(Greek: gigas gigant-) Giants have large bodies, much bigger than human bodies, but proportionate. Proportion distinguishes them from other monstrous types, whose hypertrophy is related to missing organs (for example, the Cyclops has a single hypertrophic eye, precisely because he does not have two). The absence of a fair proportion or size is a clear allusion to moral excess, associated with hubris as a characteristic feature of anthropomorphic giants. Giants are hideous, since evil always goes hand in hand with the idea of ugliness, according to the Platonic binomial pulchrum/bonum. They have thick hair, a bristly beard, and, in Classical Antiquity, serpents instead of legs, a feature that disappears by the Middle Ages. Giants’ excessive size, ugliness and deformity afford them a place beside other monstrous beings.
Literary gigantism, and the resulting representations in plastic arts, was also applied to some animals and plants from faraway lands.
Gigantism as a congenital disorder is caused by excessive growth of the pituitary gland, and has spurred the imagination of many different monsters.
In his Theogony, Hesiod mentions the birth of these beings from Uranus’ blood and Gaia (Hes., Theog., 183 ff.), but the first work that depicts the battle of giants against gods is Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca (Apo, Bib., I, 6, 1 ff.). Later on, it also appears in an incomplete poem by Claudius Aelianus called Gigantomachy (only 128 verses have reached us) and in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Ovi, Met., I, 151-162), and it has been widely represented in plastic arts. Isidore of Seville begins by describing giants individually, but then considers them as a whole, that is to say, as forming part of a monstrous race (Isidore of Seville, Etym., xi, 12, 13, 14).
Giants are included among the archetypical monsters that heroes have to fight in their journey. In the Middle Ages, giants became tyrants, castle owners and abductors of maidens. Their teratological features are their larger than usual size, extraordinary strength and extreme hubris, which often leads to their hapless end, since even if the hero is comparatively inferior in physical terms, he is, instead, superior in spiritual terms, and this is the reason why he eventually beats the giant.
The Old Testament mentions the Nephilim race, a Hebrew-derived lexem that was translated at different points as ‘giants’, although on some occasions the Hebrew term was retained. The biblical race of the Nephilim or giants could be related with the most instinctive aspects of human nature. Also, they are etymologically associated with ‘the fallen’, since in biblical Apocrypha giants fought the Archangels. According to the tradition, the last surviving giants disappeared in the Deluge. In the Book of Genesis, Noah’s story reads as follows: “gigantes autem erant super terram in diebus illis postquam enim ingressi sunt filii Dei ad filias hominum illaeque genuerunt isti sunt potentes a saeculo viri famosi” (Gen. 6: 4). Exegetes have seen in this verse an allusion to the folklore tradition that described the birth of giants as the result of the union of gods and mortals. However, the best-remembered event involving giants is the confrontation between David and Goliath (I Sam. 16-17). Additionally, in the medieval tradition Saint Christopher is represented either as a giant or as a cynocephalus, while his relics (a tower-high fang, a man’s fist-sized molar tooth) are consistent with a huge size (da Varagine, The Golden Legend, and Torquemada, Garden of Peculiar Flowers, 118).
Regarding gigantism as a congenital disorder, we find “giants” well into the 20th century in circus performances, together with other “monstrous” subjects, such as bearded women, dwarves, Siamese twins, etc. Robert Wadlow (1918-1940), known as the Alton Giant or the Giant of Illinois, has gone down in history as the world’s tallest man (his height was 8 ft 11.1 in and his weight, 490 lb), as a result of hyperplasia of his pituitary gland.
Evidence and Images
Fig. 2: Virgil Solis (ca. 1580), engraving for an edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Fig. 3: Giant snail. The Rutland Psalter, England, ca. 1260. British Library.
Fig. 4: David with the head of Goliath, by Michelangelo Caravaggio (ca. 1600). Oil on canvas, 110.4 x 91.3 cm. Prado Museum.
Apollodorus. Biblioteca [Bibliotheca]. Introduction by Javier Arce. Translation and notes by Margarita Rodríguez de Sepúlveda. Madrid, Gredos, 1985.
Da Varagine, Jacobus. La leyenda dorada [The Golden Legend]. Spanish version by J. Bayo. París, Garnier Hermanos, s/d.
Hesiod. “Teogonía” [Theogony], in Obras y fragmentos [Works and Fragments]. Introduction, translation and notes by Aurelio Pérez Jiménez and Alfonso Martín Díez. Madrid, Gredos, 1990.
Isidore of Seville. Etimologías [Etymologies]. Madrid, BAC. Edited by Luis Cortés y Góngora, and Santiago Montero Díaz, 1951.
Orsanic, Lucía. “Grandes dessemejados: La recreación caballeresca del tópico del gigante, a la luz de motivo bíblico-mitológico” [Big hideous creatures: the chivalrous recreation of the topic of the giant, in light of the biblical-mythological motif]. Stylos 19, XIX. Buenos Aires, Instituto de Estudios Grecolatinos “Prof. F. Novoa”, Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, Universidad Católica Argentina, (2010): 173-196.
Orsanic, Lucía. “Monstruos cortesanos: A propósito de los gigantes y su evolución funcional, en fuentes medievales y del Siglo de Oro”[Court monsters: giants and their functional evolution in medieval and Golden Age sources]. In Actas de las XV Jornadas Internacionales de Estudios Medievales y XXV Curso de Actualización en Historia Medieval; Santiago Barreiro and Dolores Castro (eds.), Buenos Aires, Sociedad Argentina de Estudios Medievales (2017): 141-149.
Pliny the Elder. Historia natural [Natural History]. Books I-II. General introduction by Guy Serbat. Translation and notes by Antonio Fontán, Ana María Moure Casas et al. Madrid, Gredos, Volume I, 1985.
Pliny the Elder. Historia natural [Natural History]. Books III-VI. Translation and notes by Antonio Fontán, Ignacio García Arribas, Encarnación del Barrio, María Luisa Arribas. Madrid, Gredos, Volume II, 1998.
Pliny the Elder. Historia natural [Natural History]. Books VII-XI. Translation and notes by E. del Barrio Sanz, I. García Arribas, A. Ma. Moure Casas, L. A. Hernández Miguel, Ma. L. Arribas Hernáez. Madrid, Gredos, Volume III, 2003.
Pliny the Elder. Historia natural [Natural History]. Books XII-XVI. Translation and notes by F. Manzanero Cano, I. García Arribas, Ma. L. Arribas Hernáez, A. Ma. Moure Casas, J. L. Sancho Bermejo. Madrid, Gredos, Volume IV, 2010.
Pliny. Historia natural [Natural History]. Edited by Jerónimo de la Huerta. Madrid, Luis Sánchez Impresor, 1624.
Torquemada, Antonio de. Jardín de las flores curiosas [Garden of Peculiar Flowers]. Edited by Enrique Suárez Figaredo, in Lemir, 16: 605-834, 2002.
Lucía Orsanic. Universidad Católica Argentina