In Norse mythology, a jötunn (plural jötnar) is a type of entity contrasted with gods and other figures, such as dwarfs and elves. The entities are themselves ambiguously defined, variously referred to by a several other terms, including risi, thurs, and troll.
Although the term giant is used to gloss the word jötunn and its apparent synonyms in some translations and academic texts, jötnar are not necessarily notably large and may be described as exceedingly beautiful or alarmingly grotesque. Some deities, such as Skaði and Gerðr, are themselves described as jötnar, and various well-attested deities, such as Odin, are descendants of the jötnar. Several jötnar like Hræsvelgr and Fenrir are animal shaped. While most are described as being roughly human sized, some are portrayed as huge, such as frost giants (hrímþursar), fire giants (eldjötnar), and mountain giants (bergrisar).
Norse mythology traces the origin of the jötnar to the proto-being Ymir, a result of growth of asexual reproduction from the entity's body. Ymir is later killed, his body dismembered to create the world, and the jötnar survive this event by way of sailing through a flood of Ymir’s blood. The jötnar dwell in Jötunheimr. In later Scandinavian folklore, the ambiguity surrounding the entities gives way to negative portrayals.
Old Norse jötunn and Old English eóten developed from the Proto-Germanic masculine noun *etunaz. Philologist Vladimir Orel says that semantic connections between *etunaz with Proto-Germanic *etanan makes a relation between the two nouns likely. Proto-Germanic *etanan is reconstructed from Old Norse etall 'consuming', Old English etol 'voracious, gluttonous', and Old High German filu-ezzal 'greedy'. Old Norse risi and Old High German riso derive from the Proto-Germanic masculine noun *wrisjon. Orel observes that the Old Saxon adjective wrisi-līke 'enormous' is likely also connected. 
Old Norse þurs, Old English ðyrs, and Old High German duris 'devil, evil spirit' derive from the Proto-Germanic masculine noun *þur(i)saz, itself derived form Proto-Germanic *þurēnan, which is etymologically connected to Sanskrit turá- 'strong, powerful, rich'. For discussion regarding Old Norse troll and its development, see troll. Several terms are used specifically to refer to female entities that fall into this category, including íviðja (plural íviðjur) and gýgr (plural gýgjar).
The jötnar are frequently attested throughout the Old Norse record. For example, in a stanza of Völuspá hin skamma (found in the poem Hyndluljóð), a variety of origins are provided: völvas are descended from Viðòlfr, all seers from Vilmeiðr, all charm-workers from Svarthöfði, and all jötnar descend from Ymir.
To the Norse, the gods were seen as being the powers that held the cosmos in order. The Northern races imagined as beings who were opponents and rivals of the gods. They sought to bring the cosmos back into the uninterrupted reign of darkness and chaos. Because of this the homelands of Jötunn were often depicted as remote, barren and desolate. Their homes consisted of locations such as the bottom of the ocean or in impenetrable forests. Just as the gods were the personifications of order and culture, the Jötunn were seen personifications of chaos and nature.
They were all no doubt feared, but they were necessary to the cosmos just as the Gods were. Such an example would be when Odin and his brothers slew Ymir; and from his skull they fashioned the sky, from his flesh the earth, from his bones the mountains, and from his blood the sea.
The Jötunn had their roles to play within Ragnarok just as the gods did. In fact, the gods and Jötunn were often seen interacting and co-existing with each other. They often inter-married and had children together giving birth to many of the Norse pantheon.
- Orel (2003:86).
- Orel (2003:472).
- Orel (Orel (2003:429-430).
- Bellows (1923:229) and Thorpe (1866:111).
- Bellows, Henry Adams (Trans.) (1936). The Poetic Edda. Princeton University Press. New York: The American-Scandinavian Foundation.
- Orel, Vladimir (2003). A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. Brill. ISBN 9004128751
- Thorpe, Benjamin (Trans.) (1866). Edda Sæmundar Hinns Frôða: The Edda of Sæmund the Learned. Part I. London: Trübner & Co.
- The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion by Daniel McCoy
- Myths of the Northern Lands by H. A. Geurber
- Ymir. Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, Q1 2017
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