Early natural historian Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hamilton Smith wrote in 1848, "There were, in early antiquity, nations, tribes, and families, existing in nearly every part of the earth, whose origin and affinities appear so exceedingly obscure, that they have been transferred from physical realities to poetical mythology".1 One of these nations or tribes is that of the Giants.
In Greek mythology, the giant Titans were the offspring of Gaia, the earth goddess, and Uranus the sky god. The Titans were primordial deities that ruled over earth and heaven until overthrown by Zeus. However, many other gods and goddesses were born of the union between Zeus and Titan women or other Titan gods and goddesses. Among these were Apollo; Selene, goddess of the moon; Eos, the goddess of the dawn; Helios, god of the sun; Artemis, goddess of the wild beasts; Demeter, goddess of agriculture; Hades, god of the underworld; Poseidon, god of the sea; and Cronos, who castrated and overthrew his father Uranus. Poseidon and his Titan brothers Hades and Zeus divided the rule of the world among themselves after the death of Cronos.
The Giants in Greek myth were of human form except for snake-like legs. A distinction must be made between the Giants of old and the Titans. While both were huge in stature, the Giants were the only ones with the snake-like legs and were a younger race than the Titans. They were destroyed by Hercules with the encouragement of Zeus. The Titans were the oldest generation of the gods and were led by Cronos, the son of the sky god, Ouranos, or Ura
1. Smith, Charles Hamilton. The Natural History of the Human Species. Edinburgh: W.H. Lizars 1848, 134
nus. Both races were ultimately subdued or destroyed by Zeus and the other gods and goddess on Olympus. The Titans were beaten in a mighty ten-year battle, following the defeat of the Giants, that shook the universe.
In Mesoamerican lore giants were considered to be the "first race." They are still believed to exist as forest cannibals in some locations and are said to be so large that they must sleep sitting up, as they have no room to stretch out.2 The belief in a race of giant cannibals is fairly common in Native American lore although, according to ethnologist James Mooney, the giants are "comparatively few in number while the 'little people' are legion."3
Tales of giants are almost as numerous in Native American lore as those about the little people. Many of these tales most likely are metaphorical in nature; that is, they are the explanations for geological formations and natural oddities that they could not explain. At least that is the primary theory of contemporary anthropologists and folklorists.
In addition, in most cases, these giants are "stony-skinned" and physically are more like stone than flesh and blood. A Cherokee legend from Tennessee speaks of the Spear-Finger, a huge evil woman with a lethal index finger whose skin was like stone. She "had great powers over stone and she could easily lift and carry immense rocks and could bond them together by merely striking one stone against another. To get across the rough country more easily, she built a great rock bridge through the air from the Tree Rock, on the Hiwassee [River], over to Whiteside Mountain, on the Blue Ridge."4 Rocky promontories supposed to be pieces of this great bridge can still be seen today.
The Miwok Indians of California's Sierra Nevadas believed that a great stone giant by the name of Chehalumche lived in nearby caves. According to the Miwok, Chehalumche "sallies forth at night in search of food. He preys, by preference, on people, but when he cannot get people, takes deer or other animals. He never eats his victims in the open but carries them into the caves and there devours them."5
Shamans were reportedly turned into ice-giants among the Maliseet-Passamaquoddy tribes. According to tradition, a "witch" is a shaman who employees a spirit helper to assist him or her in acquiring powers over other shamans. The spirit helper normally takes an animal form and is sent out by its shaman master in dreams to acquire the necessary information the shaman needs. The body of a shaman killed by another does not rot but stays "alive" and is capable of eating anyone who passes by. "When the corpse had
2. Bierhorst, John. The Mythology of Mexico and Central America. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1990, 172.
3. Mooney, James. Myths ofthe Cherokee. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1995,501A reprint of the 1900 publication "Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1897-98.
4. Atalie, Princess. The Earth Speaks. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1940, 148.
5. Merriam, C. Hart. "Human Remains in California Caves" in The American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal, Vol. 31, 1909, pgs 152-153.
eaten three people it became kiwahkw, or cannibal ice giant Female ice giants had more power than their male counterparts."6
In both Old World and New World mythology, the giants reportedly were destroyed when they dared to challenge the gods. In Beowulf the giants are drowned after they attacked the gods, and in Tarascan (Mexico) lore the giants are destroyed "when God decided to bless the world," or in the mythology of Honduras they are simply changed into animals "during God's conquest."7 In Inca lore, the first human race created by the creator god Viracocha was the race of giants. These giant men and woman, who were not evil, lived in a world of darkness as the sun had not yet been made. According to legend, Viracocha was unhappy with his creation and destroyed the giants in a world-wide flood.8
In Scandinavian lore, giants were flesh and blood — but if the rays of the sun caught them, they would instantly turn to stone, much in the same way as the Night Trolls in Iceland. Similarly, the Callanish Standing Stones on the Western Isles of Scotland, according to legend, were originally giants that were turned to stone by St. Kieran when they refused to adopt Christianity.
Folklorist John Rhys notes that a huge giant that supposedly lived on the Isle of Man was responsible for throwing five huge stones over several miles from a mountain called Cronk yn Irree Laa. "I have seen," he remarks, "the marks of his huge hands impressed on the top of two massive monoliths."9
In China, it was said, there existed a "Country of the Giants." These giants were fifty feet tall with feet six feet in length, teeth like saws and fingers resembling hooked claws. Their bodies, however, did not resemble stone so much as huge bears. Their bodies were covered in long black hair. Chinese legend indicates that these giants lived as long as eighteen thousand years and that they were also cannibalistic — not eating their own kind but any human taken in battle. 10
In the Philippines, a ruler by the name of Salingolop was in power when the first Spanish galleons arrived. Said to be "as tall as the highest tree in the forest" his skin was impervious to the bullets the Spanish fired at him. According to legend, "It was not until they dropped their rifles and struck his legs with bars of iron that he was conquered. As he fell, they say that he
6. Erickson, Vincent O. "Maliseet-Passamquoddy" in Handbook ofNorth American Indians, Vol. 15: Northeast. Edited by Bruce G. Trigger. Washington: Smithsonian Institution 1978, 133.
8. Hallam, Elizabeth, ed. Gods and Goddesses. New York: Macmillan 1996, 23.
9. Rhys, John. Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, Vol. 1. New York: Gordon Press, 1974, 285.
10. Werner, E.T.C. Myths and Legends of China. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1994, 387. A reprint of the 1922 edition published by George G. Harrap & Co., Ltd., London.
struck on his side in the sea, causing the waves to make a great noise that it reached to the Cape of San Augustin."11
There are, however, stories about giant people that do not exhibit traits of evil or cannibalism. Mooney wrote of one account he obtained in the latter part of the 19th century:
James Wafford, of the western Cherokee, who was born in Georgia in 1806, says that his grandmother, who must have been born about the middle of the last [17th] century, told him that she had heard from the old people long before her time a party of giants had come once to visit the Cherokee. They were nearly twice as tall as common men, and their eyes set slanting in their heads, so that the Cherokee called them... "the Slant-eyed people."...They said that these giants lived very far away in the direction in which the sun goes down. The Cherokee received them as friends, and they stayed some time, and then returned to their home in the west.12
Elkanah Walker, missionary to the Spokane Indians of the Pacific Northwest, wrote in 1840:
They believe in the existence of a race of giants which inhabit a certain mountain, off to the west of us. This mountain is covered with perpetual snow. They inhabit its top..They hunt and do all their work in the night. They are men stealers. They come to people's lodged in the night, when the people are asleep and take them.to their place of abode without their even awakening.They say their track is about a foot and a half long.They frequently come in the night and steal their salmon from their nets and eat them raw. If the people are awake they always know when they are coming very near by their smell which is most intolerable.13
Interestingly enough, Irish mythology links giants to the Little People. Barbara Walker noted, "The Irish said giant people still lived in 'the chambered undergrounds of Tara..."14 According to Walker, the giants "shrank as popular belief in their powers waned before the encroachment of the new [Christian] religion. Eventually they became fairies or elves, not giants but 'little people'.This reduction in their size was surely related to a reduction in their awesomeness."15
I disagree with this theory because the myths of the two beings are very different; their powers, descriptions, characteristics and habitats are not similar at all but are essentially two different stories. What are we to make of the fact that tales of Little People and Giants are universal across the globe? This is a mystery and one of the most pleasing among many possible explana
11. Cole, Mable Cook and Fay-Cooper Cole. The Story of Primitive Man: His Earliest Appearance and Development. Chicago: University of Knowledge, Inc. 1938, 295-296.
13. Drury, C.M., ed. Nine Years with the Spokane Indians: The Diary, 1838-1848, of Elkanah Walker. Glendale: Arthur H. Clark 1976, 122-123. It should be noted that many contemporary accounts of "Big Foot" also include observations of the creature giving off an "intolerable" small.
14. Walker, Barbara G. The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. Edison: Castle Books 1983, 341.
tions is the thought that we may have had ancient contacts with other races, great and small, and ongoing cultural diffusion around the world. Walker's theory that the giants "shrank" due to the shrinking of their reputation does not explain those other stories across the world that speak of similar "unusual" people.
To the Netsilik Eskimo there were two giants to contend with. One, called Amayersuik, is a dangerous giant female "with a space in her back." Reportedly, she steals children. The Inugpasugsuk was a giant who was both fearful and fond of humans and was said to "take great pains not to harm them."16 This giant no longer lives in the present world but the reason for his demise is unknown.
Some giants had the ability, like the Fairy, to change their sizes. According to Davidson, "One such figure, in Saxo's History, claims to be able to alter her appearance at will, becoming huge to terrify her opponents and shrinking to mortal size when taking a mortal lover."17
Among the Indian tribes of Tierra del Fuego, according to John Cooper, a gigantic, invisible creature called Taquatu exists. It is said that he is "a giant who travels by day and night in a big canoe, over the sea and the rivers, and who glides as well through the air over the tops of the trees without bending the branches."18 Should Taquatu find a man or woman alone in the forest, "he takes them without much ado into his great boat and carries them far away from home."19
In addition, an evil spirit described as an "immense black man," called Yaccy-ma, was greatly feared for the havoc he occasionally caused among the West Patagonian Channel tribes. The Yaccy-ma was blamed for bad weather, famine, illness and most other calamities.20
According to Cooper, the Yaccy-ma was probably "a superior being who watches over moral conduct."21 However, it is difficult to reconcile this statement with another that Cooper attributes to Admiral Fitz-Roy,22 which calls the Yaccy-ma "an evil spirit."
In English folklore the giant is not only huge in size but also brutal to humans and, usually, extremely stupid. As Simpson and Roud tell it, "They hurled rocks at churches, but missed; carried stones for building, but dropped
16. Balikci, Asen. The Netsilik Eskimo. Garden City: The Natural History Press 1970, 205.
17. Davidson, H.R. Ellis. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press 1988, 96.
18. Cooper, John M. Analytical and Critical Bibliography of the Tribes of Tierra Del Fuego and Adjacent Territory. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 63. Washington: Smithsonian Institution 1917,147.
22. Robert Fitz-Roy was an explorer to the Patagonian region during the 1830s and was one of the most important authorities of the region for decades to come.
them; killed one another in stone throwing battles, or by accident when tossing tools across a valley."23
However stupid, brutal, powerful or noble — giants have left a fondness in our hearts and an everlasting thirst for more.
23. Simpson, Jacqueline and Steve Roud. Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000, 144.
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