Creatures in Norse Mythology

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Many of us have heard of various creatures from Norse mythology, but in this lesson, we'll look at what these magical beings meant to the Norse and discover how they fit within larger Norse beliefs.

Creatures of Norse Mythology

Amongst the various mythologies of the world, some of the most enduring ones come from the Norse people of medieval Iceland and Scandinavia. Who hasn't heard of Thor, Odin, dwarves, or elves? Norse mythology is full of magical creatures that have been passed on from culture to culture, and while we may know these names today, the Norse people may have thought of them somewhat differently.

Giants

Let's start with the giants, powerful magical beings who were the enemies of the Norse gods. Now, when we think of giants, we imagine creatures of great size, but to the Norse, the giants weren't much bigger than humans. The name 'giant' in English is actually a result of several translations between Middle English, French, and the original Norse names for these creatures, jötnar or jötunn (singular), roughly meaning 'devourers'. In the original Norse mythologies, the jötnar were creatures of chaos, the opposites to the gods, who lived in the realm of chaos called Jotunheim. To be clear, they weren't exactly evil. The jötnar were more like forces of nature and were important parts of the cycles of death and decay in the cosmos.

Jotnar in Norse mythology
Jötnar

As thus, the jötnar had a diverse role in Norse mythology. Now, it's important to remember that to the Norse, these were magical beings, so they were not subject to strict appearances or characteristics. For example, the jötunn Fenrir was a wolf foretold to kill Odin in the cyclical cosmic destruction of Ragnarok. Jormungand was an enormous serpent that lived in the ocean surrounding all of Mitgard, the realm of humans. Nidhogg was a dragon that ate at the roots of the world tree, trying to throw the cosmos into chaos. However, jötnar also had some very important roles. Hel was the giantess who rules over Helheim, land of the dead. Surt was a fire giant who would help lead the jötnar against the gods during Ragnarok, again playing an important part in the natural cycles of destruction and rebirth in the universe. However, no jötunn was as important as Ymir, the first being ever created in Norse creation myths. Everything came from the massive and hermaphroditic Ymir and in fact, this jötunn was even the ancestor of the supreme god Odin.

Surt with his flaming sword
Surt

Elves

So, the jötnar and gods were the major magical beings of Norse mythology, but they weren't the only ones. The Norse also told stories of elves, luminous, magical beings who lived in the magical realm of Alfheim. Elves were not as involved in the affairs of humans, but they do show up occasionally to either cause human illnesses or to cure them, depending on their moods. Elves are also important because humans and elves could interbreed, resulting in humans with magical powers.

Dwarves

As a counter to the luminous elves, the Norse also had often-invisible beings called dwarves. Again, this is where our modern ideas might be a bit different. Dwarves were no shorter than elves in Norse mythology, but were pitch-black and lived in the underground mines of Svartalheim. They were skilled as smiths and craftspeople, making things like Thor's magical hammer, Mjöllnir. Now, remember that to the Norse, there were no strict distinctions between magical things, and the line between dwarf and elf is blurry at best. In fact, many myths simply refer to them as dark elves.

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