There may not be any creatures more important to the timeline of Norse cosmology (save those considered to be of the gods) than the Jotnar. But how many people actually know what they are? Today I would like to learn that myself as I have read many various ideas about them. Since neither I nor anyone else can give a definitive answer, I shall provide my own opinions and various sources and allow you to decide for yourself who and what they are!
"JOTUN The Scandinavian word for giant. The giants lived in Jotunheim. The first giant was ymir, formed at the beginning of time out of fire and ice, long before the first gods and humans. The first gods, odin, vili, and ve, destroyed Ymir and created the world from his body...The giants were constantly at war with the gods of asgard. At the end of the world, or ragnarok, gods, giants, and monsters fought a final battle and nearly all died.Giants were generally thought of as personifica-tions of destructive forces, huge, ugly, and fierce.They had heads of stone and feet of ice. Many were known as hrimthurssar, or frost giants, and their names referred to frost, storms, snow, and ice, the scourges of northern winters. They could transform themselves into an eagle or wolf however, in many of the Norse myths they also assume shapes resem-bling those of normal people or gods.Many of the giantesses were beautiful and more than friendly to the gods. The beautiful gerda mar-ried the god frey. The giantess grid, friend of the great god odin, loaned thor weapons to defend him-self against the giant geirrod 1. hyrokkin single-handedly pushed balder's ship, hringhorni, into the sea at Balder's funeral. Thor married the giantess. jarnsaxa, who bore him two sons, modi and magni. skade, the daughter of the giant thiazzi, married the Vanir god niord." (1)
"Norse Cosmology tells of Ginnungagap, the Great Void, which came before the Creation.
Ginnungagap consisted of Niflhem in the North, an area of dark and freezing fog, and Muspell in the South, a region of fire and flame. When the frozen runoff of the North met the heat of the south, the first living crature was formed. His name was Ymir, forefather of the race of giants. Ymir's left armpit created the first man and woman while his feet were giving birth to a family of frost-giants. The giants of Norse Mythology lived in Jotunheim. It is said that they were the first living creature to inhabit the earth and that they preceded even the gods who were their sworn enemies. The reason for this animosity was the god's fear that the giants were envious of the power of the deities and were always trying to diminish it, though, curiously enough, there was a lot of interracial fraternization between the two. Several of the gods were even reported to be the offspring from these interracial minglings." (2)
The Jotuns, or giants are essential to an understanding to heathen culture and religion. They are the forces of nature, nature personified. They are the forces of chaos, the feirce enemies of the gods. Some of them are even considered to be of the gods! Many of them infact! Whether you hate them or love them, Jotuns are very importnat.
"Like the Aesir and the Vanir the Jotnar are a race of beings, but very unlike the Aesir and Vanir, not all of them are considered gods, in fact very few are (in comparison). Some of the Jotnar that are considered Gods are: Loki, Skadhi, Jord, Aegir and his wife Ran. The very first Gods were indeed Jotuns, such as Odin’s father, grandfather etc. Most of the Jotnar who are considered gods are the spouses of Asa or Vanic gods. Many of Odin’s paramours were in fact giants, but most of them are not, nor ever were considered gods, save the mother of Thor, the earth personified Jord.
While the Aesir are the gods of the home, war, and people and things of the like, and the Vanir are Gods of nature personified the Gods of the Jotnar are the forces of Chaos, of nature that destroys. But without them, we, and for that matter little else, would exist. You cannot have order without chaos and vice versa.
In the beginning of time, there was the great cow Audumla and Ymir, who was a giant the first Jotnar. (Note: Do not confuse my saying Ymir as the first Jotnar, he was although he was not the first giant, that title belongs to Surt the fire giant/demon who is of a different plane and race entirely and is not, at least by my standards considered a deity) From Ymir’s flesh he created his children, the giants of frost, and Jotnar. Through the timeless voids of Ginnungagap and many generations Borr, son of Buri who is the father of the gods(who himself is not considered a god) and Bestla the Jotun came together and had three sons. Odin, Vili and Ve. With out Jotun’s, the Aesir would not exist for neither would the alfodir.
Now back to a little more modern in time! The Jotnar, as I have said are the forces of chaos who at the end of this cycle of time with meet with the Aesir and battle on the plains of Vigrid at Ragnarok and destroy each other. When the forces of order (the Aesir) and the forces of chaos and destruction (the Jotnar) come together and destroy each other the nine worlds fall apart and it is the end of the world. Thus we need both to exist. But always these two forces are always at each others throats, save those among the Jotnar that are worshiped and considered Gods by mortals, and the divine. (Save Loki of course who as you know is always causing problems).
We can see from mythology that while all of the Jotnar posses powers beyond mortals and on occasion on par with that of the gods, it is only those who are accepted by Odin that are considered Gods, be that by blood oath such as Loki, or marriage. Once they are accepted into the Aesir tribe they somehow change in their elemental nature. While they posses their ancestral strength and powers as most Jotnar do, they change in which side they use it for in the most part, and they gain responsibility and titles.
Skadhi becomes the great huntress, goddesses of the hunt, of forests and their creatures, skiing, winter and mountains.
Aegir is the god of the sea (On the other hand I believe that the Vanic God Njord is the God of sea shores and seafaring, and in general everything you see at the ocean, aka the surface while Aegir is the god of the depths and below the surface) and his wife Ran captures drowned sailors to bring them down to their watery halls where they may remain feasting and sailing for eternity.
Jord is, and most likely always has been earth itself and the mother of Thor.
There is an interesting thing to think about, I do not think that Jotuns can become part of the Vanir, I think some of them automatically are or they are not. They cannot be accepted like they can be in the Aesir. Take Jord for example, she is the earth, how can she all of a sudden become mother earth? She must have always been that way. So obviously she was a Jotun first for it is her race, but I think because of her power over nature and such she was also always part of the Vanir." (3)
Well I hope you enjoyed!