"Fee fi fo fum- I smell the blood of an Englishman, Be he alive, or be he dead I'll grind his bones to make my bread" This rhyme is famously found in the English fairy tale jack and the beanstalk, in which the titular character jack comes into conflict with a being of enormous size, a giant. The trope of giants is not an uncommon one, seen variously throughout mythology, folklore, and fairytales alike. Today we talk about giants.
What are Giants?
Giants are generally described as a human-like race characterized by their extraordinary size and strength. Almost every culture around the world makes some mention of beings like this. The word and name giant originate from the Gigantes, an enormous race of beings found in greek mythology. In 1297 the name Gigantes was shortened to just giant, and it stuck ever since. So, what exactly counts as a giant, just anything that happens to be really big?
It’s important to clarify what is and isn’t considered a giant. For example across their many different incarnations giants are distinct from gods, even though such goods are also commonly depicted as being great in size. Giants are also strictly humanoid, so enormous beasts like dragons are simply gigantic monsters but not true giants.
Yes, anything that is particularly big could be considered giant, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a giant. And finally, giants are also distinctly predatory towards humans, viewing us as a food source similar to livestock.
Many of us are probably familiar with giants as they’ve been depicted in media, most prominently in fairy tales and their retellings, and perhaps the most famous of these tales is a jack and the beanstalk. In this story, jack naively trades the family cow for a handful of magical beans, which end up growing a beanstalk so massive and tall that it reaches the heavens and leads jack to a massive castle in the sky, home to none other than a mighty giant named blunderbore. It is here we’re told the famous line
fee fi fo fum- i smell the blood of an englishman, be he alive, or be he dead. I'll grind his bones to make my bread.
This beginning phrase actually has meaning behind it, essentially translating to mean “behold: food, good to eat, sufficient for my hunger!” blunderbore is depicted as a sort of villain who primarily lives off of eating cattle and even children that he’s stolen from the world below, he later gets his comeuppance after chasing jack and falling from the beanstalk to his death, with jack and his poor mother living off the giant’s riches in an almost robin-hood like fashion.
However, this is very different from how things went in the earlier tale, jack the giant killer, in which the titular jack uses his cunning wit to outsmart and ultimately slay nine different giants over the course of the story. While the giants in this story were still depicted negatively, jack had a much more antagonistic role going out of his way to kill them.
While fairy tales are certainly more mainstream, they’re far from where giants originated. As stated earlier, tales of enormous humanoids have cropped up all over the world and all throughout history. Greek mythology for example is rich with myths of giants. Spawning the name giants was a race of great and powerful beings who were so large and strong that they rivaled even the Olympian gods, born from the god of the sky and goddess of the earth.
The giants frequently battled with the titans over supremacy, a conflict that became known as the gigantomachy, said by many to be the most important conflict in all of Greek mythology. The titans ultimately defeated the giants and asserted themselves as rulers of the cosmos.
But these giants weren’t the only offspring of Gaia and Uranus. Besides the giants and the titans, the couple also begot the cyclopes, a race of singular-eyed beings, and the centimeters or hundred-handed ones, a race known for their absurd number of arms. Besides their unique body features, these races were known for being of incredible size. And finally, in the odyssey, Odysseus encounters a tribe of giants called the Laestrygonians, a barbaric race of man-eaters who descended from Poseidon's son laestrygon. These brutes hurled huge rocks that destroyed 11 of the 12 ships Odysseus was sailing with, catching and eating the sailors who fell from the wreckage.
The Bible and the Middle East
Several notable giants can also be found in the religions that sprouted up in the middle east, such as in Christianity. Goliath for example was a mighty soldier mentioned in the book of Samuel, a philistine giant who was famously defeated by the small and young David. The name Goliath is sometimes used now as a synonym for giant, however, he was actually much smaller than some of the other giants mentioned in this episode.
He is variously described as 4 or 6 cubits and a span, or 6 to 9 feet and 9 inches. While dwarfed by the likes of the earlier mentioned cyclopes or blunderbore, goliath was by most accounts simply a human of abnormally great size. This human mortality is best shown when David slings a rock into goliath’s forehead, knocking him unconscious and allowing David to finish him off. This is tale is famously used to exemplify how the underdog can overcome overwhelming odds.
The bible also makes mention of a race known as the Nephilim, a warrior-like race of giants resulting from the union between angels and humans. Now, the Nephilim are not universally accepted in all forms of the biblical canon, many iterations of the bible instead translate them simply as giants, and their most prominent descriptions come from the book of Enoch, a book that is generally excluded or omitted from most versions of the bible.
In Hebrew myth, the Nephilim were so mighty that they were populating the earth in great numbers and threatened to wipe out humanity, forcing god to ultimately exterminate them by enacting the great flood. Finally, the Hebrew myth also describes a giant being known as the golem. The golem isn’t a traditional giant like the others mentioned in this episode, as he is an alone figure created artificially rather than a member of some gigantic race. Additionally, he didn’t start out gigantic, he had to grow to such size over time, and he certainly didn’t eat people.
Further north we start seeing another popular example of giants, one still strongly believed in even to this day: trolls. Known as the Jotnar in Norse mythology and a staple of Scandinavian folklore, trolls are a peculiar race said to descend from Ymir, a primordial giant whose slain corpse is said to comprise the earth itself.
Similarly, the trolls are described as basically being animate rocks and soil, oftentimes with foliage growing out of them. Like with the giants of Greece and the Nephilim in the bible, trolls were regularly at war with the gods who intended to eradicate them, forcing them to hide away in desolate regions of wilderness and mountainous areas where they could live in peace. While this generally limited their contact with us, they were said to have preyed upon humans as a food source, in particular, Christians were said to be the tastiest.
Other European Mythology
In France, they had myths of ogres, a race that usually wasn’t as big as the other examples mentioned, but still larger than humans on average. Ogres were also said to uniquely prey upon children and infants. The giant blunderbore mentioned earlier is sometimes said to have been an ogre. And finally, in the British isles, there lives a unique kind of fairy called the spriggan. Said to actually be the ghosts of giants, spriggans basically act as guardians who protect nature as well as look after treasure or other sacred artifacts.
Tales of giants can also be found in the far east, especially Japan. Perhaps their most famous example is the Oni, a sort of demon spawned from wicked souls. In Buddhist mythology oni serve as the workforce in hell, carrying out punishments and torturing the damned souls. Rarely oni may be found on earth, the result of humans being so absolutely evil that they transform into these monsters, often living in the wilderness and eating any people they come across.
In more modern folklore we see the gashadokuro, a kind of yokai that resembles a giant skeleton. Rather than a singular entity, each gashadokuro is said to be made up of hundreds of vengeful human souls, such as those slain on a battlefield and not given a proper burial. Fueled by anger and hatred, these lumbering skeletons stalk the countryside in search of travelers, whom they of course intend to kill and eat. You can tell when a gashadokuro is near as they’ll cause a distinct ringing in your ear, getting louder the closer they get. There’s also the daidarabotchi, the largest figure in Japanese mythology.
These guys are so big they’re said to be responsible for most of the geographical features in japan, such as creating lakes with their footprints or gathering rocks together to form entire mountains. In fact, some were said to pick up and move existing mountains to other locations. Their name means giant priest, as they’re said to resemble priests and monks who at the time had bald heads. This is a similarity they share with another yokai, the Umi bozu, or sea-monk, giants who stood up from the ocean floor and would sink ships that got too close to them.
It should be expected that different cultures of the old world could influence each other and swap stories back and forth, but what’s surprising is how the new world also had its share of mythical giants, totally independent from those found in Europe, the middle east, and Asia.
A famous example of native American giants comes from the myth of the wendigo, a sort of ravenous ice monster. Rather than their own distinct race, wendigos were actually said to start out as ordinary humans who committed the taboo of cannibalism, allowing them to be overtaken by evil supernatural forces and causing their body to grow in proportion to how much they consume.
Sometimes to combat the wendigos, local tribesmen and warriors could call upon gods or powerful guardian spirits to similarly enlarge themselves to gigantic sizes, allowing them to fight the monsters on equal footing. Outside of myths, however, north America has an interesting history regarding giant humanoids. Dotted across the landscape of North America are large earthen mounds dating back nearly 5,000 years, believed to serve a range of purposes such as burials and ceremonies.
While the modern belief today is that these were of course built by various Native American tribes, early American colonists believed them to have been constructed by much older people, ones of, particularly great size. And this idea wasn’t entirely unfounded, some tribes at the time would speak of such giants, describing them with fair skin and red hair. While some today take this description as possibly referring to Vikings, other descriptions of these giants said they uniquely carried a second row of teeth in their mouth and 6 digits on each hand, suggesting that they weren’t human.
In 1897 the new york times published an article detailing the supposed discovery of a 9-foot tall human skeleton, recovered from inside one of these earthen mounds. Another mound was also said to have contained a multitude of large bones and skulls, bones large enough to suggest the completed figures to hold a height of around 14 feet. Even more interesting was a speech was given by President Abraham Lincoln in 1848 during his visit to Niagara Falls.
the eyes of that species of extinct giants, whose bones fill the mounds of america, have gazed on niagara, as ours do now.
This has been quoted as evidence that even the likes of the president held belief in such beings. However, this excerpt from the speech is being taken out of context. He went on to say
the mammoth and mastodon – now so long dead, that fragments of their monstrous bones, alone testify, that they ever lived, have gazed on niagara.
Indicating that when he mentioned ‘extinct giants’ filling the mounds he was referring to dinosaurs, not humongous humanoids. While lincoln knew better, it wasn’t uncommon for the discoverers of prehistoric remains to incorrectly speculate on their origins, with fragments of incomplete colossal skeletons causing imaginations to run wild, leading to myths of things like dragons, thunderbirds, and of course giants. But not all findings were the product of mistaken identity, some were acts of deception.
Myths of giants may have been around forever, but con artists and charlatans have been around for just as long. Without any hard science to verify their claims, it wasn’t unheard of that people could gather together the bones of whales or elephants and rearrange them to resemble something entirely different. This was taken a step further on October 16, 1869, when a most peculiar figure was unearthed in Cardiff, new york. Worker Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols were hired by Mr. William newell to dig a well behind his barn, and what they found took the nation by surprise.
A petrified human being approximately 10 feet from head to toe. It wasn’t long until newell had set up the giant as an attraction, charging 25 and later 50 cents for admission just to take a look at it. This cash cow didn’t last, however, as after 2 months of controversy newell eventually revealed that his giant was a hoax all along, a statue created by newell’s cousin and planted in the ground for them to find.
With all of that said, it may sound like giants are all but restricted to the realm of either fantasy or fiction, however, this isn’t exactly the case. There are in fact many different ways for gigantism to occur in the real world. Many factors directly contribute to the maximum size of a given organism. One of these is oxygen, the key component of respiration, and a fundamental element for sustaining life. With more available oxygen an organism can maintain a larger size without such a worry for exhaustion, and this led to many organisms of incredible size in ancient times when earth’s o2 content was much richer.
Most notably dinosaurs and many classes of prehistoric insects and arthropods, which reached sizes never seen since. Another factor is something called the square-cube law, the basic idea that as the surface area of an object increases, the mass of the object increases exponentially more, inevitably reaching a point where the weight of the object cannot be supported by the structural strength of the object, leading it to collapse under its own weight.
Since organic life is mainly restricted to the same materials of bone and flesh, there’s a limited number of ways these materials can be arranged before hitting the roadblock of the square-cube law, unable to grow any larger without weakening the organism. A workaround to this however is buoyancy, in particular the difference between that of air vs water. The greater density of water means undersea organisms have more buoyancy than their land counterparts and thus can reach sizes otherwise not possible.
Perhaps best exemplified by the blue whale, which is understood to be the largest organism to ever roam the earth. This also leads to an interesting phenomenon known as deep-sea gigantism. The deeper one travels underwater, the greater the pressure becomes, and with that comes organisms of increasing size built to survive in the crushing depths.
The bottom of the deep sea is still vastly unexplored, even less so than the surface of the moon, so the limits of what nature is hiding down there is a mystery. There’s also something in nature known as island gigantism, a phenomenon in which animals left to evolve independently in isolated ecosystems such as those of remote islands have a tendency to grow larger than their mainland counterparts. Exactly why this occurs is still poorly understood, but it suggests more factors contribute to gigantism beyond simple biological constraints.
Constraints aside, there’s an ancient animal known to science that very closely fits the description of the giants of myth, a now extinct primate fittingly named gigantopithecus. Discovered from fossils and bone fragments in 1935, these beasts stood roughly 3 meters in height and weighed up to 600 kg. Their dental record suggests that they primarily ate vegetation, but some argue they may have been opportunistic omnivores, consuming meat when available to them.
And if modern-day apes are anything to go by, that diet would include cannibalism as well as other species of apes, or for the purpose of this discussion, humans. What’s more, these behemoths went extinct as recently as 100 thousand years ago, overlapping with other ancient hominids like homoerectus.
While this is significantly further back than oral history can survive, there’s a remote possibility that ancient legends concerning giant humanoids may have a basis in reality, at least in the sense that our ancestors encountering these giants may have given rise to cultural memory, an ingrained fear that has survived in the form of modern myths and legends.
While gigantopithecus is thought to belong extinct, it’s worth noting that they’re sometimes brought up as an explanation for various bigfoot sightings or similar, bringing forth the idea that such primates may continue to walk this earth in secret even today. If this were true, then they would likely lead not only to myths of bigfoot but perhaps also many myths of other giants mentioned earlier.
But those are all examples from the animal kingdom, and as discussed at the beginning of the episode true giants were always very human in appearance. Even going by our more restrictive definition of a giant we do have real historical examples of what many would consider being giant humans. The tallest human in history, at least by modern accounts, was a man named Robert Wadlow. Known locally as the giant of Illinois or the Alton giant, he stood at an incredible 8 feet 11 inches and weighed 439 lbs. Like many others of his size, Robert's condition known as gigantism was characterized by an abnormality on his pituitary gland, the part of the brain which regulates human growth hormone.
More of this hormone of course means more growth, so while Robert was born an ordinary-sized infant he simply never stopped growing, reaching five feet six inches when he entered kindergarten at the age of 5.
However, there’s a reason our bodies are supposed to stop growing after we reach maturity. As mentioned earlier the square-cube law puts a mechanical limit on the sizes an object can reach before collapsing. With Robert's height and weight, tremendous amounts of pressure were constantly exerted on his legs and lower body. He required artificial leg braces just to walk normally and had lost all feeling in his feet. After some related health complications, Robert died at the young age of only 22.
As far as giants are concerned, Wadlow's case isn’t unique, with many people of such great sizes having very decreased life spans. Our current medical understanding suggests that beings of such a size shouldn’t be able to live for very long, or at the very least would be hindered by their size and be more feeble than mighty.
However some phenomena like island gigantism suggest there are more factors at play than what we currently know, so there might be a glimmer of hope that giants may have truly once loomed over the ancient earth.