One advantage of being a pagan king is that you could trace your family tree back to some pagan god or other. In Sweden, the Ynglings claimed descent from the god Freyr, and several other Scandinavian ruling families traced themselves back to Odin. Both the Ynglings and the Norwegian earls of Hlaðir claimed descent from a god and a giantess: Freyr and Gerdr, and the Hlaðir Odin and the giantess Skadi.
There are a number of theories about why, if giants were seen as chaotic and ill-intentioned, anyone would want one for an ancestor. But if you think of giants as powerful beings with connections to primal forces, then it makes sense. Add to that the more rational power of a god, and it makes a combination that anyone would want in their bloodline.
The earls of Orkney went one better than the Hlaðir, however, and combined the power of the giant with the authority of a male ancestor, claiming to be descended from a male giant named Fornjótr. (No mention of a mate – perhaps he generated his children alone, the way the primal giant Ymir did.)
HIs name can be variously translated: as Forn-jótr, “Anicent Jutlander or poss. Giant”; For-njótr (“Early-User or Destroyer”); or Forn-njótr (“One-who-enjoys-sacrifices”) or Forn-Thjótr (“Ancient Screamer”). (Lindow: 119) He went on to found a line of giants, mostly having names connected with snow and cold. (The only female mentioned, Goí, doesn’t appear until the sixth generation. She gave her name to the second month, and its sacrificial festival.)
He had three sons, Hlér/Sea, Logi/Fire, and Kári/Wind, whose son was Jökull/Icicle (Lindow has Glacier) or Frosti/Frost, whose son was Snær/Snow. His son, Thorri, had two boys, Nor and Gor, and a daughter, Goi.
In another version, found in Hversu Noregr byggðisk, this is elaborated, with Snaer having four sons, Thorri, Fönn/Snowdrift, Drifa/Driving Snow, Snowdrift, Hailstorm, and Mjöll/Fresh, Powdery Snow. (Langeslag: 34.)
Although, as Lindow again points out, the last three names are feminine nouns (119), and Motz treats them as giantesses (501), and Langeslag thinks that this is the same Drifa that King Vanlandi marries in Ynglinga saga. (36)
It is not clear if Snorri’s ideas about the Æsir gods coming from Asia had a direct influence on this geneaology, but it is significant that Fornjótr and co. came from the extreme north of Scandinavia:
There was a king named Fornjot, he ruled over those lands which are called Finland and Kvenland; that is to the east of that bight of the sea which goes northward to meet Gandvik; that we call the Helsingbight. (Orkneying saga)
Beuremann thinks that the Orkney earls were making a point: we are autochthonous, not like those immigrant gods Odin and his Æsir. The earls would have been referring to the sort of learned speculation that Snorri and Saxo went in for; Æsir sounds like Asia, so the Æsir were Asia-men.
Little did they know that hundreds of years later debate would rage over whether Odin was a come-from-away on archaeological and linguistic grounds. (See Hultgård 2009 for a summary.)
As Beuremann (116) puts it:
They stem from an ancient native race hailing from a mythical past, and – to put it in somewhat racist terms – their blood has not been diluted by southern immigrants. In addition, as if the point needed to be pressed, Orkneyinga saga chooses for the part of the Orcadians’ non-human ancestors not the gods of the Hárfagri-dynasty, the ‘offical’ Norwegian royal line, but their arch-enemies, the giants.
Note that their lineage is not only that of native northerners, but all-male. The Hladir, after all, were descended from a soft southerner and a female giant, Skadi.
Beuremann makes another interesting point in regard to this all-male line (116). He sees the masculinity and the primeval nature of their names as suggestive of the primeval giant, Ymir. After all, he was made up of fire, air, and water, which might suggest that Fornjótr divided up his elements among his offspring. (Some modern pagans see Fornjótr’s sons as embodying the primal elements, although they have to add someone, usually feminine, for earth.)
And if we view his sons as dispersing his substance over the earth, we see aggressive and mobile beings who eventually bring forth the agressive and mobile earls of Orkney. The earls, by claiming this descent for themselves, were able to present themselves as the equals of the warrior-rulers of Norway. (118-9)
Indeed, the Ymir connection and the winter idea come together rather neatly:
That the author chose to root the Norwegian and Orcadian ruling houses in the very essence of winter (frosti, snaer, thorri) suggests two things: that he held winter to be at the heart of Scandinavian culture, and that he believed there could be something noble or desirable to this affiliation. (Langeslag: 35)
Langeslag sees a connection between Snorri’s Edda and the Orkneyinga saga since while Snorri’s prologue develops a very learned Trojan origin for Odin and co., in the actual text the giants and gods have a common origin, reaching back to a being freed from melting rime, followed by a tribe of hrimthurs, or frost-giants. Another being is freed from the ice by Audhumla, and his son marries a jotunn’s daughter to bring forth the Aesir. (Langeslag: 36)
There is one important difference, however. Nowhere in Ynglinga saga or Skaldskaparsmal does Snorri mention the Finnar interacting with the gods, so unlike the composer of Orkneyinga saga, he does not include that element of the mysterious and magical north in his origin myth.
Image at top of page from the Britain Express website.
Ashman Rowe, Elizabeth “Origin Legends and Foundation Myths in Flateyjarbok”, in Barnes, Geraldine, and Margaret Clunies Ross, eds., 2000: Old Norse Myths, Literature and Society, Proceedings of the 11th International Saga Conference, eds. Geraldine Barnes and Centre for Medieval Studies, Univeristy of Sydney, Australia: 441-54. (pdf here)
Beuermann, Ian 2014: “Fornjótr’s Descendants. Reading Orkneyinga Saga’s Origin Myth” (abstract), in Pre-Prints of the Fifteenth Saga Conference, Sagas and the Use of the Past, eds.A. Mathias Valentin Nordvig and Lisbeth H. Torfing, with Pernille Hermann, Jens Peter Schjødt and Ulla Loumand: 289-90. (download here)
Beuermann, Ian 2011: “Jarla Sogur Orkneyja. Status and Power of the Earls of Orkney According to Their Sagas” in Steinsland, Sigurðsson, Rekdal and Beuermann: 109-62.
Hultgård, Anders 2009: “Odin – an immigrant god in Scandinavia?”, n.d. (Scribd)
Langeslag, Paul Sander 2012: Seasonal Setting and the Human Domain in Early English and Early Scandinavian Literature. Diss. (download)
Lindow, John, 2001: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, OUP, New York and Oxford.
McKinnell, John., 2005: Meeting the other in Norse myth and legend , .D.S. Brewer, Woodbridge.
Motz, Lotte, 1981: “Giantesses and their Names”, Frühmittelalterliche Studien 15: 495-507.
Steinsland, Gro, Jón Viðar Sigurðsson, Jan Erik Rekdal and Ian Beuermann, eds. 2011: Ideology and Power in the Viking and Middle Ages: Scandinavia, Iceland, Ireland, Orkney and the Faeroes, Brill, Leiden & Boston.
Jón Viðar Sigurðsson “Kings, Earls and Chieftains. Rulers in Norway, Orkney and Iceland c. 900–1300”, in Steinsland, Sigurðsson, Rekdal and Beuermann: 69-108.
The image at the top is the Ring of Brodgar, in Orkney, from the Britain Express website.