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In Greek myth the Giants weren’t gigantic at all, but human-sized. They were sons of Earth (Gaia) who rebelled against the gods of Olympos, were defeated, and imprisoned within the earth, under volcanoes where they caused eruptions and earthquakes.
The real giants in Greek myth were the Titans, also born from Earth, or Gaia, but in an earlier time, before the Giants. These were the first Greek gods, who ruled during a golden age, whom the gods of Olympos displaced. They included Phoebe, the moon; Themis, or justice (or balance); Ocean; Kronos, time; Helios, the sun; Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis; Atlas, who had to bear the globe upon his back; and Prometheos, who created humans and gave them civilisation. These titanic beings fought with the newly arrived Olympians and were defeated. Scholars suggest a people with temple worship supplanted a shaman based culture between the 12th and 10th centuries BC in Greece, and that the battle dramatised this conquest. Perhaps it explained things in religious terms.
These stories are in the poems of Homer and Hesiod in the seventh century BC and the giants and titans are shown on sixth century BC pots; perhaps originally from the 10th century BC, originating in the Middle East.
But why were these Titans seen as larger than humans? In a sense it reflects the power they wielded. The Olympians too were larger than humans. As were the heroes, such as Theseus king of Athens, a figure resembling Gilgamesh of Uruk. The stories of Theseus date from the tenth century, but when the Athenian politician Kimon found the tomb of Theseus in the fifth century BC and described a huge mausoleum and bones of a giant figure, he was unhesitatingly believed when he said it was Theseus.
Could these larger than life figures of gods and heroes really have been, er, larger than life? The book of Genesis (6:4) says that the ancient people before the flood were giants. “There were giants in the earth in those days”, of great renown. They were demi gods, the children of mortal women who had sex with “the sons of the gods”, a memory of a time when the Hebrews were a polytheistic people. These were the heroes of myths the Hebrews heard of from the people of Sumer as they travelled the Fertile Crescent to Canaan. And they became the Greek gods, sons of gods, who wreaked havoc on the dryads and nymphs and made them pregnant with the demi gods and heroes.
The great hero of Sumer was Gilgamesh of Uruk, a king of the second millennium BC, who fought a battle against mortality. He was half divine, yet wanted to live forever. But he found he could not. His name would live on though, fame was a kind of immortality. So Gilgamesh set out to win fame, to fight and defeat the monster Huwawa. This was a composite giant beast, with the head of a lion, scales of a dragon, feet of a vulture, horns of a bull and a viper as a tail. His breath was fire that consumed all before it. Huwawa was set to guard the cedar forest where the gods lived. He could not stand against Gilgamesh, who fought and defeated him, then cut off his head and placed it in a leathern sack, as Perseus did later with the head of the Gorgon Medusa.
Goliath and David
There are many parallels in other mythologies around the world to a battle between gods in heaven such as that between Titans and Olympians. A familiar one is the battle between Yahweh and Lucifer. The bible also has its Gilgamesh figure, Goliath the Philistine, whose battle with the young David is told in the book of Samuel. The story has grown in the telling, Goliath growing to nine feet tall and David shrinking to a small boy. But in Samuel David is shield bearer to Saul, a young warrior and full grown; and Goliath is almost seven feet tall, a more believable height. This story too dates from the 10th century BC, when David formed the kingdoms of Israel and Judah into an effective nation state. Archaeologists say that the size of David’s Jerusalem was much exaggerated, that the Jewish people were still essentially a group of desert nomads whose tribes numbered hundreds rather than thousands. The Philistines were on the other hand a great civilisation, one of the most advanced in that part of the world. The Assyrians were to put an end to both Hebrew and Philistine power.
Scholars have pointed out that the battle between champions before the general mêlée began as described in Samuel is the usual practice in stories of ancient warfare, and occurs in Celtic, Nordic, Middle Eastern and Greek heroic tales. The tale in the book of Samuel is really about the assumption of the kingship by David, when Saul proves unworthy of it by refusing to fight Goliath. Fights between gigantic champions appear in the Iliad. They also occur in the Odyssey, and concern the giant Polyphemos.
One eyed giants
Polyphemos was a Kyklops (Cyclops). The Kyklops were children of Gaia, and brothers of the Titans, and were the makers of the weapons of the Olympian gods, the thunderbolt of Zeus, the bow of Apollo, the trident of Poseidon. They were gigantic, or titanic, in size, like the titans and the gods, and had one eye in the centre of their forehead. They were the builders of the gigantic fortresses of Mycenean Greece, so the Classical Greeks thought.
Were ancient buildings made to house giants? Here is another origin for the idea of giants. Ancient buildings were made to impress and show the power of rulers. A visitor in Egypt could easily imagine that Pharaoh was 10 or 15 foot high, feeling awed in the presence of giant statues of Pharaoh, and columns that seemed to stretch to the sky. In death Pharaoh was housed in a huge pyramid. The Anglo Saxons at Stonehenge could imagine the ruins there constructed by gigantic people.
Homer’s Polyphemos (the name means ‘many tales’) is slightly different to the Kyklops of Hesiod’s poem. He is one of a tribe of Kyklops who live a pastoral existence on a distant island. However, he proves to be a cannibal, with an appetite for normal sized Greek sailors, until Odysseus blinds him with a heated stake in his one eye, and escapes with his men. Odysseus defeats Polyphemos exactly the same way David does Goliath, with a wound to the forehead. Goliath falls, and is beheaded, while Polyphemos can’t stop Odysseus’ crew from escaping, and throws great boulders into the ocean, behaving a bit like a volcano.
Giants of mystery
The Celtic peoples may have left traces of their religion in Britain with the figures carved in hillsides and outlined in chalk. There is no certainty if these are really figures from Celtic times, 500 BC, as they fade from view very quickly, and the surviving ones have done so by constant refilling or cutting over the centuries. But they are so ‘foreign’ to local cultures they may well date from Celtic rituals. The most famous ones are giants. The Giant of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, 180 foot high, with erect penis and a club; the Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex, 227 foot tall and holding two staves or implements that could be symbols of rule, or of agriculture. These figures are made to be viewed from a distance, a sign the local area was under the protection of these gods or heroes or giants.
Another mysterious giant is one from Norse myth, Loki. Loki is in many different myths under many guises, and is at times allied to the gods but separate from them, a shapeshifter and trickster, who brings about the destruction of gods and plays a key figure in Ragnarok, the coming end of the world and the gods. His punishment for bringing about the death of the god Baldr is to be bound, and a serpent placed above him which drips venom on him and causes him constant agony. He is a figure something like the Titan Prometheus, bound on a rock in the Caucasus and with a vulture pecking his liver, which is constantly renewed. Here the giant represents one of the powerful, disruptive, destructive forces held only temporarily at bay by the gods.
The giants as monsters
So far the giants in many cultures are similar to gods. They also merge into hero figures. But the giant is also a threat, a menace who is defeated by the hero. The knight would be lessened if there were no dragon, no damsel in distress. In the Anglo Saxon poem Beowulf, written down about 1000 AD but probably existing in earlier versions from the 8th century AD and set in 5th century AD Scandinavia, the Swedish hero Beowulf (Bear) seeks out a killer of men, called Grendel, a monstrous horny coated nocturnal figure who lives in a swamp with his mother and who is disturbed by the drunken revelries of the Danish court. All flee in terror from Grendel except Beowulf, who fights him, severs his arm, and then kills and beheads him, as David did Goliath. After killing Grendel’s mother, Beowulf then goes on to fight and kill a dragon. All the poem tells us about Grendel is that he is nocturnal (a night walker) but he is surely a primordial figure like a Giant or Titan.
Another giant, eight feet tall and definitely a monster, is the creature made by Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. Full of ideas about galvanism and alchemy, the novel was based on a dream which Shelley had after visiting a castle in Germany where a famous alchemist had attempted to create a living being. The ‘science’ in the book is non existent. What we are meant to remember is the presumption of the “modern Prometheus” who created the monster. Prometheus was a Titan who created man and then gave him civilisation, including fire, but was punished by Zeus for doing so. The Prometheus of the book is the would be scientist Frankenstein, who bears a remarkable similarity to Percy, Shelley’s husband, the poet. Percy was a keen amateur chemist, and also a gifted scholar and translator who had written a version of the Aeschylus play about Prometheus, then a play of his own called Prometheus Unbound. Despite this, it is the 1931 film by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff we remember. The monster is destructive, but is so because he is mismade by a scientist whose ambition outstrips his knowledge. His only recourse in the end is to destroy himself.
A more positive form of the monster of Frankenstein is the Incredible Hulk, a decidedly unjolly green giant who manifests from anger, and the angrier he gets, the stronger. Luckily, it’s gangsters, war and crime that make him angry.
Probably the best known giant now is in the tale of Jack the giant killer, a fairy tale that originates in Celtic myth and at some stage was attached to the story of King Arthur. The story is still told to small children. This Jack is not a knight but a commoner, but otherwise frees the people from an oppressor, a giant who imprisons, kills, eats etc people in the locality, until Jack kills the giant in turn, using his magic sword, horse, shield, cloak etc. Much as Perseus did in ancient Greece.
Still undiscovered is Big Foot, the Yeti, or the Yowie, from America, Tibet or Australia respectively. A giant human, apelike creature, a bear or a complete hoax (and the object of veneration in a religion) the Yeti etc is always just out of reach. It is a myth given a scientific, journalistic interpretation appropriate for the secular age we live in.
But were (or are) there giants? Did larger than human humans (or apes etc) ever exist? Anthropologists say no. Earlier humans are likelier to have been smaller than modern humans. It is more likely that giants have their origin in the human ability to create stories.
In traditional societies songs were made to celebrate leaders. They were celebrated through celebrating their ancestors. The ancestors were known to have defeated threats, enemies, to have been conquerors. If the ancestors were great they must have been of great size, and so must their enemies. And this could be seen by the ruins and graves they left behind, of more than usual size.
These stories are allied to another belief. That there was once a Golden Age, and that subsequent Ages have been ones of degeneration. This is similar to the idea in Genesis of the Garden of Eden. Once man was perfect, strong, of giant size, and talked and walked with the gods. There was no death, and food was plentiful. War and disease were unknown. It was a bit like some anthropologists picture hunter gatherer society 10,000 BC. But man rebelled against the gods and was punished. Over the Ages the human race became smaller, weaker and subject to war and disease. All that was left was the ruins of past ages, of gigantic size, and memories. The good old days. They have been around ever since man became ‘civilised’. And besides, even giants started tall.
©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.