The Giant Primer: Norse

Hearthstone gamecard art : Artist Greg Staples

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To western minds, the most common sort of giant we conjure up are derived from Norse and Celtic mythology – more specifically the Norse. The vikings thought a lot about giants, and unlike the Celts, they had the good sense to record their tales prior to becoming Christians.

To the Norse, the giants were the counterparts to the Gods; the loyal opposition. The giants were not necessarily evil (nor were the Aesir and Vanir necessarily good).  Rather, the gods the vikings revered fought to create some useful order within the chaos that sprung from the giants.

Daniel McCoy, compiler of Norse Mythology of Smart People explains:

Jotunheim is also known as Utgard (pronounced “OOT-guard;” Old Norse Útgarðr, “Beyond the Fence”), a name which establishes the realm as occupying one extreme end of the traditional Germanic conceptual spectrum between the innangard and the utangard. That which is innangard (“inside the fence”) is orderly, law-abiding, and civilized, while that which is utangard (“beyond the fence”) is chaotic, anarchic, and wild.

The old Norse term for giant, surviving to us as Jotun, roughly translates to “Devourer”, which is chaotic and untidy, but not essentially evil. The Norse saw this as a necessary part of the Cycle of Things: order is carved out of chaos, but chaos inevitably creep back to devour order. Yet from that chaos, order will eventually emerge.

The Norse gods sprang from the corpse of a great giant that had consumed the previous world. So it goes.

Let’s translate that to fur-clad boots on the mythical ground.

The Jotum are a large, proud race of giants dwelling beyond the frigid horizon – in this case Greenland, and the northern wastes of Asia and north America. The center of their lands was the Arctic Ocean.

While relatively uncivilized, they were not stupid, and this, coupled with their large size, could enable them to withstand the arctic conditions of the latter ice ages. But large size brings large appetites, hence their reputation as devourers.

There would not have been a lot of them – needing a lot of territory to sustain themselves. Twenty giants assembled would be an army.  But that would be all they would need unless they were assaulting Asgard itself.

Where puny humans see strength in numbers, giants would see only scarcity. They would have little incentive to invent civilization as we understand it. The primary purpose of organized agriculture, after all, is to allow for an increase in population. Also, glaciers will discourage this anyway.

So they hunted and gathered in sparse groups spread across sprawling territories. Even isolated they had nothing to fear but starvation and each other, and the latter would have been an unlikely threat.  Every Jotun knew every other Jotun.

One can easily imagine them riding about on the glaciers, atop their mastodon mounts, trained polar bears flushing out seals. Perhaps they herded wooly rhinos the way we herd cattle.


Given that humanoids cap out at eight feet and a thousand pounds or so, a twelve foot, six ton giant could only be sustained supernaturally. Now, let’s go to the Niven theory of magic, that it becomes more prevalent in barren wastes than in settled, or biologically richer lands. Under these assumptions, the giants would need the glaciers just to stay standing.

In the end, the giants overtake the Gods in the Ragnarok, but the Norse saw this as part of a cycle rather than an ultimate end. And the pattern, deep winters, rising oceans, long period of warm calm, receding oceans and deep winters, can be loosely mapped to expanding and contracting ice ages.

The Asgardians might mitigate the Jotun for a while, but they never overcome them. The true enemy of the Jotun is global warming.




Beanstalk & Beyond Preview 2 of several

I just submitted my edits for Beanstalk and Beyond, and now there will be some quotes for that for amusement of what I hope to be future readers.


I’m not sure why I kept climbing other than it was fun, and I didn’t really want to go back down. This beanstalk was easier to climb than most trees, and I made swift progress, despite the rain.

I wanted to know how high that thing really went; if it really went above the clouds like it appeared from the ground. My house was a little box, my livid mother an ant, the countryside a soggy, lumpy, green quilt of fields. I kept climbing.

I picked my way upwards by feel, until suddenly my head broke through the top. I stared across the clouds at a whole new world. For a long moment I must have gaped at the sunlit Cloudscape as if I had never been outside in my life. The sun seemed no closer, even as high as I was, but I hadn’t seen it in days, and it took a while for my eyes to adjust. Gradually, I made out rolling hills of clouds covered with thick, fluffy, deeply green moss, and enormous mushrooms of every color and shape.  I threw my hat onto the clouds. When it did not sink, I followed it.

Glittering insects buzzed around my head like tiny jewels with wings, and quick, silver worm-like creatures darted away from my feet. A warm, moist wind whirled about, occasionally prodding a hill to move aside, which in turn would reveal yet another wonder.

After an hour or so, my eyes stopped widening and my mouth stopped dropping open. My eyes squinted and my mouth frowned as all of this wonder insensibly became simply in the way.


Beanstalk & Beyond quotes 1 of several

I just submitted my edits for Beanstalk and Beyond, and now there will be some quotes for that for amusement of what I hope to be future readers.

I’m not sure why I kept climbing other than it was fun, and I didn’t really want to go back down. This beanstalk was easier to climb than most trees, and I made swift progress, despite the rain.

I wanted to know how high that thing really went; if it really went above the clouds like it appeared from the ground. My house was a little box, my livid mother an ant, the countryside a soggy, lumpy, green quilt of fields. I kept climbing.

Big, Black, (Dead) Scary Dogs


August 4, 1577, in the midst of a raging thunderstorm, the Holy Trinity Church in Blythburgh, England received a visit by a huge black dog with fiery eyes and claws. [1]According to Reverend Abraham Fleming’s account in his book, A Straunge and Terrible Wunder:

This black dog, or the devil in such a likeness (God he knoweth all who worketh all) running all along down the body of the church with great swiftness, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible form and shape, passed between two persons, as they were kneeling upon their knees, and occupied in prayer as it seemed, wrung the necks of them both at one instant clean backward, in so much that even at a moment where they kneeled, they strangely died.”

Artwork presumably by Rev Fleming as well. From Wikicommons.

[The actual book is part of Google Books – which paradoxically defies easy linking.)

Huge, black ghostly dogs have been reported in Britain since antiquity. The one cited above is called the “Black Shuck” by the East Anglian locals. In northern England they use the term Barghest (with several different spellings). There are many other regional variants, but if you say “Hell Hound”, everyone knows what you’re talking about.

Most of them will think you’re talking about one of countless ghost stories floating about in British folklore. But in May of 2014, archaeologists from DigVentures, excavating Leiston Abbey in Suffolk , literally just up the road from Blythburg,  uncovered the bones of a dog estimated to be seven feet long and weighing 200 pounds in life. Prelimary carbon dating put this creature within margin of error of the date of the attack on the church.

The Daily Express (a local paper) reported that  project director  Brendon Wilkins  said: “Most of these legends about dogs may have some roots in reality.”

Let’s see if we can chase this big, black dog down.

Britain, like the rest of Europe, was habitat for giant wolves, and even a large species of hyena well into the Pleistocene. There is evidence that Neanderthals and the “cave Hyenas” competed for prey, and even caves. But by the time the ice melted, the woods of  Britain were home only to smaller wolves and foxes. If a band of Cave Hyenas somehow survived into historical times, someone would have shot one, and mounted its head on a wall somewhere.

While wild canines are not plausible, the Isles have been known to breed and domesticate huge hounds for centuries.  A modern Irish wolfhound can grow pretty close to the size of the abby’s hell hound, and they might have come bigger. Domesticated hounds for hunting and defense are present deep into Irish folklore, and there are reliable Roman accounts of Gauls importing war dogs from the Briton or Ireland.

{My excellent source for this here:]

So, applying Occam’s razor, they dug up someone’s pet.

If a huge, black, feral hunting dog were running amok in the countryside, it’s not hard to conceive how that could inspire some tall tales. And when it eludes men who are otherwise boastful of their hunting prowess – then it must have supernatural powers.

I am a creature of nightmares….

Those powers vary wildly by the teller. Not even the glowing eyes can be relied upon; in some versions they dog has no head at all. Like just about every other phantom in British folklore, they are bound somehow to the water, and their appearance can foretell certain doom.

Plus, a dog bigger than you are is inherently scary.

That’s more like it… Art by Rashi. Chandra

Since that conclusion is actually kinda dull, let me make one up:

Long ago, a Celtic Noble took his loyal dogs off to war. Ass they faced the enemy, though, the noble lost his nerve and abandoned his dogs, who were later captured, tortured and burned to death, because these were terrible human beings. The angry ghosts odf these dogs forever prowl the deep woods and dark places, seeking out terrible human beings – or perhaps just random human beings, to claim their revenge with fang and fire.

War dogs may have some limited tactical value against tribal war-bands, but they were little more than a nuisance to organized armies such as the Roman legions, and were no longer seen in battle as active combatants by the mid first millennium.

Or – or – they stopped using them because they realized they were creating more hell hounds with every battle.

Maybe both.

Relevant links:

Cave Hyenas:

Black Shuck info at Shuckland:

A recent find in East Anglia :

Related :

Atlas Obscura (always good content) on the same incident:

Hell Hounds:

Celtic hound – good overview:

Rashi draws big, scary anime dogs:


[1] That same night the steeple collapsed, most likely from a lightning strike.



Welcome to Fantastical History

Fantastical History covers the intersection of history and myth, and how this informs popular fiction and role-playing games (including my own).

For history to be reliable and understandable hundreds much less thousands of years hence, two things have to happen: 1) human beings must record events with some diligence and rigor and 2) those records must survive. The first condition happens with surprising regularity. Every civilization raises a batch of self-important nerds who can take good notes. The second condition, however, requires great fortune, as calamity, warfare and the antics of tyrants all conspire to obliterate the past.

Honest historians, then must peer and grasp into this thick mist and admit how little they actually know. Story-tellers, in contrast, fill in these gaps by making stuff up. Some of that stuff is really fantastic, and this blog and its associated sites cover that: ridiculous lies about the past.

For folklore and even mythology has some basis in truth – somewhere. We’ll look for those seeds of truth but also we’ll talk about the legends themselves, and why we concocted these particular lies.

But we won’t really spend a lot of time on that, because this is not an academic blog. We are not searching for truth so much as we are celebrating the ridiculous lies, particularly as they appear in popular fiction and in role-playing games. These are the new campfires around which we tell stories – and this blog is here to help keep all these lies straight in your head.