The Complicated Relationships Between the Norse Gods


By Jackson CrawfordUniversity of Colorado, Boulder

When talking about the wars between the Norse gods and anti-gods, it’s better not to use the term giants because it gives the impression that the enemies of the gods are beings that tower over the gods. Talk of giants can also suggest that they are maybe even strikingly different in appearance, perhaps a different ‘species’, to use modern terms.

Silhouette of Vikings battling in the fog
Though many share common ancestors, the gods and anti-gods of Norse mythology each have an allegiance to a specific side. (Image: drumdredd777/Shutterstock)

How Are Gods Different from Anti-Gods?

In our Norse sources, these rivals to the gods are, in fact, beings on the same scale as the gods. And except for some marginal figures, the anti-gods even look human just as the gods do. The gods and anti-gods often have intimate relations with each other, and even intermarry. In fact, these rival anti-gods are the parents of most of the gods. Thor and Odin both have an anti-god for a mother, and Loki has one for a father.

A painting of a jotunn with a flaming sword in his hand
Most of the jotunns are not gigantic in size as the name ‘giant’ suggests. (Image: John Charles Dollman/Public domain)

What most clearly separates the gods from the anti-gods, is that the gods are the forces of order, while the anti-gods are the forces of chaos. The word jotunn even has a cognate, or linguistically equivalent word, in the closely related Old English language. This word is ent, a term used in Old English poems, such as ‘Beowulf’, to denote a long-ago mighty group of beings. Great ruins are said to be their work, as are some of the fine weapons used by Beowulf and other Old English heroes. 

But no named creature, such as Grendel, is ever called an ent in Old English, so these are beings only of distant cultural memories in early medieval England. It is likely that in a much earlier period, however, when the English worshipped the same gods as the Norse—Odin under the name Woden, Thor under the name Thunor, etc—these gods were said to fight against and be related to the ents in much the same way that the Norse gods are arrayed against their close relatives, the Jotnar.

And, in fact, it is one of these beings—the oppositional Jotnar, or anti-gods—and not a god, who is the first living being. The forces of chaos precede the forces of order, just as evil, destructive beings outlast the gods in the final myth of Ragnarok.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Norse MythologyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Thor’s Allegiance and Mixed Ancestry

So, the Norse gods, much like many human beings, have their worst conflicts with close relatives. But those beings are also their parents—Thor’s mom is one. And their interactions are not always violent. As to Thor’s mother, she is called Earth, in Old Norse Jorth. Intriguing, but we don’t know more. And she is also called by the ancient name Fjorgyn.

Illustration of Thor fighting the anti-gods while riding his chariot
In spite of his mixed ancestry, Thor regularly fights with the anti-gods. (Image: Mårten Eskil Winge/Public domain)

Now, this differs from how today’s works of popular culture, for example, the Marvel universe, often depict Thor as the son of Odin and his wife Frigg. But in our genuine medieval sources, Odin has children with other women as well, including the anti-goddess who is Thor’s mother.

And Thor’s mixed ancestry mirrors the complexity of the relationships between the gods and anti-gods on the whole. Thor is often smashing the skulls of one side of his own family on behalf of the other side.

And Thor’s fight against the anti-gods is actually even more surprising, given that Thor’s ancestry from the anti-gods is even more than the half he gets from his mother. Thor’s paternal grandmother, Odin’s mother, Bestla, was herself an anti-god.

Fighting One’s Own Family

By contrast, it is seldom that we hear of any god who is descended from gods on both sides. Balder, as the son of Odin and his wife Frigg, is the easiest exception to point to, but remember that not all the gods’ family lines are known to us. And yet, in spite of these intimate ties, Thor is always hard at work fighting exactly these beings who form his own maternal lineage—and half of his paternal lineage!

These beings are roughly equivalent in power, and so closely related to one another that it is a struggle to know how one qualified to be a god or an anti-god. Perhaps it was a matter of simply pledging allegiance to, or against, the Aesir gods as led by Odin.

And yet, that line is drawn, and it is held firm in certain respects. In particular, it is only the gods who are worshipped—never do we hear of worship of the anti-gods. And the gods’ ambivalent relationship with the anti-gods reflects a reality in the human world below. In the human sagas, and maybe in our own lives, it’s also the conflicts with friends and family that create the most drama and where the stakes are highest.

Common Questions about the Complicated Relationships Between the Norse Gods

Q: Why is the term ‘giant’ problematic when referring to anti-gods?

The term ‘giant’ can be problematic because of the misconceptions it often leads to. For example, it implies that anti-gods are actually gigantic in size in contrast to Norse gods that are relatively human-size.

Q: What are some of the differences between gods and anti-gods in Norse mythology?

The notion of worship only concerns Norse gods and there’s never any indication of the worship of anti-gods. Anti-gods represent the forces of chaos while the forces of order are represented by the gods. Also, the first living being was an anti-god and when Ragnarok comes, the gods will be defeated in battle.

Q: How are the relations between Thor and the anti-gods?

Norse gods, such as Thor, usually have complicated relations with their counterparts. Though gods, particularly Thor, are usually in conflict with anti-gods, they may also have friendly relations. For example, they may marry one another. Most of them, such as Thor, have mixed ancestry.

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