In Norse cosmology and lore the Jotnar are typically envisioned as a motley race of powerful nature and elemental forces who stand in opposition to humanity and the gods, especially the Aesir clan of holy powers. Most people, especially those who consider themselves True to the Aesir clan of gods, cast the Jotun folk as devils in the holy war for human survival and continued godclan-hegemony. It is believed that by the might of the gods and the faith of their human kin the vile and destructive tide of Jotun power is held back.
Thor is often the poster child for the human struggle against the denizens of Etin-Home. The Red Haired Friend of Man with Mjollnir in his grip smashes the heads of any unruly power that rises to thwart human and/or divine agendas. Odin is the wise All-Father who gathers knowledge and know-how to better craft inner and outer institutions and systems to stem the onslaught of chaotic natural might. Not the least of his creations toward this end is an unrelenting sense of identity and community that appears as a solid line between any given “us” and any given “them” while also reserving for himself and a select few others the right to cross that very same “solid” line and/or redraw it in order to obtain more knowledge and know-how….because he knows that closed systems don’t yield much of generative worth. [Just to be clear, Odin owns a hefty portion of my heart. I love him. But I see him as a whole being and I refuse to resound his mighty names leaving out Bölverkr and others of his more difficult titles, or to pretend that the wyrd he weaves is all Bifrost and butterflies.]
Modern Heathenry in general is filled to the brim with a burning hatred for the very powers whose bones hold up human life (*coughs* Ymir) and whose myths show them to be plenty helpful and quite essential at key times. From my perspective the Jotunfolk are more than just chaotic natural elemental forces that need to be violently checked. The Jotnar are nothing less than the generative/destructive, evolving/chaotic potential of the worlds. The Jotnar are the primordial and primeval substrate, the seething cauldron at the beginning of time and they are the seething of transformative putrefaction at the end of days. They are the stuff of being and unbeing, doing and undoing. To pretend that the giants are simply an unruly race of chaotic elementals to be thwarted is to minimize their role in the Wyrd of the Worlds and deny their might. I would not be surprised if minimization, invalidation, and denial of their place as conscious, invested, and formidable powers doesn’t work more Ragnarok-level Doom than it stays.
Diana Paxson offered delicious food for thought (way back in 1992) in her essay “Utgard: The Role of the Jotnar in the Religion of the North”. In that piece she does a little comparative mythology and reviews key work by Steinsland to make the point that the Jotnar are important. She shared some support for the idea that at least a subset of the Jotnar received cultus in ancient times. In my opinion human beings cannot afford to ignore them or to pretend that they are of little consequence as long as Thor has his Hammer. I would add that we cannot afford to imagine that the end of days (as we imagine it in mind and in lore) is just a Doom and Gloom tale to add dramatic glamor to the traditions of the North. Everything that begins ends in one sense or another in one way or another. That’s a truth of the worlds we live in and of the cycles of creation and evolution, destruction and transformation. And just as the Jotnar wrote a chunk of the beginning, they will write a chunk of the end. And as sure as Choice and Will and Righteous Action are still a thing, we as human beings have to decide how we want to leave this iteration of the world.
Do we want to go out fighting? ‘Course we do! So we may need to redefine what fighting means. When it comes to the Jotnar most think it means offering them nothing, giving no quarter, boasting of their demise, and raising a horn that defines innangarth as not utgarth. But maybe Diana Paxson was onto something back in 1992: “Jotun myths have to do with creation and cosmic patterning. In recreating the myths we recreate the world. Along with the land-spirits, they should therefore receive offerings and honor.”
To a degree that begs the question though, is there a line not be crossed? Probably…that is if you don’t tend to recognize lines as somewhat useful but arbitrary things that certain people at certain time bypass for certain reasons. Hmm…to the Monsters-of-the-Ironwood-line. So I am reminded of something I read in an article by Raven Kaldera, a Northern Tradition shaman (that dude you were praying to Thor that I wouldn’t mention, yes, him). In his very controversial writings he described the Ironwood, perhaps the most infamous and reviled subsection of the Giant-Home in contemporary Heathen thought, as “…a sinkhole of magic.” He went on to say that the denizens of the place describe it as though it is radioactive and that “it creates both deformed mutants and gods; the monsters come out of there, as do the Jotun deities.” This description makes total sense if we accept the growing understanding of the Jotnar that I am arguing for in this blog post. As stated above the Jotnar and also their homelands by association are seething breeding grounds for evolution, transformation, and other brands of change and, on the flip side, pyres for chaos, destruction, and endings. So back to my previous line of reasoning, a part of what it may mean to stave off our Doom (to the degree that it’s even possible) may just be to appeal to and form remotely “good” relations with the very forces who would otherwise be in a *fevered rush* to work said Doom. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: everything ends in one form or another but there’s no need to race to the apocalyse-line.
Take an expanded ecological perspective for a moment. The Jotuns (even the Monsters of the Ironwood…perhaps especially the Ironwood Monsters) are a necessary part of the spiritual and cosmic ecology. They are as important to the harmony (though not necessarily light and rainbows) of the worlds as the Aesir and the Vanir. Perhaps Odin knows this. Perhaps he seeks out their knowledge, their wisdom, and their power for this reason. Perhaps he knows that they are the beginning and the end, and he knows they will be there in one form or another when it all begins again. Perhaps he knows this even with his head in Fenrir’s maw and Baldur’s name on his lips.
Jotuns are the primordial and primeval powers, the First Agents of birth, death, and rebirth. They are depicted as “evil” or vile or monstrous because their agenda (especially in the short term and mostly in the long term) is not our agenda, but their might is very much what we have needed, currently need, and will continue to need on one level or another. I have no idea what Diana Paxson thinks or feels now…and to fairly represent her words even back in 1992 she wasn’t necessarily talking about raising a horn to the World Breakers, but I echo 1992-her here in this essay and say let’s show *at least* a companionable respect for the Jotnar, and maybe even for the World Breaking Monsters among them percolating in the liminal spaces between this world and the next.
I know, I know. No one likes to hear that they are not in complete control of their wyrd fate, or that something or someone else holds “the power”. But in reality “the power” is an illusion and though Thor’s Hammer is quite mighty it is by no means the only salient might in the worlds. The truth is that we operate within and are a part of a dynamic system of influences, and “power” per se is always distributed in some way, whether we acknowledge it or not. Our human wyrd and the wyrd of the Aesir and Vanir is already tied into the wyrd of the Primordial Jotun Powers. Turning a blind eye to our respective parts in the Ragnarok dance just ensures that we all get our toes crushed…and, full steam ahead, the end will rage on anyway.
Personally I vote we change the tune at least a little bit and watch where we step.