The mythology and legends of many different cultures include monsters of human appearance but prodigious size and strength. "Giant" is the English word commonly used for such beings, derived from one of the most famed examples: the gigantes of Greek mythology.
In various Indo-European mythologies, gigantic peoples are featured as primeval creatures associated with chaos and the wild nature, and they are frequently in conflict with the gods, be they Olympian or Norse.
There are also other stories featuring giants in the Old Testament, perhaps most famously Goliath. Attributed to them are superhuman strength and physical proportions, a long lifespan, and thus a great deal of knowledge as well.
Fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk have formed our modern perception of giants as stupid and violent monsters, frequently said to eat humans, and especially children. However, in some more recent portrayals, like those of Roald Dahl, some giants are both intelligent and friendly.
Religious literature and beliefs
"There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown. And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." Genesis 6:4-5 (KJV).
The Bible tells of men of extraordinary size in the pre-flood world, calling them Nephilim. The Nephilim are said to be the hybrid offspring of angels materialized into human form that had sexual relations with woman on Earth (Genesis 6:1,2,4). All such beings would have been destroyed by the global flood as described in the Bible account (Genesis 6:17; 7:17-21). Although some of the spies of Israel do report of the men of the Canaanite tribe of the Anakites (Numbers 13:28-33), this report must have been incorrect. Further nowhere in the account does it support that these men were in fact speaking the truth.
The Anakites (Numbers 13:28-33), the Emites (Deuteronomy 2:10), and the Rephaites (Joshua 12:4) were giants living in the Promised Land. The Bible also tells of strife between David and the giant Goliath, ending with the defeat of the latter. According to the Bible, Goliath was "six cubits and a span" in height—over nine feet tall, (over 2.75 m) (1 Samuel 17:4 KJV).
Goliath's height is comparable to Robert Wadlow, who reached 8 feet 11.1 inches (2.72 m) and Leonid Stadnyk who has reached 8 feet 6 inches (2.59 m).
Also, Gog and Magog are usually considered to be giants, and are also found in the folklore of Britain.
, the giants are called Daityas
. They were a race who fought against the gods
because they were jealous of their Deva
half-brothers. Some Daityas from Hindu mythology
In Greek mythology
(γίγαντες) were (according to the poet Hesiod
) the children of Uranos
(Ουρανός) and Gaea
(Γαία) (The Heaven and the Earth). They were involved in a conflict with the Olympian gods
called the Gigantomachy
(Γιγαντομαχία), which was eventually settled when the hero Heracles
decided to help the Olympians. The Greeks believed some of them, like Enceladus
, to lay buried from that time under the earth, and that their tormented quivers resulted in earthquakes
and volcanic eruptions
Herodotus in Book 1, Chapter 68, describes how the Spartans uncovered in Tegea the body of Orestes which was seven cubits long -- around 10 feet. In his book The Comparison of Romulus with Theseus Plutarch describes how the Athenians uncovered the body of Theseus, which was of more than ordinary size. The kneecaps of Ajax were exactly the size of a discus for the boy's pentathlon, wrote Pausanias. A boy's discus was about twelve centimeters in diameter, while a normal adult patella is around five centimeters, suggesting Ajax may have been around 14 feet (~4.3 meters) tall.
In Norse mythology
, the giants (jötnar
in Old Norse
, a cognate with ettin
) are often opposed to the gods. They come in different classes, such as frost giants (hrímþursar
), fire giants (eldjötnar
), and mountain giants (bergrisar
). Jotun are different from other giants, that they usually aren't higher than most humans. The English, in lacking a proper word to describe such creatures, made use of the Greek derivative 'giants'; in a similar fashion, ogres
are called trolls
The giants are the origin of most of various monsters in Norse mythology (e.g. the Fenrisulfr), and in the eventual battle of Ragnarök the giants will storm Asgard and defeat them in war. Even so, the gods themselves were related to the giants by many marriages, and there are giants such as Ægir, Loki, Mímir and Skaði, who bear little difference in status to them.
Norse mythology also holds that the entire world of men was once created from the flesh of Ymir, a giant of cosmic proportions, which name is considered by some to share a root with the name Yama of Indo-Iranian mythology.
A bergrisi appears as a supporter on the coat of arms of Iceland.
In folklore from all over Europe, giants were believed to have built the remains of previous civilizations. Saxo Grammaticus, for example, argues that giants had to exist, because nothing else would explain the large walls, stone monuments, and statues that we now know were the remains of Roman construction. Similarly, the Old English poem Seafarer speaks of the high stone walls that were the work of giants. Even natural geologic features such as the massive basalt columns of the Giant's Causeway on the coast of Northern Ireland were attributed to construction by giants. Giants provided the least complicated explanation for such artifacts.
In Basque mythology, giants appear as jentilak and mairuak (Moors), and were said to have raised the dolmens and menhirs. After Christianization, they were driven away, and the only remaining one is Olentzero, a coalmaker that brings gifts on Christmas Eve.
Medieval romances such as Amadis de Gaul feature giants as antagonists, or, rarely, as allies. This is parodied famously in Cervantes' Don Quixote, when the title character attacks a windmill, believing it to be a giant. This is the source of the phrase tilting at windmills.
Tales of combat with giants were a common feature in the folklore of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Some Irish giants such as Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) were considered benevolent and well liked by humans. Celtic giants also figure in Breton and Arthurian romances, and from this source they spread into the heroic tales of Torquato Tasso, Ludovico Ariosto, and their follower Edmund Spenser. In the small Scottish village of Kinloch Rannoch, a local myth to this effect concerns a local hill that apparently resembles the head, shoulders, and torso of a man, and has therefore been termed 'the sleeping giant'. Apparently the giant will awaken only if a specific musical instrument is played near the hill.
Many giants in British folklore were noted for their stupidity. A giant who had quarreled with the Mayor of Shrewsbury went to bury the city with dirt; however, he met a shoemaker, carrying shoes to repair, and the shoemaker convinced the giant that he had worn out all the shoes coming from Shrewsbury, and so it was too far to travel.
Other British stories told of how giants threw stones at each other. This was used to explain many great stones on the landscape.
Giants figure in a great many fairy tales and folklore stories, such as Jack and the Beanstalk, The Giant Who Had No Heart in His Body, Nix Nought Nothing, Robin Hood and the Prince of Aragon, Young Ronald, and Paul Bunyan. Ogres and trolls are humanoid creatures, sometimes of gigantic stature, that occur in various sorts of European folklore. An example of another folklore giant is Rübezahl, a kind giant in German folklore who lived in the Giant Mountains (nowadays on the Czech-Polish border).
Giants in the West
Aside from mythology and folklore (see Tall tales
), remains of giants have been claimed to have been found in America. Giants are usually classified as human-like remains that are 7' 5" (2.26 meters) or more in height. The book Forbidden Land
by Robert Lyman (1971) recounts the following alleged finds:
- A decayed human skeleton claimed by eyewitnesses to measure around 3.28 metres (10 feet 9 inches tall), was unearthed by labourers while ploughing a vineyard in November 1856 in East Wheeling, now in West Virginia.
- A human skeleton measuring 3.6 metres (12 feet) tall was unearthed at Lompock Rancho, California, in 1833 by soldiers digging in a pit for a powder magazine. The specimen had a double row of teeth and was surrounded by numerous stone axes, carved shells and porphyry blocks with abstruse symbols associated with it.
- Several mummified remains of humans with reddish hair claimed to range from 2-2.5 metres (6.5 feet to over 8 feet) tall were dug up at Lovelock Cave, (70 miles) north-east of Reno, Nevada, by a guano mining operation. These bones supposedly substantiated claims for legends by the local Paiute Indians regarding giants which they called Si-Te-Cah. However, there appear to be no verified Paiute legends about giants or that call the Si-Te-Cah giants . Fortunately one of the giant Lovelock skulls is still preserved today. It measures almost 30cm (1 foot) tall and resides along with other various Lovelock artefacts in the Humboldt Museum in Winnemucca, Nevada.? Some of these artifacts can also be found in the Nevada State Historical Society's museum at Reno. Adrienne Mayor states that these skeletons are normal sized. She also points out that hair pigment does not stay stable after death, and that ancient very dark hair can turn rusty red or orange due to a variety of conditions such as soil condition, temperature, etc.
- Frisian folk hero Pier Gerlofs Donia stood at a height of 7 ft 5 inches and was reportedly so strong that he could lift a 1000 pound horse and efficiently wield a Zweihander sword with the amazing length of 213 cm. With it he could decapitate multiple people in a single blow, a feat never before seen in history.
- A 9' 11" (3.02 meters) skeleton was unearthed in 1928 by a farmer digging a pit to bury trash in Tensas Parish, Louisiana near Waterproof. In 1931 a 10' 2" (3.1 meters) skeleton was unearthed by a boy burying his dog in 1933 in Nearby Madison Parish.
Aside from in Forbidden Land, we can find other unverified examples or legends about the remains of giants:
- A 9' 8" (2.95 meters) skeleton was excavated from a mound near Brewersville, Indiana in 1879 (Indianapolis News, November 10, 1975).
- In Clearwater Minnesota, the skeletons of seven giants were found in mounds. These had receding foreheads and complete double dentition
- A mound near Toledo, Ohio, held 20 skeletons, seated and facing east with jaws and teeth "twice as large as those of present day people", and beside each was a large bowl with "curiously wrought hieroglyphic figures." (Chicago Record, October 24, 1895; cited by Ron G. Dobbins, NEARA Journal, v13, fall 1978).
- In the city of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada there is a span of mountains five miles long that is in the shape of a man wearing a headdress lying down on his back. The span is called "The Sleeping Giant" from local Ojibway legend that identifies the giant as Nanabijou, the spirit of the Deep Sea Water, who was turned to stone when the secret location of a rich silver mine, now known as Silver Islet, was disclosed to white men.
- Patagons of Patagonia in South America, are giants claimed to have been seen by Ferdinand Magellan and his crew. Drake reported only finding people of 'mean stature' although his Chaplain reported giants. However, even before Magellan, a Spanish romance called Primaleón of Greece was published in 1512 in which a dashing explorer discovers savages, one named Patagon, whose descriptions are very similar to those of Magellan.
Giants in popular culture
Giants are a staple in fantasy
, and also appear in other genres.
- The Brobdingnagians, from the book Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift.
- The giant, Giant Rumblebuffin from the book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, revived by Aslan to fight the White Witch.
- Giants were the main theme of the 1960s television series, Land of the Giants
- Hagrid in the Harry Potter series is a half-giant, as is Olympe Maxime. Hagrid's half-brother, Grawp, is a full-blooded giant.
- The 16 Colossi in Shadow of the Colossus.
- The Magic: The Gathering collectible card game features many Giant creatures.
- The fantasy series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen R. Donaldson has several significant giants.
- In the Spiderwick Chronicles, giants are incredibly large beings ancestral to ogres who spend most of their adult lives in hibernation and capable of breathing fire.
- The giant Despair appears in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress.
- The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) is a children's book by Roald Dahl about a friendly, dream-delivering giant. The other giants in the book are evil.
- Numerous types of giants appear in the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game.
- Numerous types of giants (ice, hill, moss, and fire) appear in the MMORPG RuneScape.
- André the Giant was featured in Sports Illustrated on December 21st, 1981, and is still considered one of the most popular wrestlers of all time. He also starred in the popular movie the Princess Bride as Fezzik, the gentle giant.
- Ultraman Tiga, the 1996 entry in the Ultra Series, heavily uses the mythical giant genre in its fictional back-story. In addition, many other shows throughout the franchise often refer to its lead heroes as Giant of Light.
- Paul Bunyan is a popular giant farmer in American folklore.
Names/Races of Giants
- Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend (ISBN 0-500-51088-1) by Anna Dhallapiccola
- Lyman, Robert R., Sr. (1971). Forbidden Land: Strange Events in the Black Forest. Vol. 1. Coudersport, PA: Potter Enterprise.
- Childress, David Hatcher (1992). Lost Cities of North & Central America. Stelle, IL: Adventures Unlimited.