Giants loom large in world mythology, frequently representing the most ominous of foes. Their huge size immediately evokes ideas of superhuman strength and formidable abilities, and yet in many legends the giant is in fact a tragic character, often suffering an incongruous death. The giants below are a weird and wonderful sample from folklore around the world.
1. ATLAS // THE GIANT WHO HOLDS UP THE SKY
In Greek mythology, Atlas was one of the Titans who went to war against Zeus’s gods of Olympus. When the Titans lost, Zeus condemned Atlas to hold up the sky for all eternity. During the 12 labors of Heracles, one of his famous quests was to find the golden apples of Hesperides. Atlas offered to go and fetch the apples for Heracles if he would take his place holding up the sky. Atlas duly retrieved the apples and was about to take them to Eurystheus when Heracles asked if Atlas would mind just holding the sky again for a minute while he got comfortable. Of course, as soon as Atlas had re-shouldered his heavy burden, Heracles made off with the apples and continued with his tasks, leaving Atlas with his interminable duty.
Another legend involving Atlas featured the hero Perseus, who encountered Atlas in the northwest region of Africa. Atlas tried to scare Perseus away, and so Perseus took Medusa’s severed head from his bag. When Atlas saw the terrible Gorgon he turned to stone—becoming the Atlas mountain range.
2. BALOR // ONE-EYED GOD OF DEATH
In Irish mythology, Balor was the king of the Fomorians, a race of giants who were said to be early settlers of Ireland. Balor, much like the cyclops, was a one-eyed giant and the god of death—whoever was caught in his gaze would die instantly. Due to this unfortunate tendency, Balor kept his single eye closed until his terrible power was needed. According to a prophecy, it was said that Balor would be killed by his own grandson, and so he imprisoned his daughter, Ethlinn, in a crystal tower in a vain attempt to prevent her having any offspring. However, before long Cian, a minor god, snuck in and impregnated Ethlinn, who gave birth to three sons. On discovering the birth of his grandsons, Balor had them thrown into the sea, but one boy, Lugh, escaped his fate and was fostered by Manannan Mac Lir, the god of the sea. The prophecy finally played out when Lugh led the Tuatha De Danann (a race of Irish gods) into battle and killed Balor by ripping out his eye.
3. HRUNGNIR // DRUNKEN NORSE GIANT
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There are countless giants in Norse legends, and Hrungnir was one of the biggest and baddest. One day Odin, the leader of the Norse gods of Asgard, challenged Hrungnir to a horse race. Odin rode his super-fast eight-legged steed Sleipnir, and Hrungnir rode his standard-legged horse, Gullfaxi. Unsurprisingly, Sleipnir outran Gullfaxi and led him into the realm of Asgard, where, feeling sorry for the loser, Odin invited Hrungnir for a drink. Unfortunately, Hrungnir was not a good drunk and had soon become belligerent and argumentative, claiming that he could kill all the gods of Asgard, except for the goddesses Freya and Sif, whom he would carry off with him to Jotunheim, the realm of the giants. Becoming tired of Hrungnir’s arrogance, the other gods called upon Thor, who challenged Hrungnir to a duel. Hrungnir agreed, and on the day of the fight he turned up clad in stone armor and carrying a giant whetstone as a weapon. Thor threw his trusty hammer, Mjolnir, and it smashed through both the whetstone and Hrungnir’s head and the latter fell to his death. It is said that the fragments of the whetstone fell to the earth, and became the flint we see around us today.
4. JENTIL // HEATHEN GIANTS
Jentil are giants from the mythology of the Basque region of France/Spain, and are said represent the pagans who inhabited the land before Christianity. Jentil were enormous, strong, and hairy, and loved to throw rocks; because of this they were thought to have built the many megalithic stone circles and dolmens in the Basque region. According to legend, the Jentil died out after a huge, bright cloud appeared heralding the birth of Jesus—the frightened Jentil did not want change and ran down the mountains and hid in a dolmen, never to return.
However, one Jentil survived: Olentzero, an especially large and grumpy giant who enjoyed a tipple. Having survived the death of his people, he is said to have walked to the nearest village and cut the throat of all the greedy people who had eaten too much. This legend was soon adopted and adapted during the rise of Christianity, and Olentzero was re-packaged as a Basque version of Santa Claus. In this sanitized reimagining, he visits children on Christmas Eve bringing toys he has crafted himself.
5. GOLIATH // BIBLICAL GIANT
Goliath was the biblical giant defeated against the odds by the shepherd David. Described in the Book of Samuel, Goliath was a Philistine Champion from the city of Gath, which was where an ancient race of giants were said to originate. The exact size of Goliath is debated, but it seems he was either 6 foot 8 or 9 foot 7; either way, he was a lot bigger than his seemingly puny opponent, David. He is also described in the Bible as being clad in an imposing amount of bronze armor.
In a classic story of the plucky underdog, David strides out to face Goliath with nothing but a humble slingshot, the fate of his people in his hands. David launches a stone from his slingshot, which hits Goliath right between the eyes and he falls down dead. In a rather gruesome turn of events, David then cuts off Goliath’s head with the giant’s own sword. As most of us know, the story of David versus Goliath has since come to represent the ultimate victory of the underdog.
6. POLYPHEMUS // ONE-EYED CYCLOPS
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Polyphemus is perhaps the most famous of the Cyclopes—the one-eyed giants from Greek mythology. According to Homer’s legend of the Odyssey, Polyphemus was the son of the sea god Poseidon and the sea nymph Thoosa. He lived on the island of Sicily with his fellow cyclops, where he tended a flock of sheep. When the great adventurer Odysseus landed on the island, he introduced himself to Polyphemus as "No one." The cyclops seized Odysseus and his men and trapped them in a cave, covered by a giant boulder. He also began eating them.
Odysseus hatched a plan to escape and drove a stake into the giant’s only eye, blinding him. Polyphemus cried out in pain, and his brother cyclops came to his aid, but when they asked who was attacking him, he replied "No one," so they thought him mad and went away. Odysseus and his crew then tied themselves to the underside of Polyphemus’s flock of sheep so that in the morning, when he pushed aside the boulder to let out his sheep, the now-blind giant patted the back of each sheep as he counted them out, not noticing the brave adventurers clinging the animals’ undersides.
7. ONI // JAPANESE GIANT DEMONS
In Japanese folklore, oni are often hideous giants in demon form. They are depicted looking fearsome, with red or blue skin, three fingers and toes, and grotesque horns. They are also often naked, save for a loin cloth made from the pelts of wild beasts. Described as super-strong, they're also very keen on human flesh.
Oni usually live in hell, having been sent there and transformed into oni for living an evil life while on earth. However, the very worst kind of oni are those who are so unspeakably wicked that they are turned into oni while still living, and roam the earth causing misery to others.
Japanese people traditionally celebrate the Setsubun festival in the spring to drive out the oni. During the festival celebrations, soy beans are thrown in the air to ward off any lurking three-fingered beasts.
8. GOGMAGOG // THE LAST BRITISH GIANT
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Gogmagog is said to have been the last giant in the British Isles. The source for most of our information on him comes from the Welshman Geoffrey of Monmouth, who in circa 1136 wrote Historia Regnum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain), in which he describes how early Britain (then called Albion) was inhabited by a race of giants. One such giant was the 12-foot tall Gogmagog, a rough and strong being who could uproot an oak tree as if it were a twig. One day, a group of giants including Gogmagog attacked Brutus, a descendent of the Trojans of Greece who had claimed Albion as his own. The giants killed many Britons before they too were killed, and only Gogmagog survived.
Brutus took Gogmagog to his second-in-command, Corineus, the founder of Cornwall, who was a keen giant-wrestler. The two began to wrestle, and Gogmagog used his brute strength to crush three of Corineus’s ribs. Corineus was so enraged by the injury that he quickly picked up the giant and ran with him up a hill, finally throwing him to his death off a cliff—and thus, it's said, ridding Britain of the last giant.
9. KUMBHAKARNA // GIANT APPETITE
Kumbhakarna is a giant demon featured in the Hindu epic the Ramayana. Kumbhakarna was giant in size and giant in appetite, but due to a trick played by the goddess Saraswati his tongue was tied so that when he tried to asking for a blessing, instead he asked for a bed, and as a result he was doomed to sleep for six months of every year.
Despite being of a generally kindly character, after six months of deep sleep, Kumbhakarna would wake up so hungry he would consume anything in his path, including hapless humans. At one point Kumbhakarna’s brother, Ravana, needed the giant’s help to win a battle, but Kumbhakarna was sleeping and it took a thousand elephants trampling over him to rouse him from his slumber. Kumbhakarna then gamely joined the war against Prince Rama, but instead of achieving glory, he got rather drunk and blundered around the battlefield doing more harm than good before being killed.
10. ORION // LEFT HIS MARK IN THE STARS
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Many different legends surround the Greek giant Orion. In one version he is an egotistical hunter who brags that he can kill any beast alive. On hearing of his boast, a tiny scorpion stings Orion and he falls down dead. Another story has it that Orion was left blind after he tried to take Merope as his wife against the will of her father. To regain his sight, Vulcan bid his friend Kedalion to sit on Orion’s shoulders and lead him towards the east where the sun-god dwelled. As the sun rose, Orion’s sight was restored by the beams. Orion then went to live and hunt with Diana, but her brother Apollo grew jealous of their close relationship, and when Orion was walking through the water with just his head above the waves, Apollo bet Diana she couldn’t hit the far-distant form on the horizon. Taking the bait, Diana released a slew of arrows and fatally hit Orion, but when the waves washed his body ashore she realized her grave mistake. Weeping over the loss of Orion, she had him placed in the sky among the stars as the constellation Orion.