Giants are beings of human appearance but of prodigious size and strength common in the mythology and legends of many different cultures.
The word giant, first attested in 1297, was derived from 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, Hindu or Norse.
Giants also often play similar roles in the mythologies and folklore of other, non-Indo-European peoples, such as in the Nartian traditions.
There are also accounts of giants in the Old Testament. Some of these are called Nephilim, a word often translated as giant although this translation is not universally accepted. They include Og King of Bashan, the Nephilim, the Anakim, and the giants of Egypt mentioned in 1 Chronicle 11:23.
The first mention of the Nephilim is found in Genesis 6:4; attributed to them are extraordinary strength and physical proportions.
Fairy tales such as “Jack the Giant Killer” has formed the modern perception of giants as stupid and violent monsters, sometimes said to eat humans, while other giants tend to eat the livestock.
The antagonist in “Jack and the Beanstalk” is often described as a giant. In some more recent portrayals, like those of Jonathan Swift and Roald Dahl, some giants are both intelligent and friendly.
In Greek mythology, the Gigantes were (according to the poet Hesiod) the children of Uranus and Gaia (spirits of the sky and the earth) where some depictions had them with snake-like legs.
They were involved in a conflict with the Olympian gods called the Gigantomachy when Gaia had them attack Mount Olympus. This battle 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 (3 meters).
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.
The Cyclopes, usual children of Gods (Olympians) and nature spirits (nereids, naiads, and dryads), are also compared to giants due to their huge size (Polyphemus, son of Poseidon and Thoosa, and nemesis of Odysseus, comes to mind).
The Elder Cyclopes were the children of Gaia and Uranus where they later made Zeus’ Master Thunderbolt, Poseidon’s Trident, and Hades’ Helm of Darkness during the Titanomachy.
Other known giant races in Greek mythology include the six-armed Gegeines, the northern Hyperboreans, and the cannibalistic Laestrygonians.
In Hinduism, the giants are called Daityas. The Daityas were the children of Diti and the sage Kashyapa who fought against the gods or Devas because they were jealous of their Deva half-brothers.
Since Daityas were a power-seeking race, they sometimes allied with other races having similar ideology namely Danavas and Asuras. Daityas along with Danavas and Asuras are sometimes called Rakshasas, the generic term for a demon in Hindu mythology. Some known Daityas include Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksha.
The main antagonist of the Hindu epic Ramayana, Ravana, was a Brahmin from his father’s side and a Daitya from his mother’s side. His younger brother Kumbhakarna was said to be as tall as a mountain and was quite good natured.
According to Jains, there was a time when giants walked upon this earth. Jain cosmology divides worldly cycle of time into two parts or half-cycles, avasarpani (age of descending purity) and ascending (utsarpani).
According to Jain texts, the height of Rishabha, first Tirthankara of the present half cycle of time (avasarpani) was 500 dhanusa (longbow). In avasarpani, as the cycle moves ahead, the height of all humans and animals decreases.
Native American mythologies
According to Paiute oral history, the Si-Te-Cah or Sai’i are a legendary tribe of red-haired cannibalistic giants, the remains of which were allegedly found in 1911 by guano miners in Nevada’s Lovelock Cave.
Furthermore, the Paiute creation story tells of “beautiful giants” who once lived between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. After giving birth to a disfigured child, the Giants treated the child so poorly that the Great Spirit responded by making the land hot and desolate and allowing enemies to conquer the giants.
Only two giants survived: Paiute and his wife, both of whose skin became brown from eternally living in the hot desert.
Adrienne Mayor writes about the Si-Te-Cah in her book, Legends of the First Americans. She suggests that the ‘giant’ interpretation of the skeletons from Lovelock Cave and other dry caves in Nevada was started by entrepreneurs setting up tourist displays and that the skeletons themselves were of normal size.
However, about a hundred miles north of Lovelock there are plentiful fossils of mammoths and cave bears, and their large limb bones could easily be thought to be those of giants by an untrained observer.
She also discusses the reddish hair, pointing out that hair pigment is not stable after death and that various factors such as temperature, soil, etc. can turn ancient very dark hair rusty red or orange.
Aztec mythology features the Quinametzin, a race of giant men created in one of the previous solar eras. They are credited for the construction of Teotihuacan.
In Norse mythology, the Jotun are often opposed to the gods. While often translated as “giants“, most are described as being roughly human-sized. Some are portrayed as huge, such as frost giants, fire giants, and mountain giants.
The giants are the origin of most of the various monsters in Norse mythology, and in the eventual battle of Ragnarök, the giants will storm Asgard and fight them until the world is destroyed.
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. The Chief God Odin was the great-grandson of the Giant Ymir.
Norse mythology also holds that the entire world of men was 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.
An old Icelandic legend says that two night-prowling giants, a man, and a woman, were traversing the fjord near Drangey Island with their cow when they were surprised by the bright rays of daybreak. As a result of exposure to daylight, all three were turned into stone.
Drangey represents the cow and Kerling (supposedly the female giant, the name means “Old Hag”) is to the south of it. Karl (the male giant) was to the north of the island, but he disappeared long ago.
A bergrisi – the traditional Protector of Southwestern Iceland – appears as a supporter on the coat of arms of Iceland.
Giants are rough but generally righteous characters of formidable strength living up the hills of the Basque Country. Giants stand for the Basque people reluctant to convert to Christianity who decide to stick to the old lifestyle and customs in the forest.
Sometimes they hold the secret of ancient techniques and wisdom unknown to the Christians, like in the legend of San Martin Txiki, while their most outstanding feature is their strength.
It follows that in many legends all over the Basque territory the giants are held accountable for the creation of many stone formations, hills and ages-old megalithic structures (dolmens, etc.), with similar explanations provided in different spots.
However, giants show different variants and forms, they are most frequently referred to as jentilak and mairuak, while as individuals they can be represented as Basajaun (‘the lord of the forests’), Sanson (development of the biblical Samson), Errolan (based on the Frankish army general Roland who fell dead at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass) or even Tartalo (a one-eyed giant akin to the Greek Cyclops).
Genesis tells of the Nephilim before and after Noah’s Flood. According to Genesis 7:23, the Nephilim were destroyed in the Flood, but Nephilim are reported after the Flood, including:
- the Anakites
- the Emites
- the Amorites
- the Rephaites
The Book of Numbers includes the discouraging report by the spies which Moses sent into Canaan:
“We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are. (…) All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”
However, the Book of Joshua, describing the actual conquest of Canaan in a later generation, makes no reference to such people living there.
The Bible also tells of Gog and Magog, who later entered European folklore, and of the famous battle between David and the Philistine Goliath. While Goliath is often portrayed as a giant in retellings of the Biblical narrative, he is much smaller than other biblical giants.
The 1st-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, and the 1st-2nd-century BC Dead Sea Scrolls give Goliath’s height as “four cubits and a span,” approximately 2.00 m or about six feet seven inches.
The King James translation of the Bible reports the giant Goliath as “six cubits and a span” in height—about nine feet nine inches tall, (over 2.75 m), but the Septuagint, a Greek Bible, gives Goliath’s height as “four cubits and a span” (~2.00 m). For comparison, the Anakites are described as making the Israelites seem like grasshoppers..
Josephus also described the Amorites as giants in his Antiquities of the Jews, circa 93 AD, indicating that fossil evidence still remained at that time:
“For which reason, they removed their camp to Hebron; and when they had taken it, they slew all the inhabitants. There were till then left the race of giants, who had bodies so large, and countenances so entirely different from other men, that they were surprising to the sight and terrible to the hearing. The bones of these men are still shown to this very day, unlike to any credible relations of other men.”
In Islam, giants known as jababirat or jabbirun such as Jalut (Goliath) are mentioned, as well as ‘Uj ibn Anaq.
The Book of Enoch describes giants as the offspring of Watchers and women in 7:2.
*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.