Giants

The remaining category of articulate creature recognized in the Alvissmal and the Edda generally, besides the ^sir, Vanir, mankind, Elves, and Dwarfs, is that of the Giants (Igtnar). Giants appear as a class also in Greek and Ossetic mythology, and individual giants in Celtic, Baltic, and Slavonic. Great size is hardly a significant unifying feature in itself, but perhaps we can identify other motifs that may suggest elements of a shared heritage.

Giants differ from nymphs, elves, and other groups that we have been considering in that they do not live in the countryside around us but in a remoter, separate region: the sprites that we are liable to see in the wild are our own size or smaller. Giants are essentially figures of story, not objects of superstitious fear, and they do not receive offerings, as nymphs and other sprites often do. They are often treated as extinct. In the stories they are always worsted, or at any rate kept in their place. They have tremendous physical strength in proportion to their size, and an aggressive, bullying nature, but no subtlety of mind.

The Nart heroes of Caucasian legend fought various enemies, among them the giants who formerly dwelt in the mountains. The land where the giants lived, according to one Abkhaz account, was encircled by a massive stone wall. They were generally conceived to be one-eyed, like the Greek Cyclopes, and indeed one of the Nart stories closely parallels Odysseus' adventure with Polyphemus.64 This is, of course, a folk-tale with a wide distribution and not a

62 A. Kuhn, ZVS 4 (1855), 109 f.; E. H. Meyer, Anzeigerfur deutsches Altertum 13 (1887), 31-6; id., Germanische Mythologie (Berlin 1891), 124; Dronke (1997), 261-3; E. C. Polome in EIEC 177b. Meyer compares the Rbhus' feat in dividing the gods' cup into four with the dwarf Eitri's forging of the gold ring Draupnir, which became nine rings every ninth night (Skaldsk. 35).

63 Cf. A. Kuhn, ZVS 4 (1855), 114; M. Estell, JIES 27 (1999), 327-33.

64 Sikojev (1985), 54-60, 322; Colarusso (2002), 163, 170 n. 1, 200 f., 362.

strong candidate for Indo-European status.65 One-eyed giants also occur in Irish and Lithuanian tales.66

Hesiod (Th. 185) associates the birth of 'the great Gigantes' with that of the tree nymphs and the Erinyes, all sprung from the drops of blood that fell on the earth when Ouranos was castrated by Kronos. The Gigantes' bellicose nature was at once apparent, as they were in shining armour and brandishing spears. In the Odyssey (7. 59, 206) they are mentioned as an uncivilized and overbearing folk who belong to the same world as the Cyclopes and the peace-loving Phaeacians, dwelling somewhere in the outer regions of the earth (cf. 6. 4 f.). Later sources refer to their conflict with the gods, in which Heracles' assistance gave the gods the victory.

There are others in Greek epic myth besides the Gigantes that we must class as giants: the Cyclopes, who for Hesiod are the artificers of Zeus' thunder; the Hundred-Handers, who assisted the Olympians against the Titans (Hes. Th. 147-53, 617-75, 713-35); and the Laestrygones, who lived far away, close to the paths of Night and Day, and were 'not like men but like Gigantes' (Od. 10. 86, 120). One thing that unites these three groups, apart from their body mass, is that they all hurl huge boulders. Polyphemus hurls a couple at Odysseus' departing ship; the Laestrygonians hurl a large number down on the ships moored in their harbour; and it is with a hail of mighty rocks that the Hundred-Handers overwhelm the Titans. At Cyzicus in the Propontis there was a local legend that the massive stone blocks which formed the wall of one of the harbours had been thrown there by six-armed giants from the hills (Ap. Rhod. 1. 942-5, 989-1002).

The motif appears also in Ossetic, Celtic, Germanic, and Baltic tradition. A group of Narts on a long expedition, overtaken by night, bed down in what they take to be a cave. In the morning they find that it was the shoulderblade (or in another version the skull) of an enormous giant from a past age. They pray to God for the owner of the skeleton to come back to life, only blind so that he cannot harm them. The prayer is granted. The Narts enquire of the resuscitated ogre how the giants used to compete with one another. He invites one of them to stand on one side of the valley, and he will throw a rock at him from the other side. Soslan sets his cloak on the hillside, shouts that he is ready, and makes himself scarce. The blind giant hurls a large rock at the voice

65 Cf. D. L. Page, The Homeric Odyssey (Oxford 1955), 1-20; id., Folktales in Homer's Odyssey (Cambridge Mass. 1973), 23-48; J. Glenn, TAPA 102 (1971), 133-81; R. Mondi, ibid. 113 (1983), 17-38; J. N. O'Sullivan, Symbolae Osloenses 62 (1987), 5-24.

66 Dillon (1948), 46 n. 19; O'Rahilly (1946), 330 f. (the Polyphemus theme); Greimas (1992), 139. Grimm (1883-8), 1440, refers to a Norwegian folk-tale in which three trolls share a single eye, just like the Greek Graiai. Here one may suspect direct Classical influence, perhaps from Ov. Met. 4. 775.

and flattens the cloak. The Narts tell him that he has killed a man, which pleases him greatly.67

The Foawr of Manx legend are another group of stone-throwing giants. In an Eddic poem Thor recalls how he was in the east (where Giantland was located) and was pelted with stones by the sons of Svârang. The giant Hrungnir, whose story was mentioned in the last chapter, used a whetstone as a missile. In certain German and Lithuanian folk-tales giants throw stones and stone tools over great distances.68 Many of these stories presumably served to account for particular rocks and boulders lying about in the landscape.

The Germanic giants are known to us largely from Eddic mythology, though the Norse words içtunn and purs have cognates in Old English and continental German, so that the concepts they denoted must once have been common to the whole or a large part of the Germanic area.69 The içtnar live in their own province, Iotunheim. They appear as a somewhat backward people, physically powerful, insensitive, and unruly. They are the prime target of Thor's hammer, which kills them off at a sufficient rate to prevent their taking over the world.

Multiple heads and limbs

Sometimes the giants are represented as having three or more heads. In the cosmogonic account in Vafprudnismâl (33) their ancestor is a six-headed son of Ymir. In Hymiskvida Tyr is disconcerted on meeting his giantess grandmother, who has nine hundred heads (8), and later in the poem (35) a crowd of giants is called 'an army of many-headed ones'. Thor slew these, and in another episode the nine-headed Thrivaldi (Bragi, Ragnarsdrâpa 20). When the giantess GerSr refuses Freyr's suit, his page Skirnir pronounces a series of choice curses on her, including 'with a three-headed purs you shall ever live on, or else be husbandless' (Skirnismâl 31). A purs is basically a demon rather than a giant, but the distinction is not sharp.70

Multiple heads are a characteristic of grotesque beings in many traditions. In the last chapter we passed safely by the three-headed Indo-Iranian dragon

67 G. Dumézil, Légendes sur les Nartes (Paris 1930), 146; a variant version in Sikojev (1985), 282-4.

68 J. MacKillop (as n. 37), 211; Hârbarôzliôô29. 5; Skâldsk. 17; Grimm (1883-8), 543-6, 1443; Greimas (1992), 139 (two giants, sometimes identified as Perkunas and his brother).

69 See Grimm (1883-8), 519-22 (and for other Germanic terms 524-6, 1438 f.); de Vries (1956), i. 243, 252. On the Germanic giants cf. Grimm, 518-57, 1436-48; de Vries, i. 241-52.

Visvarupa-AZi Dahaka and his Greek analogue Geryoneus, the many-headed Hydra, and the hundred-headed Typhoeus. The giant-like Hundred-Handers had fifty heads apiece. The Fomoire of Irish legend, who preceded the Tuatha De Danann, were sometimes conceived as three-headed.71 Slavonic paganism gave a prominent place to Triglav 'Three-head' and other polycephalic figures.72

Such over-endowment is not limited to heads but sometimes extended to arms and trunks. Multiple arms in particular make for a more formidable antagonist, as he can wield a corresponding plethora of weapons. The Hundred-Handers' value in the Titanomachy is that the three of them can hurl three hundred rocks at once (Hes. Th. 715). The six-armed, rock-throwing Cyzican giants have been mentioned above. The Molione, the Siamese twins of Greek myth, are spoken of as two men, but they fought as one and were fearsome because of their double equipment ('Hes.' frs. 17a-18). Geryoneus is called 'three-headed' by Hesiod, but later poets and vase-painters gave him a triple body with six arms and legs. Saxo relates that the Danish king Fridlef berated a giant who had assumed human shape and abducted a boy, beginning 'As you are a giant, three-bodied and most invincible, and you almost reach the sky with the top of your head, . . .'. Shortly afterwards the same author recounts that the hero Starcatherus (StarkaSr), born of giant stock, had six arms until Thor tore off the supernumerary ones to make him more normal.73 The eight-legged horse Sleipnir was sired by a stallion from Giantland (Gylf. 42).

By their works shall ye know them

The size and strength of giants is not deployed solely for aggressive purposes. They sometimes appear in the role of builders of mighty structures. This is the mythical explanation of striking geological features, such as the Giants' Causeway in Ireland, or of massive ancient ruins. In classical Greece the mighty walls of Mycenae and Tiryns were attributed to the Cyclopes (Pind. fr. 169a. 7, Bacchyl. 11. 77, Soph. fr. 227, Eur. HF 15, etc.). In Old English poems we read of enta geweorc, enta crgeweorc, or eald enta geweorc, 'the

71 Togail bruidne Da Derga 902-9 Knott.

72 C. H. Meyer (1931), 26. 24, 33. 15, 35. 35, 41. 9, 45. 36, 49. 17, 56. 2, 62. 1; Unbegaun (1948), 411, 416, 423; Gimbutas (1971), 153 f., 160; Vaiia (1992), 93 f.

73 Saxo 6. 4. 6 p. 148 cum sis gigas tricorpor invictissimus, I tuoque caelum paene exaeques vertice; 6. 5. 2 p. 151; cf. Davidson (1979-80), ii. 99. Saxo's gigas tricorpor recalls Naevius' bicorpores Gigantes (fr. 8 Büchner), but Naevius probably meant 'half human, half serpent', cf. Accius, Trag. 307 Pallas bicorpor anguium spiras trahit.

(ancient) work of giants'.74 A champion builder engaged by the Norse gods to build their fortifications turned out to be a giant (Gylf. 42).

In Baltic and Slavonic legend giants of a past age are cited in explanation of outsize skeletal remains and of geological features such as lakes and mountains. Latvian has the expressions milzeyu kauli 'giant's bones', milZu kapi 'giants' graveyard'. The east Slavs told of giants called asilki or osilki who uprooted trees, smashed rocks, and shaped the hills and rivers.75

Strange meeting

Let us return briefly to the Ossetic story of how certain wandering Narts bedded down in a giant's shoulderblade or skull, which in the dark they had taken to be a cave. I have described how they then encountered the giant himself and questioned him about giants' sports. After the rock-throwing episode they ask him further about what giants used to eat. He takes a huge fistful of earth and squeezes the juice out of it: that was the giants' food. He then rubs some of it on their brows and those of their horses, whereupon they fall into a deep sleep. On waking they pray to God to turn the giant back into a skeleton, and the Deity obliges.76

The tale bears a curious similarity to part of Snorri's narrative in Gylfagin-ning (45-7). Thor and Loki, with two human attendants, travel to the country of the Giants, which seems to be located in Finland. They walk all day through a great forest, and when night falls they occupy what appears to be an oddly designed hall, open at one end and with a side-chamber halfway down. In the morning Thor goes out and finds a huge giant lying asleep. He realizes that they have been sleeping in the giant's mitten. The giant, Skrymir, wakes up and they converse. First they all have breakfast, Skrymir from his own food and the others from theirs. They travel on together through the day and pass another night. Then Skrymir sends Thor and his companions on to the castle UtgarSr, where the giant king UtgarSa-loki has his court. (It is later revealed that Skrymir was UtgarSa-loki in disguise.) UtgarSa-loki greets them and enquires what feats they can perform. A series of contests takes place, in all of which the visitors find themselves unexpectedly outclassed. The next day they

74 Beowulf 2717, 2774, Andreas 1237, 1497, The Wanderer 87, The Ruin 2; cf. Grimm (1883-8), 534, 547-52, 1020 f., 1444, 1446; J. de Vries, The Problem of Loki (FF [= Folklore Fellows] Communications 110; Helsinki 1933), 66-78.

75 Mannhardt (1936), 629; Biezais-Balys (1973), 428; Vaiia (1992), 60, 107.

76 In the version translated by Sikojev (cf. n. 67) the discussion of diet precedes that about sports. The giant lets Soslan drink some of the juice, and he immediately feels sated and invigorated. 'Now you won't need to eat so often', the giant remarks.

leave the castle, escorted by UtgarSa-loki, who now explains that the contests were not what they seemed and that they had in fact performed frighteningly well; he is glad to see the back of them. At this, he and the castle vanish from sight.

The Norse story is much the more detailed, and it contains much that is absent from the Ossetic. But there is a common scheme. A party of adventurers from 'our' world enters Giantland, is benighted, and takes shelter in what they think to be a cave or building. In the morning they discover that it is a part or appurtenance of a giant, of a quite different order of magnitude from what the corresponding thing would be among us. The giant to whom it belongs is roused from death or slumber and dialogue ensues. The parties are curious about each other's habits and competitive abilities, which are put to the test. Finally the giant disappears and the travellers return home to tell the tale.

The story of Thor's encounter with Skrymir also shows significant similarities with the north Russian legend of Ilya Murometz and the giant Svyatogor. These, however, are almost certainly to be explained from firstmillennium contacts between the Vikings and Russia.77 The kinship between the Nordic and Ossetic narratives seems to lie at a deeper level. It reflects, I suggest, a late, regional Indo-European tale illustrating the nature of giants.

0 0

Post a comment