Mythology, like history, is created by the conquerors. Old oral traditions are translated by outsiders, distilled through the lens of usurpers and tourists, whose own beliefs often supplant or consume those of the original telling. The creation stories of predominantly Western European traditions—Greek, Norse, Irish, Basque, Bulgarian—but also Hindu, Native American, and elsewhere, all tell that the gods warred against the giants before the coming of humanity. But who and what were these giant “others” in our collective myth, and what service did they provide?
I don’t pretend to be a scholar on this subject, or any other for that matter, but those early mythic struggles between the older elemental forces of the giants and the newer civilizing influence of the gods have always fascinated me. I wanted to know more about those lost tribes of storied prehistory. It seems possible that the universal belief in giants derived from early peoples’ attempt to explain the oversized bones of dinosaurs and megafauna they encountered. The tales of the gods’ conquest over such beings were passed down by oral tradition, and cultivated in the group consciousness of growing communities across the world.
In the Greco-Roman tradition, the gods of Olympus fought against the titans and later the giants for control of the dangerous and chaotic wilderness. The giants were the personified elemental forces of nature’s destructive potential—volcanoes, tsunamis, blizzards, and earthquakes—they were heartless and unstoppable. The gods, made in our image or vice versa, were humanity’s proxies in the fight, and their ability to beat back the ferocity of the wild spoke of our potential to do the same.
The Norse myths mirror this struggle closely, but retained a little more of the wild edge and ambiguous delineations between the tribes. Even while the Aesir gods of Asgard claimed land and built their wall to keep out the giants, trolls, and other “monsters” from the untamed beyond, they interbred with the same giants, and accepted the native Vanir spirits into their pantheon. Moreover, the Norse cosmology spoke of a future apocalypse when the giants would return for a final battle against the gods—when the world of both would end, and history would reset for the next age.
I wanted to explore some of those inter-tribe relationships between giants, Aesir, and Vanir from Norse myth, but from a post-Ragnarok vantage—and from the angry perspective of those outcast monsters from the old tales. In re-exploring these myths, I found it most striking that many of the gods that I had grown up loving were often themselves despots, murderers, and rapists, and sometimes far more despicable than the “monsters” whose lands they stole in bloody conquest. It seems that in many instances, the giants, trolls, and elves of lore were semi-peaceful spirits of the earth and water that originally sought friendship with the gods who took such glee in their destruction.
When Gullveig came in greeting to the halls of Valhalla as representative of the Vanir tribe, Odin and his people, frightened by her magic and beguiling appearance, stabbed her with spears and burned her golden body three times as she continued to rise anew from the flames. This act sparked the Aesir/Vanir war that eventually ended in a stalemate, but that first greeting, and the attitude toward the “other” that it represented, would follow the Aesir until Ragnarok eventually came for them. I always saw Gullveig as the same spirit that became Angrboda, the Witch of the Iron Wood, who with Loki would sire the brood that would eventually become the doom of the gods. Her drive for vengeance is one of the most overlooked yet fundamental threads of the entire Norse myth cycle. Just as she was killed and reborn over and again before, I wonder if her ancient anger was ever fully snuffed out or sated.
The age of giants, gods, and the magic they trafficked in is gone, replaced by science, technology, and the press for human mastery of the natural world. But the importance of what the old elemental powers of the earth represented is perhaps more applicable today than ever. We have now entered a new epoch that scientists have dubbed the Anthropocene—the period during which human activity has become the dominant influence on climate and the environment, and regardless of your personal beliefs on the matter, the overwhelming majority of people who know what they’re talking about agree that things aren’t going well.
The giants, trolls, and dragons of yore offered a system of checks and balances on our expansion. They were there to delineate the boundaries of our human realm—the respect that our forbears held for the wild forces of life were vital to understanding our species’ place in the greater context. Without those personified monsters to fear, we’ve collectively forgotten to heed the chaotic underpinnings of our existence, too absorbed in human struggles to remember that the uncaring and unstoppable natural powers remain—still more potent than the science and belief we create to hold them at bay, and deserving of far greater respect amid our failing stewardship of the land.
The monsters are not gone from this world, but have only been slumbering—and they are beginning to wake again, hungry, angry, and ready to fight for what was stolen from them long ago. To borrow a term from the fine reviewer/writer Martin Cahill, “Asgardpunk” is the ferocious rebuttal to those old one-sided Norse tales. I see it as the movement and voice of the monsters as they charge again at the walls that Odin and his ilk built to divide us. They rage against the thoughtless mechanisms of power that ignore the destructive potential of nature at all of our peril.
The troll anti-hero, SLUD, in my wacky, weird little novel, Cold Counsel, is not the first, nor will he be the last, representative of the Asgardpunk movement. But he will carry the torch, or in this case, ax, while he can, and hack down every obstacle put in his way toward revenge for ancient wrongdoings. Though I believe that Ragnarok has passed, and the magic of our mythic history has all but been forgotten, traces of the old giants’ blood still flow in the veins of our stories. And unless we learn to rewrite the wrongs of our past indiscretions, I fear that the monsters will come again to teach us a lesson we are not ready to face.
Top image: Hercules (1997)
Chris Sharp grew up in the suburban wonderland of Alexandria, VA, where he cut his nerd teeth playing role-playing games and making gore movies with his friends. He studied English Literature and Anthropology at Brown University, and Mayan Archaeology at the Harvard Field School in Honduras. He then spent sixteen years in Brooklyn, NY, where he worked in film and commercial production by day, and was yet another wannabe novelist by night. His epic fantasy novel, Cold Counsel, is available from Tor.com Publishing. Chris now lives in Concord, MA, with his wife, daughter and an insufferable cat named Goblin.