Mythical human beings of huge size.
The folklore of most cultures around the world contains references to mythical giant human beings.
In Greek mythology they were considered to be the sons of Gaia (the earth-goddess) and Uranus (the sky-god), and were so strong that only a god could kill one of them. They were said to have waged a war against the Olympian gods (the gigantomachy) but on being defeated were buried beneath Mount Etna. The Cyclops were a race of one-eyed giants, one of whom, according to Homer, fell foul of Odysseus, illustrating a common quality often ascribed to giants: that of being rather dim-witted.
The existence of large-scale prehistoric constructions all over the world, such as stonehenge or the ‘Cyclopean’ masonry of ancient Greece, gave rise to the common idea that they must have been built by giants. Similarly, giants are traditionally given credit for constructing natural formations like the volcanic Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
In many cases this type of belief reflects the widespread idea that humankind has undergone a process of degeneration from prodigious ancestors. The Bible, for example, includes a reference to the mighty predecessors of ordinary men:
There were giants in the earth in those days. (Genesis 6:4)
Another biblical reference is to Goliath, the champion of the Philistines, ‘whose height was six cubits and a span’ (approximately 3.4 metres or 11 feet). This daunting and seemingly invincible enemy is, of course, killed by David with the help of the Lord and a slingshot.
Perhaps the most famous giants in British mythology are Gog and Magog, the last two survivors of a giant race said to have been defeated by the legendary King Brutus. They were taken prisoner and made to work as porters, and their images were often commemorated in buildings, represented as massive figures bearing the weight of great lintels on their shoulders.
Giants also feature in folk tales, such as ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ and ‘Jack the Giant-killer’, and one was immortalized by the Irish writer Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) in his children’s fairy story ‘The Selfish Giant’ (1888).
Do giants exist in reality? Throughout the ages there have been reports of taller-than-average human beings, usually men, but substantiating such claims has always been difficult. However, there are some giants whose existence can be proven. Among these is Charles O’Brien, or Byrne, (1761–83), known as the Irish Giant, whose height was 2.5 metres (8 feet 4 inches) and whose skeleton is preserved in the Royal College of Surgeons in London.
In the USA, Robert Pershing Wadlow (1918–40) of Illinois topped 1.8 metres (6 feet) by the age of 10, and eventually grew to a height of 2.7 metres (8 feet 11 inches), making him the world’s tallest recorded person, a record still unsurpassed.
The woman documented as the world’s tallest was Zeng Jinlian, of China (1964–82), who measured almost 2.5 metres (8 feet 2 inches).
In many cases of modern giantism it is known that the condition is caused by the excessive production of growth hormone by an overactive pituitary gland. It is possible to treat this problem medically, but basketball teams might be denied many a star player if this remedy were universally applied.
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