In the modern day we consider tales of giants, titans and cyclopes as being the exaggerated legends or confused archaeological findings of an ancient, ignorant people – in 1914 palaeontologist Othenio Abel postulated that the cyclops legend was buttressed or even begun by the Ancient Greeks’ discovery of elephant skulls, whose nasal cavities gave the illusion of a single eye set in the middle of some gargantuan creature’s face.
We can laugh now, but to the ancients giants were a very credible reality, and so tales of such behemoths are bountiful throughout world mythology, and the giants themselves, naturally as inhuman humanoids, often find themselves filling antagonistic roles. David slew and beheaded the arrogant Philistine giant Goliath in the Valley of Elah; a tale which stands as a much celebrated image and a part of everyday discourse – the idiom ‘David and Goliath’ referring to underdogs besting a more physically imposing antagonist. “Nature,” said Dante Alighieri in The Divine Comedy, “when she cast away the mold for shaping beasts like these, without a doubt did well, depriving Mars of more such agents.”
Herakles (Roman: Hercules) had many adventures involving battling and slaying giants. He wrestled with the giant Antaeus and played tricks with the Titan Atlas. When the giant children of Gaia launched war on Olympus in an event known as the Gigantomachy, it was Herakles who hammered home the decisive blows against the invaders. Alcyoneus, the leader of the revolting giants, was immortal when residing in his homeland – so Herakles grappled and dragged him from home soil and beat him to death.
Mimas ran forward to avenge his brother. He had torn Lemnos and with it Vulcan’s fiery house from out the foaming main, and was on the point of hurling it when Mars’ javelin prevented him, scattering the brain from his shattered skull. What was giant in him died, but the serpent legs still lived, and, hissing vengeance, sought to attack the victor after Mimas’ death.
Claudian (ca. 370 – 404 AD), Gigantomachia.
Homer’s Odysseus, returning home from the Trojan War, found himself on the Island of the Cyclopes and in battle with one shepherd Cyclops named Polyphemus. Upon their initial meeting, the giant asks Odysseus and his men who they are and what their purpose is. Odysseus answers, but “to this the cruel brute made no reply. Instead, he jumped up, and reaching out toward my men, seized a couple and dashed their heads against the floor … their brains ran out on the ground and soaked the earth. Limb by limb he tore them to pieces to make his meal, which he devoured like a mountain lion, leaving nothing, neither entrails nor flesh, marrow nor bones…”
To battle the creature, Odysseus appeals to his fondness of wine. Drunk, Polyphemus is attacked by Odysseus and his men, who spear his eye with a long stake. They retreat to their ship, the giant gives some chase, hurls a rock at them, and appeals to Poseiden to never allow Odysseus a fortunate journey home, should he arrive there at all.
Unfortunately, there was one Greek from Odysseus’ expedition that didn’t make it back to the ship, and is later found by the Trojan hero Aeneas in the Roman poet Virgil’s The Aeneid. This Greek relates: “I am a comrade of the unfortunate Ulixes [Ulysses, also Odysseus] … My name is Achaemenides … My comrades, distraught with fear, forgot me and left me here in the vast cave of the Cyclops … He feeds on the flesh of his victims and drinks the black blood. I have seen him with my own eyes lolling in the middle of his cave with two of our men in one huge hand, bashing their bodies on the rock till the threshold was swimming with blood.” After Achaemenides relates the story of Odysseus’ escape, Aeneas and his men spot Polyphemus: “He was a terrifying sight,” says Aeneas, “huge, hideous, blinded in his one eye and using the trunk of a pine tree to guide his hand and give him a firm footing.” The Cyclops stops by the shore and washes away “the blood that was still trickling from his gouged-out eye, grinding his teeth and moaning.” The Trojans take Achaemenides and flee.
Polyphemus receives a different treatment from poets throughout the ages. For Homer and Virgil, he was a menace; to Theocritus and Ovid, he was a figure of fun and sympathy; though still one with a deadly temper.
Giants also inhabit the Old Testament and Hebrew Bible. “There were giants on the earth in those days,” reads Genesis 6:4, “and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them.” The giant brood of human and angel came to be known as the Nephilim. Old Testament giant tribes include the Amorites, the Emim, the Anakim, and the Zuzim/Zamzummim. Deuteronomy 2: 20- 21 reads, “[the land of Ammon] was also regarded as a land of giants; giants formerly dwelt there. But the Ammonites call them Zamzummim, a people as great and numerous and tall as the Anakim.” The Book of Amos, 2.9, describes the Ammonite people as being “tall like cedar trees” and “as strong as oak trees.” In other Biblically-inspired sources, a pre-Flood giant named Ogias battles dragons in The Book of Giants, a 2nd century BCE text that expands on the Hebrew Bible’s mentions of such creatures (the text also namedrops Humbaba, the demon from The Epic of Gilgamesh, as well as Gilgamesh himself, who appears as a giant). According to The Book of Giants, the Fallen Angels descend on the primitive Earth and solicit the love of its woman, who in turn grant them monstrous children. One fragment mentions a sort of Tartarus beneath Earth’s mountains that is made especially for them (apparently by a divine power), and then details the towns and life-spans of their giant Nephilim offspring:
“Before the Egrēgoroi [Fallen Angels] rebelled and descended from heaven, a prison had been built for them in the depth of the earth beneath the mountains. Before the sons of the giants were born who knew not Righteousness and Piety among themselves, thirty-six towns had been prepared and erected, so that the sons of the giants should live in them, they that come to beget . . . . who live a thousand years.”
The Egrēgoroi proceed to lay havoc on the Earth, and enslave mankind, before they themselves are vanquished by four archangels wielding “fire, naphtha, and brimston” in a prolonged battle where “four hundred thousand Righteous” folk are killed in the mayhem. W.B. Henning posits that “The hard labour imposed on the Mesenians [a part of Ancient Greece] and other nations may be due to the insatiable needs of their [the Fallen Angels’] giant progeny.” He goes on to note, “In the Book of Enoch the giants [Nephilim] are killed, or rather incited to kill each other, before the Egrēgoroi are punished.” Chapter X of the Book of Enoch details a command from God, who says: “heal the earth which the angels have corrupted, and proclaim the healing of the earth, that they may heal the plague, and that all the children of men may not perish through all the secret things that the Watchers have disclosed and have taught their sons.” God makes it clear that the Earth has become corrupted almost solely due to the carnal knowledge (craft, writing, etc) spread by the fathers of the giants, his Fallen Angels: “And the whole earth has been corrupted through the works that were taught by Azâzêl.” Seemingly ignoring the Fall of Man in Genesis, God adds, “to him, ascribe all sin.” The Lord finishes: “Proceed against the bastards and the reprobates, and against the children of fornication: and destroy the children of the Watchers from amongst men: send them one against the other, that they may destroy each other in battle.” Only after the destruction of the Nephilim and the concealment of the Fallen Angels within the Earth can “the whole earth be tilled in righteousness, and shall all be planted with trees and be full of blessing.”
But not all the giants were destroyed in the Deluge. A giant of rabbinic legend named Hurtaly/Hapalit (whose name in Hebrew means “he who has survived” – François Rabelais would later use the character as an ancestor to his own Gargantua and Pantagruel) stows aboard the ark and is rescued. In Rabelais’ account, the giant steers the ship with his legs, and is paid in kind by Noah, who feeds him through a chimney chute. In Deuteronomy, this surviving giant is instead identified as Og: “Only Og king of Bashan was left of the remnant of the Rephaites [giants]. His bed was made of iron and was more than thirteen feet long and six feet wide.” The Jewish text, Pirkei de-Rabbie Eliezar, details that Og “sat down on a piece of wood under the gutter of the ark. He swore to Noah and to his sons that he would be their servant forever. What did Noah do? He bored an aperture in the ark, and he put (through it) his food daily for him, and he also was left, as it is said, for only Og, king of Bashan, remained of the remnant of the giants.” Og’s descendants, supposedly, are not as humbled as this remnant King, and include the giants that later terrorise Israel and would also include, of course, the famous Philistine giant, Goliath. As for Og himself, his fate is described rather fantastically in the Talmud. Wiki notes that, according to this book, “Og was so large that he sought the destruction of the Israelites by uprooting a mountain so large, that it would have crushed the entire Israelite encampment. Moses, fulfilling the LORD’s injunction not to fear him, seized a spear of ten cubits length, and jumped a similar vertical distance, succeeding in stabbing Og in the ankle. The LORD then caused Og’s teeth to lengthen until they grew into the mountain he held aloft; millions of ants then swarmed into his mouth, killing him.”
Where strange lands lie, giants roam. According to the pseudo-historical thirteenth century document, The Chronicle of the Early Britons, Brutus of Troy (a descendant of Aeneas, of The Iliad and The Aeneid fame) is banished from Italy for accidentally killing his father with an arrow while out hunting. Travelling to Greece, he comes across a group of enslaved Trojans. He frees them and becomes their leader. During their travels, Brutus and his men discover an island that has been laid to waste by pirates. There, in the ruins, they find a statue of the Goddess Diana. The statue addresses Brutus, telling him, “beyond the land of Gaul [Germany/France], there lies an island in the sea in which giants once lived. It is empty now. Go there, for it is set aside for you and your descendants.” This “island in the sea” is the land of Albion – ancient Britain; and it was not, as Brutus later found, entirely devoid of giants.
On his travels through the Continent, Brutus meets another descendent of Troy, “a mighty man … who was called Corineus,” who was so powerful that “it was no harder for him to fight a giant than a boy of twelve months!” “You do well to flee!” Corineus warns his enemies, “for I would put even giants to flight!” Corineus’ immense physical prowess will do Brutus some good, as, when they arrive in Albion, they discover that “it was uninhabited … but for a few giants.” For now “the giants sought refuge in the mountains” upon the arrival of the Trojan outcasts, allowing Brutus to decree “that the people dwelling therein should be called Britons, after his own name … and from that moment, the language of the people also was called British.”
Corineus’ reward in helping establish this new dynasty was to choose a part of land for himself, which became Cornwall , and was where Corineus would get to put his giant-grappling boasts to the test, for in Cornwall “dwelt the greatest number of giants, which [Corineus] loved to fight more than any other thing.”
According to myth, the giants of Albion were the offspring of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s thirty-three [again, mythical] wicked daughters. Each of these daughters murders her husband, and for this they are collectively cast out of Italy, thrown into a boat, and somehow land upon the shores of what will become Brutus’ Britain. Here, the daughters fornicate with demons resident to the isles, and their children are the giants of lore. In Irish folklore, daemonic beings known as the Formorians were resident to the isles; perhaps the fathers of the later giants. Again, each myth is diverse and contradictory in light of another.
“And amongst the giants of Cornwall,” the Chronicle continues, “there dwelt one who was mighty. He was called Gawr Madoc. His height was twelve cubits [five and a half metres], and his power and strength were so great he could pluck from its roots beneath his feet the largest oak in the forest, as easily as if he were plucking a sprig of hazel.” Formidable, indeed. Eleven of the island’s giants, led by Madoc, descend upon Brutus and the Britons and “inflicted great slaughter … but then the Britons rallied and fought heroically, slaying every one of them except Gawr Madoc.” Brutus demands that the giant be kept alive, if only to battle Corineus for his amusement. Corineus, true to his boasts, advances on the giant with relish.
“Corineus was overjoyed when he saw this great one approaching,” the Chronicle reads, “and casting off his armour challenged the giant to wrestle him.” The two stand face-to-face (which raises the question of how tall Corineus stood – or how low the giant can bend) and grapple. Madoc “hugged Corineus with all his strength, breaking three of his ribs … And Corineus was filled with wrath. He summoned his might and lifted the giant to shoulder-height, and ran with him to the highest point of the cliff’s edge, throwing him over the cliff to the sea, dashing him into a thousand pieces. And the waves were stained with his blood long after.”
After the destruction of Britain’s giants, Brutus founds New Troy on the banks of the Thames. The name is eventually corrupted into Troinovantum, later Caerlud, and then called, by the Saxons, London, and “the name of Troy was no more.”
Every example thus far has been based in distant mythology or a confused historical narrative. Interestingly, Antionio Pigafetta (c.1491 – c.1534) the Italian explorer and scholar, wrote an account of his travels with Ferdinand Magellan in his Relazione del Primo Viaggio Intorno Al Mondo (Report on the First Voyage Around the World). Supposedly, Pigafetta and the Magellan crew encountered some very real giants in Patagonia, in South America. One day, Pigafetta and some men encounter “a naked man of giant stature on the shore of the port, dancing, singing, and throwing dust on his head.” This being was so large that the men only reach his waist. Pigafetta goes on to detail communication with the Patagonian giants, and even their funeral rites. Upon publication, his book was a popular success – so much so, that Patagonia on the map became known as Regio Gigantum (region of giants) and rumours of sightings carried on until the 18th century.
Pigafetta’s account is by no means distant mythology, nor a confused historical narrative. Now, an exaggerated and colourful historical narrative, perhaps.