References to giant beings (and to awesome gods) are to be found in virtually all the literary traditions of the civilisations that have existed throughout millenia. Some of these are backed up by evidence (often tangible); others have only race memory, or oral tradition, as their substance. What cannot be denied is that there is in the human psyche what seems to be a belief or at least a willingness to suspend disbelief (in Wordsworth’s phrase) in the quondam existence of much larger and greater (in various ways) beings than the current humanity (of whatever era). Civilised humanity it seems has always felt the need to attempt to investigate his origins, earthly or heavenly, and it has always been a great comfort to believe in an ancestry that is bigger, more powerful, divine or semi-divine, preferably descended from “the gods” denoting often a special or “golden age” when the world was young.
Perhaps the most complex and most thorough mythology of all is that of the ancient Greeks. This mythology is inextricable from their religious belief though it must be emphasised that the two are not identical. Much of ancient Greek religious observance is indeed bound up with a belief in WHAT TO US IS MYTHOLOGY but all their mythical traditions do not have a religious significance. However, it is impossible to discuss one without discussing the other. Both have traditions or antecedents reaching into a remote past and both have changed over time. It needs to be understood that veneration and worship of the gods (and giant beings) altered and was modified as time went on. Consequently we speak of the archaic and the classical periods in Greek history and it is with the latter that we have come to be more familiar, largely because more in the way of relevant literature is available. We can conclude however that much of Greek mythological and religious belief is not lost, actually, but has its origins in tme.
ORIGIN OF BELIEF
Along with beliefs in multifarious gods therefore are beliefs in monstrous creatures, half man and half animal, giants frequently alluded to as Titans, mainly human, while super giants also existed. Heroes, mortals, immortals and semi-divine beings featured alongside the (usually) anthropomorphic gods i.e. gods possessing human characteristics and frailities. Belief in giants reinforced a consciousness among the ancient Greeks that Man had become smaller, less robust and less strong than they once had been. These giants had their origin in the spilt blood of Uranus/Heaven, after his castration, which fell into the lap of the Earth goddess, Gaea. The original giants, known, as we have said, as Titans, were the first order of large beings and represented the elements basic to ancient civilisations: earth, air, fire and water.
With the Monsters we are not really concerned although many of them were mainly of human shape. These creatures of course were huge and malevolent whereas the giants were not innately ferocious towards Men. It does appear there are two main categories of giants in Greek mythology: what may be described as “human” giants i.e. not too dissimilar to men, except naturally in size, and the “super-human” giants of gigantic proportions who were capable of fighting the gods. Some of these, apart from their huge size, had more than one head, or a hundred arms or could breathe fire and were serpent-footed. This latter category of giants in their attack on heaven were finally vanquished by the gods but only because they they had the help of a mortal (who was himself partly divine), namely Hercules, as an oracle had foretold. It is clear therefore that in early Greek history gods and giants were hostile to each other.
Some of the super-human giants who fought against the gods of Mount Olympus were devourers of men (Agrius); some capable of piling mountain on mountain (Ephialtes and Otus); some breathing fire (Typhoeus); some who could only be destroyed by having an island (Sicily/Kos) thrown at them (Enceladus and Polybotes).Their opponents as we have said, lived on Mount Olympus and therefore were known as the Olympians. These were the true directors of earthly affairs, the supreme and august gods. The chief among the gods was Zeus and his wife, Hera. Other notable Greek gods were Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, Poseidon, Dionysius, Athena although there are others maybe less well known. Important deities of a lesser rank are Eros, symbolic of love; Hades, god of the Underworld; Pan god of nature and sex.
IMPORTANCE OF GREEK MYTH
Knowledge of Greek myth has an influence upon us today, not dissimilar to the effect it had upon the ancient Greeks themselves. There is a timeless quality about Greek belief because it represents to us as it did to its ancient adherents, an attempt (successful) to put in context and perspective the deepest problems of humanity such as pride, tyranny, courage, war, love. Viewed in this way, the belief (if it were so) in giants is understood as reflecting great, imcomprehensible, maybe lawless, forces of a distant past who did good or ill according to the exigencies of their time. Interaction between divine powers and giant beings reflected for the Greeks their own situation in their day to day relationships with the deities of religion, the divine powers, which often seemed to be harsh and irrational. In the light of their belief, the ancient Greeks perceived the worth of mankind, the importance of the individual, who had been tried and tested from time immemorial. From this posture rose a deep religious faith in their deities.
This religious faith was fundamentally different from modern western religions. For one thing, it was polytheistic, that is to say, there were many deities, not one; the gods themselves possessed human characteristics, came down to earth, mingled with other beings, and were by no means paragons of virtue, exemplars of the virtuous life. Sacrifices were made to appease the gods, festivals and competitions (the Olympic Games) were held in their honour, shrines and temples were erected to venerate the cult statue of the particular deity. Other, more fundamental differences, subsist.
All modern religions have dogmas or written canons; procedures for performing rites, services and ceremonies. There is always a type of Book which claims to reveal divine truths to its adherents: for Christians it is the Bible; for Moslems it is the Koran, other religions have other sacred Books. Greek religion had no such Book; no such dogma. Its priesthood made no claim to universality of doctrine or even of belief; there were many gods and many shrines and belief was individualistic or at least common to a group. Veneration alone was necessary; how it was displayed in practice was up to often a family unit; coercion, moral or physical, was not part of the priesthood’s function. This priesthood, as well as being non-authoritarian, was not officially created, and did not represent a profession or a class. Individuals there were who saw themselves, and others saw them, as discharging priestly (or sacred) functions -but they were not part of a hierarchy of sanctioned appointees. Often the paterfamilias acted as the family priest and made sure his family made due observance, especially to the deities of the city-state. Priests could be elected ansd these would carry a semi official status. As a direct result of the foregoing, there could not be any hostility to other religions; consequently no persecution of non-believers (who would have to be foreigners); no heresy, no matyrdom. Because their faith had no dogma, opposition to the beliefs of others and overt hostility to different faiths were missing.
GIANT BEINGS AND MYTHOLOGY
At this juncture it would be opportune to elaborate on our central theme of giant beings and the belief/mythology surrounding them, especially their creation and their role in Greek thought – something we have glanced at earlier.
As with the story of Genesis in the Bible, before anything was made there was only Chaos, a rumbling nothingness. Hidden in this Chaos were seven seeds which gradually nourished by Earth (as it assumed form) grew into huge beings, the Titans, (who were not all male) who took control of the Universe. Their leader was Uranus who became father to a second generation of Titans, among whom were the hundred-handed (or -armed) giants, the Cyclops and the super-giants already mentioned. The Titans rebelled against their father, Uranus, who was killed by his eldest son, Cronos. Then it was Cronos’ turn to face enemies and feeling he had been betrayed by the gods, he called upon the Titans of Old to help him destroy the gods, which led to a terrifying war. At first the Titans prevailed and beat off the gods. The leader of the gods, Zeus, sought the help of other fearsome giants (some hundred-headed) who helped turn the tide and, pursuing the Titans, overthrew them and imprisoned them. Later Mount Olympus was chosen as the gods’ home and various gods assumed authority over aspects of the Universe, leaving Earth as a common property.
Zeus, for all his pre-eminence, did not enjoy a totally unthreatened existence: once the other gods rebelled against him and bound him. However, one of Zeus’ favourites, Thetis, came to his aid by calling upon one of the hundred-handed giants, Briareus, who managed to undo the chains. Later still in the complex unfolding story of Greek mythology, huge creatures, monsters we would call them, featured prominently: Cerebus, the three-headed dog, who guarded the gates of Hades (Hell); the Minotaur, with the head of a bull and the body of a man
It is worth mentioning that the first two or three generations of Greek mythological personages were supposed to be immortal – but who in reality, we presume, died or were killed. Among these are the first giant beings, the Titans, the fearsome Cyclops and the hundred-limbed giants known as the Hecatoncheires. The “normal” giants created from the seed of Uranus, were also part of this immortal creation.
In the war we have mentioned, that of the gods versus the Titans, involving the giants also, in which the gods eventually emerged victorious, most of the giants were killed by the gods or by Hercules (see above). About two dozen giants are mentioned in Greek literature as playing a prominent part in the war.
The Olympians, the deities of Mount Olympus, are the principal figures in ancient Greek belief and represent the last immortal generation. Their progenitors were as mentioned the very early (and earthy) beings such as Gaia and it may be that an old religion was centered around these beings. Most of what we learn (and study) is however of the time of the Olympians. Some of these gods and goddesses were nationally venerated; others were more local, often depending on a neighbourhood shrine or temple, usually decorated with depictions, sculptures, etc., of the honoured deity. Clearly, the Greeks believed in several classes of divinity: compare the Olympians, the Titans, the Giants, the Cyclops, the Hecatcheires – all very different. It follows that there are several generations of gods and it also follows that the Greek gods were born (and some died): not a feature by any means of other religions or mythologies. It should not be thought, however, that there was some sort of chronological progression in Greek religion; rather it is the case that different times had different values and the myths were retold by each successive generation. what would be true to say is that the Greeks saw that some order was imposed by the principal tutelary deity (Zeus) on the chaotic and unruly beginnings of the Universe.
Thus the origins of Greek mythology lead to a continuity of belief down through the years. As has been said before, myth empowers groups of indivduals to perceive and explain natural phenomena. This deeply felt religious devotion to many gods and goddesses is a salient feature of ancient Greek life. Individualistic and collective acts of worship characterised their life and so the personal “soul” and the communal “spirit” were both evident: leading a good life as far as possible and respecting the guardian deity who protected the Greek cities
For the Greeks, gods and men were interactive, bound to each other. Gods might be Olympians or giants. One aspect, rather offshoot or development, of Greek religion was allegiance to a type of fertility cult known as the Eleusian Mystery. Followers celebrated the communion between gods and mankind. The climax of their meetings was the revelation of a great vision which has never been revealed; the only thing we do know is that it was a “holy” vision; the initiates were forbidden to reveal more. It is possible that some hallucinatory drug was ingested which produced the “other world” visions. As Greek belief in their mythology and their religious observance is so closely linked it is opportune here for us to discuss some basic concepts relating to these beliefs. Zaidman and Schmit in their book RELIGION IN THE ANCIENT GREEK CITY (summarised in an internet article “Annotated Links on Ancient Greek Religion”:www.acs.ucalgary.ca/-historic/ greek.htm ) have many perceptive remarks to make, so much so that only a paraphrase or direct quotation can do them justice.
Mythical belief, they say, immersed the collective memory of the group into a privileged partnership that revealed the nature of the world and of man’s role in it. Greek conceptions of the power of the gods “serves as a means of ritual devotional in avoiding fear and of securing magic” – magical effects (as in the Eleusian Rites). Belief in a gigantic ancestory (who one time prevailed and dominated) did not do any harm to the ancients Greeks’ self-esteem. The continuity of mythical belief and ritual mystery in Greek religion is, as Zaidman and Scmidt say, essential for furthering our understanding about religion (and religions) -and in furthering our understanding of Greek credence in giant forefathers. Some, as we have seen, of these giants were grotesque; some were not not – just very big! – and the gods were always anthropomorphic. Perhaps there was a search for rationality in the ancient Greek psyche! Consequently, as the article points out, a growing insight by the Greeks, into more normal (or human) experience, “abandoned fantastic folk tales and empowered a sense of identity”. A telling comment follows: “In Greek religion mere mortals are subject to the polarities of existence designed by the gods. The Grecians saw themselves inexorably linked, and sometimes fearful, to the power of the gods.” It was comforting to think that giants had once been on their side -the side of the common man! After all, it may be recalled, that one of the giant Titans, Prometheus, created mortal man out of water and clay.
These giants, it will be recalled, were reputed to be descended from Gaia, the Earth. Though generally violent they were not altogether lacking in a semblance of humanity. Supposedly immortal, (some were buried alive under mountains) essentially it seems they represented basic elements in the world or universe, and are thought to be personifications of violent forces in nature. No doubt they had to be large beings to adequately represent primeval forces. There is no doubt that in man’s psyche there is some atavistic belief, recollection, folk memory -call it what you will, that there was once some golden age when nature’s untameable forces were EMBODIED, that is to say, when, to an extent, these forces could be directed by a type of humanity.
BELIEF OF THE GREEKS IN THEIR OWN MYTHOLOGY
One question above all is to be asked at this juncture. Did the Greek believe in their own mythology? As we have stated, for the Greeks, religion and mythology are intertwined. There is no doubt that the Grecians were a deeply religious people (we would call them pagans), much more so than modern man who has a distinctly ambivalent attitude to his own myths of which King Arthur and his Round Table is an exemplar. Some believe in this or similar stories; some do not. Biblical narrations are held in deep regard by some; for others they are nonsensical. The analogy I wish to make is that no doubt some ancient Greeks believed their mythology (which like the Bible is taught as fundamentally true by some: clergy and the like) while some did not, similar to present day practice.
There was a clear need for the Greeks to believe in something that would go some way to explaining the universe -unfathomable as it was to them. That the mythology, involving gods and giants, was so complex is consonant with the Greek mind of the time. It may be a truism to say that the ancient Greeks were a remarkable people, pre-eminent in so many fields. Why this flowering of genius at such a time in one comparatively small nation happened -no can fully explain. What can be said is that the needs and desires, hopes and fears of human nature had to be explainable to this supremely gifted nation or to its leaders. Their myths revealed for them the human condition. They helped to answer the questions: who am I? How should my life be lead? Thus Zeus, for all his imperfections, provided a restraining force and a guide to life. Myths today, as was certainly the case with the Greeks, help us to understand ourselves and our connection to other peoples. They (myths) reveal Man as part of a larger universe, imparting a feeling of awe for the mysterious in life. Heroic myths of a nation indicate to its members appropriate attitudes and behaviour. The Greeks saw themselves in these myths, larger and grander than they were, yet with human frailities. Accordingly the class known as the Heroes had to be invented, believed in, I should say, as they represent models of behaviour for their society; they reveal the relationship between personal desires and responsibilities to society.
The Greeks, like many nations, saw their remote origins in a distant past before life had form. Thus the first parents are gods of sea and earth. Then human beings are created from clay, rocks or other substances. This race of human beings is usually eventually destroyed by a flood because of its wickedness. A rebirth follows, generally characterised by the rise to eminence of Heroes. All this is brought about by a supreme power which can control and create life. For the Greeks, the divine powers were generally benevolent and sympathetic to the human race. (There is more to say on the topic of belief later on.)
GENEALOGY OF THE GODS (AND GIANTS)
Perhaps at this stage a little clarification (and maybe some repetition) would not go amiss. It has to do with the genealogy of the Olympians. Out of Chaos came Gaia who with Uranus produced monsters like Cyclops, immense creatures like the Hecatonchires, and the more recognisable Gigantes (Giants). A later brood resulted in the Titans (huge and powerful beings) such as Oceanus, Chronos, Thea, and their descendants Hera and Zeus for example, while from the latter were descended (among others) Apollo and Heracles (Hercules). These are but a few of the many famous names. The Heroes, of later fame, were bigger and stronger in every way than ordinary mortals, as befitted the offspring of liaison between divine beings and human women. These Heroes are not classified as giants but it is important to remember that belief in giants was part of everyday life for the Greeks. As E.L.Wood expresses it in GIANTOLOGY AND DWARFIANA, “the ancient people of most countries seem to have possessed …a faith in giantology, as evidenced by the vast images of their gods and their colossal monuments of architecture”. (p.17) As Anthony Roberts says in his book SOWERS OF THUNDER (p.150), the Greeks sincerely credited the Titans with wondrous powers over nature, and “saw the Age of Uranus and Cronos as the Golden Age itself; a seminal time at the beginning of history when paradise on earth was a factual physical reality and man lived through prophetic utterance in perfect harmony with the gods”.
The poet Hesiod writes of five ages of the world in his poem WORKS AND DAYS, about which we shall learn more in a later section. Suffice it for the present to state that modern man is now living in the fifth age, that of Iron.
The Greek myths were not unique; as Ray Drake in his book, GODS AND SPACEMEN IN GREECE AND ROME points out; the gods of Greece existed under other names in other lands; Hesiod (and the great Roman poet, Ovid) merely repeat the same tales told all over the world. Drake has a paragraph (p. 44), which at this point I believe should be quoted for two reasons: one, it is very salient to the theme of this and the previous two paragraphs, and, secondly, it serves as an introduction to the matter of the last sections of this study.
“Viewed in perspective of world-wide race-memories and our present awareness of extraterrestial visitations [if such be the case!] Uranus, Cronos and Zeus, with those Ages of Gold, Silver and Bronze, now Iron, emerge from that miasma of myth into shining reality [again, if such be the reader’s belief]. The gods of Greece now live for us with the splendour of Spacemen. Clearly here we are a taking an enormous step forward. We shall need later to examine closely the evidence for such a statement.
To conclude this section we need to consider the perennial question: did the Greeks believe in their own mythology? I believe the answer lies halfway between implicit belief and scepticism. Once again I would ask readers to examine their own attitudes to such as the Arthurian legend. We tend to use the term “legend” rather than “myth” -but what is the reason for this? However, it is probable that the devout, the priest-like figures, the guardians of shrines, the utterers of oracles, did have an implicit belief -they needed to, in order to influence others; while the common Greek/Athenian had, to say the least, an ambivalent attitude towards those marvellous tales of remote ancestry. Also, as we have said, the stances of Greek citizens towards the gods, heroes, giants, creatures and so on, differed with the times. But as the mythology was so closely bound up with religious observance it is possible to deduce that belief had something of compulsion in it -not entirely dissimilar to present day religious adherence, particularly in religions which have a rigid dogmatic code.
Modes of belief therefore were pluralistic among the Greeks. As Paul Veyne put it in his DID THE GREEKS BELIEVE IN THEIR MYTHS, it all depends upon whether the thinking is that myths are just hollow tales or altered history. The great problem of course is trying to interpret, or enter into, the mind set of a people very different from us, who lived a couple of thousand and more years ago. For the Greeks, “mythical tradition transmits an authentic kernel that over the ages has been overgrown with legends”. (Veyne, p. 14) Myth therefore is history for many people (Greeks among them). We can look at the Bible: for many people it is literally true or is an allegory reflecting the truth; for others it is a collection of far-fetched stories, beyond credence; in short, it is mythical. The question is: did the Greeks distinguish between the authentic (verifiable places or names) and poetic invention -supposing as seems likely that the majority knew only oral tradition, word of mouth? Were they able to distinguish between fable and fiction? Once again we can refer to the Bible. In the Old Testament it is clear that God (monotheism) intervened often in wordly affairs, but He does not appear to do so now. In the distant past of the Golden Age, gods (polytheism) took an active part in the affairs of Man. It must have struck the ancient Greeks that this sort of intervention did not seem to take place in their time -and must have given them pause. A simplistic explanation of Greek belief and acceptance is encapsulated by Veyne when he says (p.43) that “It cannot be doubted that the Greeks believed in their mythology for as long a time as their nurses or mothers told them such tales”.
Undoubtedly, the Greeks believed that it was impossible for a myth to be completely mythical. As we have said, myth is a basic truth overgrown by accretions of legend, and this they knew. Was the mythology true only in part or in its entirety? For them, myth was a copy of the past. Continuing some themes of Veyne, we may quote a passage: [myth] is the “allegorical mirror of eternal truths that are our own. Or it is the distorting mirror of past events which either resemble today’s political [or social] events or are at the root of today’s political [or social] individualities” (individual concerns). (p. 123
A theme (of Veyne) in his Chapter Two makes a suitable ending to this section. The domain of the supernatural was. for the Greeks, composed of events not abstract truths. These facts were specific: heroes’ names were given and the precise location of the action and this state of affairs lasted a thousand years. Eventually it changed because the field of old knowledge was upturned by the advent of new insights, new developments, and these latter competed with myth, offering an alternative between true and false.
© A.B. Finlay Ph.D