By I.M. Knosp
Deep in the realm of Jotunheim, among the mountains and shivering cold forests lies The Ironwood. A place of werewolves, trolls, and giants. Of magic and prophecy and blood…. It is far more wild, far less safe than the glittering home of the Aesir in Asgard. Instead everything in it is of arcane power, and near eldritch aura. Among the giants only the toughest may survive, they are not merely forced to bear the elements, they are the elements, the gods of nature. The beautiful and the horrifying, the calm sea and the treacherous storms, the fire that warms and the wildfire that consumes. At the front of it all is the Wolf Chieftess herself, Angrboda. The wise women of the Jotnar, and a myriad of giants and giantesses that populate the edges of Norse Mythology, and it is the Ironwood to which Angrboda calls home.
Giants are often the antagonists of the myths, attempting and sometimes succeeding in capturing Freya or Idunn. Insulting or tricking gods such as Thor and Odin. The Jotnar are in fact merely another tribe of gods, in comparison to the warlike Aesir, and the more magic and fertility oriented Vanir, the Jotnar are far more wild, untamed, and deadly. While this may seem a fair reason to point to them as the “evil” of the Norse mythos, it is anything but. Numerous giants are friendly to the gods, often helpful, or even intermarrying. Gods such as Aegir invite them over for a party, Thor is the son of Jord a giantess, Skadi is the wife of Njordr as well as the namesake of Scandinavia. So it’s clear its not as cut and dry as Aesir good and Jotnar bad. While the text states this to be so, it also goes out of its way to call the whole mythic tradition an ancestral folly and that all should worship Christ. So to say there has been some blatant defacing of the myths, would be a massive understatement.
While we are meant to root for the Aesir, it is clear that they are not the only ones with potential for people to find help in, the Vanir, elves, dwarfs, trolls, and giants can all also lend aid to heroes or people when needed. The Jotnar would probably be termed “Chaotic Neutral” in the language of the modern age. Just as a wildfire may seem chaotic at first glance and even aggressively deadly as it cooks the rabbit or the lost child, it is in fact indifferent. Just as the land is indifferent to hunger, so to are the giants indifferent to you or I. Like nature they will constantly test, judge, and force you to either live or die, in nature only the strong survive, and that is clearer nowhere more in Norse Mythology, than in the Ironwood.
Within the Ironwood dwells many giants, though most of the ones we are given detail on are female. The matriarchal system that largely governs Jotun culture is relatively clear. While they too are ruled by a king, as are the fire giants in Muspelheim, the overall families are more aligned among the matriarchs. Here comes the tricky part though, while Angrboda is certainly among them, the issue arises from the possibility that Angrboda appears many times under multiple names. While I do not deny this is possible, I will reserve judgment and attempt to use each giantesses name separately, as while some people claim Gullveig to be Angrboda, others claim she is Freya, while others still will say Gullveig is Gullveig. Hence the conundrum, the kennings of Norse Mythology complicate matters consistently, and we are forced in many ways to decide which is which, invariably falling back on individual interpretations.
Angrboda fulfills a similar role among the Jotnar as Freya does for the Vanir and Frigg for the Aesir, the wise woman. It is unclear if she could be considered queen, or merely the chieftess of the Ironwood Jotnar and troll-women. Many of the wolves mentioned here are female as the troll-women will take the shape of wolves, as mentioned before this wood is also considered to have given birth to werewolves in some form. The wolves are considered “Fenrir’s-kin” and are likely the children of the great wolf.
Most notable among these wolves are Hati, Skoll, and Managarmr. The two wolves who consume the sun and moon, and the one who will feast on the dead, and eventually consume the moon. It is likely that these three are separate examples of the myth used to explain the disappearance of the sun and moon at times, or the phases of the moon, or wolf clouds, or parhelions (Mock Suns/sundogs/sunwolves) though in the mythology they fulfill a more doomsday role alongside their father Fenrir.
Skadi is another giant, she once lived in Jotunheim and in some stories still does, residing in her fathers hall after her failed marriage to Njordr. Though in other tales she is married to Odin, perhaps a sign of the king wedding the land? But either way Skadi is also often depicted with wolves, it is their howling that drives Njordr mad when he stays with her in her mountains.
Hyrrokkin is yet another giantess, her name means “fire smoked” which many have used to connect her to Gullveig, who was burned by the Aesir. Hyrrokkin is the giantess that was called for when the gods were unable to push Balder’s funeral pyre out to sea. She rode when called atop a stead turned wolf, with serpents for reins. With one hand she was able to push the boat out to sea, though in the meantime the Berserkers tasked with watching the wolf had been forced to kill it due to it being uncontrollable even with four of them there to guard it. Thor even intended to kill her, this may indicate jealousy or a former grudge that he’d been forced to put aside for the greater need at the time.
Hyrrokkin’s insane levels of strength are comparable to the Giantess Elli, who was the embodiment of old age and one of the few beings to best Thor in a fight. It is unclear if without Utgard-Loki’s shape changing abilities if Elli is an independent giantess. Like Elli Hyrrokkin may also embody something that no one can escape, but more on that later.
Hyndla is a giantess with aspects of the Volur, she spends her days traveling in spirit (likely in wolf form). She lives in a cave in Jotunheim, not in the Ironwood at least not that is mentioned. She is knowledgeable about genealogies and some consider that she travels in spirit up and down family lines, gaining knowledge of lineages.
She like Angrboda and Hyrrokin are also shown with wolves, in the Lay of Hyndla she even rides one of her wolves as a spirit animal alongside Freya atop Hildisvini (Actually her lover Ottar in disguise). Freya at first offers to speak to the leaders of the Aesir Odin and Thor, though eventually devolves into threats similar to Freyr’s servant Skirnir when wooing Gerdr for his master. As all she wants is peace and quiet she travels with Freya to Valhalla where she reads the river Thund and tells Ottar his lineage.
Hel is yet another giantess that we find is associated with wolves. She is the goddess of the dead, and of the underworld. The caretaker of the souls of those who died a normal death of age or sickness. Hel is not actually half corpse as she is often portrayed, instead appearing in various guises, usually with dark hair. She cares deeply for the dead in her care, why else would they choose to fight the very gods themselves for her and her kin? Her steed is Helhest, and her brother is Fenrir, her realm of Helheim is guarded by Garmr, a wolf or hound of immense power who eventually will consume Tyr at Ragnarok.
The Norns are another set of Giantesses, the three; Urdr, Verdani, and Skuld are three of the most powerful deities in Norse mythology. Governing fate, weaving wyrd at the cradle of newborns, and tending the tree of life, Skuld doubles as a Valkyrie and again we find the common aspect of the wolf. Wolves are the hounds of the Norns.
Grendel’s Mother is also at times considered a Jotun or “troll woman” with a loose affiliation with wolves, specifically in the name of her killer Beowulf. Who is at times translated to mean “wolf” or “war wolf” though at times “bear” so the association is less obvious but again wolves are connected to the mythic feminine, in a Jotun or Troll-woman.
Trolls, witches, and giantesses are all associated with wolves. Troll-women and witches would often ride wolves, and as seen with Hyrrokin and Hyndla so do giantesses. Many troll-women turn into wolves, and many of them seem to have Volur like abilities. Why is this? Well for that we must look at the progenitor of the Volur ability, the figure of Vidolfr or “Forest Wolf”. Vidolfr is considered to be male though he is not mentioned nor does he appear outside of the mention of the origins of the various magic using beings in “The Lay of Hyndla” which includes Volur, Wizards, Seidr users, and Jotnar.
The above giantesses seem to fall into two of these categories. Along with the prophetic abilities they have, as even Skadi is said to possess some, it is likely that the giantesses possess the blood of both or that Vidolfr was also a Jotnar, just one that was either separate or differed from Ymir. Much as Odin is himself a giant, but delineated himself in his actions and by founding his own tribe with the Aesir. Perhaps the same can be said of Vidolfr. Though these Volur Jotnar are all tied in some way or another to death. Now strap in, here is where things get interesting.
As already mentioned the sources for Norse Mythology have been heavily altered, and it can be hard to fully suss out what is and isn’t messed with. Though one of the most obvious manipulations was that of the Wolf from positive creature to that of negative creature. Ulfhednar (wolf berserkers) are an obvious example of where there is a more positive element, but it was more than that. Hundreds of years after the viking age, werewolves and wolf riders would still populate folklore and witch cults. Old Thiess, the “Livonian Werewolf” asserted that he and other werewolves were the “hounds of god” that they traveled in spirit form as wolves and fought other mystical beings such as devils and malignant spirits. All in order to protect the harvest and the seeds of the crop. While witches would ride animals long before brooms and staffs, as the distaff and Volur staff of the Volur eventually displaced the original animal familiar spirit, and among the most common animal witches rode in these journeys were wolves. In order to enter this Werewolf form or to travel in spirit atop ones animal companion, one was forced to enter a death-like trance.
They would send the soul out to ride the animal familiar or to change into the animal themselves. In essence traveling across realms and planes of existence, much as Hyndla does or perhaps Hyrrokkin, as she shows up at Balder’s Funeral pyre it is possible that Hyrrokkin is the embodiment of the funeral pyre and like Elli, would therefore be relatively inescapable, and unable to be fought. While Hyndla’s name means “she-dog” it is more her attachment to the souls of the dead, and the ability to track ancestral lines that is her connection to the dead and to knowledge. Skadi meanwhile is associated with winter, and by extension the season of rest, as death is in Norse Mythology. Hel is herself the guardian and caretaker of a realm of the dead, the Norns lay the potential death of someone at their feet when they give their three blessings to newborn babes, Angrboda meanwhile has a name that means roughly “she who brings strife” and for a goddess with such prophetic abilities as hers, this makes sense.
While the desire to paint Angrboda as evil or sowing chaos is likely most peoples go to, this is not the case. Like all the Jotnar she would have reason to dislike the Aesir, most of the Jotnar were killed when Odin crafted Midgard, save the line of Bergelmir, whose vow of vengeance on Odin is what differentiated the Aesir tribe of Odin from the Jotnar line of Bergelmir. From the perspective of the Jotnar Odin has a blood debt to be repaid, and they have no issue when harm comes the Aesir’s way though they also help them as often as they harm. Angrboda is a talented seeress, while I have mentioned above that Angrboda is the caretaker of the wolves in the Ironwood it is also possible that the “witch” awoken from death by Odin’s Necromancy in Balder’s dream is in fact Angrboda as the Witch is buried near but not in Helheim, and is described by Odin as “The Mother of Three Monsters” possibly Loki’s brood of Fenrir, Jormungandr, and Hel. Thus making the witch Angrboda. She not only knows the downfall of the Aesir, but had no intention of sharing it with Odin, who uses a pseudonym in order to ask her questions. The conversation ends when she discovers his true identity, than taunts him with the future tragedy he faces.
Odin is also associated with Wolves, the dead, and is mentioned in Ynglinga Saga as possessing the ability to shape change his spirit. In Huldrsaga the giantess Huld gives Odin his ravens as a thank you gift for his diplomatic mediation, but along with Huginn and Muninn there is also Geri and Freki, as wolves are usually associated with the giants this has always stood out to me as an odd addition. Wolves are beings associated with the dead and with shamanic journeying, while the latter is certainly something traditionally attributed to Odin, it is clear by the fact that he must request audience with Volur or use necromancy to the get the answers from dead witches, that when it comes to non-battle magic or trickery he is lacking.
So it is possible that just as the ravens who feed him knowledge were a gift, so too were his wolves. Perhaps a gift from a giantess who could journey in order to aid him. If this is the case these stories are lost to time. Geri and Freki’s names mean “ravenous” this could potentially indicate Odin’s hunger for knowledge, and be a sort of nod to his desire to understand magic typically barred from men such as Seidr. This is speculation but it would make sense, as Odin’s magical abilities largely function as a form of battle magic or shapeshifting. The use of Sleipneir may be a later addition after Loki gives birth to him, as the horse is far better suited to Odin’s needs than the wolves were, rendering them mere animals he must feed table scraps to.
The above is largely conjecture but I wished to touch on the two most notable wolves of Norse Mythology that I hadn’t discussed as of yet and further tie them in to the wolf witches and giantesses. Angrboda may well be the witch in the Ironwood, though similar to Hyndla she has sent her spirit out. She is not truly laid to rest beside her daughters home, but her spirit wanders caring for other “wolves”, as the Jotnar are eternal forces of nature and even when “dead and buried” are still there. As such the Troll-Women, Witches, Giantesses, and Werewolves may all be there in spirit and while she may not be “giving birth” to them she is allowing others (mostly women) the same shape changing, and volur style ability that Odin desires but does not possess. Not only growing the Jotnar forces, but also giving a bit of a middle finger to her tribes mortal enemy.
This does not render Angrboda, the giants, or the werewolves as villains merely as antagonistic for the most part to the Aesir. As seen with Hyndla they maintain their generally indifferent opinion of those around them even to the Aesir. It is important at this point to bring up one last bit of lore, and that is that the Jotnar are often regarded as older gods than the Aesir, while this may certainly be the case as they represent more primeval concepts, they are if nothing else competitors. Angrboda and her kind are of the wild and of nature, they are untamable and unkillable, as even if the wildfire ends it will burn again, as the rain fades it also readies itself for another downpour. These Jotnar are ancient and they tie into the most fundamental needs, especially the spiritual, being connected to death in a myriad of ways and customs. Hyrrokkin is even placed on a carving dedicated to the accomplishment of a task, potentially a lethal one. While Frigg and Freya are both capable of immense magic and power, Angrboda simply is. She like the rest of the Jotnar possesses innate magical ability as a Jotun. Perhaps the male figure for the werewolves could be Fenrir himself, who is also considered the consort of the Ironwood Witch. The father of all these wolves, the guardian of the wolf spirit form, or something of that ilk. Or perhaps it is the herder of the wolf spirits who is the masculine wolf shaman, who appears beside the Ironwood Witch.
It is impossible to say, and while the Christianized texts have painted these myriad of gods and animals as the evil demonic beings of the Norse cosmos, they are nothing of the kind. Merely indifferent to the world as the hurricane is to the shore, or plague is to a child’s hopes and dreams. Yet some still find themselves helping and interacting with mankind, at the intersection of it all, Death. In the Ironwood it is not monsters that roam but wild souls, untamed and in the forms of their hearts desire. The Ironwood is itself a spiritual land of myth and brutality, where the ancient meets the civilized, where the great and powerful Aesir and Vanir request audience with tribal seeresses clothed in animal skins and the weight of hard won knowledge. Here Angrboda cares for the Wolf witches and spirits, tending “Fenrir’s-kin” as always the wild heart of nature only respects the strong, and only so long as they remain so, slip and you die in mother natures calloused bloody hands. Some will shirk away, others will revel in it, Angrboda cares not. The Jotnar will do as they always do, whatever they want, and the Ironwood is their domain.
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