Giants in Fyrnsidu
Posted by Byron Pendason on , in Heathenry, Heathen worldview, Cosmology, Reconstruction
One of the big differences between modern Norse Heathens and Fyrnsideras is our views on ettins/Jotnar1. The two are cognates, but understood very differently. They are both generally translated as giants, but this can be misleading because they aren’t necessarily always large. Modern Norse Heathens tend to look at the Jotnar as a third tribe of gods, albeit at war with their main gods the Æsir and Vanir. Fyrnsideras tend to look at ettins as god-like beings, but are not gods because they don’t maintain the cosmic order. They are best avoided because they are not bound by the cosmic order that requires the gods to honour reciprocity.
I would like to take a step back though and look at giants in general, and their place in the modern Anglo-Saxon mythology that is being developed by Fyrnsideras. I’m going to come at this from two angles, linguistics and folklore.
There are four words in Old English that are translated as giant. We are not going to look at gigant because it’s a loan word from Latin and so probably didn’t enter Old English until after the conversion to Christianity. Most of my information for this section come from Bosworth-Toller’s An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary2, originally published in 1898, and “Þyrs, ent, eoten, gigans-Anglo-Saxon Ontologies of ‘Giant’” by Chris Bishop3 (though I do disagree with some of his conclusions).
Let’s start with ent, which seems to describe an ancient civilization that the Anglo-Saxons seemed to believe inhabited the world in ancient times. They describe the Roman ruins they found in Britain as entisc (ent-ish). The word ent is used to describe Hercules, the nephilim (which are generally thought to be the offspring of humans and fallen angels in Christian mythology), Nimrod, and Goliath (these last two were often seen as nephilim by medieval Christian commentators). The only thing I see that Hercules and nephilim have in common is that they had supernatural fathers and human mothers. Bosworth-Toller unhelpfully defines it as simply “a giant”. The sense i get from all this is that the entas were seen as a great but ancient civilization fathered by the gods and/or ettins by human women, and either mistook the Roman ruins in Britain for being built by this ancient civilization, or were praising the Romans by comparing their ruins to that of the Entas. Many great works were described as enta geweorc, a work of entas. They were also thought of being great blacksmiths, as Beowulf refers to a entiscna helm, an ent-ish helmet. Other sources refer to weapons and armour being ent-ish. When the Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity, it would only be natural for them to see the nephilim as entas because an ettin would be the closest thing in Anglo-Saxon cosmology to a fallen angel (the ettins often opposed the gods in the same way that the fallen angels opposed the Christian god).
Who was this ancient civilization? The only reference in Germanic mythology to humans being descended from the gods outside of claims about royalty seems to be from Tacitus. In Germania we read of Tuisto, who is “an earth born god”, fathering the Germanic peoples. Most ancient peoples believed in an ancient golden age, where their people were great and powerful. This golden age often end with a collapse of this civilization, and this civilization then splintered into many peoples. This is just speculation on my part, but it seems that Tuisto (in my personal belief, a son of Tiw and Eorthe) fathered a civilization of demigods. This great and powerful civilization later collapsed and splintered into the several different Germanic peoples.
The next word is eoten (plural eotenas), has come down to modern English as ettins. This word is cognate with the Norse jotunn. Bosworth-Toller defines eoten as “a giant, monster, Grendel”. Grendel is our primary example of an ettin. Wiktionary states that it ultimately descends from the Proto-Germanic verb etaną, meaning *to eat, to devour. Grendel is seen as devouring humans, and this is a theme we see continuing down to the giants of English Folklore (think about the giant’s rhyme in Jack and the Beanstalk, where the giant says he will make bread from Jack’s bones). As I have described elsewhere on my blog, I view the ettins as the kin of the gods who are not affiliated with the Assembly of the gods (often known as the Divine Þing). Just as a monster is not necessarily evil, neither are the ettins. However, just as a monster is dangerous and should be avoided, so should the ettins.
The final word for giant is thyrs. Bosworth-Toller defines this as “a giant, an enchanter, a demon”. According to Chris Bishop, “Thyrs, it would seem, had long been associated with the demonic aspect of the supernatural.”3 We know from Beowulf that there is at least some overlap between the thyrsas and the ettins, as Grendel is described as both. Just as the demons oppose the Christian god, the thyrsas oppose the gods and the order that they maintain. Although an ettin isn’t always evil, it would appear that the thyrs always is. In my cosmology, a thyrs is any spiritual being that opposes the cosmic order (and thus are, by definition, beings of chaos) but often refers to the ettins who are actively opposed to the gods.
A Dictionary of English Folklore has this to say about giants:
The word ‘giant’ has two senses. In the ﬁrst, it merely refers to a human being considerably larger and stronger than others; in the second, to an alien being who is not only monstrously large but also (usually) malevolent towards humans.4
While folklore isn’t as accurate a reflection of the pre-Christian cosmology of the Anglo-Saxons as historical records, it can help us in understanding that cosmology because it is descended from that cosmology. You just have to filter out the Christian influences that have shaped that cosmology into folklore over the last 1300 years.
The article referenced above goes on to describe how heroes became giants in folklore, and cites legendary figures such as King Arthur and Robin Hood. It would appear that this meaning of the word giant has descended from that of the ent of the Anglo-Saxons since the entas seemed to be the giants who were at least half humans (it can be argued that Nimrod and Goliath were fully human but were just exceptionally large, though medieval Christians often seemed to think they were nephilim).
The other sense of the word, the monstrous alien beings, probably descends from the ettins and/or the thyrsas. Ettins are clearly non-human, as are the thyrsas. In the available lore, both are often seen as being malevolent towards humans. English folklore also often depicts these giants as eating humans.
Putting it all together
This section is where I’m going to fit everything together into a cohesive cosmology. It’s my reconstruction of giants in the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon cosmology. I’m not saying this is The Truth™, just that it’s how I fit the pieces together. Other interpretations are, of course, possible.
In my cosmology, both the gods and the ettins came from Gymm (pronounced as yimm, cognate of the Norse Ymir), and the only distinction between them is that the gods are affiliated with the Þing, whereas the ettins are not. Some ettins actively oppose the cosmic order that was instituted and continues to be maintained by the Þing, which would make these ettins evil since the cosmic order is what allows physical life to exist in the universe. These would be thyrsas. Other ettins are neutral to the gods, and are not necessarily evil. However, they are also not affiliated with the gods so are not bound to the cosmic order. This makes them dangerous, and are at best neutral on the good-evil spectrum.
There was an ancient human civilization that was fathered by a son of Tiw and Eorthe (and possibly also by other gods and/or ettins). Great and mighty, this civilization inhabited the area the Romans called Germania. They were known as Entas. Great heroes came from this people. They were great builders and creators of great weapons and armour. We do not know what caused the collapse of this great civilization, but the Anglo-Saxons thought that Hercules5 was from this civilization, and Nimrod and Goliath were probably seen as descendants of this civilization. 6
So what do you think? Feel free to leave your comments below!
This is speaking in general terms, of course. You will probably find exceptions in both groups. ↩
Bosworth-Toller’s dictionary can be accessed online here: https://bosworthtoller.com/ ↩
“Giants”, A Dictionary of English Folklore by Jaqueline Simpson & Steve Roud, 2000 ↩
Hercules was known to the Anglo-Saxons as Ercol. In Germania, Tacitus refers to Thunor/Donar/Thor as Hercules. Later writers, though, associated Thor with Jupiter/Zeus. We know from Roman sources that some of the Germanic peoples adopted Hercules, and so Ercol may have been seen as either being Thunor or a son of Thunor. Since Jupiter is the Roman sky father, it’s also possible that he was seen as a son of Tīw. Found on votive stones, coins, and arm-rings in the area of Lower Germania is the name Hercules Magusanus. Norbert Wagner thought the latter part of this name was from the Proto-Germanic name *Magus-naz (‘the one with strength, the powerful one’), and in the Norse sources Thor has a son named Magni (which means “mighty”), so I think Ercol is the son of Thunor. ↩
This was obviously not a historical civilization, but rather a mythological one. ↩