I am a little bit confused by the way the terms giant, frost giant, jotun (or jötunn), ettin and troll seem to overlap in Norse mythology.

I don't understand if they refer to a single race or multiple (or even variations within the race).

It adds to my confusion that some of the terms seem to refer to strikingly similar beings, but that some of these creatures are inconsistently depicted. The same beings can be portrayed both as both hideous or beautiful (I understand how good or evil characters could vary in appearance, but the physical appearance seems inconsistent for the whole "race").

Another example: the word "giant" would make you think that beings of this race were of a greater size (greater than average, being this "greater than human size" or "greater than god/Æsir/Vanir size"), but this doesn't seem to be a problem sometimes in order to interact (intermarrying, procreating, etc.) with other beings. That makes me think that the all those names depict different creatures, and not just one race, still, as pointed above, there doesn't seem to be consistency for the traits of each of these races..

Could someone clarify if these are different classes of beings, the same class with different names, or clarify what they were an "embodiment" of (like, giant or troll is another way of depict a race as "evil")?

  • 1
    Wikipedia jotunn article says "anglicized jotunn or jotun ... often glossed as giant or ettin". I'd definitely buy jotunn and ettin sharing a common linguistic lineage, as well. Sounds rather like the difference is "not much". – femtoRgon May 5 '15 at 2:57
up vote 24 down vote accepted

Giants are said to be element-based creatures.

Giants are extremely strong and are associated with cold and frost.[1] One giant is supposed to bring about the wind (Hræsvelgr), while another is associated with the sea (Ægir) and yet another with fire (Logi).

source: http://www.germanicmythology.com/original/cosmology4.html

[1]: Vafthrüthnismal 33 and Grimnismal 31.


So, frost giants come under the category of giants.

Now, the jotun (jǫtunn). A Jotun is a giant with superhuman strength; their homeland is Jotunheim. Ægir is said to be the sea jotun. And from the above quote, it is clear that Ægir was a giant. Hence confirming that the terms jotun and giants are very same.

In modern Icelandic, jötunn has kept its original meaning. In Old English, the cognate to jötunn is eoten, whence modern English ettin. Hence ettin is another term for giants, which evolved from the ancient roots of its original term.


This extract from the Prose Edda book Skáldskaparmál, suggest that trolls were opposites to the giants (emphasis mine).

They call me a troll,
moon of the earth-Hrungnir
wealth sucker of the giant,
destroyer of the storm-sun
beloved follower of the seeress,

The giants were often involved in incidents of higher degree (eg. battles with gods) whereas trolls live isolated and are not involved (not as much of the giants) with the higher degree incidents. Another major difference is that, as I have mentioned earlier in the answer, giants are element based. Trolls however, were not.

Further reading: http://netlibrary.net/articles/j%C3%B6tunn

  • 2
    Thanks for your answer. +1 for now and I'll accept soon. So, if I understood you correctly, there are many kinds of giants, frost giants and jotuns among them. Main common traits for them would be strength, power or being element-based (not physical appearance or even good-evil character). Trolls would be completely different creatures unrelated to giants. – Kreann May 5 '15 at 15:03

There are two kinds of giants; frost giants and fire giants. Frost giants live in the realm called Jotunheim, therefore frost giants and jotuns are the same thing. Fire giants live in another realm, Muspelheim, the world of flame. Jotunheim appears in the first Marvel Thor film. Muspelheim has a cameo in the Dark World.

Trolls are another case altogether. They live in yet another realm called Nidavelir.

  • BTW, a frost giant, Ymir, was the first giant in existence. Odin killed him, and his corpse was turned into sky and ground, becoming the human realm of Midgard. – user35971 Jul 12 '15 at 20:59
  • 3
    May I encourage you to cite reputable sources (e.g. not wikipedia)? Doing so makes it easy to know if your answer is right, and also provides starting points to users who would like to learn more about the topic. – user62 Jul 12 '15 at 23:13
  • I was writing from memory, but I will remember that. – user35971 Jul 14 '15 at 23:51
  • Niðavellir is known as the home of the dwarves. Is there a source that makes it also home to the Trolls? (Did they have a separate home world or were they spread out in places like Midgard where they could accost humans? (I seem to recall in Peer Gynt that Ibsen had the trolls living under a mountain on earth. – DukeZhou Jan 18 '17 at 22:20

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