as lying in the northeast, or, at a later time, in the southeast. A distinction is sometimes drawn between Jtunheim and Risaland. In Alvíssmal, the giants, like the Æsir, Vanir, and dwarfs, have separate and distinct designations for beings and objects. Similarly, things have different names with Hel and with men, but these five or six different languages are mere scaldic fiction.
In both the Eddic poems and the Snorra Edda essentially different conceptions regarding giants frequently stand side by side, or are even commingled. The part giants play in the cosmogony (viz. Ymir) and in the eschatology (viz. Surtr) will receive consideration in the following chapter.
In both Eddas the conception of kinship and close relationship between giants and Æsir is dominant. Odhin and his brothers constitute a younger race that has succeeded the giants. Tyr is the son of Hymir; Thor and Vali have as their mothers the giantesses Jrdh and Rindr, respectively. Thor, notwithstanding the fact that he is sworn enemy of numerous giants, yet greatly resembles them, and Loki too is of their race, and is, in fact, even designated "the giant." The Æsir have intercourse with giantesses,—Odhin with several, Freyr with Gerdhr, Njrdhr with Skadhi. Odhin seeks wisdom from Vafthrudhnir, and mimir is his friend. Freyja visits Hyndla in her cave to learn hidden things.
But in the myths to which we alluded in the above résumé the giants and the Æsir also frequently appear as other's enemies. In the case of Thor and Loki, the mere mention of their names will suffice to make this fact evident. The union between Freyr and the giantess Gerdhr is condemned by Æsir and elves alike. Eddic mythology is full of the struggle between Æsir and the giants, the latter ever showing a keen desire to get Freyja in their power. It is noteworthy that the giants have no share in the death of Baldr. Nor do they play an important rôle in the final catastrophe , except in so far as the monsters, the Midhgardh-serpent and the Fenris-wolf, are to be accounted of their number.
At first blush it would seem that these two conceptions of the relationship between Æsir and the giants are contradictory, and that we must choose between two alternatives: either that the giants are an older race of gods, or that they are the expression of a dualistic conception of the world. It is to be noticed, however, that in Greek mythology also we find the same two notions: the Titans are the older race from which the Olympians have sprung, and with whom they have to battle, the new order of things being established only after the supreme Olympian, Zeus, has entered into union with the Titanides, Themis and Mnemosyne. While Norse mythology has not been moulded by a power of art and thought such as that which created the figure of Prometheus for the Greeks, yet these two aspects found in the Greek Titans are also present in the Norse giants: they represent the hostile forces as well as the ancient and the immutable ones: the Norns are the mighty maids from Thursenheim. Such conceptions as these lie at hand, and there is no need of supposing them to have been introduced from foreign sources by scalds and mythographers. The scalds have merely drawn the giants, who are properly figures of the "lower" mythology, within the sphere of the poetic and systematized mythology. They are the same ancient and wise beings that play a part in popular belief, from whom, accordingly, even the gods have something to learn. They also represent the wild and untamed forces of nature, with which the gods come into conflict. An absolute or philosophic dualism, as chaos and order, matter and spirit, or good and evil, the Norse mythographers certainly did not have in mind, or at least only in so far as Christian ideas had influenced their own conceptions.
The medieval heroic saga has made use of giants in a variety of ways. King Rother has several savage giants among his following: Asprian who slays a lion, Vidolt who is led about on an iron chain, and others. There is also a Lombard saga in which the giants bear a close resemblance to Berserkers. Giants are furthermore made to do duty as watchmen at the gates of castles or as guardians of treasures, at times in the shape of dragons. In several accounts of combats the motif of a struggle between giants is unmistakably present, as in the stories connected with the Alpine region of Tyrol, which have been transferred to the cycle of Dietrich of Bern (Ecke, Vasolt, etc.),and in the narratives dealing with the faithless warriors, Witege and Heime. Here, as elsewhere, a mythical element has blended with the historical saga. Another original and very old motif is that of the wise giant who brings up young heroes. In German poetry this motif has been crowded into the background, but such is not the case with Norse literature. In the songs of the Edda and in the Vlsunga Saga Sigurd is reared by Regin and Fafnir, and Harald Fairhair similarly spent his youth with the giant Dofri. According to Saxo, Hadding also is brought up by a giant, but this belongs to a somewhat different type of story, viz. those picturing relations of love between heroes and daughters of giants.
"The Religion of the Teutons," by P. D. Chantepie De La Saussaye, trans. by Bert J. Vos, page 328-337.