A while back I wrote about the criticisms seminarian Ben Stanhope leveled against Ken Ham’s Creation Museum and Answers in Genesis website, specifically regarding dragons in the Bible. Stanhope had cited the work of Adrienne Mayor on the fossil origins of mythological creatures as the most likely source for Classical reports of mythic monsters, like dragons, that Ham takes as proof that dinosaurs survived until recently. As it turns out, Ham was none too pleased with Stanhope’s critique, and one of his colleagues, Georgia Purdom, fired back on his Answers in Genesis blog, attacking Mayor for insufficient Christianity:
Mayor’s views are based on her ideas about the past (she wasn’t there) and she does not presuppose the Bible as truth. She interprets the evidence of fossil beds and dragon legends in light of her presupposition that man’s ideas about the past—including evolution and millions of years—are true and God’s Word is not.
But she raises two points that I suppose are worth considering: (a) How do we know what happened in the past? And (b): Is there actual evidence that the ancients misinterpreted fossils as giant or monster bones?
To the first question, I can offer no answer Ham or Purdom would accept since he believes that the past is knowable only through Genesis, and therefore all of science (except those parts he can employ to his own ends) is useless. To the second question, the answer is more interesting.
Augustine, in City of God (15.9), wrote that “the bones which are from time to time discovered prove the size of the bodies of the ancients, and will do so to future ages, for they are slow to decay.” Yet somehow all of these giant bodies have vanished, probably due to that pernicious anti-Christian conspiracy that is hiding all the bones in the secret Smithsonian relic vault.
Scholars have argued for the better part of two centuries that the kneecap of Ajax (Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.35.4-5) displayed in Greece was in fact that of a fossil elephant; however, since the actual patella does not survive, it is technically possible that the Greeks actually found the one and only genuine giant human ever recorded. In collecting her evidence, Adrienne Mayor could point to no actual surviving fossils known to be those venerated as heroes. She did, though, report on fossil bones found buried at Troy, in the Temple of Hera at Samos, and in the heroic burials at Messina. Strictly speaking, though, we cannot prove these were viewed as large human bones, despite the correlation between literary accounts and the remains. She also found a correlation between descriptions and fossils and between the location where “giant” and “monster” bones were discovered and known fossil beds. However, she did indicate one place where myth and fact come together on the ground, and that is at Pallene, a Greek headland in the Aegean.
Mayor cited the evidence of Solinus, a third-century CE writer of a book of wonders and prodigies, who spoke of giants eroding from the ground. Mayor provides a translation in the appendix to her book, though she elides some of the inferences involved in the main text. Robin Lane Fox, in repeating the claim in Travelling Heroes, provides a truncated and somewhat loose translation of Solinus. To understand what is to follow, we need to note first that in Greek myth the Giants fought with the Olympians at Phlegra and that Herodotus (7.123) identifies Pallene as the ancient Phlegra, which Solinus (9.6-7) proceeds to describe on that basis:
6 Admonet Phlegra, ubi antequam oppidum fieret rumor est militiam mundi dimicatam cum gigantibus, ut penitus persequamur quantis probationibus imperii indicia diuinae expeditionis in hoc saeculo perseuerauerint. 7 Illic si quando (ut accidit) nimbis torrentes excitantur et aucta aquarum pondera ruptis obicibus ualentius se in campos ruunt, eluuione ossa etiam nunc ferunt detegi ad instar quae sunt e corporibus humanis sed modo grandiora, quae ob enormem magnitudinem monstrosi exercitus iactant extitisse, idque adiuuatur argumento saxorum inmanium quibus oppugnandum impetitum caelum crediderunt.
At Phlegra, before the town was built, hearsay is that here the campaign to rule the world was fought with the giants, so that proof and evidence of their campaign against the gods persist down to this very time. In that place, when (as it happens) torrents swell with rain and the increased weight of the water breaks the banks and ruins the fields, they say that through the inundation are uncovered bones which are like the bodies of humans but much greater, and due to their enormous magnitude must be the bodies of the monstrous army. This is helped by the evidence of the tremendous stone with which they are believed to have attacked heaven. (my trans.)
That Phelgra was the site of the battle between the gods and the Giants (not to be confused with the battles with the Titans and Typhon) is otherwise attested in Pausanias 1.25.2, Apollodorus 1.6.1, Ptolemy Hephaestion in Photius Myriobiblon 190, and about a dozen other sources.
For a very long time, this was considered a myth. Then, in 1994, the fossilized teeth of giant elephants were found during road construction. As Lane Fox discussed, excavations carried out in Pallene between 1998 and 2007 uncovered a veritable menagerie of ancient “giants”: giraffes, mastodons, and more—all beside sulfuric hot springs reminiscent of the infernal landscape of the Giants’ war and smelling of the rotting corpses of the Giants.
This is about as close as we will get to proving the Greeks mistook mastodons for human(ish) Giants unless and until we find a Greek sepulcher marked with a hero’s name and containing the bones of an elephant. Therefore, it is still a tad conjectural—the Greeks could have found and somehow managed to lose the only true Giant bones ever found, and other sites (also with mastodon bones) also claimed to be the legendary Phlegra.
But, on the plus side, it causes a problem for creationists: If you want to argue that there really were “Giant” bones there (as those who cite reports of giant bones must do), you must do so by accepting the testimony of the Greeks, which also assert the reality of Zeus and the gods. You can abandon them as lies or claim the gods were really demons (Augustine, City of God 7.33), but then you have impugned the testimony of the very Greeks you need to support your case. If the Greeks were wrong in some things, why not others? If they could mistake demons for gods, why not mastodons for Giants? I’m happy either way: give up the gods and the giants, or make room for Zeus among the Elohim.