I'm composing an entry for the forthcoming Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters (edited by Jeffrey Weinstock) on, of all things, giants. You see, I used to know a thing or two about this monster. Providing a general overview of the creature brought me back to materials I hadn't looked at since I wrote my dissertation (you know, the one I drafted accompanied by a slice of symbolically resonant marble pound cake).
The draft is below. Its scope is constrained by the word count, but all feedback welcome.
From fairy tale to fantasy fiction, Greek mythology to Hollywood film, the giant is a familiar figure. Almost every culture possesses some version of this monster, probably because the giant amounts to nothing more than a body enlarged to the point at which the familiar human figure becomes estranged. Looming over our diminished selves, the giant makes evident our frailty, our mortality. Giants mainly elicit terror, as in Goya’s famous painting of Il Colosso, in which a panicked mob flees the monster’s towering form. Some giants, however, offer an invitation to corporeal pleasure: food, sex, mirth. The giant is therefore an ambivalent monster, combining fear of self-annihilation with an undercurrent of desire, forces of domination with possibilities of subversive celebration. Because only size need distinguish giants from humans, the line separating these groups is easily traversed. Even when giants are imagined as a separate, monstrous race, humans sometimes intermingle with them. Thus the biblical Goliath is a Philistine; the Cyclops Polyphemos is famous for his love of a normally proportioned woman, Galatea; Cain was sometimes held to be the father of monsters, including giants; medieval Norse giants were often lovers for gods and humans; the offspring of giants are sometimes depicted as ordinary in size. For all their monstrous excess, giants are in the end rather human.
The giant has haunted the Western imagination from at least the time of ancient Greece. The earliest verses of the Hebrew Bible, Christian interpreters of that text, as well as Irish, Welsh, and Icelandic mythology record the monster’s presence. The giant pervades every level of society, from popular culture and folklore to self-consciously artistic literature and scholarly discourse. With some notable exceptions, the giant is strongly gendered male. He often figures the masculine body out of control, demarcating a cultural boundary not to be traversed. The giant is foundational. The world may have been created from the body of a giant, as in Norse fable; or the body of the earth may spawn giants, as in classical tradition. He is so elemental that humanity cannot escape his abiding presence. His reality is often attested through the landscape he has supposedly reconfigured, so that his name becomes attached to mountains and rock formations. The giant therefore often serves an etiological function.
What follows is a sort of family album of the Western giant, a collection of portraits that provide an overview of this monster’s multifarious lineage and enduring vitality.
Greek and Roman Myth
Classical giants are an autochthonous order of beings associated with the brute forces of the earth. They are monsters that must be eradicated so that humans – and the anthropomorphic gods who watch over them – may flourish. The Theogony is a complicated cosmogony attributed to the poet and farmer Hesiod (8th-7th century BCE). The poem describes how the emasculation of the rapinous Uranos (“Sky”) by his son Cronus engendered the giants, a race of pernicious creatures who will one day attempt to overthrow the gods by storming Olympus. This battle against Zeus was called the Gigantomachia and was frequently depicted in literature and painted on vases. Vergil and Ovid both refer to the war, describing the giants’ monumental feat of stacking the mountain Ossa atop Pelion in order to reach the home of the gods. Other classical giants include the Titans; the sons of Aloeus, who likewise attempted a divine assault; Argus Panoptes, the hundred eyed giant who served as Hera's watchman; and Briareus, who possessed a hundred hands. All of these monsters possessed long afterlives. Briareus, for example, appears in the ninth circle of Dante's Inferno, the windmill episode of Don Quixote, the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual, and The Battle of the Olympians by Rick Riordan.
One-eyed giants also appear frequently. Homer describes the Cyclopes as solitary beings, lacking the laws that form communities and the technology necessary for agriculture. When the itinerant hero Odysseus requests food and shelter from Polyphemos, the most famous of their kind, the monster responds by cannibalizing his men. Odysseus’s blinding of the giant’s single eye is a rebuke to the creature’s worldview, one in which the sacred bond between host and guest may be ignored.
These classical giants would one day be conflated with similar monsters from the Hebrew Bible, with whom they share several traits, especially hostility towards the divine. As early as the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus (1st century CE), the murderous spawn of Uranos were being linked to the Nephilim of Genesis.
Following the precedent set by Latin translations of the Bible, in English versions the term “giant” quietly collects a variety of Hebrew words, creating a false impression of unity, as if all the biblical giants constituted a single race. The first mention of giants occurs in a mysterious passage from Genesis, which states “giants [Nephilim] were upon the earth in those days” (6:4). These monsters are the apparent offspring of the “sons of God” (sometimes understood to be the mortal children of Seth, at other times fallen angels) and the “daughters of men” (usually glossed as the offspring of Cain, exiled for murdering his brother). The Flood follows shortly after the appearance of the Nephilim, implicitly linking the birth of these creatures with a mysterious miscegenation and a subsequent proliferation of earthly evils. The passage is obscure enough never to have found a definitive interpretation. It eventually yielded the medieval idea that a giant might be the child of an incubus (a kind of fallen angel) and a mortal woman. Though the giants of Genesis 6:4 should have been wiped from the earth as a result of the Deluge, moreover, they also appear well after the story of Noah. They therefore posed a difficult problem for rabbinical interpreters as well as Christian exegetes. The Talmud developed a complete mythology for the giant Og of Bashan (Deut. 3:11), a postdiluvian giant destroyed by the Israelites. Supposedly he made a pact with Noah and submitted himself and his children to slavery to board the ark.
Giants enter the biblical narrative a second time in Numbers, after which their presence proliferates. When Moses sends spies into the Promised Land, they return to the waiting Israelites with a report of a land flowing with milk and honey. Canaan also holds inimical giants [Anakim, said to be descendants of the Nephilim] “in comparison to whom we seemed as locusts” (Numbers 13:28-34). These monsters appear to represent indigenous peoples, figured as inhumanly vast to convey the difficulty of settling the territory and to dispossess them of a claim to their land. Other biblical groups assimilated into the Latin and English categories of “giant” include similarly aboriginal peoples, the Emim (Deut. 2:10) and the Zamzummim (Deut. 2:20). The giant [raphah] Goliath of Gath, defeated by the young David, is a lone monster rather than a member of a group or race. The young warrior’s defeat of that giant and display of his severed head became iconic, so that the expected fate for almost all giants in Western texts is decapitation. The vivid encounter between David and Goliath (I Samuel 17) intermingles the theological with the nationalistic. Goliath curses his opponent by his gods, while the boy replies with his faith in a single deity. The humiliation of the giant is a gleeful disparaging of his polytheism: a shepherd boy too young to wear armor, carrying a staff which his enemy bemoans as grossly insulting, defeats the monster with a well aimed stone from a slingshot. Called the nanus contra gigantem (“boy against the giant”) theme, the scene of David’s victory would become among the most frequently illustrated biblical episodes. Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Titian, and Rubens created the most famous depictions.
Medieval and Early Modern Giants
The medieval Irish imagined that their island had once been held by the Fomori, a primordial race who were disfigured and bellicose. Though not originally imagined as giants [Old Irish aithech], over time their size was exaggerated in order to render them more fearsome. They were associated with stonework and caves, their historical presence readable from the landscape. The famous Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim is supposed to have been their handiwork. These frozen sprays of lava, jutting from the sea in weirdly architectural black columns, are called by the Irish Clochán na bhFomharaigh, “the stepping stones of the Fomori.” Various Neolithic edifices were also associated with this race. For the Irish – as for many other cultures – the primeval race of giants served an explanatory function, anchoring present landscape to an origin in the distant past. Nearby Wales told stories of more singular giants, such as Ysbaddaden, a foe of Arthur who withholds his daughter from marriage and is, when overcome, shaved to the skull and decapitated. Bran the Blessed is another important Welsh giant. King of Britain, he possesses a magic cauldron that can restore vitality to the dead. Mortally wounded in Irish battle, Bran instructs his men to cut off his head and return it to his island. The severed head retains its ability to speak for seven years, after which it is interred in London at the site of the future White Tower. Supposedly the giant’s head kept Britain free from invasion so long as it remained buried.
According to Norse mythology, the earth itself was fashioned from the corpse of the giant Ymir. Elemental and rather primitive, giants might inhabit a distant geography (Glasisvellir or Jotunheim), but also mingle freely with humans as they wander the world. Norse giants are frequently female, and often intermarry with gods and men. Odin is the son of a giantess named Bestla. Although they could be fierce, the Norse jötnar are more ethically complex than other traditions of giants: chaos-loving, perhaps, but rather indifferent to binaries like good versus evil, wildness against civilization. Giants were especially associated with stone and topography. Boulders, ruined buildings, and mountains indicated their former presence. This etiological function is shared by giants in Old English literature, which frequently refers to ancient structures like Roman walls as enta geweorc, the work of giants. Though never precisely described, the monster Grendel and his mere-dwelling mother appear both to be giants. Enormous, humanoid, and children of Cain, they share the same fate, decapitation.
In his History of the Kings of Britain, the text that bestowed to the future the mythic King Arthur we know today, Geoffrey of Monmouth imagined that the island of Britain was originally settled by an exiled Trojan named Brutus. His only impediment to making a kingdom of the new land was its current occupants, giants who attack Brutus’s men and are exterminated as a result. Like the biblical Anakim, these giants represent in monstrous form native peoples and the challenges of conquest. Later mythology would develop the idea that these giants were the spawn of incubi or devils and Greek princesses exiled to Britain for their crimes. In a culminating moment of the History of the Kings of Britain, moreover, Geoffrey will have Arthur defeat a menacing but lone giant on Mont Saint Michel in Normandy. A rapist and a cannibal, this monster is the male body out of control. He harkens from Muslim Spain, aligning him with non-Christian others at a time not long after the First Crusade. Giants, like all monsters, tend to gather to themselves all the contemporary signifiers of otherness and difference. Whereas Arthur fights with his famous sword, the giant wields a primitive club. After the king defeats the brute he orders the head displayed, Goliath-like, to his men to announce the triumph. This scene of warrior against giant set the stage for many similar combats in the chivalric romances of the Middle Ages. Overcoming the giant became a way for the young knight to demonstrate that he had overcome the monster within, that he could control his body sexually and martially.
In the Inferno, as Dante prepares to descend into the Ninth Circle of Hell, he spots what appears to be a tower but is in fact a giant, interred from the waist down. The monster bellows gibberish at the poet. His guide Vergil reveals that this is Nimrod, architect of the tower of Babel. Though this episode takes great liberties with the biblical narrative, it demonstrates the creativity to which giants spurred medieval authors, and the tendency of these monsters to lurk darkly at foundational moments in human history. Giants could easily be allegorized. They were often associated with pride, inspiring Edmund Spenser’s Orgoglio in the Faerie Queene. Yet not all giants were depicted so negatively. Saint Christopher was often believed to have been a converted giant. Medieval romances offered comic giants like Ascopart and Rainouart, whose attempts to become Christian knights lead to ridiculous scenes of horse riding, jousting, and baptism gone wrong. Geoffrey Chaucer provides a comedic version of the monster in “The Tale of Sir Thopas,” which features an inept knight threatened by the three-headed Sir Olifaunt. François Rabelais’ beloved Gargantua and Pantagruel celebrate bodily excess. Their merry presence inspired the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin to develop the idea that such seemingly folkloric figures pose a carnivalesque challenge to domineering, official culture.
Giants made frequent appearances in travel literature. The enormously popular Book of John Mandeville is typical, describing giants that clothe themselves in the skin of beasts and devour raw flesh, including humans they snatch from ships. Jonathan Swift will reverse this negative depiction with the cultured Brobdingnagians of Gulliver’s Travels, whose king declares Europeans to be the savages. Patagonians, giant denizens of the New World, were reported by Ferdinand Magellan and Francis Drake.
Giants are familiar figures in films, novels, comic books, and fairy tales. As the cloud dweller in “Jack in the Beanstalk,” he invites children to the rewards of self-assertion over parental obedience. In the form of Bigfoot or the Yeti, the giant reassures that the world has not been completely mapped, that some wild remnant remains. As a corporate emblem the monster promises us that our frozen and canned vegetables taste fresh (the Jolly Green Giant, mascot in the employment of General Mills) and that our paper products arrive with a patina of wilderness myth (the fakelore figure of Paul Bunyan, promulgated by a logging company). The science fiction thriller Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman (1958) originally encoded a social anxiety about the women’s movement with its depiction of a huge housewife run amuck, but today that figure has become more campy feminist heroine than crazed and fearful horror. Another contemporary film, The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), features an army colonel exposed to plutonium who rapidly grows to sixty feet tall. Brain damage causes him to become insane, and after a rampage through Las Vegas he is killed by the army atop the Hoover Dam. Victor Frankenstein’s Creature and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator may not precisely be giants, but they both invoke that monster’s mythology as they come to embody anxieties about technology’s ability to enable humans to exceed their traditional limits. A wrestler named André the Giant played Fezzik in the The Princess Bride (1987), an enduringly popular film that attempts to re-enchant a cynical world. Hagrid, a central character in the Harry Potter series of books by J. K. Rowling, is half giant in descent. He likewise figures in a magical landscape that offers an alternative to the impoverished one of contemporary adulthood.
Varied as they are, these modern instances suggest that although some monsters vanish as the fears, anxieties and desires that engendered them change, the giant never departs for long. Perhaps giants are such intimate monsters because their forms are so familiar. Many writers placed giants at the origin of the human, arguing that our stature had declined over time. A figure of chaos and merriment, severity and celebration, life as well as death, the elemental giant is a constant companion, a version of the human writ so large that our own monstrousness is vividly displayed in his form.
References and Recommended Reading
Asma, Stephen T. Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Bakhtin, Mikhail M. Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1984)
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999)
Stephens, Walter. Giants in Those Days: Folklore, Ancient History, and Nationalism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989)
Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993).