“If I have not seen as far as others, it is because giants were standing on my shoulders” – Hal Abelson
Once is chance. Twice is Coincidence. Three times and we can be fairly confident, to use the colloquial construction, that some shit went down, particularly when we’re talking about references to an apocalyptic conflict that presumably occurred in the Chalcolithic (Copper Age, that is, starting roughly 5000 B.C.). I am speaking, of course, about the war between the Gods and the Giants. Now the world was an exciting place at 5000 B.C. I mean, not like new Harry Potter sequel exciting, but pretty darn close. The Neolithic Revolution was well underway as we had realized that stone, while abundant, had the unfortunate character flaw of being heavy and dull. Agriculture had been invented, and along with it salad dressing, leading us inexorably to civilization and balsamic vinaigrette. We were scribbling our way to the first written languages, but were using it mostly to scrawl graffiti in pyramid bathrooms that said “for a good time, call Bubbahotep”. This was the heyday of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Now, the Proto-Indo-Europeans are a hypothetical entity that likely emerged in the late Neolithic (5500-4500 B.C.) in the forest-steppe zones of the Pontic-Caspian Steppe (somewhere around modern Kazakhstan). I say hypothetical, as we only have linguistic evidence that such a thing existed, in so far as paleolinguists have found remarkable correspondences between languages as geographically distant as Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, and Old Norse that are highly suggestive of the fact that they are derived from a common root language (identified as Proto-Indo-European). Keep in mind that at about 5000 B.C. the human population of the entire Earth was somewhere around 7 million people. That’s right, the entire planet had the population of 20th Century London. And apparently, things were still getting a little crowded around the Black Sea, leading to migrations of Proto-Indo-European populations into Asia, Europe, the Mediterranean, and India, all of which would have been comparatively unpopulated at the time. This geographical dispersion no doubt led to a regionalization of language, culture, and mythology that resulted in many of the defining qualities of the foundational cultures we recognize such as the IndusValley civilization in India, Neolithic Greece, and the Vinca culture on the lower Danube that would spread throughout Eastern Europe. Allow me to summarize. At about 5000 B.C. the planet was pretty sparsely covered by humans, but our species was moving and shaking, looking for elbow room, although it is not unreasonable to assume, as language is a fairly important part of cultural expression, that a certain amount of shared cultural and historical experience was encoded in the mythologies of the populations that were spreading far and wide. Unless you would like to believe that absolutely nothing interesting happened between the end of the last Ice Age (10,000 B.C.) and the Chalcolithic (5000 B.C.) except for changes in hairstyle, the fact that several widely-separated descendant cultures of the Proto-Indo-European migration (as deduced from linguistic evidence) out of Central Asia pointedly remark on an ancient war between gods and giants, suggests we should probably pay closer attention to the fact that the Norse Aesir-Vanir War, the Indian Asura-Deva War, and the ancient Greek Titanomachy, all seem to refer to the same cosmological fact. That is, gods hate giants and fought a brutal pre-historic war where the giants were defeated.
We generally associate Norse mythology with Vikings for two reasons. First, Vikings are cool and nobody else has ever pulled off the horned hat outside of Minnesota quite as stylishly. Second, most of what we know about Norse mythology comes to us from Old Norse texts compiled in 13th Century A.D. Iceland, recording earlier pre-Christian oral traditions. The common conception of the battle-axe wielding, mead drinking, dragonboat sailing, Ragnorockstar Viking really dates from the 8th-11th Century A.D., whereas what has come to be representative of Norse mythology actually originates in much older, broadly consistent, Iron Age (roughly 1000 B.C.) Teutonic mythologies. Basically, old as dirt and distinctly similar to other inheritors of Proto-Indo-European religions, the assumption being that what finally got written down in Iceland had some vague correspondence to far more ancient folktales that nobody had bothered to record, what with all the ocean voyaging, sacking, and ubiquitous lack of literacy. We don’t have many written details on Teutonic paganism until the snarky ethnographic commentaries of the 1st century B.C. Romans, who were too busy pointing out how their gods were better than the barbarian gods and pummeling the Germanic tribes with the Legions to take the Teutonic pantheon very seriously. Had the Romans been inclined to actually listen, they might have noted the strange correspondence between the Norse Aesir-Vanir War and the Greco-Roman Titanomachy.
The origins of the Aesir-Vanir conflict are complicated. Okay, not that complicated, since it pretty much amounts to the simple truth that gods hate giants, and this is more than likely due to the fact that they are the next biggest guy on the block and almost universally would like to grind their pet humans’ bones into flour and bake a nice sourdough. Mythological giants tend to regard gods as a bunch of effete pansies who don’t spend enough time wantonly smashing stuff. The Aesir number among their ranks the more familiar Norse high gods such as Odin, Thor, Baldr, Frigg, and Tyr, whereas the Vanir although remarked upon as Gods themselves (because what self-respecting Nordic warrior-god would bother tussling with anything less than another godlike creature), appear to typically be children of the Jotnar (Frost Giants) who were banished from both Midgard (the human world) and Asgard (the world of the Gods). To make a long story short, the Aesir fight a conflict against the Vanir, ultimately resulting in the death or absorption of the Vanir into the Aesir. The Poetic Edda, a collection of Old Norse poems, written down in the 12th Century A.D., many of unknown authorship (but some recognized Icelandic poets of the 10thCentury have been identified)are believed to be a compilation of old minstrels songs that were handed down through many generations, presumably arriving in Iceland during its 9th Century A.D. Scandinavian colonization. Fragmentary reference appears in the Poetic Edda to the Aesir-Vanir War, as a tale told by a völva (seer).
She that war remembers, the first on earth, when
Gullveig they with lances pierced, and in the high one’s
hall her burnt, thrice burnt, thrice brought her forth, oft
not seldom; yet she still lives.
Heidi they called her, whithersoe’r she came, the
well-foreseeing Vala: wolves she tamed, magic arts she
knew, magic arts practised; ever was she the joy of evil
Then went the powers all to their judgment-seats,
the all-holy gods, and thereon held council, whether the
Aesir should avenge the crime, or all the gods receive
Broken was the outer wall of the Aesir’s burgh.
The Vanir, foreseeing conflict, tramp o’er the plains.
Odin cast [his spear], and mid the people hurled it:
that was the first warfare in the world.
Then went the powers all to their judgment
seats, the all-holy gods, and thereon held council: who
had all the air with evil mingled? or to the Jotun race
Od’s maid had given? (Elder Edda, Stanza 25-29).
Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241 A.D.) was the author of our major source of Norse mythology called the Prose (or “Younger”) Edda, as well as numerous other writings, including the Heimskringla, purporting to be the history of Norwegian kings reaching far back into their mythological origins in the legendary dynasty of the Yingling (or Skylfings) clan. The Younger Edda provides an account of the Aesir-Vanir war, which Sturluson believed (and mind you this was the 12th Century, so kudos to Snorri) was a mytholgized history of the invasion of Scandinavia (Vanaland) from Asia (Asaland).
Odin went out with a great army against the Vanaland people; but they were well prepared, and defended their land, so that victory was changeable, and they ravaged the lands of each other and did great damage. They tired of this at last, and, on both sides appointing a meeting for establishing peace, made a truce and exchanged hostages. The Vanaland people sent their best men,—Njord the Rich and his son Frey; the people of Asaland sent a man hight Hoener, as he was a stout and very handsome man, and with him they sent a man of great understanding, called Mimer; and on the other side the Vanaland people sent the wisest man in their community, who was called Quaser. Now when Hoener came to Vanaheim he was immediately made a chief, and Mimer came to him with good counsel on all occasions. But when Hoener stood in the Things, or other meetings, if Mimer was not near him, and any difficult matter was laid before him, he always answered in one way: Now let others give their advice; so that the Vanaland people got a suspicion that the Asaland people had deceived them in the exchange of men. They took Mimer, therefore, and beheaded him, and sent his head to the Asaland people. Odin took the head, smeared it with herbs, so that it should not rot, and sang incantations over it. Thereby he gave it the power that it spoke to him, and discovered to him many secrets. Odin placed Njord and Frey as priests of the sacrifices, and they became deities of the Asaland people. Njord’s daughter, Freyja, was priestess of the sacrifices, and first taught the Asaland people the magic art, as it was in use and fashion among the Vanaland people. While Njord was with the Vanaland people he had taken his own sister in marriage, for that was allowed by their law; and their children were Frey and Freyja. But among the Asaland people it was forbidden to come together in so near relationship (Sturluson, Younger Edda, “The Historical Odin”).
As one would expect from an old fashioned Viking saga, there is plenty of beheading, maiming, and general riotousness, but the main point to note is that the gods of the Norse pantheon appear to have arrived from Asia, and immediately commenced kicking the keisters of the giants of Vasaland (or Vanaland). 20th Century scholars have arrogantly suggested (as modern academics are wont to do) that, “the whole notion of a war between the Aesir and the Vanir derives from a misunderstanding on Snorri’s part, who failed to grasp the meaning…The coming of the three maidens – according to him no others than the three giantesses, deprives the gods of their power to rule the fate of men, the control of which is taken over by the maidens. However, the gods, above all the Vanir, are still capable of magic, which enables them to interfere with the course of events. To curb this power of the gods the giants send Gullveig, whose magic skills surpass those of the gods. After their failure to kill her off, the gods drive her out of their community. The maiden now turns to mankind, instructing them in magic. As a consequence, the power of the gods declines still further. Perceiving this, the gods meet to discuss whether they will accept the new situation, or demand compensation from the giants. They decide on war” (Samplonius, 2001, p263-264). Typical god stuff when faced with someone who threatens their complete domination of the universe. So, to recap. A bunch of angry warrior-gods swoop out of an Asian homeland and stomp on a crowd of indigenous giants in Scandanavia. Oddly, the ancient Greeks noted that before the existence of mankind, two camps of deities, the Olympian gods (Zeus et al.) and the Titans similarly fought a ten year war over control of Thessaly (central Greece), referred to as the Titanomacy, or Titanomachia (a well known epic in Classical Greece, mentioned by later Greek scholars and writers, but lost in the sands of time). The surviving information we have about the Titanomachy comes to us through Hesiod’s (a contemporary of Homer, alive somewhere around 700 B.C.) poem Theogeny, a genealogy of the birth of the gods.
But when first their father was vexed in his heart with Obriareus and Cottus and Gyes, he bound them in cruel bonds, because he was jealous of their exceeding manhood and comeliness and great size: and he made them live beneath the wide-pathed earth, where they were afflicted, being set to dwell under the ground, at the end of the earth, at its great borders, in bitter anguish for a long time and with great grief at heart. But the son of Cronos and the other deathless gods whom rich-haired Rhea bare from union with Cronos, brought them up again to the light at Earth’s advising. For she herself recounted all things to the gods fully, how that with these they would gain victory and a glorious cause to vaunt themselves. For the Titan gods and as many as sprang from Cronos had long been fighting together in stubborn war with heart-grieving toil, the lordly Titans from high Othyrs, but the gods, givers of good, whom rich-haired Rhea bare in union with Cronos, from Olympus. So they, with bitter wrath, were fighting continually with one another at that time for ten full years, and the hard strife had no close or end for either side, and the issue of the war hung evenly balanced. But when he had provided those three with all things fitting, nectar and ambrosia which the gods themselves eat, and when their proud spirit revived within them all after they had fed on nectar and delicious ambrosia, then it was that the father of men and gods spoke amongst them: `Hear me, bright children of Earth and Heaven, that I may say what my heart within me bids. A long while now have we, who are sprung from Cronos and the Titan gods, fought with each other every day to get victory and to prevail. But do you show your great might and unconquerable strength, and face the Titans in bitter strife; for remember our friendly kindness, and from what sufferings you are come back to the light from your cruel bondage under misty gloom through our counsels.’ So he said. And blameless Cottus answered him again: `Divine one, you speak that which we know well: nay, even of ourselves we know that your wisdom and understanding is exceeding, and that you became a defender of the deathless ones from chill doom. And through your devising we are come back again from the murky gloom and from our merciless bonds, enjoying what we looked not for, O lord, son of Cronos. And so now with fixed purpose and deliberate counsel we will aid your power in dreadful strife and will fight against the Titans in hard battle.’ So he said: and the gods, givers of good things, applauded when they heard his word, and their spirit longed for war even more than before, and they all, both male and female, stirred up hated battle that day, the Titan gods, and all that were born of Cronos together with those dread, mighty ones of overwhelming strength whom Zeus brought up to the light from Erebus beneath the earth. An hundred arms sprang from the shoulders of all alike, and each had fifty heads growing upon his shoulders upon stout limbs. These, then, stood against the Titans in grim strife, holding huge rocks in their strong hands. And on the other part the Titans eagerly strengthened their ranks, and both sides at one time showed the work of their hands and their might. The boundless sea rang terribly around, and the earth crashed loudly: wide Heaven was shaken and groaned, and high Olympus reeled from its foundation under the charge of the undying gods, and a heavy quaking reached dim Tartarus and the deep sound of their feet in the fearful onset and of their hard missiles. So, then, they launched their grievous shafts upon one another, and the cry of both armies as they shouted reached to starry heaven; and they met together with a great battle-cry (Hesiod, Theogeny, ll. 617-687).
Thus we come to the Asura-Deva war of Hindu mythology. The Devas are depicted as benevolent, virtuous and devout, whereas the Asuras are often depicted (particularly in much later texts) as power-hungry, irreligious and devious nature gods. The Devas and Asuras locked horns in a struggle over who would control the universe comprised of Svarga, Bhumi, and Patala (Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld).
In the Puranas and other of the later writings of the Hindus, and also in the popular mind, the asuras are powerful evil beings; in translations the word is represented by such terms as demons, giants, etc. As the suras were the gods, the asuras were not-gods, and therefore the enemies or opponents of the gods. In the Vedas the name asura is applied more frequently to the gods themselves than to their enemies, whilst it is also used very much in the same manner as in the later writings…In the “Satapatha Brahmana” it is said that the gods and asuras, both descendants of Prajapati, obtained their fathers’ inheritance, truth and falsehood. The gods, abandoning falsehood, adopted truth; the asuras, abandoning truth, adopted falsehood. Speaking truth exclusively, the gods became weaker, but in the end became prosperous; the asuras, speaking
falsehood exclusively, became rich, but in the end succumbed.” The gods tried to sacriﬁce, but though interrupted at ﬁrst by the asuras, at length succeeded, and so became superior to their foes. Another legend in the same book teaches that the asuras, when offering sacriﬁces, placed the oblations in their own mouths, whilst the gods gave their oblations to each other; at length Prajapati giving himself to them, the sacriﬁces, which supply the gods with food, were henceforth enjoyed by them. Although there were frequent wars between the gods and asuras, the suras were not averse to receive the aid of their foes at the churning of the ocean; and some of them were not inferior in power and skill to the gods (Wilkins, 1913, p451-454).
Oddly, the Norse, Hindu, and Greek mythologies all posit a struggle between two groups of equally matched godlike critters (the losing side usually end up being referred to as “giants”) for control of the universe. In each rendering, the antagonists are children of the same progenitors, or at least share some interaction through intermarriage. As befits a religious theophany, the virtuous gods (whatever those cultural virtues are held to be), eventually triumph. Strange similarities abound in these myths. Shukracharya, a guru of the asuras undertakes penance and asks the asuras to suspend hostilities with the devas in the meantime. Indra requests another vedic deity , a deva named Brihaspati assume the form of Shukracharya and live among the asuras. The real Shukracharya returns after ten years (note the Greek Titanomachy is clearly identified as a ten year war), but the Asuras assume he is an imposter and drive him away, for which he curses them to lose to the devas. The Norse version sees a truce declared between the Aesir and Vanir, and exchange of hostages (Mimir is sent to the Vanir, but later is suspected of manipulating their leader even though he was simply giving wise counsel, and beheaded), and Mimir’s head goes on to share lots of secrets with Odin that no doubt helped with the final subjugation of the Vanir. Although not as explicit, the Babylonians, Hittites, and Celts all depict similar struggles between two generations of supernatural creatures as formative cultural events, and by extension we can see echoes of this in the Biblical stories of the wicked Nephilim. Some scholars in exploring the Proto-Indo-European basis for this common myth have suggested that it reflects an emerging patrinlineal, increasingly stratified (priest, warrior and peasant classes), and aggressive culture migrating out of the central Asian steppes and supplanting common regional fertility cults throughout Europe, Asia, and the Mediterranean. Now this is a bit of a hippy long-hair, neo-pagan interpretation that emphasizes the Zen-like harmony of a supposed earlier human existence based on matrilineality and nature worship that got shunted aside by the mean old warrior gods. While that sounds good in a dissertation, it seems infinitely more likely that the Proto-Indo-European gods just hated them some giants, and this antipathy got translated into the locally-flavored mythologies of the cultures that evolved from their parentage. As civilization got civilized, our numbers started increasing, and bands of humans started declaring rights to plots of lands from time immemorial, we really needed our gods to indulge in more effective project management, for if Norwegian writer Christian D. Larson was correct and “Nature intends all men and women to be mental and spiritual giants, and does not intend that any one should follow the will of another”, then nature is a fairly disorderly affair. If you intend to be around for a while and get something done, say like building a Ziggurat, founding Western civilization, or fighting a land war in Asia, you just have to get those giants in line.
The Elder Edda of Saemund Sigfusson. London: Norroena society, 1907.
Edda Snorra Sturlusonar. The Younger Edda: Also Called Snorre’s Edda, Or the Prose Edda. An English Version of the Foreword; The Fooling of Gylfe, the Afterword; Brage’s Talk, the Afterword to Brage’s Talk, And the Important Passages In the Poetical Diction (Skáldskaparmál), With an Introduction, Notes, Vocabulary, And Index. Chicago: S. C. Griggs and Company; [etc., etc.], 1880.
Hesiod. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Theogony. Cambridge, MA.,HarvardUniversity Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.
Samplonius, Kees. “The War of The Aesir and Vanir”. TijdSchrift voor Skandinavistiek, vol. 22 (2001), nr. , p259-282, 2001.
Wilkins, W. J. 1843-1902. Hindu Mythology: Vedic And Purānic. [3d ed.] Calcutta: Thacker, Spink, 1913.