The Viking Archive can use a few more articles on literature and folklore! I agree. The good news is that I’m done with my annual re-reading of the Edda, the Icelandic folk tales and sagas. You can tell from the new feature The Briefest Book Review that I’m finally catching up.
This reading session left me with a question that I’m still pondering. I noticed how the words ‘giants’, ‘trolls’ and ‘ogres’ are seemingly used as synonyms in text editions and secondary literature. In my mind, these had always been different creatures altogether.
A first dig below the surface already proves me wrong. Trolls and ogres are giants, too. Though, in all fairness, trolls can also be dwarves as Oxford Dictionaries and Merriam Webster agree.
Then, I try to link the giants to the Norse mythology. Turns out they are not called the Old Norse equivalent of ‘giants’ but two different words: jötunn or þurs. There is a great video by Dr Jackson Crawford on gods and giants in which he explains why giants can’t easily be called jötunn and vice versa. Yes, they’re big and large, but the etymology for jötunn is ‘eating’ and that of þurs is ‘monster’. The giants aren’t just big brutes, they are the direct forefathers of the gods of Asgard and have a complicated relationship with them.
On to the trolls. The troll is a Scandinavian creature and also closely connected to Norse mythology. These are not your sharpest tools in the shed. They’re annoying or plain nasty around humans, but run at the first sound of church bells or turn to stone in the first light of day. In the myths and sagas, their characters are more nuanced, good and evil, stupid or cunning, and they can have supernatural abilities (see related article on New World Encyclopedia). That makes it hard to distinguish them from jötunn or þurs.
In the end, the connection of ogres to the Norse mythology is the least clear to me. There are suggestions about possible ancient Scandinavian origins, but they are very speculative. (For further reading see: Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes and Archetypes. Brunel (ed.), 2015, pp. 912-924).
To get back to my original question. It turns out the three creatures are less different than I thought they were. But the subtle differences are there to pick up on. It needs a fresh round of reading, but probably has to do with the different roles they play in different stories whether they are myths, sagas and folk tales.
This is my brainstorm so far. If you have ideas and insights, feel free to leave your comments below.