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Pre-Christian Scandinavia: A History of Change


Last time we looked at some of the evidence of pre-Christian religions in Scandinavia through the ages. We followed this evidence into the point in history many modern pagan practitioners are most familiar with, the so-called ‘Viking era’. Now that we’ve looked at the evidence of religious development in Scandinavia until this point, let’s delve into the relationships between the different classes of deific entities in the Norse pantheon (Æsir, Vanir, Jötnar, Alfar, etc…).  There’s a theory that some of the diversity found within the Lore is a type of mythological rendering of the subversion and assimilation of earlier religious elements. This theory is based on an understanding of the ways in which cultures and their religious beliefs and mythologies interacted with one another in other areas of the world where written records and archaeological evidence are more readily available. It applies this understanding to available evidence of cultural shifts, various migrations into Scandinavia, and the effects such changes may have had on the religion and mythology of the time.

Old Map of Scandinavia


With regard to the jötnar, a lack of archeological evidence and an incomplete and Christianized lore presents us with a slew of problems in interpreting their roles. This results in a wide array of interpretations, as Lotte Motz points out in Giants in Folklore and Mythology: “Various attempts at probing the significance of this mythical race have yielded various conclusions: that giants symbolize meteorological phenomena, that they are powers of untamed wilderness, an older dynasty of gods, demons of nature, swallowers of corpses, agents of death or the undead themselves.”(1) While the “demons of nature” camp seems quite common, with many largely denouncing the jötnar as enemies of the gods, I, as will be outlined here, believe that giants as the “powers of untamed wilderness” is not mutually exclusive to the theory that they are “an older dynasty of gods.” This is the blended camp that I fall into. Certainly, the jötnar are often closely associated with natural elements or natural occurrences, making their role as nature spirits or powers quite clear. They are the powers that our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have faced in their daily struggle for survival—powers sometimes benevolent and often terrifying and awe-inspiring, as nature can be decidedly ruthless.

Hunter-gather cultures are often associated with more primal, animistic spiritual paths—religions which set a focus on the spirit inherent in all of Earth’s forms, including animals, natural formations such as rocks, rivers, mountains, etc., and natural events. Animistic religions do not discern between natural events or formations which are beneficial to humans and those which are disastrous or destructive—hurricanes, volcanoes, and wildfires are endowed with just as much spirit as rivers and floodplains, fertile soil, and fruit bearing plants.

The spirits of these elements may differ in nature, but they are all endowed with spirit—and they all have a role to play. Wildfires and volcanic eruptions may, on the one hand, be destructive and detrimental to human life and society, but on the other hand contribute vital elements to the local ecosystems: volcanic ash can rejuvenate soil and increase its fertility, creating an environment where plants and animals not only have everything they need to recover from the initial destruction but to thrive in its wake. Wildfires clear out dead brush and trees, in the process fertilizing the soil in the same way volcanic ash does and making way for new growth. Hurricanes can refresh aquifers, providing an important source of water for the local ecology and in some cases alleviating drought.*

Animistic spirits inhabit everything, from the humble stone to the fiery volcano. This does bear a resemblance to the jötnar, which are at their root elemental entities closely associated with natural forces. There is certainly evidence of animistic religious beliefs in the earliest days of religion in Scandinavia, primarily in the form of pictographs. This is something that easily could have carried into later religious practices and beliefs: perhaps in these early stages the spirits of the natural world weren’t necessarily endowed with names or specific personalities but developed over time. The jötunn Surt might well be the spirit of a volcano, while Jǫrð, mother of  Þórr, is so closely associated with earth and soil that her name to this day means earth in Norse languages. Gerðr is still widely considered to represent the frozen soil of winter, warming to fertility (Freyr) with the coming of spring. Many of the “frost giants” can be easily correlated to various aspects and forces of winter or life during winter, something that still shapes the lifestyle of modern Scandinavians.

What I posit here is that this is precisely what the jötnar are—assimilated animistic spirits and deities from the earliest days of religious development in Scandinavia. These spirits would never have fully “gone away,” even as the cultures of pre-historic Scandinavian people changed and evolved. As people moved away from hunter-gatherer cultures and toward agricultural ones, they may have moved away from their close relationships with the spirits and the gods of the wilderness in favor of agricultural gods (gods of wheat and fertility, such as Freyr and Freyja) but the gods and spirits of the wild would have still been ever present. The volcano is still there, though it may be quiet for a while. Winter comes every year. Rivers still overflow. Wolves still howl in the forest—only now they may predate your sheep, goats, or cattle. In this way we can also see the ways in which people’s relationships to those spirits would have changed—sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

Not only possible, I would argue that it is likely that, just as the Titans were written into Greek mythology as an imprisoned elder class of gods, Norse lore would have preserved older animistic figures with stories that melded the old and the new: rather than imprisoning the old gods, some younger gods may have married some of the older gods, or become their consorts. They may have bore children together; they may have fought and killed one another. Freyr wins over and marries Gerðr. Óðinn has a tryst with Jǫrð and Þórr is born. Þórr himself fathers children upon the jötunn maid Járnsaxa, though he is married to the Æsir Sif. Skaði finds a place among the Æsir through her marriage to Njorðr, who is himself a Vanir hostage of the Æsir. This is only a small fraction of what survives of the lore—we know much was lost during the conversion—but we can still see the outlines of what may have been an assimilation of the old into the new. As such, struggles such as those between Æsir and Jötnar as well as Æsir and Vanir could represent myths of subversion and domination.

Before I go further, I would like to remind readers that this is only one interpretation of the evidence that exists. Because the evidence that does exist is so fragmentary, it is almost impossible to draw one single, solid conclusion about what it means, and any interpretation that is put forward inevitably doesn’t have enough evidence to outright prove it as the “correct” interpretation. This is one reason I have been comparing and contrasting our surviving lore with other, similar mythological constructs found around the globe: it provides context for understanding why this theory works, though it does not prove it by any means. It is, however, the interpretation that makes the most sense to me, and it is the one through which I view the surviving lore and approach my spiritual path.

When looked at from this perspective the stance of jötnar as destructive and therefore “bad” seems inadequate. If the jötnar are essentially nature spirits, moralistic terms of “good” or “bad” are irrelevant (unless one assumes that “good” and “evil” are naturally existing constructs rather than human ones, which I do not). Further, to apply such morality to elements of nature is to overlook the vital role that natural events which may hinder or obstruct humanity play in the environment: no single natural event is strictly destructive or “negative” and no single natural event is strictly beneficial or “positive.” What means death, destruction, and disturbance for humanity does not necessarily mean the same for the local ecology—many times, a natural disaster means destruction and renewal or rejuvenation for the local ecology and environment.

Delineating between “destructive” or “bad” nature spirits and “beneficial,” “helpful,” or “good” seems to me to be holdover from Christianity, and one which is quite out of place in pagan practice. Not only is it a toxic holdover from Christianity, it is one which in the context of Norse paganism encourages and thrives off historical cherry-picking, oversimplification, and a lack of academic accountability. It encourages derision, results in the ostracizing of members of the community based on differences in belief and practice, and misses the beautiful complexities and nuances of the divinities our ancestors honored and worked with in their original context as well as the dangerous beauty of our natural world. It is more destructive and damaging to our already marginalized religious communities than the jötnar could ever be, and as a community we would be better off to leave the practice of othering and demonizing the jötnar and their worshipers and devotees where it belongs—in the dust.

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(1) Motz, Lotte. “Giants in Folklore and Mythology: A New Approach.” Folklore, Vol. 93 No. 1. Taylore & Francis, LTD. 1982. Pg 70.

(*) In the wake of the severe natural disasters that have hit the United States since I wrote this, I would like to acknowledge the incredible amount of pain and suffering that such natural events have brought to families across the country. Though such events can have both positive and negative effects on local biomes, this should not be taken to undermine the suffering that they can and do cause to humanity, especially as their effects are aggravated by global climate change.

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