NEWS

CHAPTER 12: NORTHERN MYTHOLOGY

Turning now to the stories (mythology) of northern Europe, the first thing that strikes us is the similarity in respect of the basics which underpins all these legends -or myths.  All: Germanic, Icelandic, Irish, British, have the idea of giant beings as the forefathers of the race.  These might be benevolent (on occasion) but more often they were malevolent. Of course, the northern race myths were of much later date than  the Greek (or Roman).  It is often said that the Romans took  over the Greek myths, modified them, gave them new names but retained largely the spheres of influence of the gods, especially. Northern tales appear to be derived somewhat from those of the Mediterranian regions with perhaps an admixture of some eastern myths. By the thirteenth century A.D. the myths of northern Europe were well established, particularly in Iceland. Somewhat naturally, these myths reflect the harshness of life in those climes -an environment which was capable of threatening human life.  As a result, evil giants and monstrous creatures loom large in the mythology and, as with Greek myth, “Heroes” emerge who have to fight against them.  Not  surprisingly, the often cruel environment of lands with long winters, is emphazised in the Norse myths where a baleful Fate often seemed to await a people who could only accept their destiny.
Like the Greek gods, the Norse besides being divine, possess human qualities; not quite as anthropomorphic as the  Greek, but capable of mixing with each other, humanity to an extent, and with the giants. Norse gods do not escape the fate of mortals: at the time of the last great battle (whenever it is) called Ragnorak (more on this later), human warriors of renown will fight with the gods against the giants. However whereas in Greek legend/myth the gods emerged triumphant with the aid of a “Hero” (Hercules), in the Norse the gods are defeated by the giants
A word here about the “worlds” of Norse mythology would be apposite.  There are nine of them. No need to mention them all, only the most significant. Midgard is the abode of humans, meaning the middle earth built to protect them from the hostile giants. Niflheim is a region of cold.  Closely allied with the above is Hel, the land of the dead. To reach Hel meant crossing the land of the mountain giants. The goddess of the underworld  is named Hel also.  Jotunheim is the home of the giants, the Jotuns.  Muspelheim is the region of fire, where the fire giants live.

PRINCIPAL GODS.

     Here also we could make mention of the principal gods. The main one was Odin, father of gods and Man; he was also god of war. His wife was Frigg(a) mother of the gods. Thor was the son of Odin and Frigg(a)  strongest of the gods and of mortals. He was also the god of thunder. Members of the family of Odin and  Frigga were all divinities. Odin was therefore the father of all the gods and all mankind. Balder was also a son of Odin and Frigg; best loved of the gods. Frey like his father Njord, is a  fertility god. Loki  was the son of two frost giants, a god, but something of a  mischief-maker. Odin was hailed by the Norse kings as their leader and mentor, for he could bring both defeat and victory.  Thor was venerated by the farmers who needed his dependability, as he caused thunder and lightning and the rain which gave them abundant crops. Frey decides when  the rain will fall and the sun shine. Accordingly, bountiful harvests are in his gift.
The Norse creation myth has as broad a cast of characters as the Greek. Most of the fairy tales we know are derived from our Norse and Germanic heritage which abound in tales of giants and divine beings (gods) who die.There  is a preoccupation with death, more so than in the Greek, in Norse or northern mythology. The concept of conflict between good and evil, similar to other mythologies, is a main theme, and traces the story of the  creation of the universe to the death and destruction of both the gods and humans.
One problem facing the student of northern mythology is the fact of the advent of Christianity (about 1000 A.D) which had the effect of ending pagan belief and at the same time bringing confusion into the study of the mythology, as Christian clergy sought if not to eradicate the stories and the belief in them, at least to modify them. As in medieval  Christianity, belief in evil spirits who could lead humanity astray, held sway for hundreds of years. Odin and Thor were thought of as such evil spirits.
People of these northern lands worshipped their gods  because they mirrored their own values; like the people, the gods face death and knowing this, the gods are prepared to face the inevitable with courage and to die in battle. Thinking of future generations and wishing to make the world a better place, they will kill the evil giants. Unlike the Greek gods, the Norse gods do not involve themselves as closely with human concerns. The Norse gods generally keep “a low profile” as the expression is, and are involved much more with giants than with ordinary humans.

THE CREATION (OF THE UNIVERSE)

     The creation of the universe held a particular fascination for all early peoples.  All accounts begin with a turbulent formlessness, known in Norse myth as Ginnungagap. From this there usually coalesced a fiery world and (later, often) a cold one, which usually existed at the same time. Before the advent of human beings according to Norse legend, Frost Giants  existed, the first of them being called Ymir, wild and evil. Man and woman emerged from the limbs  of Ymir. Later  generations saw the marriage of Bor (the son of a giant) and Bestla (the daughter of a giant) who produced three sons that became the first Norse gods. A further race of giants, also evil Frost Giants  then emerged. Ymir was murdered and from his flesh and bones was created the world. The above three gods gave the lands along the shores to the giants and so it came to be called Jotunheim (giants’ home). A mention must be made of the giant ash tree Yggdrasil, under whose world-wide branches the gods gather.

OTHER MYTHOLOGIES

In Irish myth, giants were fallen former gods just as the story goes in the Bible. These giants were therefore formidable beings, compounded of human bodies  and divine abilities.  One of their main characteristics was their amoral nature, displayed in their seeming non-discrimination between good and  evil. In Norse mythology the giants are certainly unruly and undisciplined. They wanted to seize control of the universe (just like the Greek giants) and partly succeeded by securing  possession of Thor’s hammer, but by means of a stratagem the giants’ leaders were destroyed by the trickster, Loki. Thor seemed to have had mixed relationships with giants. On occasion he fought against them; on others he sought allies among them. Most of what we know about Scandinavian mythology is  contained in the Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish literature (Old Norse) in the collection of tales known as the Eddas,  in the commentaries of Saxo Grammaticus (a Danish historian) and in the writings of Adam of Bremen (Germany) that date from about the late 11th century A.D. Scandinavian mythology had dwarves as well as giants in its panoply; elves and beings called Norns who allocated fates to humanity.  Echoing Christianity, Norse mythology embraced personal spirits like the concept of the soul in the former.
Similar to the Greek gods, the Scandinavian were attended by a class of priest-chieftains. As with the Greek, worship was conducted usually out of doors  around temples, altars, sacred wells and special trees. The true abode of the gods (like Mount Olympus in the Greek) was in a place called  Asgard, consisting of many mansions and palaces, of which the most important was Valhalla. This latter was the home of dead heroes, ruled by the  supreme deity, Odin. Their souls after death were brought to Valhalla by a class of warrior maiden called Valkyries, there it seems to be healed. The Valkyries themselves were of divers descent, mainly supernatural beings of giant stature.

VIEWS OF BLAVATSKY

     Our use of the word “similar” is noteworthy -when talking about myths common it seems to many ancient nations. With Blavatsky, we must agree that at one time “during the youth of mankind” there appears to have been “one language, one knowledge, one universal religion, when there were no churches, no creeds or sects, but when every mab was a priest unto himself”. (H.P. Blavatsky; web site www.wisdomworld.org/setting/myth.html; extract taken from “Theosophy”, vol.44; no.8, 1956).  What Blavatsky 1831-1891,  (one of the most eminent scholars of ancient mythology) has to  say on this subject and (for us) especially on giants, holds particular interest. Paraphrasing her, she states that in nearly every mythology, giants play an important part. She goes on to instance Biblical, Hindu, Scandinavian, Grecian, Mexican, British, Russian, South American, mythology as illustrative of  this fact. This realisation constitutes one of the many ends “to be found in the entangled…skein of mankind, viewed as a psychological phenomenon”.

     In ancient Britain, she writes, the traditions of giants are excessively common. Even in the time of King Arthur [whenever that was] the giants lived on. The legends of giants  continued  to a later date amongst the Celtic than among the Germanic peoples. Russia and Slavonic countries generally, are full of legends about mighty giants of old, and their folk-lore speaks of giants who appear to have been “real living men” … In Norse mythology the giants were “potent factors” in the histories of deities and men. The Homeric heroes wielded weapons of a size and weight beyond the strength of the strongest men of modern times. In the New World, traditions  exist of a race of giants who combatted the gods and men.
Although it seems that most of the giants (in most mythologies) were malicious it is not universally true. We have mentioned Odin the chief of the Norse gods; he gained the gift of inspiration (by drinking a special mead) which was made from the blood of a wise giant, Kvasir, who was himself created by the gods. Odin was transported through the skies by his eight legged horse about which there is an interesting tale typical of the mythology. When the wall was being built around Asgard, the stronghold of the gods, a giant offered to build the wall in the space of one winter. (The story is told below. With acknowledgements to the Thor Tarp, [USA company] website: www.thortarp.com/norse.htm.)
It was agreed that if he could finish the work on time he should have the goddess Freyja, and the sun and moon as payment. The gods thought themselves quite safe in making such a bargain but the giant brought with him a marvellous horse …which was so intelligent and swift that when the beginning  of spring was only three days away, the wall was practically complete.  The gods however were saved from making payment by the cunning of Loki…who took on the form of a mare and neighed at the stallion until he was lured away from his work. Thus the wall was never finished and Thor slew the giant with his hammer and Loki in in the guise of the mare gave birth to an eight legged colt. This was the horse that Odin kept for himself. Odin had many dealings, as we know, with giants and the following tale is indicative of the part that giants played in Odin’s status and his position among the Scandinavian peoples. This myth concerning Odin is based on the material in “Teutonic Myths” created on website www.cybercomm.net/-grandpa/teutonocmyths.html by P.J. Criss. (July, 2000
From the beginning Odin had a thirst for knowledge and wisdom …He learned most from from his uncle Mimir, who guarded the Well of Knowledge…Odin who was enamoured of the  poetic arts went to great lengths to acquire that talent. To accomplish this aim Odin put himself in bondage to a giant whom he persuaded to blast a hole to an underground cave.  There another giant guarded a cauldron containing a magic potion that bestowed poetic artistry  to all who drank it. Odin transformed  himself into a snake and slithered through the hole into the cave where he changed back into human form, made friends with the giant and seduced the giant’s daughter. She helped him steal the potion where upon he slew the giant and returned to the above-ground world where he dispensed the potion to human poets. Through his powers of wisdom, poetry and magic, Odin was most beneficial to men. It was his goal to collect the bravest and most courageous warriors felled in in battle to abide with him in Valhalla, so that he and they could go down fighting at Ragnarok, the final battle that ends this world. Germanic speaking peoples developed many stories about gods and the universe before they were converted to Christianity about the 4th century A.D. when much of the mythology was eradicated. It was much later (in the 10th century) when Christianity came to Scandinavia, late enough to allow some Germanic legend to survive, especially stories about quite a considerable amount of Germanic myth. The Eddas, mentioned earlier, are invaluable as a source for Germanic myth, especially the Prose Edda, written by Snorri STURLUSON about mid 13th century A.D. (a seminal writer on mythology) which tells of the cosmos and its creation and tales of the gods in their struggle against the giants.
The Poetic Edda tells of the first days of Ginnungagap,  the great void, of Ymir, the mighty primeval giant, of the creation of the first man and woman, and of the world tree, Yggdrasil, which stood at the centre  of the world of gods and  mortals.  Germanic lists can be divided into the heroic gods who reflect the warrior aristocracy and the other gods who concerned themselves with the day to day concerns of the agricultural society.
According to the article in the ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA (website: britannica.com/seo/g/ )  the nature of Germanic religion was twofold. “For the most part it was clan-oriented and directed towards concerns of luck and prosperity.  In addition, it was characterized by a close personal relationship between the individual and his personal god or guardian spirit. The guardian spirits of Germanic religion were often as important as the deities.”

GIANT BEINGS IN BRITAIN AND IRELAND

     We shall conclude this section by looking at the traditions of giant beings in Britain and Ireland.

     The first giant beings in Ireland are known as the Fomoiri (Fomor is Celtic or Erse for ‘giant’) and the Fomorians are usually regarded as gods of the powers of nature, the guardians of earth’s natural energies -a concept we have met before. This prehistoric race it was believed came to Ireland after the great Flood. It is important to appreciate that remains of giant beings have been found in various places in these islands: graves, armour, weapons, contrary to the common agnostic  questions about evidence.  Scholarly books and articles have been written giving this evidence among which Anthony Roberts’ SOWERS OF THUNDER should be consulted on our theme. Roberts gives relevant detail about the discovery of huge graves and remains, particularly in his pages approximately 30 to 50. “The era,” he says, “of the British giants is much nearer to 3000 BC, antedating the arrival of the  Celts by nearly 2000 years.” (p. 37) Roberts makes the point  that most (if not all) the conical mounds to be found in the  British Isles,  tend to be associated with giants and  those  with magical powers.  Current belief about these innumerable strange sites is that they harbour an as yet unexplained mystery, reflect a purpose yet undefined; that they are not  random constructions, but rather “deliberately engineered to  conform to astro-scientific principles” as Roberts says. The fact that many of them are huge or are constructed of huge stones may indicate that huge beings created them.
SOWERS OF THUNDER goes on to describe some of the giant figures etched on the British landscape: the erstwhile Gogmagog group, the Long Man, Giant’s Causeway, giant skeletons discovered in British barrow sites; the Glastonbury giants and so on. Roberts makes the point that much evidence was deliberately ignored or destroyed by so-called antiquarians who felt the evidence threatened their linear view of history.   Regarding the Glastonbury giants, Roberts has an interesting comment as it does relate to later sections in this study. He says that the “majority of serious researchers see the Glastonbury giants as evidence that survivors from the lost continent of Atlantis existed in ancient Britain”.  (p.58)  However the “evidence” is viewed by readers, the comment on page 61 is apposite:  “proof of the physical reality of giants must only serve as a spring-board from which the mind can leap into an analysis of the historical and legendary implications of the subject”.
Later in his book, Roberts writes of sites around the world which indicate giant beings.  He discusses the site (and mystery) of Stonehenge.  Among other things, he cites Geofffrey of Monmouth as saying that Stonehenge was initiated and built by the “western giants”.  (Geoffrey of Monmouth 1100-1154, was  a Welsh chronicler and ecclesiastic. He compiled a famous if not totally accurate history of Britain.) The legends recounted in Geoffrey’s History “weave together a number of faintly heard but authentic traditions that have obviously been handed down from a very remote antiquity”. (p. 144) Giants, magic arts, movement of stones across sea -all point, Roberts continues, to a great mystery and antiquity surrounding the origin and  purpose of Stonehenge and all the other megalithic stones in the British Isles. “It can be postulated that from Cro-magnon times [about 30,000 years ago] until about 8000 BC a series of advanced geomantic cultures flourished througout Britain  …[later], memories were handed on orally, while their learning…continued in the hands of the later megalith builders. That some of these ‘geomancers’ were huge in stature (physically as well as mentally) becomes increasingly hard to deny.” (p.147)  These giants, these “earth-shaping magicians” existed at the remotest of times, They are, suggests Roberts, more mysterious than all the later gods and goddesses who followed them.

     There is a sentence in the chapter “Giants in the Earth” which succintly expresses the rationale of our study; it forms a fitting conclusion to this section:
Gods, giants, Atlantis [and so on] are the reflective, rhetorical exemplars of profound philosophical truths dealing  with the essentially magical and fantastic nature of reality through the spectrum of history.
In this first part we have looked at the concept of giantism and attempted to trace its development from Biblical origins to mentions in other spheres, other civilisations. We have presented what may be construed as archaeological evidence around the world. We have mentioned some of the influential writers on our theme about whom we shall say more in Part 2 of this study. The tradition of giantology in Greek belief, intermingled with religious observance and homage to the gods formed the subsequent sections. Major Greek poets and their influence on belief were next discussed. Giants and gods in northern mythology were important aspects of the general belief in suprahuman beings common to most civilisations
In the second part of the treatise, we shall be examining some of the views of the major (modern) thinkers about mankind and its origins; giant beings, and “gods” (notice the inverted commas!) from differing (religious) viewpoints. Evolution and “amnesia” will be keywords in some forthcoming paragraphs.   Mankind in the remote past and in the remote future will be some of our themes. The final note of the study will be on the idea of a new civilisation: the return of gods and giants.

© A.B. Finlay Ph.D