Mythological giants : Oni and Trolls
Monsters come in all shapes and sizes from winged demons in the air to slithering serpents in the sea, from great horned beasts in the woods to little
Monsters come in all shapes and sizes from winged demons in the air to slithering serpents in the sea, from great horned beasts in the woods to little people hiding under our beds. But no monsters are as mighty as the ones who claim the title of giants. Beings are so large and imposing that they shape the landscapes around us and crush all who stand in their way. The Japanese oni and the Norse troll, two of the biggest and strongest any mythology has to offer, but which one is stronger? For the uninitiated, this is the show where we look at who these monsters are, what they can do, and finally discuss why one of them would beat the other.
Who is the oni?
Onis is a race of gigantic demons found in Japanese mythology. The term oni originated to mean invisible or unseeable because originally oni was the name given to all ghosts and similar spirits, both good and bad.
However, they were more discussed misfortune from unseen forces, leading to them being seen as more bad than good. To explain fully, I think it would be helpful to further explain the way monsters are generally classified in Japanese mythology and folklore. Three of the most basic classifications are oni, kami, and yokai.
- While oni originally meant spirit, over time it changed to describe demons, otherworldly beings who intend to do harm.
- Kami, literally meaning divine, is a name most often attributed to gods, however, it more accurately describes spiritual beings of great power, which besides gods would also include angels and the spirits of kings or priests.
- Yokai are strange and bizarre, they’re monsters that defy explanation. Anything with a mysterious or unpredictable nature sets it aside from the natural world.
I point these three terms out because they’re not mutually exclusive, there are many instances in which they overlap. For example, an oni that is particularly strong could also be considered kami, such as the primordial god Raiden who is considered a kami due to his divine nature but is also considered an oni due to his evil temperament and cruelty. Similarly, it is not uncommon for modern oni to be classified as a kind of yokai due to them being strange and unnatural monsters.
With the introduction of Buddhism into Japan in the mid 6th century, the oni was adapted from invisible evil spirits into demons and monsters, and with this shift came a change in appearance to suit them. The new depictions of oni were that of brutish giants, with wild unkempt hair, gangly tusk-like teeth, and one or more horns protruding from their heads. They may also appear in a variety of colors, typically red or blue. They are often depicted wearing loincloths fashioned from the skin of great wild animals that they have slain, such as tigers or leopards or similar predatory cats.
This depiction may be a reference to the Chinese zodiac calendar. Oni and similar evil spirits are said to travel from the northeast which is thus considered unlucky, this direction is sometimes called the demon gate. If this direction is followed along with the Chinese calendar the resulting zodiacs they pass through would be the ox and the tiger. Rather than being their own self-sufficient race, many onis is actually said to result from human spirits. Very wicked humans in particular.
It is said that when evildoers die their departed spirit goes to a hellish underworld, known as Jigoku, where they are punished for their actions. However, it is said that the most wicked of all is transformed into an oni, where they serve as the ones who get to punish the lesser wicked souls. Not exactly fair, if you ask me.
While many onis roam the underworld torturing damned souls, it’s also said that if a human is truly so wicked that they may actually begin to change into an oni while they’re still alive, growing huge and monstrous as a result of their evil. These onis are said to roam the earth, living in treacherous areas such as dangerous mountains, or caves, where they prey upon innocent travelers that they kill and devour. Oni of this variety were typically thieves, murderers, or worse. Finally, those who practiced black magic also fall into this variety, and it’s sometimes explained that they gain their oni transformations through the use of such magic.
One of the most famous stories about this kind of earthborn oni is the myth of the Shuten Doji, the legendary leader of a band of thieves who achieved demonic status through the wickedness of him and his followers. However they come about, oni always spell trouble and misfortune for any and all they come across.
Who are the trolls?
Trolls are a class of supernatural giants found in Norse mythology and more recently in Scandinavian folklore. Their name originates from the old Norse tröll, which was a blanket term for describing several different supernatural beings, including things like ghosts, fairies, and even werewolves, however, the name also applied to the great giants of Norse mythology known as the Jotnar. (Jotnar is plural, jotunn is singular) these giants are said to come in a variety of different shapes and sizes, most prominently very large and equally ugly. To explain the origins of the Jotnar we must go back to the beginning of Norse cosmology.
In the beginning, there was a cold and endless void, spanned by 11 frigid rivers called the ice waves. From these rivers spilled a caustic venom that settled and froze along its banks and formed the first primordial being: Ymir. But Ymir wasn’t alone for long as the river’s ice also begot other beings, ones whose descendants would come to be renowned as the gods of the Norse pantheon, and it was these gods who would bring about Ymir's demise.
But before meeting their fate Ymir begot two offspring, one from under each arm, a male and a female. The first members of the ice giant race. Ymir’s massive remains were placed in the center of the void. His flesh became the land, his blood became the seas, and his bones became the mountains.
One of 9 worlds in total, this world would be known as Midgard or middle earth and would be home to mankind, the trolls were barred from inhabiting it and instead made to live in the separate world of Jotunheimen, said to be located in the far east. The assassination of Ymir would spark a conflict between the trolls and the gods which would rage on between their descendants for the rest of time. While many of the Norse gods shared some Jotnar heritage, namely Odin and thor, the gods themselves frequently waged war against the savage giants, a struggle which is said to have driven trolls to near extinction in the modern-day.
With the introduction of Christianity into Scandinavia in the 12th century, the roles of trolls shifted in the suit. Rather than enemies to the Norse gods, trolls became the enemies of organized religion and natural predators to Christians. The giants became ancient mountain dwellers who desired to be left alone and lashed out against the foreign mankind for trespassing into their lands, mirroring native sentiments during the Christianization of Scandinavia.
While the Jotnar of myth came in a variety of appearances ranging from beautiful to ugly, the trolls of later folklore were almost exclusively monstrous brutes. Depicted as ill-tempered barbarians brandishing crude weapons, trolls engaged in the act of 'bergtagen', where they would raid farms and kill their inhabitants.
This behavior is thought to be a possible reference to Vikings or similar barbaric groups who were known for pillaging. But for as mighty as they were, trolls were far from invincible. They were ultimately vulnerable to direct rays of the sun, which turned them into inanimate stones. For this reason, trolls would often be found in remote areas plagued by overcast skies and harsh weather, which also served to isolate them from mankind. Naturally dark areas such as caves also did the trick, some trolls were known to take residence in ancient ruins or under old bridges for shelter.
For this reason, the climate and terrain of Scandinavia allowed some trolls to survive into the modern-day, at least according to modern sightings and reports. Similarly, the Norse realm of Jotunheimen was said to be entirely made up of such harsh features and frigid weather, a home naturally fitting for a jotunn. Travelers are warned not to explore these untamed regions, lest they run the risk of upsetting its inhabitants and incur the wrath of the mighty trolls.
Who these giants are?
Now that we’ve covered who these giants are, let’s take a look at exactly what they are and what they can do.
Biologically speaking, oni is former human beings who have undergone a dramatic metamorphosis. This is done either spiritually in the afterlife to reflect their wicked souls or physically on earth through the use of black magic. In either case, it can be assumed that the organs and internal makeup of oni are very similar to that of ordinary humans, albeit much larger and more hearty to reflect their larger portions, however some display rather exotic features such as horns or additional eyes. Claws and fangs are not uncommon either. They come in a very broad range of sizes, all of which huge, from a few meters tall at their smallest to nearly a hundred at their largest.
These sizes are a reflection of their power and rank. Possibly a holdover from their ancient ancestor Ymir who begot the first Jotnar from under each arm, trolls appear to be able to reproduce asexually through what is called budding, though they also display separate sexes and can reproduce sexually. Many trolls are described as having additional heads or limbs, suggesting these individuals were either siblings who didn’t form their own bodies fully or perhaps are examples of offspring who have not yet split from the parent.
Whichever the case, trolls demonstrate internal physiology radically different from most other organisms. Most significantly they instantly turn to stone upon death, and even in life appear to be hosts to foliage and other life growing directly from them. It is not uncommon for them to be imagined as animate beings of earth and stone, while ancient Jotnar is thought to be animate ice. They too range in size, with their largest examples effectively-being living mountains hundreds of meters tall.
With direct feats of durability being rather sparse for both parties, I’ve decided to take a slightly different approach to analyze how tough each of these monsters is, namely through their survivability. The durability of the oni is tricky to pin down because their most common appearance is in the underworld of Jigoku. In this underworld, human souls are continuously slaughtered only for them to regenerate so they can be killed again. As the oni here is also human souls it stands to reason that they too would share in this regeneration, making it unclear how this oni would fare in a fight taking place on earth where they might lack this regeneration. Before looking at oni that arises on earth I want to take a moment to look more at Jigoku.
Jigoku itself is actually divided into 16 different sections, 8 hot hells and 8 cold hells, each one of increasing intensity for torturing worse souls. While the hot hells are obviously unbearably hot, a recurring element of their landscape is terrain made out of iron in a solid-state. With this in mind, if these hells are to follow the laws of the natural world then the high temperatures of these hells must still be lower than the melting point of iron, otherwise, they would be little more than burning lakes of molten metal. In fact, the souls tortured in these hells are killed by different injuries rather than by heat alone, suggesting the intense heat is very uncomfortable but still survivable. The oni’s ability to casually exist in such heat therefore isn’t that impressive.
However, things get interesting when looking at the 8 cold hells. The freezing hells are more than just cold, they’re described as barren wastelands of ice that are constantly bombarded by blizzards.
While the progressive tortures of the burning hells involved different methods of torture such as impalement or crushing, each layer of the freezing hells simply get colder than the last, with the final layer being so cold that it turns your whole body purple before freezing it solid, and after the skin cracks open the cold invades and freezes your insides solid too, repeating this process until the body basically crumbles and disintegrates into frosty bloody rubble. While not exactly the same, this process is somewhat similar to a real-life method of body disposal.
Described as a flameless cremation, the body is frozen solid using liquid nitrogen, and vibrations are used to crumble the remains into dust. I bring this up because while it’s logical that oni would have regeneration in the underworld like the human souls do, it’s important to note that the oni in these hells doesn’t similarly freeze and disintegrate like the ordinary souls. This could either suggest a much tougher and durable body or possibly that oni are naturally very hot, allowing them to remain warm despite the cold.
With that out of the way, let’s quickly look at one born outside of the underworld. Earthbound oni is typically those born of incredible evil or magic and thus are a lot stronger than an ordinary one, however, they’re the only examples logically exempt from Jigoku's regeneration. The most famous example of an earthbound oni, the shuten Doji, was decapitated by the sword and its head managed to survive and continue attacking.
This is possibly similar to real-life snakes whose heads can still bite after they’re decapitated. It’s unknown if this survivability is natural to other oni or a result of his own magic, but it’s clear that it only prolonged his inevitable death. It can be concluded that oni is not invulnerable to harm and can still be hurt and even killed by traditional means, however, they may not rely as heavily on certain organs for survival and thus could continue fighting after sustaining a serious or lethal injury, regeneration or not.
With trolls, things are a little more clean-cut. Trolls display an obvious hearty exterior comparable to stone, which in fact turns to literal stone either upon their death or upon removal from their core body.
In other words, a severed limb should immediately petrify, making things like reattachment impossible. However, where natural stone weathers away over time and is naturally broken down by plants taking root, trolls seem to be unharmed by both these fronts, laying dormant for centuries like statues while the world changes around them. Their toughness therefore should be considered greater than that of ordinary stone. Their seemingly inanimate nature also grants them a sort of immunity to things like thirst and hunger, something known as defunct physiology.
Some trolls are described as living underwater, indicating they also may not need to breathe. They are noted as being able to eat and of course, enjoy eating Christians in particular, but this is not a requirement for their own survival. This survivability comes in handy with their natural homes of rural Scandinavia and a few of the Norse realms which I will discuss shortly.
Besides the scarcity of resources in these areas trolls show to be immune to the cold, which makes sense considering their heritage from ice giants. The Norse realm of Jotunheimen, a realm of ice and darkness and home to the Jotnar, actually doesn’t appear to be a whole lot colder or harsher than Scandinavia itself, at least when compared to other real-life locations such as Antarctica.
Jotunheim is variously described as being host to forests and resources which could make it habitable even to humans, assuming they don’t get eaten by trolls anyway. This makes sense as both Jotunheimen and Midgard were created side by side and can be physically traveled from one to the other, in some instances they even share a physical fenced-off border, while other realms like Asgard appear to be on a separate plane of reality. In other words, the troll’s ability to thrive in this realm isn’t all that impressive.
However, this isn’t the only realm trolls are said to inhabit. While less common some trolls are said to inhabit muspelheim or Muspell, the Norse realm of fire analogous to hell. This realm is home to the jotunn surer, the flaming giant hot enough to be able to scorch all of Midgard during Ragnarok. Surtr is of course a unique example whose power rivals the Norse gods, but this realm is also home to many other lesser Jotnar who survive in its heat.
It can not be known for sure if this survivability is a direct feat of physical resilience, a side effect of stone having a very high melting point, or perhaps that their nature as ice giants keeps them cool in the same way oni might keep themselves warm. What can be concluded is that trolls are incredibly hearty and immune to the effects of extreme heat and extreme cold. Their defunct physiology in turn would make them immune to being mortally wounded, they would need to be taken down piece by piece. I also mentioned earlier that some trolls may have additional limbs or heads, it’s very possible that trolls of this kind would need all of their heads destroyed or removed to be killed.
Beyond their incredible physical might, many onis are said to have some degree of mystical abilities such as sorcery or black magic, likely evil practices which resulted in their oni transformations. These mystical abilities grant them, even more, might in battle. Oni is associated with the fear of great natural phenomena, especially of a destructive nature. Oni was thus connected with storms, thunder, and lightning, as well as earthquakes. This combined with their magic, oni is sometimes said to have control over fire, the weather, famine and disease, and other natural elements, although this is always secondary to hand-to-hand combat.
Trolls are not quite as magically inclined, but they do carry a few supernatural tricks. There’s more evidence that their ice giant heritage grants them a naturally cold aura, as the larger a troll is the colder the environment around it becomes overtime. As a result, trolls passively transform the climate around them to be cold and cloudy, which in turn protects them from the sun and deters mankind from trespassing into the region. Trolls are also closely associated with natural disasters such as storms, but things like earthquakes and landslides appear to be a result of their incredible strength rather than magic.
Now we’re finally to the meat of this discussion, let’s look at how strong these giants really are. In one of the 8 burning hells of Jigoku, the crushing hell, oni are said to move iron mountains together to crush a multitude of souls between them. There is no solid definition for what constitutes a mountain but the general definition is for something with a peak greater than 100 meters, about how steep they are. Generally speaking, most mountains are taller than this, but this smaller definition is much more manageable, both for the one pushing it and for me running the numbers.
Given the situation of the mountains being pushed together, it would make sense to imagine them as having 2 flat faces where they come together, so for the sake of this breakdown I will measure the pair of mountains like a cone that is cut down the middle, so first let’s start measuring that cone. With a height and radius of 100 meters each, we’d have a volume of over 1,000,000 cubic meters. The density of cast iron is 7300 kg per cubic meter, meaning an iron cone of this size should weigh upwards of 7 million 3 hundred thousand metric tons. As each mountain would be closer to half of this cone each mountain itself should, in turn, weigh half of this or over 3 million metric tons.
This of course sounds like a feat of truly monumental strength, however, it cannot be determined exactly how many onis are responsible. At a minimum I would imagine a pair of oni pushing the mountains together, having it again, and if each mountain was pushed by 10 onis then each would only have to be pushing 180 thousand tons. A counter is that this is the minimum size for the mountains, they could be hundreds of times larger and heavier.
Many stones and rock formations throughout the region of Scandinavia are often attested to be the remnants of stones thrown by trolls and there is no definite size for them, while the mountains themselves are said by some to be the remnants of the largest deceased trolls.
Obviously, a troll the size of a mountain would likely have the strength to move mountains of their respective size, so I’ll have to scale down a little to look at more typical trolls. Trolls were famously opposed to Christianity, thus they were said to attack and destroy churches. In northwestern Europe the standard design of temples is that of the stave church, basically, holy wooden castles built around large wooden support beams, called staves in old Norse.
Trolls were most often said to demolish these buildings by hurling humongous stones at the churches. Unlike stone, wood as a building material has an interesting property where the durability and structural integrity of it depends on the arrangement of the wood in the structure, with some arrangements even outlasting stone structures in terms of physical resilience.
With this in mind, calculating the bare minimum force needed to collapse a structure depends on many variables such as where the damage is inflicted, so for argument's sake, we will go with the notion that the churches were destroyed via the strike of a single large projectile, in this case, a ginormous stone. Given the nature of stave churches, the strike would need to take out the central stave, meaning it would first need to pass through the rest of the church built around it.
Heddal stave church in Norway is 26 meters (85ft) high, 20 meters (65ft) long, and 16 meters (52ft) wide, I will use this as the baseline for extrapolating the sizes of the rocks thrown. Aspherical stone 5 meters wide would have a volume of roughly 525 cubic meters, giving it a weight of over 1,500 metric tons. This is far more impressive than it sounds, as throwing an object means applying enough force to it that it can overcome the pull of gravity. In this hypothetical scenario, we don’t have any data on how high or far these rocks were thrown from so getting down an exact number for the force needed is tricky.
So let’s take a step back and look at human athletes as a baseline. The record for weight throwing is the launching of a 25 kg weight at a distance of 25 meters, meanwhile, the record for the heaviest weight ever lifted was 2,850 kilograms. Using this as a crude baseline, we can see a huge difference in how strength contributes to throwing an object vs lifting it, where the strength needed to simply lift an object translates to throwing roughly 1% of that object’s weight for a considerable distance. With this mindset applied to the thrown stone, this would be the equivalent of the trolls lifting something over 150,000 tons.
Logically oni should be considered as intelligent as the humans they spawned from, whether or not they retain their memories and knowledge there’s nothing to suggest they would become dumber. Although it stands to reason that modern-day oni would therefore know as much as present-day man, keeping with the spirit of the match I will limit them to the era of ancient japan. This means iron era technology, japan would not acquire gunpowder until the 13th century. Luckily for the oni iron is more than plentiful in Jigoku and they have plenty of uses for it.
The oni’s signature weapon of choice is the Kanebo (literally metal stick), a thick trunk of iron-studded with spikes, ideal for bludgeoning opponents to a pulp. As the Kanebo proves most fatal in the hands of skilled warriors, it should come as no surprise that the hulking oni is said to become nigh unstoppable when armed with one. This actually has an expression attached to it, 'an oni with a club' is used for describing something already unbeatable becoming even more challenging. In kokujō Jigoku or the hell of black threads, oni is said to use various saws and axes to dismember damned souls, and in kyōkan Jigoku or the screaming hell oni fire upon damned souls using flaming arrows, indicating they are also skilled in archery.
Trolls on the other hand are, well, rather primitive. As their own race secludes itself away from mankind and the gods, trolls appear to be stuck in the stone age, using little more than rocks and sticks. However, this is in part because trolls never needed technology to get the edge on mankind. With the troll’s strength trees are easily uprooted to be used as clubs, and if they should break overtime the wilderness of their home provides millions more to replace them. Similarly, it was mentioned how trolls make excellent use of hurling large rocks as projectiles, a resource that’s also easily renewable.
While oni is feared for being unstoppable, there are still ways they can be warded off. On the first day of spring, japan celebrates a festival known as setsubun, in which they ward off oni and other evil spirits by throwing beans at them (?) this is said to work by inciting good luck which naturally keeps the oni at bay. It was also mentioned earlier that oni is said to travel along the northeast direction called the demon gate. Constructing buildings with l shaped indentations in the northeast corner is said to prevent oni from invading the threshold. Looking at more practical terms, oni is still vulnerable to physical harm and can still be killed by traditional means, it’s simply very difficult while much easier to keep them away and avoid them altogether.
As for trolls, they have one major glaring weakness: the sun. Direct rays from the sun are famously known to petrify trolls to stone, killing them almost instantly. This isn’t limited to sunlight specifically, it would seem that almost any source of light, artificial or otherwise, carries this same effect. During the cold war, the USSR performed numerous nuclear tests along the border of Norway. The Norwegian government pleaded with them to stop their tests because they were upsetting the “ancient land-lords”; the flashes of their atomic bombs were apparently turning local trolls to stone and causing an uproar among their population. A record-high number of landslides and avalanches were recorded during the period of testing, suggesting the angry trolls were to blame. Sunlight is up to 100,000 lumens on a clear day and around 1/3rd of that on a cloudy day. Even primitive atom bombs are comparable to the sun’s brightness, some much brighter.
"there is a bright flash. Brighter than the sun! brighter than anything you've ever seen!"
by comparison, a candle gives about 12 lumens and a light bulb of about 1,000. The troll's greatest historical nemesis, the Norse god of thunder Thor, famously made use of lighting to achieve a similar effect. A flash of natural lightning can generate around 98,000 lumens, effectively turning night into day for a split second and killing all trolls within eyeshot. Weaknesses to light aside, people also could take advantage of the troll’s dislike of religion by loudly ringing church bells, which usually served to drive them away from inhabited areas.
This match had a ton of information that needed to be analyzed for both giants, but having run the numbers I can confidently say that the winner of this match would be the oni. Here’s why: firstly, what surprised me most was how both were effectively immune to the other’s natural element, oni demonstrate immunity to the cold while trolls display the same for fire, so these variables can basically be ruled out as nonfactors. While it’s true that earthborn oni is still mortal and vulnerable to conventional damage, as with the case of shuten doji, this is still incredibly difficult beyond reason.
Even in the former example, the killing blow required aid from several kami disguised as priests and shuten doji had his guard down while in a smaller human form. When an oni assumes its full monstrous size and goes all out, that’s usually the end for their opponent. Trolls may be larger than the oni on average but even with the rough difference in size oni display a greater level of strength, and matching the two in size would widen the strength gap. Estimating lowballs for each giant’s respective strengths and we get 150k tons for the trolls and 180k tons for the oni, making the oni about 15% stronger on average if using these feats.
And while the trolls’ rocks can be scaled up to larger so can the oni’s mountains, and that’s still assuming a team of oni performed the feat rather than just 1. In a match of raw fisticuffs, these brutes would both get in decent hits until the oni’s greater strength whittles down the opponent faster. If we take their arsenals into account then things go even further into the oni’s favor.
The trolls use trees as wooden clubs, the oni use kanabos as steel clubs, trolls throw rocks while oni shoots flaming arrows. Iron age tech beats stone age hands down, and the plentiful supply of rocks and trees doesn’t hinder the oni from scoring early blows. The oni are renown as unstoppable by nature and the best method of beating them is to simply avoid them, their aversion to good luck is far from a lethal weakness.
It doesn’t help that both groups are known to independently cause nasty weather, getting both together creates a higher chance that a storm might blow in and introduce a flash of lightning, ending the fight prematurely. It’s for all these reasons that I have no doubt the winner of this match would be the oni.