Fomoire

Irish mythology often talks of the Tuatha De Danann, a race of Celtic gods who settled in Ireland long before Christianity took hold. However, much older supernatural races already existed there, namely the Fomorians – or the Fomoire as they are known in Old Irish.

Though their true characteristics are debated, the Fomorians are generally considered to be hideous giants or demons who came from below the sea. Tales of ghostly underwater cities were common in Celtic lore, particularly the French legend of Ys. Despite being rivals, there are several mentions of Fomorians – the deities of chaos and destruction – and Tuath De – the deities of order and fertility – intermarrying, which suggests their relationship was similar to the gods and giants of Norse mythology.

Jotnar

Other than the Aesir (gods), the Jotnar (giants) are the best attested group of beings in Norse mythology. Giants of varying types appear regularly throughout Germanic legends, and their roles differ widely. An interesting aspect regarding our understanding of them is that their Anglo-Saxon equivalent, Eutens, evolved into what might be considered “giant people”, while the true definition of Jotun is probably closer to “devourer”. As the Jotnar were believed to be personified elements of natural chaos such as gales, volcanic eruptions or stormy seas, the latter description may seem more appropriate. Jotnar is a generic term that encompasses several sub-species including Bergrisar (Mountain Giants), Vindþursar (Storm Giants) and Hrímþursar (Frost Giants), all of which are said to dwell in Jotunheim (Home of the Giants).

The Jotnar were seen as being in opposition to the gods, though their interactions were complex and not always hostile, sometimes resulting in fraternisation or even marriage between the races. A prime example of this is the actions of Thor: he is often depicted as slaying countless giants for amusement or revenge, and is their sworn enemy, yet he himself is the son of Odin and the giantess Jord, as well as the father of Magni to the giantess Jarnsaxa. This is thought to reflect human understanding of life, specifically how the peace of civilisation and chaos of nature is a balancing act and must be kept in check.

The appearance and characteristics of the Jotnar also vary. Some are described as being monstrous or responsible for ferocious weather and unexplained land formations, associated with dark magic and the menacing forces in the universe. Others seem to have exceptional strength but are no taller than humans, extremely attractive, or connected to fertility and the cyclical workings of the world. In fact, some such as Loki, Skadi or Aegir are counted among those who regularly hold court with the gods. While many tales involve kidnap or violence or magical trickery by Jotnar, the gods are the aggressors just as frequently. Stories such as Odin’s theft of the mead of poetry, Gerd being threatened into marrying Frey, and especially Thor’s murderous exploits are all testament to this. Such perpetual rivalry was said to continue until Ragnarok (Doom of the Gods), when the races would clash for the final time to bring about the destruction of the Nine Worlds.

Muspellsynir

Múspellson is the Old Norse word for “Son of Muspell” (essentially a Fire Giant), Múspellsynir is plural. The lore of the Germanic religions heavily featured giants (Eutens – Anglo-Saxon, Etunaz – Proto Germanic, Jötnar – Old Norse), and they were generally seen as personifications of strong natural forces, though separate from the gods. Of the various races, the Múspellsynir are one of the least attested. While several tales in the Eddas and other historical Norse sources involve Jötnar or Hrímþursar (Frost Giants), only a single figure is identified as a Múspellson. The role of the Fire Giants is very specific in Norse mythology: they are the destroyers of the universe at Ragnarök (Doom of the Gods). However, to understand them, one must understand where they come from.

In the Old Norse cosmology of Nine Worlds, the Fire Giants were believed to dwell in Múspellsheimr (Home of Primordial Flame) – or simply Múspell – one of the eldest realms. It was said to be a volcanic world far to the South, whose fires extended in ancient times and mixed with the ice of northern Niflheimr (Home of Mist) to create water, and thus all life. The name Múspell itself is derived from the Old High German term Mūspilli which appears in a 9th-century poem by the same title, describing the end of the world. The word Mūdspelli in Anglo-Saxon also denotes a similar thing, and is found in the poem Heliand. Immediately, parallels can be drawn between the domain of the Múspellsynir and their contribution to the Norse equivalent, Ragnarök.

Unfortunately, few details are given about the Fire Giants’ appearance or culture. As their primary function in mythology is to wreak destruction upon the Nine Worlds by engulfing them in fire, it could be assumed that they are a fierce warrior race. Their leader is Surtr (Surt) whose name means the “Black” or “Swarthy One”, and may allude to charred or leathery skin. In addition, he is considered the personification of volcanic activity, something that would have been historically important to the people of Iceland. The Prose Edda also mentions that during the final battles of Ragnarök, the weapons and armour of the Múspellsynir shine brilliantly, and Surtr’s own flaming sword is described as being “brighter than the sun”. However, other than Surtr, there are none who can be irrefutably distinguished as an Múspellson, though a few bear their traits. For example, some texts list the giantess Sinmara as his consort, while one tale involving an eating contest between Loki and the giant Logi suggests the latter is an embodiment of fire. The Múspellsynir were nevertheless pivotal to Old Norse religion, and remain an interesting aspect of it.