While it’s part of Norse myth that the gods and giants are enemies, it seems that the giantesses were a different story. Odin clearly never met one he didn’t like, and he was far from being the only one to have a fling with one. Even Thor the giant-smasher had an affair with Jarnsaxa. These romances usually resulted in the second-generation gods, such as Thor’s son Magni.
Sometimes, however, the sons of these unions were mortals, or demi-mortals anyway. The Swedish ruling dynasty called the Ynglings and the Norwegian earls of Hladir traced themselves back to the giantesses/goddesses Gerdr and Skadi, respectively.
Fjolnir, first of the Swedish Kings
Gerdr was a beautiful young giantess who caught the eye of the god Freyr; he sent his servant to woo her. She wasn’t interested in the god’s suit, and said so. Skirnir tried bribery, threats and finally runic curses to change her mind. Finally, she agreed to meet with Freyr and let him have his way.
All this comes from the Eddic poem Skirnismal, but it stops with Gerdr’s capitulation. (The Eddic poem Hyndluljod mentions, in passing, a marriage between Freyr and Gerdr, and Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda and Heimskringla follow the poem in assuming that the two paired off.)
On the other hand, the Ynglingatal, a poem which lists the ancestors of the Swedish kings, doesn’t mention either god or giantess. However, the poem itself has been lost long ago, and only survives in the quotes Snorri Sturluson gives in his expanded history of the Ynglings. It starts with Freyr’s son Fjolnir.
The poem was composed by Thjodolf of Hvin, who also composed Haustlong, which features myths involving Loki and Thor. Ynglingatal is noteable because it focuses on how each of the Yngling kings die. (This has fed into the idea of a sacrifical sacred kingship, but it may be that Thjodolf just felt their deaths were the most interesting thing about them.) Thjodolf’s work celebrates the lineage of the Yngling king Ragnvald the Mountain-High, and ends with him.
Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla is very firm about Freyr being the divine ancestor of the Ynglings, and says Freyr was also called Ygnvi, to back it up:
Then began in his days the Frode-peace; and then there were good seasons, in all the land, which the Swedes ascribed to Frey, so that he was more worshipped than the other gods, as the people became much richer in his days by reason of the peace and good seasons. His wife was called Gerd, daughter of Gymis, and their son was called Fjolne. Frey was called by another name, Yngve; and this name Yngve was considered long after in his race as a name of honour, so that his descendants have since been called Ynglinger.
According to him, Freyr and Gerdr had a son, Fjolnir, who ruled after his father’s death. An Eddic poem, Grottasongr, also mentions Fjolnir, and says he ruled at the time of Augustus Caesar. So, we know that Snorri didn’t invent him.
Fjolne, Yngve Frey’s son, ruled thereafter over the Swedes and the Upsal domains. He was powerful, and lucky in seasons and in holding the peace. Fredfrode ruled then in Leidre, and between them there was great friendship and visiting. Once when Fjolne went to Frode in Sealand, a great feast was prepared for him, and invitations to it were sent all over the country. Frode had a large house, in which there was a great vessel many ells high, and put together of great pieces of timber; and this vessel stood in a lower room. Above it was a loft, in the floor of which was an opening through which liquor was poured into this vessel. The vessel was full of mead, which was excessively strong. In the evening Fjolne, with his attendants, was taken into the adjoining loft to sleep. In the night he went out to the gallery to seek a certain place, and he was very sleepy and exceedingly drunk. As he came back to his room he went along the gallery to the door of another left, went into it, and his foot slipping, he fell into the vessel of mead and was drowned. So says Thjodolf of Kvine: — ”
In Frode’s hall the fearful word,
The death-foreboding sound was heard:
The cry of fey denouncing doom,
Was heard at night in Frode’s home.
And when brave Frode came,
he found Swithiod’s dark chief,
In Frode’s mansion drowned was he,
Drowned in a waveless, windless sea.”
The verse quoted at the end is the verse from the Ynglingatal, given in conventional verse. This translation preserves the kenning style of the original:
(The word of doom that fell upon Fjolnir was fulfilled where Fróði lived. And the windless wave of the spears of the bull [HORNS > BEER] was to destroy the prince.) (Clunies-Ross: 24.)
Saemingr and the Earls of Hladir
The giantess Skadi was married to Freyr’s father, the sea-god Njord. Unfortuantely, each hated the other’s realm, and they finally went their separate ways. At this point the god Odin, who was always partial to giantesses, stepped in. He and Skadi had at least one son, Saeming. Snorri however says that they had several:
They had many sons. One of them was called Saemingr. Eyvind skaldaspillir composed this about him:
(The shield-worshipped kinsman of the Æsir [= Óðinn] begat that tribute-bringer [jarl = Sæmingr (?)] with the female from Járnviðr, when those renowned ones, the friend of warriors [= Óðinn] and Skaði , lived in the lands of the maiden of the bone of the sea [(lit. “maiden-lands of the bone of the sea”) rock > giantess > = Jotunheimar ‘Giant-lands’], and the ski-goddess [= Skaði] bore many sons with Óðinn.)
Jarl Hakon the powerful traced the geneaology of his family to Saemingr. They called this Sweden Mannheimar, but they called Sweden the Great Goðheimar. They told many stories of out Goðheimar.
Another translation of Eyvind’s verse tidies it up in true Victorian fashion:
“To Asa’s son Queen Skade bore
Saeming, who dyed his shield in gore, —
The giant-queen of rock and snow,
Who loves to dwell on earth below,
The iron pine-tree’s daughter, she
Sprung from the rocks that rib the sea,
To Odin bore full many a son,
Heroes of many a battle won.”
Haleygjatal is obviously modelled on its predecessor, Ynglingatal. Much less of it remains to us; only nine whole and seven half stanzas are preserved, and these can be found in the manuscripts of Fagrskinna, Snorra Edda and Heimskringla. It traces the forefathers of Earl Hakon Sigurdsson back through the generations to Odin and Skadi.
Since it was a known fact that Skadi had been married to Njord, but that they had no children, and Jarl Hakon seems to have claimed a special relationship with Odin, it made sense to put them together.
The Hladir came from the north of Norway, so it’s not surprising that Odin and Skadi were supposed to have gotten together in Jotunheimar, also northern and rocky. Some have also suggested that the Sámi in Norway may have influenced the choice of Skadi as ancestor.
It may seem strange that Njord has been shunted aside like this, but since he and Skadi were famous for their incompatibility, it would be hard for them to have a royal son. So Njord gets to be the grandfather of Fjolnir, and in fact the Ynglinga saga mentions his rule between Odin’s and Freyr’s, making him the real founder of the dynasty.
If it’s good enough for the gods…
Since Odin’s mother was Bestla, whose family were the first frost-giants, no doubt Earl Hakon and Rognavald felt that having a prominient giantess for an ancestor would similiarly enhance their prestige. Nor was Odin the only one; according to Hymiskvida Tyr’s mother was a giant, and even Thor the giant-smasher was the son of the giantess Jord.
The Earls of Orkney claimed that a giant was their distant forefather, and other aristocratic families also claimed giants as ancestors. Presumably there was a certain romantic, exotic flavour to this, like having pirates in one’s family now.
Also, the giants had skills, wisdom, and strength to pass on their descendants. As supernatural beings, they conferred magical qualities on their children, and presumably these qualities could pass down through the family line. The giants were chthonic powers, and having them in the family gave one a special tie to the land that others did not have.
In the case of Gerdr and Skadi, it may have influenced their inclusion among the goddesses. The mothers of such important humans clearly deserved the greater honour.
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman, London, 1987.
Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson/A. H, Smith (trans.) , ed. Erling Monsen, Dover, New York, 1990.
Clunies-Ross, Margaret 2014: “Royal Ideology in Early Scandinavia: A Theory Versus the Texts”, JEGP 113/1 (Jan. 2014): 18-33. (download here)
Motz, Lotte 1996: “Kingship and the Giants”, Arkiv för nordisk filologi 111: 73–88. (pdf here)
Røthe, Gunnhild 2006: “The Fictitious Figure of Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr in the Saga Tradition”, in Proceedings of the Thirteenth International Saga Conference, Durham and York, 6th-12th August, 2006. (pdf here)
Wikipedia on Fjolnir and Saeming
Larrington, Carolyne alvissmal 3: review of Steinsland’s theory of god – giantess sacred marriages and their r. (Det hellige bryllup og norrøn konge-ideologi: En analyse av hierogami-myten i Skírnismál, Ynglingatal, Háleygjatal og Hyndluljóð)