A Problem of Giant Proportions

Distinguishing Risar and Jötnar in Old Icelandic saga material

  • Tom Grant University of Cambridge
Keywords: risi, jötunn, giant, sagas, mythology


In this article, it is argued that the English noun “giant” is unfit as an analytical term in scholarship on Old Norse literature. It is demonstrated that a significant semantic distinction exists between the words risi and jötunn, which are most often rendered as “giant” in English. A basis for this distinction between risi and jötunn is established by looking at the etymologies of the words, their presence or absence in mythological literature, and their use in early Old Norse translations of continental literature. On these grounds, it is argued that these terms were distinct by the time that saga authors inherited them. The continuation of this distinction in the sagas themselves is explored and the physical and social differences between risar and jötnar in the corpus are reviewed. In the concluding section, cases where saga authors directly contrast risar and jötnar are considered. After reviewing the above evidence, some final thoughts are offered on the appropriateness of the term “giant.”