7 June 2021 – Giants in British Folklore and Mythology

By | June 13, 2021

The meeting considered how giants connect to the natural world and feature in the landscape in British mythology and folklore.   We started by looking at creation myths and then how they featured in folklore.

1/. The Role of Giants in Creation Mythology:-

1.1/. Irish Book of Invasions:-

We started by looking at Irish Celtic creation myths.  In Celtic myths the world has always been there but they do cover the first beings.  There are a number of written sources which have survived.  The book of Invasions is from 11 Century and uses earlier written and oral sources.  In these myths Ireland was invaded by a succession of races from the Otherworld.  Starting with the Race of Partholon, then the Nemedhians, the Fir Bholg, and then the Tuatha de Danaan. They all tamed and cultivated the land and fought the Formorii who were huge, evil deformed beings who lived in the air or under the sea.  It could be argued that the Formorii is the chaos in creation so fighting these giants is something to keep the universe safe.

1.2/. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History of the Kings of Britain”, 1136:-

It is assumed the Welsh myths are the same but no written records remain.  However the topic is covered in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History of the Kings of Britain” which was written around 1136.  He made use of earlier transcripts and oral sources.

In his account the first humans were Trojans.  Britain was first settled by Brutus who was descended from Aeneas, Prince of Troy.  Brutus accidently killed his father and was expelled from Italy.  It had been prophesied that Brutus would settle on an island in the western sea inhabited only by giants.  After a long adventure he landed in Totnes.  Brutus drove out most of the giants who were living there, leaving only a few in Cornwall and divided the land between his followers.

Corineus was Brutus’ right-hand man who liked to fight giants for sport.  Brutus set up a fight with the Cornish giant Gogmagog.  During the fight Gogmagog broke three of Corneus’s ribs.  Corneus became enraged and picked up the giant, took him to the coast and threw him into the sea.  The sea was stained red with the giant’s blood and his body was broken into a thousand pieces.

This can be seen as part of the gods/heroes working against the forces of chaos so the land can be settled.

1.3/.  Germanic & Scandinavian Creation Mythology:-

These myths give a slightly different picture.  The universe has a definite beginning.

In the oldest myths the giants worked alongside the gods to create the universe.  The universe was created by the Sky God working with the giant Nokkvi, the helmsman to the moon as it sails across the sky.

The Sky God gave chariots to the giants Night and Day and sent them into the heavens to drive around the Earth.

Ymir the Giant was the first being, made from the meeting of fire and ice in a void.  He fathered the first of the Frost Giants and produced the first man and woman from the ooze under his left armpit.

Audumla the cow fed Ymir on her milk and licked Buri, the first of the gods, out of the ice.

Bor, the son of Buri, married the Frost Giantess Bestla and fathered the gods Odin, Villi & Ve with her.

Odin, Villi and Ve had no liking for Ymir and eventually attacked and killed him.  His blood drowned all but two of the giants who escaped on a boat on the flow of the blood, these giants constantly looked for revenge.  Ymir’s body made the world, his flesh made the soil, his bones the mountains, his blood the seas and the lakes and so on.

2/. The Role of the Giants in Folklore:-

The folklore mirrors earlier myths, some portray giants as being good and others as being bad.  They were generally big and strong and neutral towards humans, sometimes friendly and destructive by accident.  Figures of fun and the centre of amusing tales.

  • Norway, St Olaf entered into an agreement with a giant to build him a church, with the sun and the moon or St Olaf himself as payment if the giant completed the task according to the agreed terms.  St Olaf found out the name of the giant and called his name out to him which so surprised the giant he fell from the roof of the church and was smashed into pieces.  Knowing the name of something gives power over it.

A number of folklore tales involve giants in building projects and as explanations for things in the landscape.  There are lots of tales on this topic and there are lots of them from Cornwall.

  • In St Levan, Cornwall the Iron Age hill fort Treryn Dinas was built either by a giant who conjured it out of the sea, or by the giant Dan Dfynas and his wife An Venna.
  • At Carn Galva, Zennor, Cornwall a giant set up the famous logan (rocking) stone.  This was a nice giant who liked to build up a pile of rocks and then knock them down.  He fought other giants to protect Zennor.  He only killed a human once and that was by accident when he playfully tapped them on the head with his finger tip.  The giant died within 7 years with a broken heart.
  • In Mounts Bay, Cornwall the giant Cormoran and his wife built a stronghold.
  • Lerrin, Cornwall a linear defensive ditch is called the Giant’s Hedge.
  • St Agnes’ Beacon, Cornwall the Bolster Bank linear earthwork was reputed to be built by a giant called Bolster.
  • Norden Hill & Hanging Hill, Dorset were created as the result of a stone throwing contest between two giants.
  • Colwall, Herefordshire a stone by the crossroads was said to have been thrown there by a giant, however it was well known that it was brought from a quarry.
  • Kinver Edge, Staffordshire the stone known as the Bolt Stone was thrown by a jealous giant who had a beautiful wife and saw another giant kissing his wife and threw a long thin stone at the other giant, which is still there today.
  • At Turton, Lancashire the Hanging Stone was thrown from Winter Hill to Turton by a giant.
  • Wade’s Causeway in Yorkshire is a Roman road which linked four Roman camps.  It is said to have been built by a giant called Wade out of stones brought by his wife Bel in her leather apron.  The apron gave way and heaps of stones were left.

There are a number of reasons for the tales.  In some stories the real reason things were in the landscape was already well known and the tale told for amusement or entertainment.  In some cases the knowledge may have been lost and made up by less educated local people.  Others hold echoes of past mythology.

Next time we shall look at more tales of giant, some not well disposed to humans.

Last Updated on June 14, 2021