We all know the Norse creation myth. In the beginning was ice and fire, then the fire thawed the ice enough to form a place where beings could emerge and life begins to form. Eventually some of the younger generation, led by the god Odin, killed the very first being, the giant Ymir, and made the world from his body.
Ymir, the first being in Norse myth, is the first creator, who gives life to a number of beings, and a giant who is more serviceable dead than alive. (Odin and his brothers make the world out his body.) There is a real tension in the Ymir story between these two views of him, reflecting the ambiguous attitude of Norse myth towards giants in general.
We’re always taught that Odin was head of the Norse gods, and father of most of them. But when the Christians in Scandinavia began to press the pagans to give up their religion, the sign of resistance was Thor’s hammer, not Odin’s spear or valknut.
This may come as a surprise to us, who mostly think of Thor as big and strong and a bit dim, out of his depth when it comes to anything more complicated than smashing giants. But Thor was a very popular deity in the Viking Age, as place-names and personal names show, perhaps because of his closeness to the humans he defended.
When I was researching the story of how the giant Thiazi took the apples of immortality for the giants, one thing that kept jumping out at me was how often the goddess who kept the apples, Idunn, was treated as if she were property as well.
Human rulers die, and the next generation takes over. Sometimes the older generation gets “helped” off the throne, either by assassination or war. So it’s not surprising that mythology has many versions of this succession story, which rarely involve peaceful inheritance.
My last post on Gefjun touched on the question of her status. She is counted among the goddesses, but so are Skadi, Gerdr and Jord, all of whom are giantesses by birth. John Lindow has argued that she was obviously a giant or other primal being, although others have seen her as an earth goddess. So is she a goddess, a giantess, or both?
Gefjun will be forever be famous as the goddess who gave Zealand to Denmark. The Danes immortalized her feat with a fountain in Copenhagen harbour, showing her and her oxen ploughing out the land.
She has many similiarities to Odin, as a goddess who travels between worlds, tricks mortals, and straddles moral and sexual boundaries. Far from being an earth and ploughing goddess, Gefjun is a magical and complex figure.
We’re all familiar with nose-to-tail eating, the idea that you should use all of an animal once it’s been slaughtered. Thanks to the taboo on cannibalism and various laws about indignity to dead bodies, we tend not to put human bodies to post-death use. Gods, however, are not so squeamish. The Norse gods in particular show thrift and ingenuity, as well as a strong stomach, in their use of their dead compatriots.
I should point out that the Norse gods could, on occasion, lay on a proper funeral: Baldr was buried with full honours. But the dead bodies of one giant and two gods were clearly too valuable to be left lying around.
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, perhaps wishing to join the strength of the giants to their line.
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.)
In his fickleness and imagination he even gave pleasure to Odin, who with his well-sipping and auto-asphyxiation knew too much ever to be otherwise amused …the reason why Odin had taken the great, foredoomed step of making Loki his blood brother – for the pleasure, pure and simple, of his company. (Chabon: 53)
Odin and Loki are blood-brothers, and we have to wonder what each saw in the other that led to such an unusual partnership. After all, the two are on entirely different trajectories. Odin is trying to get as far as he can from his giant ancestry, to the extent of murdering his own grandfather to make the world. Loki, on the other hand, is constantly pulled back and forth, but usually ending up with the gods, until he chooses the giants for good.