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Jötna-Rúnir: The Mysteries of the Jötnar

Author: RuneWolf [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: August 28th. 2005
Times Viewed: 7,274

The mythologies of many cultures and religions refer to a race of titans or giants that predate Mankind on Earth; in some mythologies they even predate the advent of the Gods Themselves. In almost every case, these giants are held to be entities of great wisdom, knowledge and magickal expertise, although they are often said to be inimical to both the Gods and men. In many instances, the mythologies speak of a great war between the giants and the Gods, in which the giants are virtually annihilated, often as the result of a titanic flood. But in as many versions, some giants survive, to continue their struggle against the Gods and men, or to lay in wait, until "the stars come round again, " and they may re-emerge, for good or ill.

In certain Traditions of Witchcraft, the ultimate roots of the Craft are traced back to the Biblical Nephilim, the titanic offspring of the fallen angels known as the Watchers, and the wives they took among the tribes of Man.1 Indeed, many believe that one must be a lineal descendant of these Nephilim, that the legacy of the "witchblood" must flow in one’s veins, in order for one to be a "true" Witch. This rather extreme exclusivity aside, I believe that a similar story can be told about the origins of Witchdom (Northern European or Germanic Witchcraft), 2 although the theory does challenge much of the lore that has been passed down to us from our ancestors.

Anyone familiar with Norse mythology is aware of the epic and perennial conflict between the Gods and the giants, those mysterious and unpredictable beings known in the myths as the Jötnar. By the same token, anyone familiar with this situation is also aware that many Jötnar found a place among the Gods of Asgard: Hel or Hella, Skadhi, Gerd and Mimir, to name a few. And, although he is largely held to be a villain, Loki - a full-blooded Jötun - was nonetheless the blood-brother of the All-Father, Wóden. So it is obvious from the beginning that, whatever hostility may exist between the Gods of Asgard and some of the Jötnar, it is by no means universal amongst that eldritch folk.

In order to consider this version of Craft mythos, we must look, with open minds, at two important aspects of the Norse legends:
  1. The nature and origin of the enmity between the Jötnar and the Gods.
  2. The nature and origins of the Vanir.
The legends tell us that the primal Jötun, Ymir - also known as Aurgelmir - brought forth by a kind of parthenogenesis the first generations of the Jötnar. We are further told that Wóden and his brothers killed Aurgelmir, and almost all of the Jötnar were swept away in the flood created by the release of Aurgelmir’s blood; only one Jötun, Bergelmir, and his family escaped. Finally, we are told that Wóden and his brothers used the body of Aurgelmir to fashion Midgard - this world - and that they in fact used his eyebrows to form a hedge around it to keep out the Jötnar who still lived.3

This portion of the myths presents some tantalizing material. First, we have to acknowledge that, for whatever reason, Wóden and his brothers killed the progenitor of the Jötun-race; their "Adam, " if you will. And, in some translations, it is made clear that they did so while he slept. This nefarious "king-slaying" would be enough to earn the ire of any tribal people. Further, the slaying of Aurgelmir results in an incidental but devastating genocide against the Jötnar, and we today are keenly aware of the outrage that genocide can engender in the survivors. Lastly, the body of the slain founder of the Jötun-race is desecrated, and its dismembered parts used to create a world that the remaining Jötnar are then barred from entering.

I would submit that, from the perspective of the Jötnar, there exist many reasons to hate and fear Wóden and his kin, including his creation and favorite plaything, Man.

But one has to ask: Did Wóden and his brothers build a hedge to keep out one lone Jötun and his flood-bedraggled family, last seen clinging precariously to a wooden coffin? It would seem like a great deal of trouble for such a relatively minor threat. Unless the truth is that Wóden was fully aware that an entire sub-tribe of Jötnar survived the flood in the distant reaches of Utgard, the Outworld.

Which brings us to the matter of the Vanir...

By following the Norse creation myth to this point, one logically concludes that, following the death of Aurgelmir, the creation of Midgard and the creation of the first man and woman, there exist four types of sentient beings in the Nine Worlds: Wóden and the Aesir, mankind, the Jötnar and the dwarves.4 These are all neatly and accurately "documented" in the myths, and no mention is made of any other sentient races.

But then, quite suddenly, an entire tribe of beings, equally as powerful as the Aesir, makes its appearance, apparently out of nowhere: enter the Vanir. Not only are the Vanir powerful enough to battle the Aesir to a standstill and force a truce, but their customs and magicks are quite unlike those of the Aesir. As the myths progress, the Vanir become associated with the realms of natural fertility and indulgence, peace and plenty and the "internal" magicks of intuition and nature, in contrast to the "external" runic magick of Wóden and the Aesir. They are intimately bonded, it would seem, to the "stuff" that the Worlds are made of; that is, the very body and blood of the first Jötun, Aurgelmir. In addition, it should be noted that, following the Aesir/Vanir truce, when the Gods of Asgard marry and mate with the Jötnar, it is most often the Vanic Gods and Goddesses who do so.

And, as the myths progress, the Jötnar are revealed as something more than just brutish, cartoon villains. In fact, it becomes clear that they are beings of vast wisdom and knowledge, possessing magickal powers that baffle and befuddle even the Gods. Nor are they the murderous barbarians some would have us believe - Utgard-Loki obviously has Thorr, Loki and their companions in his power, but releases them unharmed, impressed by Thorr’s demonstration of sheer strength. Yet the Jötnar must be considered "armed and dangerous;" why else would the Aesir, when confronted by Skadhi, come alone to exact vengeance for her father’s death, decide to negotiate rather than simply destroy her through their superior numbers?

Again, we see a people as powerful, in their way, as the Aesir, but also fundamentally different. In fact, it would seem that the Jötnar have much more in common with the Vanir than with the Aesir. This comes as no surprise to me, as I believe that the Vanir and the Jötnar are, in fact, two branches of the same tribe.

While there is, obviously, nothing in the mythologies to support my intuition in this, I believe that the Vanir represent the descendants, if you will, of Jötnar who ventured away from their "homeland" in the vicinity of Aurgelmir, in that timeless time before the creation of the Nine Worlds. Since this all took place in "mythic time, " as so convincingly set forth by John Lindow, 5 there would have been plenty of "time" for the proto-Jötnar to proliferate and grow numerous enough to warrant and encourage such a migration. It may, in fact, have happened even before the birth of Wóden and his brothers. And there is, hidden within the mythology, a possible motive for this migration.

Audhumla is the great "cosmic cow, "6 whose licking at the blocks of yeasty venom7 uncovered Aurgelmir and, later, Buri, grandsire to Wóden. But in the later tale of the murder of Aurgelmir and the destruction of the Jötnar, She is not mentioned. It is my contention that, in the way of bovines, She wandered off into the trackless wastes of Utgard, and that some of the proto-Jötnar followed, either from curiosity or in an effort, perhaps, to protect Her. These folk evolved separately from their kindred, without the influence, good or bad, of the Aesir and Mankind, discovering much arcane lore and developing powerful magicks through their communion with primal forces in Utgard, as well as the spirits of Muspelheim and Nifelheim. These folk eventually fashioned and occupied the World that would become known as Vanaheim. Perhaps they even fashioned it, in an eerie echo of another such process, from the body of Audhumla...

The war between the Aesir and the Vanir is said to have begun when Gullveig of the Vanir came to the Aesir and demanded gold. Asking for and receiving weregild - essentially monetary compensation for the death of a relative or clanmate - was a common practice in Norse society. I believe that, upon "returning" from Utgard and creating the World of Vanaheim, the Vanir then sent Gullveig (who may also be a hypostasis of Freyja) to the Aesir to demand of Wóden and his people weregild for the death of Aurgelmir.

(The response from the Aesir was to attempt to kill Gullveig by burning her alive. They tried three times. She was reborn each time, and after the third attempt, war was joined between the two tribes.)

If we follow the line of reasoning set forth thus far, then the origins of the Vanir are no longer veiled in mystery, but are part and parcel of the existing mythology, and their sovereignty over the "natural world" is handily explained. The so-called "natural world" is blood of their blood, flesh of their flesh, and what could be more, well, natural? That they stand, at times, with the Aesir against some Jötnar, only to woo and wed others, is no more unreasonable than the "tribal politics" that are part of the human historical record. One need only peruse the history of Europe itself in a general manner to realize that it takes but a single generation to create sufficient differences between people who were once one tribe that war is the inevitable outcome. Why should we expect the Gods to be any different?

There are many in the Craft, and even some outsiders, 8 who believe that Witchdom, or contemporary Witchcraft, is the direct descendant, through Saxon England, of the cult of the Lord and the Lady, who are none other than Freyr and Freyja of the Vanir, Children of Aurgelmir and Jötnar to the very core. Their names, in fact, mean "Lord" and "Lady, " and it cannot be denied that, in the mythological texts, Freyja is the mistress of many of the powers now held to be the province of the modern Witch. This lineage is particularly well seen in the practice of the Elder Craft, more commonly known as British Traditional Witchcraft, where the now-popular and ubiquitous notions of the Gardnerian Synthesis are not present. There are no "Elements" in the Elder Craft; rather, the emphasis is on the Land, Sea and Sky. This can, if one wishes, be traced directly back to the reverence which must have been felt by the Vanir/Jötnar for the body of Aurgelmir, as transformed into the material world. Shapeshifting is another area of lore and skill emphasized in the Craft, which, according to the texts, was obviously a specialty of the Jötnar. There are many "pointers, " if you will, in the practicum and lexicon of the Craft that one may follow, if it is one’s fancy, back to the forbidding crags of Jötunheim, or to the shining meadows of its sister-realm, Vanaheim.

Edred, among others, speculates that the tension between the modern revival of the Odhinnic cult as seen in Asatru and the resurgence of the cult of the Vanir as seen in modern Witchcraft, is no more or less than the age-old tension between the Aesiric and Vanic streams. If we make the further leap to associate the Vanir and the Jötnar, this tension is even more logical and expected, and the eerie, eldritch and often despised nature of Witchdom, as compared to the forthright and linear path of Asatru, is readily explained.

To suggest that the Vanir are cousins, at least, to the Jötnar is something close to heresy for those who cleave to the primary texts as they are normally interpreted. But Witchdom is, by its very nature, iconoclastic. And all those who practice the Craft deeply have an intuitive feeling that its roots stretch back into the distant past, the scholarship of such worthies as Ronald Hutton9 notwithstanding. Those of us who have sunk deep into the well of the Craft know, in our guts, that the threads of lore, ritual and spellwork that we hold in our hands today were first woven eons ago. We often hear our contemporaries claim that the Craft was first practiced by Neolithic man before the dawn of recorded history.

If I am right in my surmise, the truth is even more fantastic, and the Craft as we know it was first practiced before the very existence of time itself, by that eldritch and magickal folk we know today as the Jötnar.

1 Huson, Paul; Mastering Witchcraft; Perigee Trade (December 5, 1980).
2 Edred (aka Edred Thorsson); Witchdom of the True; Runa-Raven Press (1999).
3 In some versions/translations, Wóden is said to have created Midgard from the body of Aurgelmir, and to have placed it among other worlds in the branches of the World Tree. In other versions/translations, he is said to have fashioned and placed all of the Nine Worlds. But since two of those worlds - Nifelheim and Muspelheim - clearly pre-exist Wóden, then the former case makes more "mythic sense, " and, incidentally, works better in my particular theory.
4 The dwarves were created from maggots found in the flesh of Aurgelmir. Wóden and his brothers gave them the gifts of man-like form and thought, and even set four of them to hold up the corners of the sky, which was, incidentally, fashioned from the dome of Aurgelmir's skull...
5 Lindow, John; Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs; Oxford University Press (September 1, 2002).
6 It is quite probable that Audhumla was, originally, envisioned as an aurochs, rather than as a domestic cow. The aurochs were wild bovines of pre-Viking Age Northern Europe, and had more in common with North American bison than with domestic cattle.
7 For the complete Norse creation myth, the reader is referred to one of any of the excellent translations and/or compilations of the primary texts.
8 Edred; Witchdom of the True; Runa-Raven Press (1999). Also Coulter, James Hjuka; Germanic Heathenry: A Practical Guide; Authorhouse (August 1, 2003).
9 Hutton, Ronald; The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft; Oxford University Press (April 1, 2001).

Copyright: Copyright © RuneWolf 2005



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