At the beginning of this series, I set out to explore the history of pre-Christian Scandinavian religions in an effort to validate the veneration of the jötnar. Among the arguments against worship of the jötnar often include the idea that the jötnar are enemies of gods and therefore not worthy of worship. This argument typically goes hand-in-hand with the idea that there is no evidence of historical jötunn worship, an argument which appears to seek to invalidate the practice of modern heathens who do honor the jötnar.
Through the course of this series, we’ve explored archaeological and written evidence of the pre-Christian religions of Scandinavia, as well as some theories and interpretations of that evidence. We’ve established there is a lot of room for interpretation of this evidence, of course, and many scholars have different interpretations and theories. One must also note the bias we all bring to the table when we’re assessing the evidence and forming our theories—myself included—but it seems fair to say that there is enough evidence to support the theory that the jötnar did receive veneration in the pre-Christian era, and that they may be relics from a distant and less-well evidenced past in which the ancestors of the Vikings venerated the spirits of the wild, dangerous, beautiful nature of their homeland.
Yes, the jötnar are often depicted as wicked, frightening, or destructive. It seems unwise, however, to classify depictions of the jötnar as helpful, faithful, and intelligent allies as somehow separate from less favorable depictions. This often happens when people make the argument that the jötnar are the enemies of the gods and not worthy of worship: someone points out that Gerdr is the wife of Freyr, that Skadi is a beloved alley of the gods, that Thor’s mother was a jötunn and that Thor had a jötunn mistress, etc. These instances are then classified as “exceptions” rather than be treated as evidence of complex relations between the gods and the jötnar, rife with mistrust and aggression but also blended with genuinely positive relationships and efforts to work together and heal the wounds of the past. (Skadi, of course, came to be among the gods because she sought restitution for the death of her father.)
The sagas depict the jötnar as morally complex entities, quite comparable to humans, while the surviving lore is largely tainted by the same Christian influence which turned the jötnar into devils in later folklore. The gods themselves are often depicted in much the same, morally ambiguous way, so it seems unfair to treat moral ambiguity on the part of the jötnar as indicative of an evil nature. By that token, we ought to treat the arrival of Odin at parties in several folktales with the specific goal of starting feuds as indicative of an evil nature, and I doubt anyone is interested in demonizing Odin.
The problem we have in looking at the stories and mythologies of the pagans of Scandinavia which remain is that it is nearly impossible to remove our biases from our interpretations. We can only be aware of our biases and how they might affect our understanding. Obviously, I have my own biases—I primarily worship the jötnar, so my interpretations of the existing evidence reflect this. On the other hand, the vast majority of us were born and raised in a society that is highly Christianized, and this is clearly reflected in many modern interpretations of the old lore. The biases of the people who recorded the lore is glaring, and yet the biases of many readers allow them to ignore the blatant Christianization of those myths.
There may only be a few vague textual clues that indicate possible worship of the jötnar, and some badly eroded archaeological evidence which can be interpreted to support this thesis—though others may have a different interpretation. Either way, a good hard look at what does remain makes it clear that we cannot discount the possibility that jötnar did, at some point, receive worship.
Given this distinct possibility, it seems rather unfair to go casting modern worshipers of the jötnar out of our circles or barring them from our kindreds. Rather, we ought to do our best to check our biases and understand how they affect our view and interpretations. We should be doing our best to set ourselves apart from dominant religious trends which shun or demonize people who worship differently than us by instead offering our hospitality to those who worship differently and taking the opportunity to learn from one another. Ultimately, we ought to make an effort to permit the natural diversity of worship which polytheism necessitates.
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Recommended Reading on This Subject:
Eddas and Sagas: Iceland’s Medieval Literature by Jónas Kristjánsson, translation by Peter Foote.
The History of Sweden by Byron J. Nordstrom.
The Vikings by Else Roesdahl.
Giants in Folklore and Mythology: A New Approach by Lotte Motz.
Giants as Recipients of Cult in Viking Age? by Gro Steinsland.
Kingship and Giants by Lotte Motz.
The Function of Loki in Snorri’s “Edda” by Lotte Motz.