It recently came to my attention that "giant" is a really flexible term that can refer to people of a bunch of different sizes, from "on the tall side of human normal" to "so big their footsteps formed the Great Lakes." I wanted to update my understanding of the relationship between "real" giants and "mythic giants" so I did a little digging...
- Here is a delightful folktale about a fight with a giant witch, via indigenous folks from northeastern America. It's got everything: a beautiful young woman singing, a huge heap of human bones, a glorious resurrection, and 1800s pushback against the stereotype / trope of the Savage Indian.
- In most stories, Germanic giants turn to stone in sunlight and live in mountain caves.
- Three different Hebrew terms are used to describe the "unusual stature" of men encountered by spies investigating the exceptional fertility of the Canaan valley; ’an·šêmiddah (men of great stature), nefilim (gigantic primordial heroes), and their genetic descendants the bnei anak (sons of giants).
- The Lenapé Nation has a legend about a race of Giants who protected all the local animals from being wasted by early hunters.
- There exists an entire series of folkloric myths about sailors mistaking giant whales for islands.
The Anishinaabe of the Great Lakes region have a mythic tradition that is absolutely filled with hilarious stories, one of which involves the complex mythic hero (Wenabozho) being boiled alive by a giant cannibal. He's saved when the giant falls asleep and a snake crawls up its butt, into its stomach, where it's able to bite into the giant's heart and kill it. My favorite part is that it was relayed by an Anishinaabe academic.
How Tall is Tall?
The author of A Look at Kumsay The Graveyard of Giants is very excited because some graves associated with the Yamnaya people (but who might not be, quite) are filled with people who are considered "giants" at around 2 meters tall. Every time I've heard folktales and myths about "giants" I've tended to think they referred to monstrously huge giants like I've seen in cartoons, but this discovery put the myths about "giants invading Ireland" into perspective for me.
I'm not ridiculous for imagining giants as being huge, by the way. Germanic giants from the Eddas come with delightful stories like "dropping some dirt from his apron led to the creation of islands" and "Thor mistook a giant's glove for a building." Folklorists like C. von Sydow think that giants were explicitly invented because people needed to imagine something big and powerful enough to have shaped the landscape, although there is a lot of variance. Lotte Motz, by contrast, doesn't consider size to be the defining characteristic of Germanic giants — which I find sort of puzzling.
What Unit of Measure?
Tim Urban of wait but why thinks that we should think of multi-celled creatures (like sponges) as being roughly on the same level of complexity as a colony of ants or tribe of humans; he suggests that we think of groups of social animals as a sort of giant creature where the individual parts cannot survive on their own any more than a single cell of a sponge does well on its own... or conversely, like how plucking off a piece of some plants can allow it to become a separate plant even though we would have considered the first plant to be one biological construct. It's a very philosophically interesting argument.
📗 ICYMI: If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy my article about giants in war: frost giants & firbolgs.
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