Mythological Giants and Their Wars

by Tala Bar


Introduction
Giants appear in the mythology and folklore of many peoples and ethnic groups around the world. They differ in their character, origin and function from one place and another, but in many cases they have one thing in common: they mostly exist in some kind of conflict with the "established" gods of the society that created them.

Most giants belong to remote periods in prehistory and in mythology, preceding even the creation of the world, or taking active or passive part in it. Since that creation, mythological giants have inhabited the earth or the underworld, but in most places around the world they have not acquired the privilege of dwelling in the heavenly abode of the gods. In most myths and legends, most giants are actually the enemies of the established gods; and in many myths and legends, there is a constant war going on between giants and gods.

Since homo Sapience has come into being, human beings have been shown by archeologists to be of a similar size to modern people, or even rather smaller. Where, then, did the idea of early giants arise? One answer may be based on the findings of bones belonging to some rare but gigantic pre-human species, known by names as Gigantopithecus, G. blacki of China and Vietnam and G. Giganteus of India, later designated Meganthropus palaeojavanicus (s. link), or other sorts of giant bones. In modern times, people of gigantic size are rare, considered an anomaly and do not on the whole have the violent tendency known from earlier stories; but such a sizes form good material for imaginative folktales and mythology.

I – Creation Giants

There are three good examples of ancient giants concerned with the creation of the world, or of Earth: the Babylonian Tiamat, the Norse Ymir, and the Chinese Pangu.

Tiamat was the embodiment of the archaic sea, which produced all life on Earth; her name parallels the Hebrew word 'tehom', for the abyss. She was considered the mother of all, and her name is translated from the Sumerian is 'ti' = life, and 'ama' = mother. She is mostly portrayed as a monster, but it will be shown that monsters have an affinity to giants. On the other hand, in the article about her in Wikipedia (s. link) she is desribed as having the same features as a human-like shape.

In her myth, Tiamat had given birth to the gods who had human-like form and who regarded the abyss as chaos, wanting to make a new order in the world. A war developed between these ancient, primeval, monstrous creatures who represented the forces of Nature, and the new humanized gods. In this war Mardukh, one of these new gods and a descendant of Tiamat, killed her, dissected her body, and from her various organs created the Earth.

***

In a site called Norse Mythology (s. link) it is said, "For countless ages before the earth began the universe consisted of very little. In the center of everything there was a bottomless abyss." Ymir (s. link) was a giant created in the state of chaos from the melting ice of Niflheim ("house of mists" – s. link) when it came in contact with the hot air from Muspell, which is the land of fire far to the south. Niflheim is the far northern region of icy fogs and mists, darkness and cold, situated on the lowest level of the universe. From the sweat in Ymir's armpit a son and daughter were born and from his feet the six-headed giant, Thrudgelmir, was born. Thrudgelmir then made the frost giant Bergelmir, from whom all evil frost giants developed.

During the process of creation, the frost kept melting and from these drops of water the divine cow Audumla was created. From her udder flowed four rivers of milk, on which Ymir fed. The cow itself got nourishment by licking hoar frost and salt from the ice. On the evening on the first day the hair of a man appeared, on the second day the whole head and on the third day it became a man who was the first god, Buri, who produced a son named Bor; one of his legs fathered a son on his other leg, while from under his armpit a man and a woman grew out. Buri's grandsons were Odin, the Nordic chief god, and his brothers.

Like the Babylonian Tiamat, Ymir the giant also preceded the gods and was connected with the Chaos that preceded Creation, before being involved with creation itself. Odin and the rest of his associated gods did not like Ymir and his associated giants; they killed Ymir, and in the huge amount of blood that flowed from his wounds all the giants, except two, drowned. From the slain body of this primordial giant the brother gods created heaven and earth, using his flesh to fill Ginnangagap, the primordial void separating Niflheim and Muspell. Ymir's blood formed lakes and seas; his bones became mountains, his teeth – rocks, boulders and stones; his hair turned into trees and his brain into clouds.

***

The story of the Chinese giant named Pangu is not much different from the other two, as told in the Wikipedia (s. link): he was connected with the early Chaos, with the creation of the world and with Nature in general. The myth says that this early chaos coalesced into a cosmic egg, within which the perfectly opposed principles of Yin and Yang became balanced. From this egg emerged Pangu, who is usually depicted as a primitive, hairy giant clad in furs, with horns on his head. In this case, though, it was Pangu himself who created the world: he separated Yin from Yang with a swing of his giant axe, thus creating the Earth and the Sky. To keep them separated, Pangu stood between them and pushed up the Sky. In some versions Pangu is aided in this task by the four most prominent beasts: the Turtle, the Oilin, the Phoenix and the Dragon King.

II – Giants as the Forces of Nature

In all three myths of creation, there is a close connection between the early giants and their descendants and the Forces of Nature. Pangu ruled for 18,000 years and then he was laid to rest. His breath became the wind; his voice thunder; his left eye the sun and his right eye the moon; his body became mountains and his blood formed rivers; his muscles the fertile lands; his facial hair stars and the Milky Way; his fur became bushes and forests; his bones valuable minerals; his sweat fell as rain; and the fleas on his fur carried by the wind became the fish and animals throughout the land. In this description Pangu shows himself again as parallel to Tiamat and Ymir.

***

Nordic giants, as described in both in the Online sites Crystalink and Encyclopedia Mythica (s. links), personify various Forces of Nature: Hrimpursar are frost giants, Eldjotnar are fire giants, and Bergrisar are mountain giants. The chief city of Jotunheim and the abode of the giants were ruled by the giant Utgard-Loki; the stronghold Gastropnir is the home of the giantess Menglad; and Thrymheim ("house of uproar"), is the mountain stronghold of the giant Thiazi, who was a son of the giant Olvaldi and the father of the giantess Skadi, wife of Njord, god of winds, sea and fire. Skadi is one of the most famous giants, and is called the 'snow-shoe goddess'; she was the embodiment of winter.

Many of Nordic giants were also the progenitors of monsters; particularly well known are the three monstrous offspring of the giant Loki: Fenrir, the horrible wolf; Jormungand, the monstrous serpent; and Hela, who was the queen of the dead and ruled in the Underworld. Norse giants are connected not only with natural phenomena like frost, and fire, but also with the actual mountains, rocks, animals and the legendary trolls.

***

The original word Greek "chaos" which has been applied to other mythologies, is the name they gave to the nature of things before Creation, which is state of disorder and confusion. Out of Chaos, all Forces of Nature came into being, regarded by humans as the primeval gods. Most of these early deities in Greek mythology were giant in stature; some of them were called by the name Titans, which is translated today as "giants". Looking at their names and those of their closest ancestors, it is easy to see their affinity to Nature: Gaia (Earth) was the most ancient Mother, who gave birth to the basic Natural forces: the great water deities Tethys and Ocean, who produced all the main rivers known at the time; the heavenly deities Theia (Goddess) and Hyperion (the Highest) who produced Helius (Sun), Selene (Moon) and Eos (Dawn); Eos with Astraeus (Starry), who produced the main winds; and Urania, representing the high mountains.

Among these Natural Forces were the Titans, who waged war against the later Olympian gods.

III – Wars of the Giants

In my view, it is this connection and association with the Forces of Nature of the ancient giants which was the cause of conflict and constant war between them and the upstart gods, who appear in human form.

Many scholars have seen this enmity between giants and gods as the usual conflict between the old and the new. But it seems that this conflict runs deeper than mere point in time; it actually expresses a stage of development in the human point of view toward Nature and their position in the natural world. In the old days, they were part of it; regarding Nature as their Great Mother. They bowed down to its rules and tried to cope with what it inflicted on them as best they could. Now, they were seeing Nature for the first time as an outsider to the life they were making for themselves with their developing technology, and were trying not to cope with it but to take control over it. The mythological war between the humanized gods and the ancient giants, then, represented a conflict between two different attitudes toward Nature and the part it should take in human life.

In the Greek poem of Theogony ("Creation of the Gods") by Hesiod (s. link), the author describes the famous Titanomachy ("War of the Titans") which is the war of the Titans against the Olympian gods. The word Titan, although originally meaning something like "lord", has come to mean "giant" in English and other European languages. Greek literary tradition was long already in Hesiod's times, and the war is described by scholars as simply between the old and the new over the rule of the world; they never say what the "old" or the "new" represented. The description of the powers behind the old and the new are mixed, both natural forces and human social ideas appear on both sides so that it is difficult to tell them apart. The "new" is of course descendant of the "old", so what the story tells, virtually, is a story of a classic struggle for power. In the end, the "new" gods won the war, condemning the Titans to imprisonment in the Underworld realm called Tartaros.

***

A similar vague purpose exists in the Hebrew myth of such war, partially appearing in the Biblical Old Testament and elaborated on in its commentary, the Talmud. In his Hebrew book of Jewish Mythology, Hagai Dagan tells the story: In the beginning there was the abyss, water everywhere and darkness, populated by ancient giants called Eimim, Refa'im, Zoozim; such description corresponds both to the Norse story of creation to the Greek Cosmogony. When God appeared, he began fighting against these creatures in order to become a single ruler over the world, in the way Odin destroyed Ymir. Some of the ancient giants – Eimim, Zamzumim, Nefillim and Anakim – who remained after that war, lived in the land of Canaan and its neighboring countries, while others made their dwelling in She'ol, the Underworld, as much as the Titans did. According to that story, when the Israelites came up from Egypt to settle in Canaan , Joshua eliminated the last of the ancient giants in the name of the High God.

The Hebrew traditional word for giant is Anak, meaning "very big", a name that appears among other ancient peoples; some scholars connect that Hebrew word with the Babylonian tribe of Anunnaki who, according to the Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, were the children of the Mother Goddess Tiamat who "were scattered over the earth and through the underworld." (p. 50). Tiamat, as has been mentioned above, corresponds to the Tehom water goddess mentioned in the Old Testament Genesis story; even today "mey tehom" is water drawn from wells under the earth. The interesting twist in that myth is that the Babylonian Anunnaki, unlike the Hebrew Anakim, later fought on the side of the new gods against the old ones, rather than the other way.

***

In North mythology, the difference in character is clearer cut between Nature's giants and the humanized gods. The story of the giantess Skadi mentioned above shows how easily war can begin in the North. It is told that when her father, the giant Thiazi, was slain by the gods, Skadi wanted to take revenge. The gods thought it wiser to make peace with her and offered her a marriage with one of the gods; at the same time she was humiliated by the gods, deceitfully forced to choose the old god Njord. This marriage was not a happy one, as Skadi wanted to live in her father's palace, Thrymheim in the mountains, and Njord wanted to live in Noatun, his palace by the sea. So they agreed to spend the first nine days in the mountains and the following nine days by the sea. This arrangement did not work out very well, and they separated. Eventually, Skadi left Njord for the god Ull, who was in charge of winter, death, skiing, the chase, overall combat, archery, hunting and trapping, and snowshoes – plainly, a combination of natural forces and human activities, as hinted at by the very marriage of a giantess with one of the gods. In this way, some kind of peace was established between the ancient giants and the new gods.

***

Prominent giants in Hindu mythology (s. link) are the Daityas, who were the offspring of the deities Diti and Kasyapa. These are giant evil spirits who were known to oppose the sacrifices offered to the gods. During the first age of the cosmos, the Daityas, led by the dragon-serpent Vritra, were so powerful that they defeated the gods in their battle against them. The gods, who were then scattered throughout the universe, knew that the only way to regain control was to kill Vritra. They sought out Brahma's advice, and he told them that in order to conquer Vritra, they would have to obtain a demon-slaying weapon from the sage Rishi. The sage dedicated his body to their cause, and out of his bones the gods built a weapon with which they slew the dragon-serpent and defeated the Daityas army.

Dragon-serpent is a classic figure representing Nature, usually connected with the Earth and the winds, as well as the torrential rain of the monsoon. Dragon Kings, rulers of the four seas of the world, were associated with the Chinese Creation giant, Pangu.

IV – Mother Nature versus Father God

There are two symbolic sides to the wars between the earthly giants and the heavenly gods. One is the wish of humans to control and rule over natural phenomena like the weather, volcanoes, earthquakes and flooding, rather than be dominated by them. For that reason they created the high gods in heaven who exist above Nature, control it, and determine how nature behaves in all circumstances.

The Other side is a gender war. In many cultures, the first and initial deity, the one who particularly stood between human life and Nature was the Great Mother. She appears virtually in all ancient mythologies around the world, though many times her character has deteriorated to just an old, decrepit woman who has lost all controls, particularly after these were taken over by her young, godly son. This is the basic story that represents the idea of humanity versus Nature.

Such Great Mothers were, for instance, the Greek Gaia-Earth, mother of the Titans and other giants and grandmother to the Olympians; the Babylonian Tiamat, representing the Sea as origin, the Earth who was created from her body, and Mother of the gods against whose rule she rebelled; the Hindu Great Mother Shakti, who ended up (like the Norse Skadi) as a wife to one of the triad of male gods; and the Nordic giantess Freya, in connection of whom the following story is told in the site of Shamanism and the Nordic Goddess (s. link):

The Celto-Germanic Triple Mothers, the Matronae or Deae Matris, were also called Mother Earth, Sun and Moon Woman. They were the ancient creator Goddesses of the past, of Old Europe, who had survived. The Romans called them Sorceresses of the early days. They were the same Triple Goddess as the Norns of Scandinavia, and they belonged to the Vanir people, a people of Old Europe who entered Scandinavia ca. 4000 BCE, bringing with them the Disir, their great female ancestral deities. These were the ancient collective mothers of the tribe who had taught the people time-reckoning, lunar wisdom, agriculture, prophesy and magical oracular powers at the beginning of time.

The Vanirs is described as the matriarchal (initially opposing the patriarchal Aesir) abode of ancient powers lead by the giantess Freya, of whom Encyclopedia Mythica says (s. link): In Norse mythology, Freya is a goddess of love and fertility, and the most beautiful and propitious of the goddesses. She is the patron goddess of crops and birth, the symbol of sensuality and was called upon in matters of love. She loves music, spring and flowers, and is particularly fond of the elves (fairies). Freya is one of the foremost goddesses of the Vanir.

The Vanir was at war with the Aesir until they arrived at some compromise of joining together; but in the end, as in most places around the world, the masculine world overcame the feminine one, as the situation is still today. It can be seen, then, that the War of the Giants takes place between the giants, representing the ancients forces of Nature under the rule of a Mother Goddess, and the gods in heaven under the rule of a Father God, representing the human wish to overcome Nature. The purpose of this war it to take over the control of the world. The earlier humans, having lived close to the earth, worshipped the forces of Nature, which were seen as controlling their world and their lives, and themselves as an integral part of that natural world. These forces were first and foremost the earth and its fertility; the sky with its sun, moon and stars; waters of all kinds flowing in rivers and stretching in lakes and seas; the air with its winds and precipitations, and the underworld where all dead life goes and from where it is revived. 

Gradually, humans developed technology and began to assume power over their lives. They started to worship their own powers rather than that of Nature's, to regard first and foremost their society and its needs, and to idolize the means that helped them control their new kind of life. They created a new kind of deities which symbolized human society, who represented human laws rather than Nature's laws; human wisdom rather than that connected with Nature.

The winning of the heavenly, humanized gods over the natural deities led to many ambitious acts, even atrocities of humanity in the name of "conquering" Nature. These include the destruction of the natural environment and creating a new, synthetic one. However, there is a tendency today of both Nature loving Neo-Pagans, and concerned modern nature scientists, to unite in their demand of humanity to moderate its fight against Earth's natural resources, to try and reverse the situation and return some natural control to the world.

It is interesting that even to the gods, Forces of Nature look like giants to overcome if they want to rule the world. Perhaps it is time for humanity to give back to those Giants of Nature the powers they lost in competition with those abstract and technological gods, for the sake of humanity's own well being.

Links:

Giants hominids - http://www.phenomenica.com/2008/10/mystery-giant-hominids.html

Giants - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_(mythology)

Tiamat - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiamut

Norse mythology - http://www.astronomy.pomona.edu/archeo/
scandanavia/vikings/norse01.htm

Crystalinks - http://www.crystalinks.com/norsegods.html 

Ymir - http://www.pantheon.org/articles/y/ymir.html

Niflheim - http://www.pantheon.org/articles/n/niflheim.html 

Norse mythology - http://www.timelessmyths.com/norse/giants.html

Mythica - http://www.pantheon.org/articles/j/jotunheim.html

Pangu - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pangu#The_Pangu_legend

Chinese Dragon Kings - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_dragon

Mythica - http://www.pantheon.org/articles/j/jotuns.html

Theogony - http://www.theoi.com/Text/HesiodTheogony.html

Hindu mythology - http://www.deliriumsrealm.com/delirium/articleview.asp?Post=133

Shamanism and the Nordic Goddess - http://www.monicasjoo.org/artic/nordicgoddess.htm

Freya - http://www.pantheon.org/articles/f/freya.html


<END>


Witches Lore,  nonfiction, Issue 3, June 1, 2008

Mythological Giants and Their Wars,  nonfiction, Issue 12, September 1, 2010


King David in the Cave, nonfiction, Issue 19, June 1, 2012

Human Sacrifice, nonfiction, Issue 26, March 1, 2014

The Loss and Search for a Loved One, Issue 28, September 1, 2014

The Mythology of Water, Issue 32, September 1, 2015

Mazes and Spirals, Issue 33, December 1, 2015

Tala Bar, I am a writer and an artist and I live in Israel. I studied Hebrew and English languages and literature and I hold a Master of Philosophy degree in literature from London University; before my retirement, I was a teacher of Hebrew and English languages and literature. I am interested in anthropology in general and in mythology in particular and I write with these subjects in mind. In literature, I am particularly interested in fantasy and science fiction and I have written and had published stories, novellas, novels and essays both in Hebrew and English. A list of my published works in English can be found in this address:   

https://www.facebook.com/tala.barrubin?sk=notes#!/editnote.php?draft&note_id=668947876498985&id=100001513373155    

Samples of my art works and some family photos can be found in the following address:                                                        

http://www.all-art.co.il/ArtWorks/ArtWorksChapter.asp?StageId=1739




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