“How Norse mythology relates to man’s evolution. The Jötunn.”
“When most of us use the word “myth” in conversation, we refer to something that is not true. When historians of religion use it, they generally refer to a representation of the sacred in words. When anthropologists use it, they often refer to narratives that tell about the formation of some social institution or behavior. None of the definitions, however, will hold directly for the characters and stories this book treats. That is in part because of the enormous time frame: Materials relevant to the study of Scandinavian mythology, broadly defined, span two millennia or more. But even if we limit the discussion to the relatively small body of texts from the Viking Age and later Middle Ages about the gods Odin, Thor, Frey, and the others and their constant battles with forces of evil and chaos, it is difficult to reconcile these texts with any one of the narrow definitions of myth suggested above. Certainly they had some truth value to the people who composed them and those who wrote them down, but these were not always the same people—usually they were not—and it is obvious that what was true, sacred, and an account of how the world got to be the way it is to a Viking Age pagan poet can have been none of the above to a Christian scribe copying the story in a manuscript hundreds of years after the Viking Age. It is therefore easier and more enlightening to talk of formal criteria and content. In form, then, myth in general, and the texts that comprise Scandinavian mythology in particular, are narrative, although this narrative is couched in both verse and prose. In general, one expects myth to recount important events that took place at the beginning of time and helped shape the world, and Scandinavian mythology indeed has sequences that tell of the origin of the cosmos and of human beings. The story goes on, however, to the destruction and rebirth of the cosmos, and everything in it is presented in light of an enduring struggle between two groups of beings, the gods on the one hand and giants on the other hand. These terms are to some extent misleading: Although the group that creates and orders the cosmos is often referred to by words that can best be translated “gods,” the principal word, “æsir,” is explicitly presented by the important medieval interpreter, Snorri Sturluson, as meaning “People of Asia,” and indeed the word often has the feel in mythological texts of an extended kin group or tribe rather than of a collective of deities. And the other group, the ones who aim for the destruction of the cosmos and disruption of order, are certainly not “giant” in the sense that they are demonstrably larger than the gods. They are usually called the “jötnar,” and again as the term is used in the mythology it feels more like a tribal or kin group than anything else. The world in which the æsir and jötnar play out their struggle has its own set of place-names but is essentially recognizable as Scandinavia. There are rivers, mountains, forests, oceans, storms, cold weather, fierce winters, eagles, ravens, salmon, and snakes. People get about on ships and on horseback. They eat slaughtered meat and drink beer. As in Scandinavia, north is a difficult direction, and so is east, probably because our mythology comes from west Scandinavia (Norway and Iceland), where travel to the east required going over mountains, and going west on a ship was far easier for this seafaring culture. It is helpful to think of three time periods in which the mythology takes place. In the mythic past, the æsir created and ordered the world and joined with another group, the vanir, to make up the community of gods. Somehow this golden age was disrupted in the mythic present. As dwarfs, humans, and occasionally elves look on and are sometimes drawn into the struggle, the æsir and the jötnar fight over resources, precious objects, and, especially, women. The flow of such wealth is all in one direction, from the jötnar to the æsir, and in fact one might divide the narratives of the mythic present into those in which the gods acquire something from the giants and those in which an attempt by the giants to acquire something from the gods is foiled. In the mythic future, this world order will come to a fiery end as gods and giants destroy each other and the cosmos, but a new world order is to follow in which the world will be reborn and inhabited by a new generation of æsir.”~ Introduction from Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs; by John Lindow
Stories and Mythology are time honored ways of telling “kernels of truth” within the human understanding of life and its mysteries as it unfolds in the world around them.
Our history of Indo Europe, like that of the Celtic people was oral, and it was a highly prized form of wisdom to be able to recount as accurately as possible the legends and names of God’s and Hero’s within a prose structure so that the listener had the opportunity to hear two stories at once: a recollection of significant events that effected the Norse historical landscape, but also, hidden deeper meanings of each tale left for the listener to decipher as the “story within the tale.”
In a seemingly straight forward way, we read answers of where we as a species came from, where did life stem from, and where we go when we die.
But we also are left with questions to these descriptives, since as in the example of Ymir the first Jötunn where all other beings stem from, including Odin (known as “All father”) and two brothers; Villi and Vé, we get as many questions to ponder as answers. The world of Midgard, is all green and lush, ready for human civilization (and here is the key word-civilization) began by Odin and brothers only after dismembering a (the listener is first lead to believe) SINGLE Jötunn being, then by being destroyed by his heirs can all other life of civilization continue. However, upon closer examination, we also find in this tale Ymir had a cow with him and according to the Prose Edda, and we then read of Búri (Old Norse ‘producer, father’) is an early ancestor of the Æsir! Búri wasn’t born from Ymir like Odin and his brothers, Búri was licked free from the salty rime stones by the primeval cow Auðumbla over the course of three days. Búri’s background beyond this point is unattested, and he had a son, Borr, by way of an unknown process.
So who was Búri?
By understanding this tale as how early mankind began as an evolutionary species forming Tribes, anthropology experts called these early human Ancestors Neanderthals, who were strikingly similar in appearance to what we think a Neanderthal might have appeared; and if we look carefully, we can begin to see Ymir(and all the Giants) as the ancient transitional Scandinavian forbearers viewed by those early first Norse people who lived primal and wild, as part of the primordial landscape of Jord.
Primal and wild didn’t equate to “dumb, slow or easily overpowered” to be clear.
All throughout the Edda’s, the descended Aesir and Vanir would often seek a Giants wisdom, tools, or powers at many times throughout the wise and colorful poems.
One of the most powerful poems for me of my kennings the Jötunn are Ancestors with many useful gifts comes from Kvasir and the Mead of Poetry. This is the Poem when Odin goes to Suttungs home to obtain the mead of inspiration hid inside the mountain Hnitbjorg and made his daughter Gunnlod stand guard.
Odin goes to great lengths for this mead, and through this myth we learn it can only be gained by spending much time and effort, by wooing, and by coming to know thoroughly all about the Giants; how they lived, what they liked, what they needed. Moreover, by thoroughly mimicking the way they lived, Odin learned what skills and tools were needed to obtain the mead of inspiration he sought. That, in a nutshell, is exactly what Odin did in this particular story, and his reward for living among the Giants for a season was the gift of being forever inspired.
The Nornir who actually weave our fate (and were the first weavers) grant us with our Wyrd, as well as the skills to actually WEAVE. Making clothing from thread was a real game changer for the survival of mankind, and we have 3 Jötunn Sisters to thank for that.
The fact that the Norns are frost-giantesses reinforces for me the fact that Jötnar did not merely represent hostile forces to our ancestors, but also the ancient and immutable forces. To the ancients, the same force that burned down your hut or froze you in a blizzard or drowned you in the sea also implacably named your destiny and held you to it. Fate was in the same category as natural disaster, as far as they were concerned. All were the wild and untamed mysteries, and all were equally easy to fear and to respect, and to hold wisdom that even the more “civilized” Gods needed to learn.
I think some make the mistake of adopting a monotheistic mindset when studying the rich and deep Norse Myths.
The Jötunn were our primal selves that the Tribe of Odin (who Odin himself is a evolved Jötunn let’s not forget) sought to overcome and supersede.
Just as today, every descendant of mankind has a drive to evolve and supersede the quality and “technology” of life laid down by those predecessors hence the development of living quality, tools, and food; all elements of man’s timeless struggle since we first began recording our Story.
For me personally, the Jötunn are our earliest Ancestors, and They set the stage for each Tribe of God’s (which for me is we humans AND Them ~since you can’t have one without the other) to evolution, yet still have a huge part to play with their timeless wisdom.
Just as we watch the God’s go back often to those Giants for help of various kind; we note we as modern man have a habit of late to go back to our Indigenous ways of living searching for the old wisdom of spells, magic, wholeness and wildness that only those primal people (and God’s) can know.
In the next post I will introduce my hypothesis of Thor being a representative of “the missing link.” ~I.e. fine tool use versus crude stone age equipment in forcing the powers of primal mankind to bend to our will via force and powerful “tools”.
Which all began with a Hammer.