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.
Also, see Is Valhalla Heaven or Hell? 10 Facts That Might Surprise You to learn more.
Who are the Giants in Norse Mythology? (The Jotnar Explained)
There are two classes of giants in Norse mythology:
- The frost giants are the predominant group of Jotnar, directly descended from the first of his kind, Ymir. Most of the giants and giantesses appearing in Norse myths and legends are frost giants or are descended from them (i.e., one parent is a frost giant).
- The fire giants make bookend appearances in Viking lore during the creation narrative and at Ragnarok’s fiery conclusion. As fire and ice came together to form the Jotunn Ymir, the great fire giant Surt stood guard over the inferno-like realm of Muspell. During Ragnarok’s climactic moments, Surt sets the nine realms of the Yggdrasil tree ablaze, scorching everything within, including virtually all forms of life.
The giants figure more prominently in the Norse creation narrative than the gods, and they play a central role in the myths surrounding Ragnarok, the Viking version of the apocalypse, and the end of days (it can even be argued that the Jotnar are victorious in this battle to end all battles).
And as it turns out, some of the most popular gods in Norse mythology are not pure gods at all but part giant. 
Also, see Are Norse Gods Good or Evil? to learn more.
Where Do the Jotnar Live?
Asgard and Midgard were both built within innangard, which translates to “within the enclosure,” and were domains where the gods ruled and maintained order.
Most Norse giants called Jotunheim their home, and it was located in utangard (utgard for short), which means “beyond the enclosure.” This was the realm of the giants and was described as dark, cold, and desolate.
Are Norse Giants Actually Giant?
The terms Jotunn and giant have become synonymous when referring to mythical beings like Ymir, Thrym, and Skadi, but they refer to two completely different races of beings.
Giants are defined by their enormous size, often with other undesirable features like green skin and fangs. The Norse word Jotunn translates to “devourer,” which has a completely different connotation.
How the Jotnar came to be referred to as giants in scholarly and popular circles results from different languages being introduced to Europe throughout its history.
In Norse mythology, the Old Norman (Vikings who settled in Northern France) term geant, which itself derived from the Latin word for titan, became intermingled with Jotunn.
As a result, the Jotnar were referred to as giants.
Although several notable Jotnar are indeed colossal beyond measure, size is not their defining characteristic in the same way that not all Norse giants are hideous or frightening in appearance or evil-hearted in disposition.
Most Jotnar are the same size as their god counterparts, with similar physical attributes.
With few exceptions, giants would have fit right in standing next to the likes of Thor, Odin, and Heimdall.
As far as appearance, Norse mythology describes giantesses as having unsurpassed beauty. The Asgard gods fawned over and sought desperately to marry – and quite a few did. 
Odin is often depicted with one eye. Why? See This Is Why Odin Sacrificed His Eye to learn more.
The Norse Story of Creation
Of course, there are notable exceptions to the general rule, and a few Jotnar were, in fact, giants of epic proportions.
For starters (literally and figuratively), there is Ymir, a giant among giants whose name is synonymous with the Norse version of creation.
So immense was Ymir that much of the world, as the Vikings knew it, was created from his dismembered body.
As the story goes, before the creation of heaven, earth, and the other realms, there were primordial lands of fire and ice.
As the ice melted, the water droplets took on a human-like form, and Ymir, the forefather of all frost giants, was born. From him came an offspring named Buri, who then had a son named Bor.
The latter married a giantess named Bestla, and she bore him three sons: Ve, Vili, and Odin, who would go on to become the all-father of Norse gods.
As the offspring of Ymir continued to propagate, Odin and his brothers decided that Ymir and the alarming number of frost giants he spawned posed a grave threat to the world order, so they decided to kill him.
From Ymir’s colossal corpse, the brethren gods shaped and formed the world as the Vikings knew it, including the heavens above:
- Ymir’s blood formed the seas and oceans and drowned all the frost giants save one (Bergelmir), who sailed away to safety in an ark fashioned from a log and from whom future frost giants would be descended.
- From the giant’s body, Odin and his brothers created the earth (and from the logs on earth, the first man and woman were formed).
- Ymir’s bones became boulders, crags, and rocks.
- His skull became the sky, his brains the clouds, and his hair transformed into forests of trees.
- Even Ymir’s eyelashes were used to create boundaries and enclosures to keep future giants contained.
Thus, in death, Ymir played a central role in creating the world in which the gods and Vikings lived and fought (most of their battles were waged against their old nemeses, the giants).
Ymir was the forefather not only of the entire line of frost giants in Norse mythology but in an abstract way. Even the gods and all of humankind can trace their beginnings to this gargantuan Jotunn. 
Also, see 10 Important Goddesses in Norse Mythology to learn more.
Famous Giants in Norse Mythology
Although the Vikings idolized and revered their Norse gods, it can be argued that the heroic exploits of Thor, Odin, and company would not have been near as valorous and memorable were it not for the Jotnar playing the roles of antagonists.
And in some instances, giants and giantesses came to the aid of Norse gods or joined them in battle or matrimony.
Call them opposite sides of the same coin, or the Norse yin and yang, but it can be said that in Norse mythology, you cannot have the gods without the giants, and vice-versa. Here are some prominent Jotnar that have enriched Viking myths and legends:
The Vikings were a seafaring society. As such, they paid much deference to the powers that controlled the winds in their sails and the waves beneath their oars.
In Norse mythology, dominion over the seas and oceans belonged to the Jotunn Aegir and his sea goddess wife Ran.
Interestingly, Aegir was no stranger to the gods, but his relationship with them was not adversarial – it was almost cordial.
Aegir is reputed to have hosted lavish feasts in his underwater palace, with many gods in attendance. Norse sagas describe Aegir’s “home-brewed” ale and mead as without peer in all the nine realms. 
Symbols are important in Norse mythology. See The Norse Tree of Life to learn more.
Hrungnir was a Jotunn whose heart and head were made from stone. He used a stone shield for protection and a whetstone as a weapon.
One day, Hrungnir and the all-father Odin were engaged in a horse race, which brought them to the edge of Asgard.
Odin invited the giant to join him for a drink, and before long, a drunken Hrungnir began insulting and berating his god host.
An infuriated Thor threatened to kill Hrungnir on the spot, but the unarmed giant appealed to Thor’s sense of fair play, and the two agreed to a duel on a neutral site between Asgard and Jotunheim.
The moment that Hrungnir had armed himself with his whetstone, Thor hurled Mjolnir toward the giant. Seeing Thor’s hammer quickly closing in on him, Hrungnir flung his whetstone toward the incoming Mjolnir.
On impact, Hrungnir’s whetstone shattered into pieces, and Thor’s hammer flew on undeterred, obliterating the giant’s skull.
Although victorious, Thor was injured from this fight as a piece of the giant’s whetstone had lodged in Thor’s head and was never to be removed, serving as a permanent reminder of his battle with the giant. 
Virtually all depictions of the mighty thunder god Thor show him with his hammer clutched in one hand.
In Norse myths, rarely is Thor without Mjolnir or his magical belt that doubled his strength.
So the story of Geirrod’s battle with Thor, who showed up at the frost giant’s abode without any of his signature accessories (thanks to the trickery of Loki), seemingly would not end well for Norse mythology’s favorite hero.
Fortunately for Thor, a friendly giantess named Grid warned him of the grave danger that awaited him and provided him with her magical spear, her enchanted belt, and, most importantly, her special iron gloves.
Along the way to Geirrod’s home, Thor overcame deadly river currents and the giant’s two daughters before finally confronting Geirrod himself.
At the height of their battle, Geirrod picked up a white-hot iron bolt with a pair of tongs and hurled it toward the god of thunder.
Thor caught the bolt in his borrowed iron glove and fired the bolt back toward Geirrod with such force that the bolt not only passed through the pillar behind which the giant was hiding but also pierced Geirrod’s body and the wall behind Geirrod. 
Also, see Who Can Lift Thor’s Hammer? to learn more.
One of Norse mythology’s most entertaining tales involves the highly revered god of thunder, Thor, and the giant Thrym.
According to Viking sagas, Thrym had become so enamored with the goddess Freyja that he hatched a plan to force her hand in marriage. (Also see the full article Freyja: Norse Goddess)
The lovelorn Jotunn managed to steal Mjolnir, Thor’s trusted hammer, and absconded back to Jotunheim.
Thrym refused to return Thor’s hammer unless Freyja agreed to become his wife. Desperate to retrieve Mjolnir, Thor disguised himself as Freyja and was accompanied by Loki, dressed as a bridesmaid.
During the wedding festivities, Thrym became alarmed when his bride-to-be consumed an entire ox, eight salmon, and three barrels of mead all by “herself.”
When Thrym lifted Thor’s veil to steal a kiss, he was taken aback by the “fire” he saw in her “fearful” eyes. Loki calmly explained that due to her eagerness to become Thrym’s wife, Freyja had not slept in eight days.
When at last, Mjolnir was brought out from its hiding place and placed on the bride’s lap, Thor immediately sprung into action and slaughtered all the Jotnar in Thrym’s palace.
Although the spectacle of a cross-dressed Thor slaying giants with his hammer in hand and wedding veil over his face is surely worthy of a chuckle or two, the story also shows the lengths to which a Jotunn would go in the name of love. 
Do people still believe in Norse mythology? See Is the Norse Religion Still Practiced? to learn more.
Known as the trickster god for his cunning and mischievous ways, Loki is widely considered the outcast misfit among Norse gods.
And part of the reason may be the fact that Loki is not a pure-bred god, but rather, a half-blooded frost giant on his father’s side.
Despite his Jotunn lineage, Loki was a regular sight in Asgard and mingled with Odin, Thor, and the other Norse gods as if he were on equal footing.
Although no Viking source definitively labels Loki as evil or malicious at heart, his acts of mischief were infuriating to the gods.
Ultimately, Loki plays a central role in the events of Ragnarok, as he becomes, both directly and indirectly, responsible for the demise of nearly all the gods and the complete obliteration of the nine realms of the Viking cosmos.
Through his union with the giantess Angrboda, Loki had three offspring, all of whom are significant players in the Ragnarok narrative:
- The colossal serpent Jormungandr who is slain by Thor during the cataclysmic battle but inflicts a mortal wound upon the god of thunder in the process
- The evil wolf Fenrir who kills Odin as foretold by Norse prophecies
- Overseer of the underworld Hel, whose armies are led by Loki to battle against the gods during Ragnarok
Perceived as an annoyance and a nuisance during his time in Asgard, it is during Ragnarok that Loki’s true colors are revealed, as he sides with the Jotnar to overthrow the gods and throw the Norse universe back into chaos. 
It is worth noting that Loki is not the only god with Jotunn lineage. The mighty all-father Odin is also part-giant as his mother Bestla is a giantess.
It should also be remembered that his father’s father (Buri) was born from Ymir, the original frost giant whose body the earth and the heavens were created.
Odin’s son Thor, the most popular of the Norse gods, is also part-giant by his Jotunn bloodline.
Famous Giantesses in Norse Mythology
While the male Jotnar proved to be worthy adversaries to the Norse gods and made for an impressive list of conquests, the giantesses in Norse mythology played equally significant (if not greater) roles in Viking lore.
Some of this has to do with the offspring that they bear (e.g., Bestla, mother of Odin; Angrboda, mother of Fenrir, Jormungand, and Hel), while others, like Grid, through acts of decency or kindness, saved gods from impending doom.
The Norse goddess of mountains and skiing, Skadi, was the daughter of a frost giant named Thiassi, who was killed in Asgard by the Aesir gods.
Seeking to avenge her father’s death, the beautiful Skadi arrived at Asgard, fully intent on waging a battle to the death.
The gods convinced Skadi to lay down her arms by striking an interesting two-part bargain with her:
- First, Skadi demanded that the gods make her laugh, which Loki easily accomplished by himself.
- Second, Skadi was to marry an Aesir god of her choosing but could only judge them by their feet. In so doing, Skadi selected the god Njord, which later turned out to be a poor choice as she eventually divorced him.
Norse sagas are unclear about what happened to Skadi, with some stating that Skadi married Odin and bore him many offspring. What is clear is that Skadi ascended to the position of a goddess.
Another giantess whose beauty caught the eye of an enamored god, Gerd, was the object of Freyr’s attention.
What is interesting about her story is that Gerd strongly resisted Freyr’s advances, first rejecting lavish gifts from the Norse god, then bravely holding her ground when she was threatened with bodily harm (she was told her head would be cut off if she did not comply).
It took a threat of supernatural harm, a curse that would transform her into an ugly, old being, that made Gerd finally give in and allow Freyr to win her hand. Like Skadi, Gerd rose to the status of a goddess; she became the goddess of light.
Jarnsaxa was a giantess who was Thor’s lover and bore him two half-Jotunn sons, Magni and Modi.
Magni was the strongest of all Norse gods, surpassing even his father in terms of strength. (In fact, when Thor defeated Hrungnir in battle, he was pinned underneath the giant’s leg, and only Magni could free him.)
Jarnsaxa was a pivotal character in Norse mythology, for her sons were among the few survivors of Ragnarok, tasked with rebuilding a new world from the ashes of the old.
They inherited Mjolnir from their fallen father, Thor. 
Whether they are viewed with disdain and considered to be the villains to the hero roles held by gods like Odin, Thor, and Freyja, the Jotnar are as much a part of the rich tapestry of Norse mythology as their Aesir counterparts.
While the significance of their physical attributes may be exaggerated at times, their stature within Norse mythology cannot be overstated.