Ancient History & Civilisation


Base-camp to Battlefield

When Typhon was found to be pinned below the western landscape, his cave in Cilicia became his former lair, the place which had nursed him. We can understand, then, why the poet Nonnus (c. AD 430) makes the victorious Zeus tell Typhon, ‘I will build for you, you utter wretch, a cenotaph’, an empty tomb. On it he would engrave, ‘This is the monument of earth-born Typhon, who once lashed the heaven with rocks but was burned up by heavenly fire.’1 The right place for this cenotaph is the Corycian cave at the first of the two Arimas, in Cilicia, where guides, perhaps, told visitors what Nonnus duly reports. Typhon’s relocation, however, was only part of a wider Euboean pattern of thought. In the succession-struggles in heaven he was not the only opponent of the gods to be defeated and buried far away. There had been others almost as monstrous: their bodies encouraged Euboeans to one final burst of brilliant lateral thinking.

In the Greek stories Zeus had also had to fight the Titans, children (like Cronos) of Earth and Heaven who had been banished beneath the earth. To defeat them he released other children of mother Earth, the fearsome Hundred Handers, of whom Briareus was one. In some versions Briareus was the best rewarded and so he ended up with a home in the sea.2 Seafaring Euboeans were more than familiar with Briareus: they localized him on their island: they even had cults of him.3 When we find Briareus as the first name linked with the ‘Pillars’ which stood out in the far west, pillars which later became the Pillars of Heracles, the location has puzzled literary scholars: ‘what a god of the Aegean sea…has to do with the far west is hard to see…’4 It is not so hard if we attach it to our Euboean trail: an early Euboean traveller may have named the Pillars after a familiar figure in Euboeans’ minds.5 By the mid-third century BC we find Briareus named as a monster who is pinned beneath Etna and who helps to cause its eruptions. Perhaps here too it was a Euboean settled nearby who added this hundred-handed monster to the team with Typhon beneath the volcano.6

Just as Hundred Handers were not Titans, so Titans were not strictly Giants. They were easily confused, because both were the children of mother Earth: Giants were said to have been born from the blood of Heaven’s castration which fell onto the earth below: they had even been born in full armour, ready to fight. Obviously, Giants were physically huge and in some later versions they were credited with snaky feet. Like Titans, they tried to assault the gods’ home of Mount Olympus but after a cosmic battle they were defeated and killed.7

We know of an early poem on the battle of the Titans but we do not happen to know of an early battle of the Giants.8 No doubt one existed, helping to sort out the details of the war and the catalogue of Giants, which runs even in modern scholarship to more than fifty names.9 Among the most famous were Porphyrion, Alcyoneus and Enceladus, huge beings who were characterized by insolence and lawlessness. In Homer’s Odyssey there is a brief hint of Giants in the prehistory of happy Phaeacia: they were a ‘wild tribe’, ruled by unruly Eurymedon, whose daughter was the Phaeacian king Alcinous’ grandmother.10 Giants are mortal, it seems, for Homer, and not born from gods. We do not happen to have images of the Giants on Greek pottery until the early sixth century BC,11 but in the related battles of Titans the early Greek poets’ imagination seems to us most filmic and most akin to our ‘special effects’. The same, surely, was true of the battles of Giants, who then left a major mark on temple-sculptures, one which we see best in a great moment in Euripides’ play Ion. The chorus of fifteen women look up at the sculptures on Apollo’s temple at Delphi, which they are visiting, and pick out the figures whom they see, the ‘rout’ of the Giants by the gods. Athena fights one, Zeus another: ‘What about this? A flaming thunderbolt in the hands of Zeus?’ ‘I see it: he is scorching awesome Mimas [another Giant] with fire.’12 These battles symbolized the victory of order over wild lawlessness, a theme which was exploited by tyrants, kings and cities. The comic poet Aristophanes, typically, turned it round, making the victorious gods ‘boastful’ too. However, it was a myth which he could take for granted in his audience’s knowledge, and, on one modern view, he exploited the familiar form of a ‘battle of Giants’ in his own political comedy.13 Above all the myth is brilliantly evoked by Plato in his philosophical dialogue The Sophist. He sets up an argument between the holders of two different views about the real world, calling them ‘giants’ and by implication, ‘gods’. ‘Giants’ are those who believe that only material things exist, things which can be touched, whereas ‘gods’ are not brutal materialists: in the argument, even the ‘Giants’ soon divide into the ‘reformed’ and the ‘unreformed’, as they still do in our day.14 As Plato and Aristophanes show, the story was there in people’s minds, but like our films of ‘Star Wars’, its graphic battles began to strike educated people as rather ridiculous. By the second century AD, to dream of the battle of Giants, the tireless dream-interpreter Artemidorus tells us, would be to dream of an ‘obsolete thing, full of nonsense’ and would only signify that events would turn out contrary to the dreamer’s expectations.15

Despite the intellectuals, individual Giants were not obsolete: they continued to be fixed to particular places. Giant-like figures were said to be hidden beneath the sea, subdued there by the sea-god Poseidon, or by particular narrows and capes on important sea-routes.16 Some of them were linked to Euboea. Two such ‘Giants’, Orion and Peloros, were then sited on either side of the straits between Sicily and Italy, a heartland of Euboean travel and settlement. The evidence for these sitings is late, but they may well have been made by Euboeans in the eighth century, carrying memories of their Giant-like figures to the west.17 In the east, meanwhile, a whole cluster of genuine Giants were said to have been at home in our ‘triangle’. A Giant Adanos was said to have lived in Cilicia at age-old Adana, a central site in the kingdom of the ‘house of Muksas’. Another, Pagras, had lived in the mountains named after him where the road from the Bay of Issus descends from the Amanus mountains and the Syrian Gates to the plain of Unqi. In the plain itself there was even a Giant called Orontes after the local river.18

At one level we can begin to understand these Near Eastern locations of Giants if we remember that there were famous Near Eastern stories about Giants of superhuman size. We know them best in the biblical book of Genesis, where the Giants, like most lesser men since, ‘lusted after the daughters of men’. There were said to be Giants in the Promised Land and we also have to reckon with big prodigies like the king of Bashan, Og.19 The Giants were only one group among the many superhumans whose stories circulated in Near Eastern cultures. Once again Greek visitors could hear tales of them, especially as they were not floating legends. Giants had left specific, physical relics.

In some places Giants were seen to have scattered huge boulders, markers of their ancient battlegrounds or even of their graves. Unlike a creature as vast and monstrous as Typhon, Giants also appeared to have left their decomposed bodies in the ground.20 In favoured areas of the ancient world, especially on plains, in caves and river-valleys, the corpses of previous inhabitants lay just below the surface of the soil.21 Nobody in antiquity, not even a Greek thinking laterally, ever suggested that species of big animals had once lived on earth and become extinct. When their bones and entire skeletons were brought to the surface by floods and earthquakes, they seemed unbelievably big. They were the bones, obviously, of superhumans and of creatures who had fought in the myths. We have already seen how at ‘Utterly Bloody’ on Samos people looked at the red earth and saw bones big enough to be Dionysus’ elephants in their heroic, tusking battle against the Amazons. It was not a bad guess about the bones of an elephantine mammoth. However, they were only one gigantic relic in a much wider network. Its scope has been brilliantly analysed by Adrienne Mayor in her recent study of the ‘first fossil-hunters’. Using ancient texts about the discoveries of bones and our modern archaeologists’ reports of dinosaur-discoveries, she has even drawn for us ‘Maps of the Giants’ across the Mediterranean and the Near East.

We can add more items to her list and then focus it on our eighth century BC. No such bones are described in antiquity in the soil of Euboea itself, although they have been excavated at two main points on the island, but if we look east we find relevant outliers which were known to the ancients. In the plain of Unqi, in north Syria, Alexander’s Successor Seleucus was believed in local stories to have found the bodies of Giants who had once lived near his newly founded city. ‘Two miles from Antioch,’ the chronicler John Malalas, a man from the city in question, tells us, ‘there is a place which has the bodies of men stoned by the wrath of the gods. Even now [c. AD 530], they call them “Giants”. One Pagras lived in this land and was a Giant. He was thunderbolted by fire. So it is clear that the people of Antioch in Syria live in the land of the Giants.’22 In north Syria, Adrienne Mayor reminds us, there are still patches of ‘burning earth’, or combusible lignite, ‘and large fossil remains’: the combination was the supreme proof of Giants’ presence.23 There were also the bones of huge animals and the big teeth of hippopotamuses, one of which ended up in the shrine at coastal Tell Sukas, visited by Greeks in the sixth century BC, and bits of elephants like the shoulder-bone from Unqi which reappeared for us a mere three thousand years later.24 In the river-bed of the Orontes, during the reign of the Roman emperor Lucius Verus (AD 161–9), an enormous skeleton was revealed when the river’s course ‘split’, probably when it was diverted artificially. The onlookers sent envoys to the famous oracle-shrine of Apollo at Claros to ask the god what they had found. He told them (through his human prophet) that the skeleton belonged to the Giant Orontes, who was connected, he said, with India.25Even the gods endorsed the reading of big bones as bits of Giants.

Giants, an insolent tribe, had challenged Zeus and the gods: where, then, were their battlegrounds and base-camp? The most famous answer for the battleground lay in western Italy on the smouldering Phlegraean Fields. The battleground lies just inland by the north-west curve of the Bay of Naples, where there were evident reasons for its location. The landscape is still volcanic and in the Phlegraean Fields the crust of the earth is remarkably thin. All visitors to the modern Solfatara recognize Strabo’s impression of the region: ‘a foul smell, full of sulphur and fire and hot springs’. The scorched, hissing ground here looks like the final scene in a prehistoric epic of the wars of the world. Strabo duly explains it by the ‘wounds of the thunderbolted Giants which pour out streams of fire and water’.26 In 1776, when Sir William Hamilton described it, he remarked how ‘the hollow sound produced by throwing a heavy stone on the plain of the crater of Solfaterra seems to indicate that it is supported by a sort of arched natural vault and one is induced to think that there is a pool of water beneath this vault which boils by the heat of a subterranean fire still deeper’.27 For the ancients this ‘fire’ was the fire of smouldering Giants and the ‘water’ was the blood of their wounds.

There were also the bones of Giants who had been killed in combat with the gods. We are fortunate to have a great survey of heroes’ and Giants’ relics which was composed in Greek by Philostratus soon after AD 217: it drew on earlier sources, hearsay and his own experience.28 The Neapolitans, he tells us, have made a ‘wonder’ out of the bones of Alcyoneus, a prime member of our modern Catalogue of Giants, one who was the oldest (some said) of the entire family and a captain in the Giants’ wars against the gods. The people of Naples say ‘that many of the Giants have been cast down there and that Vesuvius smokes on top of them’.29 Indeed they did, because we know quite separately that in August AD 79, when the volcano blackened the sky and destroyed Pompeii, ‘there were those who thought that the Giants were rising to revolt, for many of their forms were visible in the smoke and besides, a sound of trumpets could be heard…’30

Bones of Alcyoneus and his army continued to turn up from the region’s shallow crust and its Pleistocene prehistory. In the late fifteenth century, perhaps in the 1480s, the Renaissance humanist and antiquarian, the celebrated Giulio Pomponio Leto (1428–97), came down from Rome to the Phlegraean Fields and visited ancient Puteoli (Pozzuoli: Rione Terra) in the heartland of the Giants.31 He was the founder of the Roman Academy, the circle for lovers of the classical world; he called himself its Pontifex Maximus, or High Priest; he was imprisoned briefly by the suspicious Pope; he had travelled with fellow Academy members to the Christian catacombs on the outskirts of Rome where, below ground, he and his friends wrote graffiti on the walls, still visible, which commemorated their visits to bones they believed to be those of the martyrs. We now know that he left a longer and grander Latin graffito on the site of Puteoli’s Christian church of San Procolo. In 2003 Francesco Pisano published his brilliant discovery in Naples of the text of Pomponio Leto’s inscription, preserved in a German scholar’s re-edition of the Small Book of Wonders of the Civic Community of Puteoli and Neighbouring Places, first published in Latin in 1475, the first public guidebook in Italy. Pomponius Leto, we now know, wrote competent Latin elegiac verse on ‘the bones of the giants which are visible at Puteoli’. He struck the right note of wonder. ‘Whoever you are who comes, stupefied, to the bones of the Giants, learn why they have been piled beneath Etruscan soil.’ His explanation was classically accurate, as befitted the High Priest of classical learning. Heracles had driven off the ‘noxious crowd’ of Giants from the hill and citadel of Puteoli, the one which we, too, can visit. He had been returning home with his ‘captive herd’, the cattle which he had captured in faraway Spain. Some of the opposing Giants had escaped to Otranto, others to the Etruscans. Others had been killed on the spot. ‘Therefore kind posterity preserves the huge bodies and bears witness of such ancestors to the world.’

In the late fifteenth century, therefore, Pomponius, the ‘Pontifex Maximus’, had seen gigantic bones and marvelled at them by the church of San Procolo in Puteoli. Just as he had written graffiti beside the human bones in Christian catacombs, so now he wrote an explanation for tourists of the Giants’ bones at Puteoli and had it inscribed on, or near, stone blocks by the main church. The bones may have been known already to the ancients: the church of San Procolo stands on a venerable pre-Christian site and reused the stonework of the Temple of Augustus which had been built there in the early first century AD.32 Alternatively, the bones were discoveries which had been made more recently by farmers and travellers in the dinosaur-ridden Phlegraean Fields.

Pomponius’s classical learning is notable, as we should expect from the founder of the Roman Academy. Heracles’ involvement in the Bay of Naples battle was widely attested but the detachment of a cohort of Giants to Otranto was a rarer item. Pomponius had met it, we shall see, in the geographer Strabo. In the following century such a reading of big bones began to become controversial, as we can infer from discussions of the bones which were displayed locally in the gardens of a great palace built by the Spanish nobleman Pietro di Toledo. During the huge eruptions of Vesuvius in 1538 the old stories of the Giants, Typhon and their battles had sprung to educated minds. The bones in di Toledo’s palace may have been exposed during these upheavals, but learned opinion was changing and in the seventeenth century the connection with Giants was controversial: critics now dismissed them as the bones of whales.33

The Otranto cohort, nonetheless, was still perceptible. Strabo describes for us how they had taken refuge at the small town of Leuca, about 85 miles by sea from Tarentum, on the southern tip of Italy’s heel. Mother Earth had enveloped them there in a water-spring which was ‘foul-smelling’ from the ‘ichor’ of the Giants’ bodies, what we would call sulphur.34 This cohort of survivors were the ‘Leuternian Giants’. Strabo’s source was probably the learned Timaeus, himself from the Greek West: ‘Leuca’ lay on the tip of the heel of Italy, by the modern site of Sta Maria da Leuca and its caves, including a ‘Cave of the Giants’, with deposits of prehistoric bones, including bits of rhinoceros.35 Here, too, foul-smelling sulphurous springs and big prehistoric bones coexisted and testified to the Giants’ presence.

Traces of the last battle were also alleged, inevitably, in the far west near Tartessus (up the Rio Tinto beyond Huelva).36 Sicily, too, was fertile dinosaur-territory, well into the seventeenth century, but it was perhaps only the fine imagination of the late Roman poet Claudian to locate the ‘gaping jaws and prodigious skins’ of the Giants among thick trees in a forest near Etna’s summit where their ‘faces, fixed in the trees, still threaten cruelly’. There is no sign of them nowadays among the oaks and broom-trees.37 A much better known location lay in northern Greece on the most westerly of the three prongs of the Chalcidic peninsula, the one whose west coast looks across to south-east Macedon.

In antiquity Pallene on the southern sector of this peninsula was also known as ‘Phlegra’, as Herodotus had already discovered.38 This transfer of the name from Italy is most remarkable. The peninsula is not volcanic. There is not even a decent mountain, a fact which has perplexed our great connoisseur of Giants in Greek poetry, Francis Vian: nowhere, he rightly protested, is this ‘Phlegra’ more than 1,000 feet high.39 The ancients, however, were sure that it was a base for Giants. In the third century AD the geographer Solinus was quite explicit: at Pallene ‘traces of the Giants’ destruction continue to be seen to this day when torrents swell with rain and excess water breaks their banks and floods their fields. They say that even now in clefts and ravines people discover bones of immeasurable enormity.’ In the early third century, too, Philostratus was even more sure of the facts: ‘In Pallene, which the poets name Phlegra, the earth contains many such bodies of Giants who once camped there and many are revealed by storms and earthquakes. Not even a shepherd can be cheerful about that place when the ghosts clatter beneath it, the ones which are mad there.’40

Since 1994 we have at last understood what the ancients meant. When the road through Pallene began to be relaid through the hills of Mount Kassandra, three enormous teeth were unearthed by one of the Greek workmen, G. Miteloudis, near the modern village of Aghia Paraskevi. The teeth belonged to cousins of our elephants which had once stood some 15 feet high: ‘The traditional homeland of the mythical Giants turns out to be the old stomping-ground of the stupendous Deinotherium giganteum.’41 Here too the geology helped to confirm them. The teeth were found in deep beds of sand, near hot, sulphurous springs which are one of the village’s local assets. Further north, where the hills and woods begin, excavations between 1998 and 2007 have turned up bones of giraffes and mastodons and the jawbones of prehistoric monkeys, among many other species. They were found on the peninsula’s east-facing side, near the coast, and in 2002–4 yet more mastodon bones were found at nearby Fourka, just inland from the west-facing coast.42 We now have a ‘triangle’ of prehistoric sites with copious bones on the southern part of the Pallene peninsula. There are no scorched plains in the vicinity except for the pine-trees near modern Peukochora, burned by forest fires in summer. The hills by Aghia Paraskevi are green and wooded and roll peacefully on down to the sea on the south coast of the peninsula, but there is no doubt now why already before 480 BC Greeks had transferred the name of Phlegra to this place. As in the western Phlegraean Fields they had found bones of a brood of Giants at sites on the southward end of the peninsula: there were even some similar hot springs, smelling of sulphur. They explained the two locations sensibly. In the west, Phlegra was the battlefield of the Giants’ war with the gods: Zeus had scorched it with thunderbolts and it was still steaming and smelling from the dead and wounded. In northern Greece, Phlegra–Pallene was the Giants’ base-camp where they had bred and gathered, preparing for their big fight. Some of them had died there too and their bones and steaming presence were still visible.

The Pallene Giants also had some outliers. Our lists of ancient Giants need to include spectacular evidence, word of which reached post-classical Europe in late autumn 1691. Eighteen miles from Thessalonica, at a village called Cailloubella, the skeleton of a ‘Giant’ was discovered and carefully verified by order of the French consul. The skull was found intact with a tooth which weighed 15 pounds: the arm-bone was enormously thick.43 The find was the talk of Paris in an age when the historicity of Giants was becoming ever more controversial.44 Who could deny this latest example, though nobody thought to connect it with the ancient Phlegra and its base-camp? Giants in this plain had been readily accessible to early Greek settlers, traders and visitors at sites near the coast of the Thermaic Gulf. Further inland the ancients also placed the awesome ‘Almops’, whose traces have been restored to us since 1990. Up in the Barnous mountains north-west of the Macedonian capital of Pella, a series of ‘bear-caves’ have been explored at Loutra, yielding big bones of the cave-bear, a leopard and other large mammals. Along the bottom of the gorge runs the ‘Hot River’ (Thermopotamos), linking the finds of big prehistoric animals with hot springs and here too with steaming ‘evidence’ of Giants buried underground.45 Since 1990, the western kin of ‘Almops’ have also been located at Macedonian sites near modern Grevena. They include the skeleton of a straight-tusked elephant and at Milia, about 10 miles to the north, the spectacular tusks of mammoths, including a pair of tusks, found in 2007, which rank as the longest so far known in the world.46 If the ancients had been aware of them, they would have had to locate a war of Giants and elephants in this upper hill-kingdom, source of some of Alexander’s most notorious officers and infantry.

The lands which became the Macedon of Philip and Alexander were underpinned by famous Giants, clustered in base-camp and scattered along a trail through the river-plains and mountains to the west and north-west.47 Nonetheless, in antiquity, the claims of the two Phlegras, one in north Greece, one in Italy, were eventually contested by other candidates. An alternative battlefield was claimed in Arcadia: Arcadian evidence confronted the travelling Pausanias when he visited the sites while compiling his ‘guidebook’ in the second century AD. The earth was said to smoulder near Megalopolis: in its temple of Asclepius, Pausanias saw the huge bones of a Giant, the very one, he was told, who had helped to protect mother Rhea against child-consuming Cronos when she arrived in Arcadia with the infant Zeus in her arms.48 There was excellent local evidence for this story. Bones of all sorts of prehistoric animals had been found in the ground, and near Megalopolis itself there were mines of lignite. Nowadays they belong to a Greek power-company: as Adrienne Mayor observes, ‘these same combustible lignite deposits’, formerly the graves of smouldering Giants, ‘provide modern Greeks with electricity’.49

Arcadia was a strident alternative, but how do we explain the two separate Phlegras in Italy and northern Greece and the ancient perceptions which underlay them? The answer is beautifully clear: they go back to our travelling heroes, Euboeans of the eighth century who had spanned all the links in the chain.50 Like their pottery, they had already visited the coastal plain near modern Thessalonica where we still find outlying corpses of Giants and where the French consul’s informant in 1691 saw one with his own eyes. Above all, on the northern peninsula of Pallene their pottery had long been reaching coastal sites, including Scione on the sea by the Phlegra caches of dinosaurs. By the 730s BC they had settled at Mende by the long, magnificent beach which sweeps along the coastline just to the west of the Giants’ base-camp near modern Aghia Paraskevi.51 They had walked a few miles inland from their acropolis-site at Vigla and had looked and marvelled at the local bones and bits of skeletons of an ‘immeasurable enormity’. They also saw Giants’ hot, gasping breath coming up in the nearby sulphur-springs. There had been Euboean contact with the bay here for some two centuries, before a formal foundation of Mende which was later dated c. 730 BC. The founders were Euboean Eretrians.

Like their famous wine, their kinsmen and their drinking-cups, Eretrians from Mende travelled widely: no doubt they sometimes travelled with Euboeans from their common home, going west up the coast of Greece to Corcyra where fellow-Eretrians had settled since c. 750 BC and across the open sea to the heel of Italy at modern Otranto and on down the coast of the Salento peninsula to Leuca, the tip of Italy’s heel. Here too on the modern Punta Ristola, at the western edge of Leuca’s bay, there were caves with apparent bones of Giants and, just inland, another sulphurous, evil-smelling spring in which fugitive Giants, plainly, were sweating from wounds sustained in their battle further west. Scenting Giants, Euboean sailors travelled on round Italy’s toe, up through the straits to the Bay of Naples and to the site of their settlement at Cumae (perhaps first settled in c. 750 BC). Just to the east of its territory lay the crowning evidence, the sulphurous thunderbolted landscape of the Phlegraean Fields. It was still steaming from Zeus’s weapons and the Giants buried beneath it. Offshore, meanwhile, on Ischia lay monstrous Typhon, tossing and turning under punishment and stretching as far as Sicilian Etna. The entire volcanic landscape made sense in terms of the wars of the gods.

Some of these same Euboean travellers had gone east to our Cypro–Levantine triangle, to the plain of Cilicia which later claimed to have Giants and to the mouth of the Orontes river where workmen would later find the body of another Giant, from India. In this region they would travel up from the plain of Unqi to the Syrian Gates and then down on the further side of the pass to their Posideion on the Bay of Issus. As their road left the plain of Unqi for the Cedar and Box-tree Mountains, it passed by ‘Pahri’ and its outlying rocks, the Pagras of Greek topographers, by the ‘Pagric Mountains’. Here, even in c. 300 BC, Seleucus was believed to have found the bodies of Pagras the Giant and other Giants killed by the gods. Their bones were visible, just as such bones would have been visible to Euboeans and their fellow-travellers on this land-route in the eighth century BC.

Across the Mediterranean these Euboeans made brilliant sense of the enormous bones they found. Giants had once ruled and fought in Syria, as Near Eastern stories said; they had gathered in base-camp on Pallene’s peninsula; they had fought the gods and died or been buried in the Phlegraean Fields near Naples: a cohort had escaped, though wounded, and was hidden, still sweating, in the foul-smelling water by Leuca on the heel of Italy.

Euboeans were ‘stupefied’, no doubt, by these traces of Giants: how did they relate them to their own times? Centuries later the erudite Pliny the Elder was to argue from such huge bones that men were becoming smaller as the conflagration of the world was approaching and ‘consuming’ the former abundance of men’s ‘seed’.52 His view was supported by St Augustine, himself a great believer in Giants’ relics: he had been to inspect a Giant’s tooth, he tells us, which was as big as a hundred normal teeth, and had been found near Utica, that ancient Phoenician foundation of the ninth to eighth centuries BC.53 There was also a scriptural complication, words falsely ascribed to the biblical Ezra. The Lord God, their author wrongly claimed, told Ezra to ponder the consequences of women who gave birth in their later age. ‘Ask a woman that beareth children and she shall tell thee…They that be born in the strength of youth are of one fashion and they that are born in the time of age, when the womb faileth, are otherwise. Consider therefore thou also, how that ye are less of stature than those that were before you.’ In our ageing world, future children would be even smaller, ‘born to a creature [the world] which is past the strength of youth’.54 Biblical biology is at its mistaken best here, refuted daily by late-bearing females and their chunky babies in the modern West. In the fifteenth century, however, Christian observers reached another sombre conclusion: plainly men’s seed had become cooler and much less plentiful, because the seed that fathered such huge Giants in the past must have been abundant and hot.55 Nobody discussed whether women were also contracting and narrowing.

Euboeans were not yet troubled by thoughts of an ageing world or fears that their sperm was cooling and dwindling. The Giants, they believed, had been born from superhuman seed: it had dropped to earth in the blood of castrated Heaven. Humans could not hope to compete with a heavenly emission. Subsequently there had been an age of heroes, as Euboeans knew from their poets, when men were bigger and stronger and ‘not as mortals nowadays’. In the days of the Trojan War there had been gods too, who were found to be at least 700 yards long when wounded on earth.56 But they belonged to a separate age: their existence was not evidence that post-heroic mortals were becoming smaller by the year. There was no problem, either, about the precise age in which each individual Giant had lived, whether before or after the Flood. For Christians, it was a crucial question. As Scripture showed, the antediluvian Giants were the real monsters, brutal, tyrannical and (on biblical evidence) extremely keen on sodomy. There was only one virtuous pre-Flood Giant: Noah. After the Flood, Giants reappeared, but they were smaller and more moderate Giants like the biblical king Og.57

Lacking Scripture and its problems, Euboeans were not bothered by the type of Giant they found. In one titanic lifetime, from the 780s to the 720s BC, they had discovered what none of the other mainland Greeks knew. They had located in the New West what they had (re)learned in the Old East, transferring items in myth from one end of their world to the other. No autochthonous, stay-at-home Athenian, no eastward-looking lord of Miletus, no horse-riding squire of Thessaly knew any of what they had heard and seen, from the ancient songs on Mount Hazzi to the long-lost lands of Mopsus, from one Arima and Phlegra to the other across the swelling sea. The gods had fought and won victories where only these Euboeans knew, connoisseurs of the trail of the succession-struggles in heaven. But those years were also formative years for the masterpieces of Greek poetry, the epics of Homer and the near-contemporary poems by Hesiod. What the Euboeans had discovered relates differently to the horizons of each of these poems: it is to them, finally, we need to return and add one final relic to the Euboeans’ trail across their world.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!