“Beneath this fragile crust of this modern age of reason, a darker world lies waiting, primordial and pure”
– “Sol Invictus” by Atlantean Kodex
This quote resonated with me well before I wound up going down a ‘pagan’ religious path. Now, it serves as a succinct statement of some of my core spiritual beliefs and motivations: beneath the veneer of the mundane lies a world full of spirits, gods, and magic. Furthermore, out of the multitude of forces that lie out there, I am drawn specifically to the primordial and the ancient forces of nature of Norse belief: the jötnar.
The jötnar are the primordial “feminine” nature entities of Old Norse belief who oppose the civilized and “masculine” powers of the Æsir. Most are familiar with the concept of Ragnarök where these two powers will clash one final time resulting in the destruction of both sides as well as the earth, which will then be born anew from the ashes of the old world. This posits the jötnar solely as harbingers of chaos and destruction in many people’s eyes, making them worthy of the antagonism they face at the hands of the Æsir. However, the jötnar are also the source of creation with life being made possible by the first jötnar Ymir and Auðhumbla, not to mention that many jötnar possess the ability to spontaneously create life from their bodily excretions. Furthermore, they are the ultimate arbiters of fate and judgement as shown by their role at Ragnarök – an event which literally means “fate of the gods” – where they seek to rebalance the world from the meddling of the Æsir.
I’m sure some are side-eyeing the labeling of the Æsir’s actions as meddling but the fact remains that the world of Midgard was born out of the Aesir’s violence: Midgard did not exist until after Ymir was murdered by his descendants Oðinn, Vili, and Ve and his remains were fashioned into the land and sea. Kin-slaying begot the world of men as only through the conquering of nature could the Old Norse peoples survive. As such, Þorr’s slaying of the jötnar largely represents this struggle of man to conquer nature and create a balance. However, the Æsir don’t stop at mere balance or defense against the jötnar. They frequently manipulate, murder, and take advantage of the jotnar at any chance they get. Oðinn by all means stole the mead of poetry, lying and murdering to get it. Þorr traveled far and wide, completely unprovoked, to reach Geirrödr’s realm to kill him. Oðinn tricked Vafþrúðnir into a life-or-death game he could not win. Oðinn had Fenrir shackled on the basis of unsubstantiated prophecy alone, turning the wolf into the monstrous beast of vengeance that would swallow the Allfather at Ragnarök. All of the Æsir conspire against the unnamed hrimÞurs who builds the wall around Asgard and eventually have him put to death for his righteous fury when he discovers he’s been cheated. Þorr and Oðinn frequently abuse Loki and force him to clean up messes under threat of punishment if he doesn’t comply. None of this is said to claim the jötnar are completely innocent as that would be untrue. Þjazi is clearly guilty of kidnapping Iðunn with Loki’s help. Þrymr is guilty of stealing Þorr’s hammer. Hrungnir is well-known for actively picking a conflict with the Æsir (although he was drunk at least part of the time.) Loki regularly causes plenty of problems for the Æsir ranging from relatively minor pranks like shaving Sif to major crimes like the death of Baldr. Hati and Sköll pursue Mani and Sol who must keep ahead or else they’ll be devoured by the ravenous pair of wolves. However, overwhelmingly it is the Æsir causing unprovoked violence against the jötnar for their own selfish gain. As such, the actions of the Æsir no longer are merely that of survival but of cruelty and greed, leading to an unbalancing of the world as they seek to control and manipulate its natural forces. Meanwhile most of the “aggressive” acts of the jötnar are easily viewed as ways to balance the power between the two camps.
Take for instance the tale of Þrymskviða in which Þrymr steals Þorr’s hammer Mjolnir. This is the Æsir’s greatest weapon against the jötnar so without it they’re in dire straits. However, Þrymr who is said to be the king of Jötunheim does not choose to launch an attack on them. Rather, he wants Freyja’s hand in marriage which would grant him a political “in” with the Æsir. When Skaði’s father is slain by the Æsir, it is clear by the Æsir’s reaction to her arrival that she could seriously hurt them. However, she’s happy to settle for recompense rather than revenge. And again, part of the arranged terms are marriage to one of the Æsir. It’s also worth noting that her father’s crime was to kidnap and try to marry Iðunn, who as keeper of the apples of youth would have also given him an important political tie to the Æsir should he have been successful. This theme of marriage was also a motivation on the part of the unnamed hrimÞurs who built the wall around Asgard: he wanted the sun and the moon but he also wanted to marry Freyja. This theme of a jötun desiring marriage to one of the influential Æsir coming up four times can’t be mere coincidence especially when half of those times it’s preferable to destructive wrath. The jötnar tend towards peaceful means of balancing the scales of power rather than destruction only to almost always be met with violent response from the Æsir. Even the more violent actions of the jötnar are necessary ways to keep the world functioning and balanced. For instance, Hati and Sköll’s pursuit of the sun and moon keep the heavenly wheels cycling through the sky. From their father Fenrir’s gaping slavering jaws flows the river Ván, the river of hope. Hope springs from the jaws of the most notorious destroyer, showing that the most excessive violence of the jötnar is balanced out with good. Even Ragnarök’s total destruction breathes renewal into the world, with peace and new life rising from the violence. The jötnar then, it would seem, are mostly driven by needs for justice and a balance of power between themselves and the Æsir and most of the time, they choose peaceful means over violent ones.
So far, we have established the jötnar as primordial beings that embody the forces of nature, chaos, destruction, and also balance. They largely represent forces that oppose Old Norse societal growth and values in some form or fashion. This embodiment of anti-societal forces doesn’t stop at the jötnar being natural forces. They are present in human society as well in the form of ethnic others, criminals, witches and sorcerers, the disabled, the disfigured, the mentally ill, and the queer particularly those viewed as becoming more effeminate like trans women and certain gay men. These jötnar in particular are labeled as trolls and represent the fears and things considered as “negatives” of Old Norse society. Therefore, jötnar embody threats to Old Norse society both external (wilderness) and internal (the demographics listed above.)
Examples of how trollish jotnar represent the internal threats to Old Norse society can be seen in how they are described physically as ethnically other. A common description of these trolls includes mentioning them having “broad faces” which is a description also attributed to the Sami. Like the Sami, jötnar are strongly associated with witchcraft, ‘shamanic’ magic, and reindeer. (In the poem Þórsdrápa, a kenning for the jötnar is reindeer of the Lister peak.) A way to talk about practicing witchcraft or seeking it out was to “believe in the Sami” (trua a Finna) or to “make a journey to the Sami” (gera Finfarar.) In order to gain supernatural knowledge, it was common practice for the gods to make journeys to the realm of the jötnar. The parallels between jötnar and the Sami do not stop there, however. Trollwomen of the fornaldarsögur (legendary sagas) are also often remarked upon as having alien clothing and mannerisms. Furthermore, the jötnar live in the North and to the East largely, aka where the Sami tended to be found. There was also frequent encounters of jötnar in regards to fishing expeditions and fishing was a way the Sami made their living. It’s also common for trolls to possess darker skin which marks them out as other. Sometimes, though, it’s simply stated outright the connection between the two. In Þórsdrápa, one of the kennings given for the jötnar is “Cymry (Welsh) of the cave of the circular wall.” A kenning for the jötun Geirrödr is “kin-Briton (British) of the cave.” Both of these kennings directly relate the jötnar to people of other nationalities. As Þórsdrápa was written by a Norwegian jarl’s skald, there are similar kennings for the jötnar that make use of the other Scandinavian countries setting them also up as enemies. It’s clear from all of this that trollish jötnar were strongly related to foreigners, especially the Sami.
The ugly and the disfigured are another subset of people who were related to trollishness and thus the jötnar. Ugliness, especially looking like a beast, was a key factor in trollishness. For instance, in his book Trolls: An Unnatural History, John Lindow states:
The Old Swedish story of the mother of St Bartholomew (‘the woman without hands’) gives a fanciful description of a troll: ‘His handless wife has given birth to a troll most like a devil, which has a large head, crooked neck, clumsy hands and feet, donkey ears, terrifying eyes.’ Not infrequently, people are human in the upper parts of their bodies and trolls (bestia) in the lower.
As you can see, people whose features were deemed bestial or otherwise horrifying could be considered a troll. Disfigurements like these exposed the fear of the blending of the human and the beastly. This fear also carried over into discussions of the berserker, warriors who could transform mentally into animals for battle. The berserker was commonly remarked upon as being hideous to look at and thus they were sometimes referred to as being trollish. Ugliness was clearly often connected to beastliness which in turn caused threats to the clear delineation between human and animal.
Disability and mental illness were another pair of factors that inherently led to trollishness. The changeling legends are the most obvious example of this. Changelings are linked to several conditions that cause disability from rickets to severe thyroid conditions to autism. As Lindow explains, the changeling legend represents the fear of the Other infiltrating the home successfully as such those exhibiting the symptoms of these were regarded as potentially being dangerous trolls. Trolls also exhibit symptoms of mental illness, specifically antisocial behavior like avoiding society and intense bouts of rage. This feeds into how criminals and outlaws became viewed as trolls as they possessed antisocial personality traits. The most famous example of this is the outlaw Grettir Ásmundarson of Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar. In it, after he becomes an outlaw, he is remarked upon for being trollish in appearance:
Grettir burst into the house, and wotted not who was there before; his cape was all over ice when he came aland, and he himself was wondrous great to behold, even as a troll; now those first comers were exceeding amazed at him, and deemed he must be some evil wight
In the above passage, he is taken for a troll which only occurs after his outlawing. There are no changes to him other than becoming an outlaw so there has to be a direct link there between the two concepts.
And last but not least we arrive at the performance of queer acts and witchcraft as a subset of behaviors that could make one be viewed as a troll. In fact, folk magic was referred to as trolldomr which illustrates the direct link between magic and trollishness. However, the most well-known form of witchcraft was the magic of seiðr. Performing magic alone was clearly enough to make someone a troll. This magic was often considered criminal making it even more trollish to perform. On top of it, for AMAB practitioners, practicing seiðr – for multiple reasons – caused them to be shifted to a more “female” gender status. Not only is the feminine already associated with the jötnar, but this act known as ergi (sexual perversion) was also outlawed to the point it could literally reduce one’s social status to nothing. On top of it all, the first practitioner of seiðr, Gullveig, may very well have been a jötun herself although that’s an argument in an of itself to make. In any case, there are strong affiliations between magic, queerness, criminality, and trolldom.
As someone who is a part of multiple of these demographics, how could I not naturally be drawn to the entities who clearly represent the people like myself who are still oppressed and mistreated today? The jötnar are primordial nature beings but also the modern story of the oppressed and downtrodden peoples today. To worship the jötnar encompasses more than worshiping chaos and destruction; it also is the reverence for the forces of nature and life itself. It is the understanding of how these forces intertwine into a harsh and delicate balance that characterizes the worship of the jotnar. They are the harshness of wild Mother Nature in all her ferocious glory, the primordial cycles that balance our world, and the forces that will break it all to fix it should it become unbalanced. They are the righteous anger and the heart of the oppressed. They are the outraged cants demanding fair treatment and justice for the wrongs done to them. They are the people who sought first through peace but now rise up in violence for there are no other choices to seek what they need and deserve. This is what the jötnar are and why I worship them, why my heart sings their song and why my hands act in their name.
Some relevant sources I draw upon for my views expressed here:
- Meeting the Other in Norse Myth and Legend by John McKinnell
- “Where Do the Giants Live?” by Ármann Jakobsson
- “The Perception of the Saamis and Their Religion in Old Norse Sources” by Else Mundal
- “Wilderness, Liminality, and the Other in Old Norse Myth and Cosmology” Jens Peter Schjødt
- “Supernatural Others and Ethnic Others: A Millenium of World View” by John Lindow
- “Nasty, Brutish, and Large Cultural Difference and Otherness in ‘the Figuration of the Trollwomen of the Fornaldarsogur” by Sandra Ballif Straubhaar
- “Trollwomen” by Sandra Ballif Straubhaar
- Trolls: An Unnatural History by John Lindow
- “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Bárðar saga and Its Giants” by Ármann Jakobsson
- “The Giant Who Wanted to Be a Dwarf: The Transgression of Mythic Norms in Þorr’s Fight With Geirrödr” by Kevin J. Wanner
- “Cats and Dogs, Trolls and Devils: At Home in Some Migratory Legend Types” by John Lindow
- Giants in Folklore and Mythology: A New Approach by Lotte Motz
- Identifying the Ogre by Ármann Jakobsson