1902 Encyclopedia > Giant


GIANT is the Old English geant, derived through French and Latin from Greek gigas (gigant). The idea conveyed by the word in classic mythology is that of beings more or less manlike, but monstrous in size and strength. Figures like the Titans and the Giants whose birth from Heaven and Earth is sung by Hesiod in the Theogony, such as can heap up mountains to scale the sky, and war beside or against the gods, must be treated, with other like monstrous figures of the wonder-tales of the world, as belonging altogether to the realms of mythology. But there also appear in the legends of giants some with historic significance. The ancient and commonly-repeated explanation of the Greek word _____, as connected with or derived from GREEK, or "earth-born," seems by no means sound as a matter of etymology, but at any rate the idea conveyed by it was familiar to the ancient Greeks, that the giants were earth-born or indigenous races (see Welcker, Griechische Götterlehre vol. i. p. 787). The Bible (the English reader must be cautioned that the word giant has been there used ambiguously, from the Septuagint downwards) touches the present matter in so far as it records the traditions of the Israelites of fighting in Palestine with tall races of the land such as the Anakim (Numb. xiii. 33; Deut. ii. 10, iii. 11; 1 Sam. xvii. 4). When reading in Homer of "the Cyclopes and the wild tribes of the Giants," or of the adventures of Odysseus in the cave of Polyphemus (Homer, Odyss., vii. 206 ; ix.), we seem to come into view of dim traditions, exaggerated through the mist of ages, of pre-Hellenic barbarians, godless, cannibal, skin-clothed, hurling huge stones in their rude warfare. Giant-legends of this class are common in Europe and Asia, where the big and stupid giants have often every token of uncouth native barbarians, exaggerated into monsters in the legends of the later tribes who dispossessed and slew them.

Besides the conception of giants as special races distinct from mankind, it was a common opinion of the ancients that the human race had itself degenerated, the men of primeval ages having been of so far greater stature and strength as to be in fact gigantic. This, for example, is received by Pliny (Hist. Nat., vii. c. 16), and it becomes a common doctrine of theologians such as Augustine (De Civitate Dei, xv. 9), lasting on into times so modern that it may be found in Cruden’s Concordance. Yet so far as can be judged from actual remains, it does not appear that giants, in the sense of tribes of altogether superhuman stature, ever existed, or that the men of ancient time were on the whole taller than those now living. It is now usual to apply the word giant to beings not superhuman in their height, but merely the tallest men and women of our nations. In every race of mankind the great mass of individuals do not depart far from a certain mean or average height, while the very tall or very short men become less and less numerous as they depart from the mean standard, till the utmost divergence is reached in a very few giants on the one hand, and a very few dwarfs on the other. At both ends of the scale, the body is markedly out of the ordinary proportions; thus a giant’s head is smaller and a dwarf’s head larger than it would be if an average man had been magnified or diminished. The principle of the distribution of individuals of different sizes in a race or nation has been ably set forth by Quetelet (Physique Sociale, vol. ii.; Anfhropométrie, books iii. and iv.). Had this principle been understood formerly, we might have been spared the pains of criticizing assertions as to giants 20 feet high, or even more, appearing among mankind. The appearance of an individual man 20 feet high involves the existence of the race he is an extreme member of, whose mean stature would be at least 12 to 14 feet, which is a height no human being has been proved on sufficient evidence to have approached (Anthropom., p. 302). In fact, Quetelet considers the tallest man whose stature has been authentically recorded to have been Frederick the Great’s Scottish giant, who was not quite 8 feet 3 inches. Modern statisticians, though admitting that this may not be the extreme limit of human stature, cannot accept the loose conclusion in Buffon (Hist. Nat., ed. Sonnini, vol. iv. p. 134), that there is no doubt of giants having been 10, 12, and perhaps 15 feet high. Confidence is not even to be placed in ancient asserted measurements, as where Pliny gives to one Gabbaras, an Arabian, the stature of 9 feet 9 inches (about 9 feet 5 1/2 in. English), capping this with the mention of Posio and Secundilla, who were half a foot higher. That two persons should be described as both having this same extraordinary measure suggests to the modern critic the notion of a note jotted down on the philosopher’s tablets, and never tested afterwards.

Under these circumstances, it is worth while to ask how it is that legend and history so abound in mentions of giants outside all probable dimensions of the human frame. One cause is that, when the story-teller is asked the actual stature of the huge men who figure in his tales, he is not sparing of his inches and feet. What exaggeration can do in this way may be judged from the fact that the Patagonians, whose average height (5 feet 11 inches) is really about that of the Chirnside men in Berwickshire, are described in Pigafetta’s Voyage round the World as so monstrous that the Spaniards’ heads hardly reached their waists. It is reasonable to suppose, with Professor Nilsson (Primitive Inhabitants of Scandinavia, chap. vi.), that in the traditions of early Europe tribes of savages may have thus, if really tall, expanded into giants, or, if short, dwindled into dwarfs. Another cause which is clearly proved to have given rise to giant-myths of yet more monstrous type, has been the discovery of great fossil bones, as of mammoth or mastodon, which have from early ages been supposed to be bones of giants, and have given rise to a whole class of giant-myths (see Tylor, Early History of Mankind, chap. xi; Primitive Culture, chap. x.). Such anatomical inferences from the leg-bone or tooth of some huge extinct animal are rather creditable to the ingenuity of natives of America, or of barbarians of the Old World; but their late continuance in the midst of European culture shows how recently the principles of comparative anatomy obtained their present hold on the public mind. A tooth weighing 4 _ lb, and a thigh-bone 17 feet long, having been found in New England in 1712 (they were probably mastodon), Dr Increase Mather thereupon communicated to the Royal Society of London his confirmation from them of the existence of men of prodigious stature in the antediluvian world (see the Philosophical Transactions, vol. xxiv, p. 85; D. Wilson, Prehistoric Man, vol. i. p. 54). The giants in the streets of Basel and supporting the arms of Lucerne appear to have originated from certain fossil bones found in 1577, examined by the physician Felix Plater, and pronounced to have belonged to a giant some 16 or 19 feet high. These bones have since been referred to a very different geological genus, but within the present century Plater’s giant skeleton was accepted as a genuine relic of the giants who once inhabited the earth. See the dissertation of Le Cat, cited in the 5th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1817). (E. B. T.)

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