One of the Nine Realms in Norse cosmology, Jotunheim was the land of the jötunn—non-human, non-divine creatures such as giants and trolls. Jotunheim's chaotic nature ensured the realm was constantly at odds with Asgard. The civilized gods despised the wild jötunn, and the two races fought endlessly. Whenever Jotunheim was mentioned, conflict was sure to follow. Jotunheim's capital was Utgard, a massive castle with a name meaning "beyond the fence." The realm's other notable locations included Mimir’s well, Thrymheim, and the Vimur River.
Derived from the Old Norse words for ”home“ and “jötunn,” Jotunheim meant “home of the jötunn.”
Idun and the Magic Apples
Jotunheim served as an important setting in several Norse myths. One such tale—that of Idun and her magical apples—appeared in Snorri Sturluson's Skáldskaparmál of the Prose Edda. While exploring Jotunheim, Loki angered the jötunn Thjazi and soon found himself in the shapeshifter's talons. In exchange for his release, Loki promised to bring Thjazi the goddess Idun and her youth-granting apples. Upon returning to Asgard, Loki lured Idun to the forest, where the shapeshifter (in the form of an eagle) whisked her away to Jotunheim.
The Asgardian gods depended on Idun's apples to maintain their youth. When they learned of Loki’s treachery, they threatened him with death unless he managed to bring Idun back. After borrowing Freya’s falcon-feather cloak, Loki flew off to Thjazi's palace in Jotunheim, where Idun was sitting all alone. Acting quickly, Loki transformed the goddess into a nut and delivered her (and her apples) to Asgard and the shelter of the gods:
And when he got the hawk‘s plumage, he flew north into Jötunheim, and came on a certain day to the home of Thjazi the giant. Thjazi had rowed out to sea, but Idunn was at home alone: Loki turned her into the shape of a nut and grasped her in his claws and flew his utmost.1
Thor, the Lovely Bride
Jotunheim was also featured in a story involving the theft of Thor’s hammer Mjölnir. Told in the Thrymskvitha of the Poetic Edda, the story began when Thor awoke to find his beloved hammer missing. In a panic, he assembled the gods and asked for their help in finding it. Loki immediately borrowed Freya's falcon-feather cloak and raced off to Jotunheim, where he spied Mjölnir in the hands of the giant Thrym. In exchange for the hammer's safe return, Thrym demanded Freya’s hand in marriage.
The gods found this proposition unacceptable. As they debated alternative ways to retrieve the hammer, Heimdall hatched a scheme: dressed as Freya and her handmaiden, Thor and Loki would sneak into Jotunheim and take back the hammer. After much convincing, Thor reluctantly donned the bridal veil and the gods made haste to Jotunheim:
Then home the goats to the hall were driven,
They wrenched at the halters, swift were they to run;
The mountains burst, earth burned with fire,
And Othin's son sought Jotunheim.2
After several days of hard riding, the two haggard crossdressers entered Thrym’s hall (better known as Thrymheim). When Thrym noticed "Freya’s" worn appearance, Loki asked him to pardon the maiden's condition:
Hard by there sat the serving-maid wise,
So well she answered the giant's words:
‘From food has Freyja eight nights fasted,
So hot was her longing for Jotunheim.’3
In due time, the wedding ceremony commenced. When Thrym brought forth Mjölnir to consecrate the marriage, Thor seized his weapon and killed the entire wedding party, leaving grand Thrymheim drenched in blood.
Thor, a Jotunheim Regular
Thor returned to Jotunheim under similar circumstances in the Thorsdrapa, a work by the 10th century CE skaldic poet Eilífr Goðrúnarson. One day, Loki was visiting Jotunheim when he was captured by a giant named Geirrod. This giant despised Thor, and offered to release Loki on the condition he lure the hero to Jotunheim without his magical talismans.
Agreeing to the giant's demands, Loki returned to Asgard and told Thor of the beauty of Geirrod’s daughters, Gjalp and Greip. Intrigued, Thor consented to go and see them, leaving his beloved hammer Mjölnir and his girdle of strength behind. Once in Jotunheim, Loki and Thor happened to stop at the home of the giantess Grid, who warned Thor of the plot against him. Seeing that he lacked his usual armaments, she also loaned him a pair of iron gloves, a belt, and a magical staff. Thor used these weapons to turn the tables on Geirrod, murdering him and his daughters before fleeing Jotunheim in triumph once again.
Jotunheim in the Beginning and the End
In addition to Thrymheim and Utgard, the realm of Jotunheim was home to Mimir’s well, a spring located near the roots of Yggdrasil. The well's waters granted wisdom to anyone who drank of them, and it was for this reason that Mimir’s well played a key role in Norse lore.
According to the Völuspá of the Poetic Edda, Odin traveled to Jotunheim in search of wisdom. Upon arriving at Mimir’s well, he pulled out one of his eyes and cast it into the shaft, where Mimir drank its mead everyday:
Alone I sat when the Old One sought me,
The terror of gods, and gazed in mine eyes:
‘What hast thou to ask? why comest thou hither?
Othin, I know where thine eye is hidden.’
I know where Othin's eye is hidden,
Deep in the wide-famed well of Mimir;
Mead from the pledge of Othin each mom
Does Mimir drink: would you know yet more?4
The Völuspá also predicted that during Ragnarök, the series of events leading to the end of all things, Jotunheim would tremble with expectation and release its monsters unto the world:
In their dwellings at peace they played at tables,
Of gold no lack did the gods then know,—
Till thither came up giant-maids three,
Huge of might, out of Jotunheim.5
All the creatures of Jotunheim, including the fire giant Surt, would come swarming out of the realm to do battle with the gods on the plains of Asgard. Jotunheim and the other realms would ultimately turn to ash and be annihilated with all creation.
Jotunheim has maintained a small presence in popular culture, largely thanks to both Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thor (2011) featured a plotline involving Jotunheim, here portrayed as a bleak and icy realm. The film began with a rogue band of frost giants breaking into Asgard’s vault and attempting to steal a magical item. Not willing to stand for such insolence, Thor lead a team to Jotunheim to confront Laufey, king of the frost giants. Thor's mission destroyed a hard-won peace between the frost giants and the Asgardians, and Odin banished him to Midgard (Earth) for his recklessness.
Antarctica's Jotunheim Valley was named for the Norse realm. It is surrounded by a mountain known as Utgard Peak, itself located in the Asgard Range.
Sturluson, Snorri. The Skáldskaparmál of the Prose Edda. Translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Accessed on April 2, 2020. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/pre/pre05.htm.
Thrymskvitha of the Poetic Edda. Translated by Henry Adams Bellows. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Accessed on April 1, 2020. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe11.htm.
Völuspá of the Poetic Edda. Translated by Henry Adams Bellows. The Internet Sacred Text Archive. Accessed on April 1, 2020. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe03.htm.
Wikipedia contributers. “Jotunheim.” Wikipedia. Accessed on April 1, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J%C3%B6tunheimr
The Skáldskaparmál of the Prose Edda, translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, I. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/pre/pre05.htm. ↩
The Thrymskvitha of the Poetic Edda, translated by Henry Adams Bellows, Stanza 21. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe11.htm. ↩
Ibid., 26. ↩
The Völuspá of the Poetic Edda, translated by Henry Adams Bellows, Stanza 28, 29. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/poe/poe03.htm. ↩
Ibid., Stanza 8. ↩