I have an interesting archival discovery for you today, a piece of gigantology history that so far as I can tell never made it into the fringe history books. My discovery of it came through a somewhat circuitous path involving research into fossil bones and their interpretation as the remains of giants. Anyway, this led me to the 1842 Quæstiones Mosaicæ, a volume that attempted to compare the Mosaic account of Genesis with what was then known of ancient history and religion.
The volume in question was written by Osmond de Beauvoir Priaulx, who was an important figure in Victorian times but remembered chiefly for being dull. If he is recalled at all today, it is mostly as the founder of the Priaulx Library of Guernsey. Anyway, in life he was apparently friends with members of Charles Darwin’s family and with the novelist Thackeray. He and his wife would hold spiritualist séances, though he personally disbelieved in spirits.
In his book, he wanted to investigate the ancient world without the dogma of religion or the anti-religious extremism of the rationalists, and to that end he tried to explicate each verse. When he came to the famous passage of Genesis 6:1-4, when the fallen angels and the giants make their appearance, he tried to determine whether there really were giants in the earth in those days and whether these giants (the Nephilim) could be said to constitute a race.
He provides as evidence the usual ancient sources about big bones dug out of the earth, and he correctly concludes that “all such bones have, when submitted to scientific examination, been found to be the bones, not of men, but of some of those great primitive monsters who were the earth’s first inhabitants.”
In so doing he cites a very interesting passage I had never seen before (but should have—more on that anon) from the third volume of the Jesuit scholar Giovanni Stefano Menochio’s Il Stuore, published posthumously in 1662, as best I can tell. Priaulx gives the passage only in brief summary and then appends the original Italian as a footnote. I have translated it as best I can, but it’s seventeenth century Italian, so it’s a little outside my usual language areas.
The events described concern an Italian named Girolamo Maggi(o) (a.k.a. Hieronymus Magius) who our Jesuit scholar claims was taken prisoner by the Turks under Hasan Pasha, the son of the great admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa:
(Girolamo) Maggio found himself in the year 1559 a prisoner in Africa, where he saw the head of a giant, which two Spanish slaves uncovered with a plow in a cavity, and they disinterred it and carried news of the thing, along with the tributes of many people, to Assano (Hasan Pasha), son of (Hayreddin) Barbarossa, with the hope of obtaining their freedom by presenting him with this curiosity; but this the barbarian would not grant, and he only gave them five Unghari for it. This head had a circumference of eleven palms, and those Spanish slaves reported that in the place where they had found the cavity containing the skull, there were likewise other bones of that body of a size corresponding to the head.
The Unghari is presumably the Hungarian ducat, frequently used as coinage by the Turks, though I can’t be sure. I hope he didn’t pay them in actual Hungarians. But as it happens, this Italian text isn’t the original, even though it’s the only one quoted directly in apparently all of the literature on giants. I should, though, have recognized it, as we shall see below. The original can be found in Hieronymus Magius’s Variarum Lectionum (1.4), where it is a little different. The translation, I believe the first into English, is my own. I think it should be right, but sometimes a long string of subjunctives screws me up:
Melchior Guilandinus Borossus, my friend, a man with absolute knowledge of all disciplines, and of all the plants and fossils, and other things which are pertinent to the teachings of medicine, and of the first principles of our age, a few days ago was conversing with me on all manner of things, and among these, mention was made of Giants. He told me himself that during the year 1559, when he was taken captive in Africa, he saw the skull of Julius Caesar, appearing in size as that of a Giant, which two Spanish prisoners had unearthed in plowing the land, dug out of the ground, and brought to King Hasan, son of Hayreddin Barbarossa, as a wonder and therefore sought their freedom, along with a very large crowd, whose hopes, however, were disappointed when the Barbarian king, entirely an amousos (cretin) and no more enthusiastic about antiquity, feigning admiration, ordered them paid five Venetian aurei (ducats) apiece in place of the freedom they sought. The circumference of the skull was eleven spans, the same as he had been told by the Spaniards themselves when he had quickly and diligently investigated the thing and heard that in the same place where the skull was found, the rest of the marvelous bones of the body, similar in proportion and of great size, yet remained.
Notice the key difference: In the original, the skull wasn’t meant to purchase freedom but rather was held up as the head of Caesar, a talisman for a slave revolt. Melchior Wieland (Guilandinus) was a physician and botanist. He was held captive in Algeria until a wealthy Italian paid his ransom. He returned to Italy in 1561 and became director of a botanical garden in Padua.
If anyone cares, the Venetian ducat (the dialect term apparently rendered as a Classical aureus in neo-Latin) was the same weight and value as the Hungarian ducat. When the Jesuit author retold the account a century later, the Hungarian coin, backed by the Holy Roman Emperor, had become the standard unit against which others were measured. I presume that accounts for the odd translation of aurei as Unghari.
Barbarossa was the admiral who attacked Lepanto in 1571, sparking the claim that a pillar of fire had signaled his defeat, a story later used as a supposed UFO sighting in Wonders in the Sky. If Maggi’s name sounds familiar (as it should have to me), it’s because he and his tale of a giant skull were cited by Sir Hans Sloane in 1728, in the first ever scientific inquiry into the fossil elephants that gave rise to such claims. Sloane gave his name in Latin, which is why it didn’t ring a bell with me, and Sloane also got the citation wrong or else used an edition where the chapters were numbered differently.
Maggi, who believed giants really existed, was skeptical of some claims of giants. He had concluded that the large tooth St. Augustine claimed was that of a giant (City of God 15.9) was really that of an elephant. He did, however, think that the fossil shoulder blade displayed in Venice as that of St. Christopher really was that a of a giant. (St. Christopher was later declared to be a myth.)
Anyway, Maggi’s testimony is interesting because it suggests that the Turks, who were Muslims and thus lacked a strong tradition of Nephilim-Giants, weren’t impressed by giants, classical or biblical; indeed, Maggi says as much in calling Hasan Pasha a cretin in Greek. But it also speaks toward Europeans’ mindsets at the time, and their deep belief in degeneration theory and ancient giants.
We know that the skull of “Caesar” wasn’t likely to be what it was claimed to be, first because Caesar was cremated in Italy and shouldn’t have had a body buried near Tunis, and second, because the place where the skull was uncovered is near to the site where Augustine’s tooth emerged and where dwarf elephant fossils have been found for centuries.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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