In folklore, giants (from Latin and Ancient Greek: gigas, cognate giga-) are beings of human appearance, but are at times prodigious in size and strength or bear an otherwise notable appearance. The word giant, first attested in 1297, was derived from the Gigantes (Greek: Γίγαντες) of Greek mythology.
Fairy tales such as Jack the Giant Killer have 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.
Myths & Legends
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, Celtic, 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.
In general, giants are known for their immense strength, which complements their great size. Additionally, depending on the tale and country of origin, giants can also be proficient in sorcery or shapeshifting.
In some stories, giants are known for their impressive construction, and wealth of knowledge which they can share with humans.
Giants are human-like in shape, but scaled to a much large size. In some legends, they have multiple limbs or heads, or have one eye, such as the Greek Cyclops. Most tend to wear rough clothing commonly associated with barbarians and/or savages.
English Fairy tales such as Jack the Giant Killer have formed the modern perception of giants as stupid and violent monsters, sometimes said to eat humans, especially children (although this is actually a confusion with ogres, which are distinctly man-eaters), while other giants tend to eat the livestock of humans.
However, in other mythologies, giants are intelligent and excellent craftsmen or builders. The Jotunn of Norse mythology are a good example of this kind.
Giants by Mythology
There are also accounts of giants in the Old Testament. Some of these are called Nephilim (first mentioned in Genesis 7:23), a word often translated as giant, although this translation is not universally accepted. The first mention of the Nephilim is found in Genesis 6:4; attributed to them are extraordinary strength and physical proportions.
During the move of the Israelites from Egypt during the time of Moses, a few spies were sent into the land of Canaan they were to inhabit. The Book of Numbers includes the discouraging report by the spies which were sent into:
"We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are. (...) All the people we saw there are of great size... 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.
Jewish historian Flavius 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."
The Book of Enoch describes giants as the offspring of Watchers and women in 7:2. In Islam, giants known as jababirat or jabbirun (Arabic: جبارون "tyrants" or "giants"; singular, Arabic: جبار Jabbar) such as 'Uj ibn Anaq are mentioned.
- Abrahamic Giants: Nephilim, Goliath, Gog and Magog, Og King of Bashan, the Anakim, and the giants of Egypt mentioned in 1 Chronicles 11:23
Hayk was known as the founder of the Armenian state. Hayk was part of a race of giants who helped construct the tower of Babel. Ancient historian Movses Khorenatsi wrote, "Hayk was handsome and personable, with curly hair, sparkling eyes and strong arms. Among the giants he was the bravest and most famous, opponent of all who raised their hand to become absolute ruler over the giants and heroes."
Mount Nemrut is known to have received its name from an Armenian tradition in which Nimrod was killed by an arrow shot by Hayk during a massive battle between two rival armies of giants to the south-east of Lake Van.
According to Baltic mythology, the playing of a giantess named Neringa on the seashore formed the Curonian Spit ("neria, nerge, neringia" means land which is diving up and down like a swimmer). This character also appears in other myths (in some of which she is shown as a young strong woman, similar to a female version of the Greek Heracles). "Neringa" is the name of a modern town on the spot.
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 life style 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.
In Bulgarian mythology, giants called Ispolini inhabited the Earth before modern humans. They lived in the mountains, fed on raw meat and often fought against dragons. Ispolini were afraid of blackberries which posed a danger of tripping and dying, so they offered sacrifices to that plant.
Tales of combat with giants were also a common feature in the folklore of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Celtic giants also figure in Breton and Arthurian romances perhaps as a reflection of the Nordic and Slavic mythology that arrived on the boats. Medieval romances such as Amadis de Gaula feature giants as antagonists, or, rarely, as allies.
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. Other English stories told of how giants threw stones at each other. This was used to explain many great stones on the landscape. Even natural geologic features such as the massive basalt columns of the Giant's Causeway on the coast of Northern Ireland were attributed to giants.
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 English 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.
In Greek mythology the Gigantes (γίγαντες) were (according to the poet Hesiod) the children of Ouranós (Ουρανός) and Gaia (Γαία) (spirits of the sky and the earth), and some depictions had them with snake-like legs. They were involved in a conflict with the Olympian gods called the Gigantomachy (Γιγαντομαχία) when Gaia had them attack Mount Olympus. This battle was eventually settled when the hero Heracles decided to help the Olympians.
- Types of Gigantes: The Cyclopes, Hecatoncheires, Gegeines, the northern Hyperboreans, and the cannibalistic Laestrygonians.
In Hinduism, the giants are called Daityas (दैत्य) who 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, and collectively they were called "Rakshasas", or demon.
- Famous Daityas: Hiranyakashipu, Hiranyaksha, Ramayana, Ravana, and Kumbhakarna who 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 present half cycle of time (avasarpani) was 500 dhanusa (longbow). In avasarpani, as the cycle moves ahead, height of all humans and animals decreases. The following table depicts the six aras of avasarpini–
|Name of the Ara||Degree of happiness||Duration of Ara||Average height of people||Average lifespan of people|
|Sukhama-sukhamā||Utmost happiness and no sorrow||400 trillion sāgaropamas||Six miles tall||Three palyopama years|
|Sukhamā||Moderate happiness and no sorrow||300 trillion sāgaropamas||Four miles tall||Two palyopama Years|
|Sukhama-dukhamā||Happiness with very little sorrow||200 trillion sāgaropamas||Two miles tall||One palyopama years|
|Dukhama-sukhamā||Happiness with little sorrow||100 trillion sāgaropamas||1500 meters||705.6 quintillion years|
|Dukhamā||Sorrow with very little Happiness||21,000 years||6 feet||130 years maximum|
|Dukhama- dukhamā||Extreme sorrow and misery||21,000 years||2 feet||16–20 years|
Native American Mythology
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.
- Famous Si-Te-Cah: Paiute and his wife
In Norse mythology, the "Jǫtunn" are often opposed to the gods and are the origin of various monsters. Plenty of the Jotunn also married with the gods, despite their antagonist relationship generally. Some are portrayed as huge, such as frost giants (hrímþursar), fire giants (eldjötnar), and mountain giants (bergrisar), while others are roughly human sized. These giants will storm Asgard during Ragnarök and fight until the world is destroyed.
- Famous Jotunn: Ymir (cosmic giant and origin of creation), Ægir, Loki, Mímir, and Skaði, bergrisi (the traditional Protector of Southwestern Iceland)
Several Jupiter-Giant-Columns have been found in Germania Superior. These were crowned with a statue of Jupiter, typically on horseback, defeating or trampling down a Giant, often depicted as a snake. They are restricted to the area of south-western Germany, western Switzerland, French Jura and Alsace.
Other giants, perhaps descended from earlier Germanic mythology, feature as frequent opponents of Dietrich von Bern in medieval German tales. In later portrayals Dietrich himself and his fellow heroes also became giants.
- Slavic/German Giants: Rübezahl (a kind giant from Wendish folklore), Bergmönch (German mountain spirit), Antero Vipunen
Giants figure in a great many fairy tales and folklore stories, such as Jack the Giant Killer, The Giant Who Had No Heart in His Body, Nix Nought Nothing, Robin Hood and the Prince of Aragon, Young Ronald, and Paul Bunyan.
- In Cervantes' Don Quixote, the title character attacks a windmill, believing it to be a giant.
- Giants are both intelligent and friendly in a book by Jonathan Swift
- In Roald Dahl's BFG, standing for the "Big Friendly Giant"
- Numbers 13:28–33
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