This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred Thirteen on 8th June 2022.
Note: This article was adapted from an episode script, and so there may be parts that don’t flow well when read, because they were initially designed for broadcast.
Giants have been around in D&D since the very beginning. A major reason for that has to do with the origins of the game. It’s oversimplifying a bit, but Gary Gygax’s original intent wasn’t to create a whole new system with sweeping lore and intricate settings; he just wanted to be able to have his tabletop armies fight Orcs and trolls instead of just other human armies, and he didn’t want to wait five years for Warhammer to come out.
Starting with that premise, Gygax didn’t start inventing a whole bunch of unique fantasy creatures to throw up against his and his friend’s armies. They just took the ones that already existed and gave them stats.
If you spend any time at all looking at ancient mythology, you run into giants very quickly. In many cases they’re explanations for natural phenomena like blizzards, earthquakes, or avalanches. In other cases they’re stand-ins for actual enemies that were embellished through stories. You see that a lot in Jewish tales in particular, where several of the ancient people-groups the wandering tribe or tribes of Israel fought against are depicted as races of giants, even apart from the tale of Goliath.
It’s difficult to pin down what sources the original D&D designers used, but the first major giants to make their way into D&D got their start with Norse mythology.
Norse mythology has wormed its way into a lot of media nowadays: the Marvel comics’ Thor was basically just a retelling of the Norse mythology at first, and the more modern movie representations kept many of the basic premises. Video games are rife with it, from Assassins Creed: Valhalla to God of War. Even many of the themes and elements in Skyrim owe their existence to Scandinavian storytelling.
Most of the major giants from D&D are Norse Giants. Frost Giants, known in the mythology as Jotun [YAW-tun] were one of the primary antagonists bothering the Norse gods. Scholars will point out the original depiction of them didn’t label them as giants per se; that came later when some Christian beliefs and intermixing with other Germanic traditions came into play. As for the other ones, the fire giants probably owe their existence to Surt. He was the only major fire giant in the Norse tradition, but he had a major role to play in Ragnarok, the Norse version of the apocalypse.
From there the links get a little more tenuous. Ymir was a figure from Norse mythology who supposedly birthed most of the other supernatural races (giants, gods, etc) and whose body was used to form the world. He was said to have been formed from the drops of water that met between two of the realms, so it’s very possible he was the basis for Cloud giants. However there’s also another possibility.
A figure named Olvaldi had an entire family and all of them were called Storm Giants. One of the major features of the family was an obsession with gold, which was said to be weighed “by the mouthful”. However in D&D, that treasure fixation is something attributed to the Cloud Giants, whereas the Storm giants are more mystical and benevolent. It’s possible somewhere along the way someone got their Norse mythology mixed up.
Assuming, you know, they were actually following the mythology beyond “they have lots of cool giants.”
It should be noted that another translation for Jotun is “troll”, and some of the creatures from Norse mythology definitely behave more like trolls in D&D. Again, possibly that was intentional, and possibly Gygax and friends just grabbed whatever was convenient and didn’t really worry about staying true to the source material.
That covers most of the so-called “True Giants” in D&D.
Stone and Hill Giants are harder to pin down because honestly they’re a trope that exists throughout a lot of different mythologies. Huge figures hiding in caves and on mountains who don’t like people and throw rocks is something that shows up basically in any culture that developed near mountains where rockslides and avalanches were possible. They also got translated into a lot of different fantasy stories that Gygax and friends would have been familiar with.
Now earlier in D&D’s publication history there was another true giant race, and those were the Titans. Yes, I can hear all you Grecophiles bouncing in your seats because we are, indeed, headed for Greek mythology.
The Titans in Greek mythology were the precursors to, and in some cases parents of, the main Greek gods like Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, and the rest of them. Some of the names, like Atlas and Prometheus, have worked their way into common language, and video game creators love using the name Hyperion all over the place. They got up to a lot of different shenanigans in Greek stories, but suffice it to say them and the gods did not get along.
Having run out of true giants, we now move on to the giant-adjacent species.
We’ll deal with Ogres first because they’re a mythological mess. The word “Ogre” has French origins but the actual mythology is a lot like Hill Giants: creatures like ogres show up everywhere in a lot of different stories, but a common thread is that they eat people. Some scholars suggest that the various mythological references stem from various ancient people groups who either did or were believed to practice cannibalism.
Speaking of eating people, Cyclopses take us back to ancient Greek mythology where Polyphemus is well known for waylaying Odysseus on his journey and eating two of his crew.
For a lot of the other giant races we have to hop across the water from Scandinavia and spend some time in Lennon’s neck of the woods.
Almost all of the rest of the giant types come from Celtic, Irish, or similar mythology that began in the British Isles. We’ll start at the bottom and work our way up.
Fomorians in D&D are a race of giants who make their home in the Underdark and are generally unpleasant. The OG Fomorians come from Irish mythology, and were said to be the original inhabitants of Ireland who had to be defeated before the original settlers could live there. A lot of unsavory habits and bad behaviors were attributed to them, but they were called giants at some point and some myths had them living or coming from the depths of the earth.
Apparently after them, the original Firbolgs show up. Now it should be noted that in original mythology, the Fir Bolg not only had their name split (Fir and Bolg) but they were just…regular people. They apparently spent some time enslaved in Greece, left, made their way up to Ireland, took it over, and lived there for a while before they were then overthrown and driven out by someone else. That may be why D&D Firbolgs are generally portrayed as in tune with nature and generally friendly. Side note: historians cannot find any reliable evidence that the people ever existed, even misnamed, but so many people were invading Britain back then they could have been based on anyone.
The only other major giant subspecies that has a solid origin in real world mythology is the Oni. They were originally added to D&D through several modules that added Asian elements to gameplay. Those modules were made in the late 80s so you can guess how culturally sensitive they were.
Still, they didn’t completely miss the boat with the Oni; in Japanese folklore most of the Oni are depicted as agents of evil winds with a tendency toward murder and cannibalism. The D&D Oni usually have blue skin, but the originals could show up with red, blue, black, yellow, or white skin. There are some stories that present a few more sympathetic Oni, but in general they’re used as negative characters.
There are other giant-type creatures in D&D but a lot of them are obscure or rarely used. Some of them are also purely original creations of different designers, or have deviated so much from their original portrayal that a comparison is meaningless.
This information can be useful in D&D even if there’s no desire to move beyond the in-game lore around these creatures. Players and DMs can use them for lore crafting. As mentioned, a lot of the giants in D&D are more or less true to their original portrayals as far as behavior is concerned, so the original mythology can provide stories that locals might know or tell. And some of those stories can form the basis of quests. You could take the story of Odysseus being trapped by the cyclops and use it almost verbatim, requiring characters to rescue a stranded crew trapped by the giant.
Also, if you’re a more ambitious DM who is trying to create a new setting or species of creature based on giants, looking at the original mythology can, in some cases, give you ideas for alternate portrayals. The Norse stories in particular are full of characters that are more complex than simply being enemies or friends.