by J J Cohen
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Early Modern Giants
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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)
Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999)
Giants in Those Days: Folklore, Ancient History, and Nationalism
(Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989)
Stewart, Susan. On
Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the
Collection (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993).