A “jotun” is the term used to describe a giant in Norse mythology. The plural version of jotun is “jotnar.” The term “jotun” or “jotnar” also refers specifically to male giants. Female giants are called “gygr.” Jotnar are also sometimes called trolls, risi, and thurs. Jotnar, who are said to be the first beings to live in Midgard, are some of the oldest entities encountered in Norse legends. They live in a land called Jotunheim, which is one of the Nine Worlds. Jotnar are known for their superhuman powers, which includes psychic powers, tremendous strength, immortality, and invincibility. The physical characteristics of jotnar vary widely, but their features are generally exaggerated. For instance, some are phenomenally beautiful, while others are hideously ugly. Some are extremely tall, and others are very short.
The leader of the jotnar is Ymir, whose dead body is said to have enabled life in the world of Jotunheim. Ymir lives on Jotunheim with the other giants. In many accounts, he is described as the first of all giants. There are several other giant-gods in Norse mythology, including Odin and Thor. However, Ymir predated the others. When Ymir first roamed Jotunheim, which was long before the other gods and giants arrived, food was limited and scarce. Therefore, he fed almost exclusively on the milk from a cow named Audhumla. One characteristic shared by all jotnar is the ability to self-reproduce. Ymir was the first to have this ability, and he ultimately produced three offspring (two sons and one daughter). Ymir lived peacefully with his children in Jotunheim for many years. The god Odin was the next being to arrive. Animosity between the two giants soon followed. Odin eventually killed Ymir with help from his brothers, citing Ymir’s “reckless” reproduction for causing an overpopulation, and a homogeneous one at that, of giants on the island. After Ymir was killed, his body was reused to support life for the future generation of giants in the land.
Although the giants lived exclusively on Jotunheim, they had frequent interactions with other inhabitants in the Nine Worlds. Vanir and Aesir were the two main races that they mixed with. Some stories describe the interactions between the giants and these two races as hostile. In other stories, however, the interactions are civil. There are even accounts of giants marrying into Vanir and Aesir families. This intermingling resulted in the creation of several mixed races and new races. The giants’ offspring from mixed marriages carried their genes to other realms of the Nine Worlds, including Niflheim, which is the land of ice, mist, and cold. Regardless of where they live, the Norse giants represent nature, chaos, and the wild and untamed side of man. Throughout Norse legends, (primarily in the Prose Edda) the death of the giants at the hands of non-giant gods symbolizes man’s triumph over nature.