Greek Giants

Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.

"Before there were any humans on Pallene, the story goes that a battle was fought between the gods and the giants. Traces of the giants' demise continue to be seen to this day, whenever torrents swell with rain and excessive water breaks their banks and floods the fields. They say that even now in gullies and ravines the people discover bones of immeasurable enormity, like men's carcasses but far bigger."

--Greek historian Solinus, c. AD 200

The Giant Antaeus, from 'The Divine Comedy' (Inferno) by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) c.1868 (engraving) by Gustave Doré (1832-83)
Credit: Private Collection/ The Bridgeman Art Library

Gigantic Bones

The ancient Greeks told stories of giants, describing them as flesh-and-blood creatures who lived and died--and whose bones could be found coming out of the ground where they were buried long ago. Indeed, even today large and surprisingly human-like bones can be found in Greece. Modern scientists understand such bones to be the remains of mammoths, mastodons, and woolly rhinoceroses that once lived in the region.

But ancient Greeks were largely unfamiliar with these massive animals, and many believed that the enormous bones they found were the remains of human-like giants. Any nonhuman traits in the bones were thought to be due to the grotesque anatomical features of giants.

At A Glance: Giant

From Paul Bunyan of American folklore to the Norse creator-god Ymir, human-like giants populate the myths of many cultures.

  • The long bones of elephant relatives and humans are similar enough to be confused.
  • Geological events tend to destroy the skulls of prehistoric elephant relatives, leaving only enormous, human-like long bones, ribs, and vertebrae.
  • Ancient authors often reported finding the remains of giants hundreds of feet tall--much bigger than an elephant or any other animal. These reports may represent attempts to reconstruct the bones of several animals found jumbled together as a single giant.

The Battle With the Gods

According to Greek myth, the giants were the children of Uranus (the Sky) and Gaia (the Earth) but were almost never born. Afraid the giants would be too powerful, Uranus would not allow them to be born, imprisoning them in Gaia's womb. Uncomfortable, Gaia convinced her older son Kronos to attack Uranus; he did and the blood that spilled on Gaia released the giants from their prison.

Kronos took power, but was soon overthrown by the god Zeus. The giants were enraged by the defeat of their savior and brother, and they took up trees as clubs and boulders as missiles, waging war on Zeus and the other Greek gods in an epic battle--the Gigantomachy. But the giants were ultimately defeated and buried under mountains, where their tormented shivers were said to cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Seeing Is Believing

The people of Tingis (modern-day Tangier, Morocco) once boasted that their city's founder was a giant named Antaeus who was buried in a mound south of town. To test the claim, Roman soldiers dug into the mound in 81 BC. Much to their surprise, an enormous skeleton surfaced--which they then reburied with great honors. Modern scientists confirm that ancient elephant fossils are common in the area.

Basalt columns at the Giant's Causeway, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
© D. Flaherty/Photo Researchers

A Giant's Bridge?

The spectacular Giant's Causeway on the northeast coast of Ireland consists of about 40,000 interlocking columns of basalt rock. According to Irish myth, the Irish giant Finn MacCool built the causeway so he could walk to Scotland to fight the Scottish giant Benandonner. Formations like this one are typically the result of volcanic activity. Some 65 million years ago, lava flowed over the area. As the lava cooled, it contracted, fracturing into the columns seen today.



Dwarf elephant skull: The myth of the Cyclops may have been fueled by fossil discoveries of dwarf elephants with the central nasal cavity--where the trunk was attached--mistaken for a single eye socket.
© D. Finnin/AMNH


On his way home from the Trojan War, the brave adventurer Odysseus and his crew landed on the island of Sicily. Happy to find food in a cave, they gorged themselves until the cave's occupant, a ferocious cyclops named Polyphemus, returned home and began to eat the men one by one. Polyphemus soon asked Odysseus his name and he replied, "My name is Nobody." That evening, Odysseus and his men planned their escape -- first they drove a stake into Polyphemus's one eye. Screaming in pain, Polyphemus called to his brother cyclopes, "Help! Nobody is hurting me!" Confused, they ignored the cries, and Polyphemus lost his only eye. In the morning, Polyphemus let his sheep out to graze after feeling along the animals' backs to make sure the men weren't riding on top. But Odysseus and his crew had tied themselves under the sheep's bellies, so they slipped by, unnoticed by the blinded cyclops.

--Adapted from Homer's Odyssey, c. 800-600 BC

Eyeing the Evidence

The one-eyed giants, called cyclopes, of Greek myths are usually said to live on the island of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea. Significantly, the island was once home to ancient elephants whose enormous, fossilized skulls and bones can still be found today eroding out of cliffs and hillsides. As far back as the 1370s, scholars have suggested that when the first inhabitants of the island encountered elephant skulls, they might have mistaken the large central hole where the trunk was attached for the enormous single eye socket of a cyclops.

"Cyclops" eye
© Getty Images

At a Glance: Cyclops

One group of cyclopes were the blacksmiths to the gods and were praised for their fine crafmanship. Today, well-constructed stone walls are called "cyclopean."

  • The plural of cyclops is cyclopes ("sigh-KLO-peez").
  • Another group of cyclopes appear in Homer's Odyssey. He describes them as grotesquely ugly, ungainly, strong, stubborn brutes who were prone to aggression and cannibalism.
  • Cyclopes are enormous, human-like creatures with a single eye in the middle of their foreheads.
Poseidon (Neptune) from an intaglio
Credit: The Granger Collection, New York

The Spark In Their Eye

Some blacksmiths in ancient Greece may have worn a patch over one eye to prevent flying sparks from blinding them in both. If so, it is only fitting that the first cyclopes to appear in Greek myths were also blacksmiths. Toiling in their smoky forges under volcanic Mount Etna, these cyclopes were said to have crafted Zeus's thunderbolts, Hades' invisibility helmet, and Poseidon's trident.

Dwarf Elephant Skull

The opening in the center of this dwarf elephant skull is where the animal's trunk attaches. But ancient Greeks may have interpreted the large trunk opening as the massive, single eye-socket of a cyclops.