A Brief Linguistic and Folkloric Look at
Early Germanic Giants
While the modern reader is apt to think of giants as—well—“gigantic” beings by definition, the meagre sources suggest that this was not necessarily the case with speakers of the Early Germanic languages. For those in Medieval Scandinavia at least, a giant was a more nebulous concept, its size being greatly variable, it seems. In Saxo Grammaticus’ story of king Svipdager (1.21), for example, an amorous giantess named Harthagrepa stalks the king, but when the latter points out that “the size of her body was unwieldy for human embraces,” she replies,
don’t let the sight of my strange largeness affect you. I can make the substance of my body small or great, now thin, now capacious. Sometimes I shrivel at will, sometimes expand. At one moment my stature reaches the skies, at another I can gather myself into the narrower proportions of men.
Instances of mating between (evidently human-sized) gods and giants can be found in the Edda: Freyr and Njörðr marry giantesses (Gerðr and Skaði respectively), while Óðinn seduces the giantesses Gríðr, Gunnlöð, Jörð, and Rindr.
It seems—leastwise in the Medieval Scandinavian tradition again—that in order to be a giant, a certain wildness or frightening uncouthness was as significant as the potential for bigness, such that with proper attire and fitting manner, a human could pass him- or her-self off as a giant. And Saxo Grammaticus (1.13-14) has king Gram do exactly that:
On entering Götaland he put on goat-skins to intimidate anyone who appeared in his path; accoutred thus in an assortment of animal hides, with a terrifying club in his right hand, he impersonated a giant.
And what did speakers of the early Germanic languages call these creatures? A number of words for ‘giant’ are extant, which are listed below with the reconstructed late Proto-Germanic parent forms:
*wrisō (masc. n-stem, with variant *wrisjō) > ON risi (m n) ‘giant,’ OS wrisi-līk ‘gigantic,’ OHG riso (m n) ‘giant’ > ModG Riese ‘giant’
*þurisaz (masc. a-stem, with variant *þur(a)s-) > OE þyrs (m) ‘giant,’ ON þurs (m) ‘giant,’ OHG duris (m a) ‘devil, evil spirit, giant,’ OS thuris- (in the place-name Thurislōhun); and borrowed into Finnish at an early date as turisas (‘god of war’)
*etunaz (masc. a-stem) > OE e(o)ten (m) ‘giant,’ ON jötunn (m a) ‘giant’
*antiz (masc. i-stem) > OE ent (m i) ‘giant,’ Bavarian dialect Enz ‘monster.’
The reflex of at least one of these reconstructed terms appears to have existed in Gothic, leastwise as an onomastic element. Underlying the Latinized Gothic personal name Thorismodus (Schönfeld 1965: 236-237) is almost certainly *Þaurismoþs, which suggests the existence of a *þauris (masc. a-stem; dat. sg. þaurisa), to give the expected Wulfilian form. (If the other three also existed in Gothic, the expected forms would be *wrisa, *ituns, and *ants.)
Attempting to reconstruct the connotations of these forms is far from straightforward. In OE, the common terms were ent (ca. 55x) and the Graeco-Latin loan gīgant (25x). Þyrs (ca. 13x) is found mainly in (early) glosses and poetry, and four of the mere six instances of e(o)ten are from the poetic text Beowulf. And so these two latter lesser-used words would seem to have belonged to a literary / archaic register. The OHG and OS corpora lack the reflexes of *etunaz. In the broad history of German, the reflexes of *antiz and *þurisaz clearly lost ground to that of *wrisō: the two former are preserved here and there in German dialects (Lloyd 1998: 2/869-870).
Cleasby-Vigfusson (1962: 498, 750) note that “in popular Icel. usage rísi denotes size, jötunn strength, þurs lack of intelligence” or “surliness.” To what extent this was true for the Proto-Germanic foregoers is impossible to say with any certitude. If Greek rhíon (< *wriso-?) ‘any projecting part of a mountain’ is indeed etymologically related to *wrisō (Frisk 1970: 2/658; Orel 2003: 472), the latter word may have in fact stressed size, a connotation preserved in risi. And if *etunaz is a derivative of *et- ‘eat’ (Orel 2003: 86), the Icelandic connotation of ‘strength’ would be a natural extension of ‘gargantuan eater.’ And if *þurisaz is ultimately from the verb *þurjana > ON þyrja ‘to rush forward, sweep forth,’ with a figurative extension ‘to rush at, attack,’ (De Vries 1977: 627; Lloyd 1998: 2/869-871; Kroonen 2013: 552), or alternatively from *þurēna > ON þora ‘to dare’ (Orel 20013: 429-430), then the connotation may have been perhaps that of malignant surliness or unreasoning belligerence, a meaning seemingly preserved partly in the Finnish borrowing turisas (‘god of war’) and leading naturally to the sense ‘devil, evil spirit’ in OHG duris. The origin and connotations of *antiz are obscure.
Cleasby, R., & G. Vigfusson. 1962. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. OUP.
De Vries, J. 1977. Altnordisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. Leiden: Brill.
Frisk, H. 1970. Griechisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. Heidelberg: Winter.
Kroonen, G. 2013. Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic. Leiden: Brill.
Lloyd, A., et al. 1998. Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Althochdeutschen. Göttingen / Zürich: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht.
Orel, V. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. Leiden: Brill.
Saxo Grammaticus. 2008. The History of the Danes, Books I-IX. Transl. by Peter Fisher. D.S. Brewer.
Schönfeld, M. 1965. Wörterbuch der altgermanischen Personen- und Völkernamen. Heidelberg: Winter.