Before I was so rudely interrupted with an outbreak of Ancient Aliens on Friday, I was in the process of collecting a few more examples of early modern “giant” bones that seem pretty clearly to be those of extinct megafauna. I remain astonished by the sheer volume of such identifications, and it reinforces for me the importance of looking at European folk culture to understand the otherwise confounding emergence of a belief in giants in the United States.
Around the year 1660 the banks of the stream Cor running near Corbridge eroded away close to the old Roman fortification of Corchester, and a giant skeleton emerged, measuring twenty-one feet in length. The femur was six feet long. Some of the bones were given to the Earl of Derwentwater in 1695, and another was hung in the kitchen of the Old George Inn. This latter bone (one of the ribs) was sold and remained on display at the Keswick Museum for centuries as that of the eponymous giant Cor. Of course, not everyone agreed that it was the bones of a mythical giant. Some more learned men suggested that the bones belonged to an elephant sacrificed to Hercules in the Roman period, since they didn’t know about fossils or prehistoric elephant species. I wish I had a primary source for this tale, but since it is a local story from an obscure part of England, nearly all of the sources trace back to Eneas Mackenzie’s account in his History of Northumberland, published in 1825. Mackenzie happily dismissed the bones as the remains of “an elephant, a whale, or some other terrestrial or aquatic animal now extinct.” That didn’t stop the emergence of “giants” near the Cor, though. According to Robert Forster, who heard the story sometime before 1881 from his friend Adam Harle, giant bones still eroded from the banks from time to time. Harle found “a human skull of immense size and wonderfully perfect” among a field of bones, which Forster attributed to a Roman cemetery.
Perhaps of some interest, according to Mackenzie, giants were widely believed to be real in his day, often assigned the role of inhabitant or builder of ancient or medieval ruins whose true origins were long forgotten—a trend in Western culture we see as far back as Pausanias, who attributed Mycenaean ruins to giants (Description of Greece 2.16.5, 2.25.8), and Pseudo-Eupolemus, who attributed to the Tower of Babel to giants (Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica 9.17). At Elsbury in Scotland, the story went that the giantess Ella had lived in the old Roman fort there, while the ancient castle of Tarset Hall near Bellingham was similarly believed to be the habitation of a giant—and also haunted by a ghostly horse-drawn chariot!
However, in researching the giants, I of course became distracted by more interesting things I came across fortuitously as a result of my research. Of some interest were the “giants” of Persia, whose lives and works have caused me much difficulty to discover thanks to the wretched uselessness of old citations. The account in question comes from Pietro della Valle, a sixteenth century traveler who ventured through Turkey, Persia, and India and sent back many letters about his voyages collected as his Viaggi. Old books give a really bad citation to his experience with giants (the confusing ii.89, which matches no edition I’ve yet found going back to the 1600s), but I found the text in question, in Vol. 2 (La Persia), Letter 4.11 where Pietro is describing what is now Mazandaran, along the Caspian Sea’s southern shore. His reference to the pretended graves of giants, so far as I can tell, has never been translated into English (though it may be in the undigitzed 1989 abridgment of George Bull, unread by me):
On the slopes of a high and steep mountain, which is in the same narrow side valley, we came across a cave with some walls of mason-work, to which one might only ascend with the greatest difficulty as that steep hill has no path; and within, according to legend, there dwells a maiden giantess who had ravaged much of the surrounding land, and who had obstructed and almost closed off the passage. And they tell many stories not only of this maiden, but of several other giants of the country, and they say that these can be found in the outlines of their enormous burials; but I omit these things since I have not seen them and I take them for old women’s fables. (my trans.)
Weirdly enough, this story isn’t just a traveler’s tale. William Ourseley, traveling through the same region in February 1812, discovered that the legend was still current—and that the locals claimed that they had recently seen the giantess spinning at the entrance to her cave!
Our friend Pietro della Valle was a pretty amazing guy for his time, and it’s strange that he isn’t as celebrated as some of the other travelers who reported on the mysteries of the East for the Western world. One of the reasons for this seems to be that only the third volume of his Viaggi, on India, was translated into English in the seventeenth century, almost certainly due to English commercial interest in India to the exclusion of the Ottoman and Persian lands. Additional selections of his accounts weren’t translated into English until George Bull’s 1989 English language abridgement, The Pilgrim. Pietro invented two musical instruments, applied ancient musical theory to modern music, developed one of the earliest scholarly ethnographies of Persia and India, and even introduced an early form of the Persian cat to Europe!
But to our interest, he also did something else of great interest. In 1616 Pietro della Valle was the first known modern European to visit the ruins of Babylon, report on their condition, and brought back some bricks inscribed with cuneiform text to Europe. (The earlier German traveler Rauwolf, visiting Mesopotamia in 1574, mistook Fallujah for Babylon, and most Europeans at the time thought Babylon was Baghdad.) He gave one brick to our friend Athanasius Kircher, another writer on the subject of ancient mysteries who contributed mightily to Atlantology and gigantology! Kircher included the brick and drawings of Babylon commissioned by della Valle in his book on the Tower of Babel.
Della Valle’s description, from Vol. 2, Letter 17, which ought to be better known, was translated in 1816 by Thomas Maurice and forgotten by the end of the 1820s, not translated again (so far as I could find) until 1989:
In the midst of a vast and level plain, about a quarter of a league from the Euphrates, appears a heap of ruined buildings, like a huge mountain, the materials of which are so confounded together, that one knows not what to make of it. Its figure is square, and it rises in form of a tower or pyramid, with four fronts, which answer to the four quarters of the compass, but it seems longer from north to south than from east to west, and is, as far as I could judge by my pacing it, a large quarter of a league. Its situation and form correspond with that pyramid which Strabo calls the tower of Belus. […] The in others it is smoother and of easier ascent; there are also traces of torrents from the summit to the base, caused by violent rains. […] It is built with large and thick bricks, as I carefully observed, having caused excavations to be made in several places for that purpose; but they do not appear to have been burned, but dried in the sun, which is extremely hot in those parts. These sun-baked bricks, in whose substance were mixed bruised reeds and straw, and which were laid in clay mortar, compose the great mass of the building, but other bricks were also perceived at certain intervals, especially where the strongest buttresses stood, of the same size, but burned in the kiln, and set in good lime and bitumen.
This is a bit complex to unpack, but the mound excavated by Pietro della Valle as the Tower of Belus (the Etemenaki ziggurat) took on the name “Della Valle’s Ruin” for a long time, but it turns out he had the wrong mound. The one he excavated, the Tell Babil (Babel), was actually the palace of Nebuchadnezzar. What’s interesting is that local legend long identified the Babil mound with both the Tower of Babel as well as with Fallen Angels.
According to traveler’s reports from the nineteenth century, the local population called the mound Mujeliba, or the “overturned,” in reference to the extra-biblical folklore that a mighty wind overthrew the Tower of Babel, long associated with the Etemanaki (actually destroyed by Alexander the Great). In Islamic tradition, the mighty wind entirely replaces the narrative of the Tower, which now becomes the plain of Babil, from which the mound takes its name. In the Qur’an, the name Babil appears in Sura 2 in connection with the fallen angels Harut and Marut, who like the Watchers of Enoch, descend to earth, teach people magic, and induce sin. Although the Qur’an itself says nothing about the angels falling (Allah sends them to test humans), but Islamic legend incorporates many details from Christian and Jewish lore of Fallen Angels to expand upon the story, as Ibrahim ibn Wasif Shah relates, as preserved by Al-Maqrizi: “Egyptians, especially the Copts, assure us that these were actually two demons named Mahla and Bahala, not two angels, and that the two are at Babel in a well, where witches meet, and they will remain there until the Day of Judgment” (my trans.). This is the punishment of the Watchers in Enoch, Jubilees, Peter, and Jude, here transferred to Qur’anic angels. This is fairly clearly shown by the change from the Qur’an assigning the angels to the age of Solomon and ibn Wasif Shah saying they lived before the Flood, in the time of King ’Ad—whose people, the ’Adites, were also destroyed by a mighty wind for their sins (Qur’an 69:6).
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