Academic Journal Publishes Historical Review of Gigantology, Gets Taken in by Renaissance Era Forgery
The journal Historical Biology has a new article by Marco Romano and Marco Avanzini that should be pretty familiar to anyone who has ever read through my website’s section on “Giants in the Earth.” While the article is generally good, it has some very significant weaknesses that deserve to be pointed out. Here’s the abstract to “The Skeletons of Cyclops and Lestrigons: Misinterpretation of Quaternary Vertebrates as Remains of the Mythological Giants,” which was printed a couple of weeks ago:
The myth of giants as first inhabitants of countries is a common legend shared by different cultures. In this paper, we highlight that one of the determining factors of the origination of the myth was the discovery of large vertebrate bones (largely Cenozoic), initially interpreted as the remains of giant humans. Thus, huge skeletons were interpreted by authoritative writers such as Strabo, Philostratus and Pliny (just to name a few) as the bodies of the mythological giant Antaeus, Ilio son of Hercules, Orestes, Cyclops and many others. As for the myth of the Great Flood, also the hypothesis of the giants found a convenient literal confirmation in the Sacred Scriptures. One of the first correct interpretations takes place in the first half of the eighteenth century with the studies of Hans Sloane which applied some rudiments of comparative anatomy to prove that the bones belonged to large cetaceans or terrestrial quadrupeds. In the Italian panorama, until the eighteenth century, several authors were convinced of the past existence of entire nations of giants, which represented the first populations of Mediterranean islands. Sloane’s work had a great impact also in Italy, although some ‘sacs of resistance’ persisted up to mid-nineteenth century.
The whole article is available here.
I don’t mean to take anything away from the authors, but it’s humorous to see that an understanding of “giants” that had been widely accepted since the middle nineteenth century (with important antecedents going back a century earlier) is still able to be presented as “new” research today. You’d have thought that Adrienne Mayor’s 2000 book The First Fossil Hunters would have closed the door on presenting this material as an exciting new revelation, but apparently not. The authors begin their article by citing Mayor, and then they review some of the usual suspects in the discussion of Classical and medieval accounts of “giant” bones, to which they add only that they plan to focus primarily on Italian evidence, as befitting the fact that both authors are Italian.
The article is a bit odd to read because, frankly, it seems to have been translated from an underlying Italian text by someone who is not entirely comfortable with English conventions. For example, the authors call Mayor’s book an “essay,” and they refer to worldwide Flood myths as a “novel.” Dante’s Divine Comedy is spelled wrong, with “comedy” retaining the two m’s of its Italian original (Divina Commedia), and Virgil retaining his Italian name, Virgilio. Similarly, the giant Eryx is given in the Italian as Erice, and Berossus switches between his conventional English name and the Italian Berosio. The authors also incorrectly give the famous biblical passage on Nephilim as Genesis 6:3 instead of 6:4, and they wrongly name the Nephilim the “nephilion,” a word I have only seen used in OCR errors for “Nephilim.” In citing Phlegon’s famous account of the discovery of the skeleton of the giant Idas, they wrongly call the giant Ideo, mistaking an inflected form for the nominative. (Phlegon says that the skull was inscribed “IDEO,” meaning “of Idas.”)
I am also at a bit of a loss to explain the authors’ contention that the “giants are mentioned also at length in the Bible,” something belied by the fact that giants appear in, at best, a handful of sentences and none but Goliath is ever described in anything like detail. (Well, maybe Og, too, if you accept the contention that his large bed reflected his large size.)
But our authors are rather slipshod in their scholarship, in large measure because they eschewed primary sources in favor of early modern “gigantology” digests, which were themselves uncritical and easily misled. A case in point is the authors’ incorrect assumption that the Babylonians shared Biblical accounts of giants:
According to the writings of Berosus of Babylon, in Lebanon was a big city called Enos inhabited by giants. Huge men that, for their strength and greatness, occupied several cities cultivating unbridled libido and lust (Mazzella 1591). These gigantic beings mated with their mothers, daughters, sisters, and men, invented several musical instruments, and ate human flesh. At their feet were snakes and dragons; they did not care about sacred or divine matters, but only about ‘terrestrial and perishable’ things.
The authors take their Berossus from a sixteenth century text by Scipio Mazzella (Sito et Antichità della città di Pozzuolo), but they are unaware that the “Berossus” in question is not the genuine article but rather the 1498 forgery by Annius of Viterbo. This forgery only began to be recognized as a fake in the 1560s, but as late as Athanasius Kircher in the 1600s some still accepted its authenticity. Berossus wrote nothing of the Biblical city of Enos, nor of the Biblical accounts of giants or the Abrahamic myth that the Nephilim invented music and were cannibals. This is all Enochian lore, unusual perhaps in the 1400s but not completely unknown from Greek sources. To compound the error, the authors later discuss Tommaso Fazello’s 1573 work on giants, which itself used the fake Berossus as a source, and they didn’t realize it there, either.
This is not to say that the authors’ article is entirely without merit. Most of the references check out, and overall they are quite correct in their assessment of the influence of giant bones on European lore.
The meat of the article is an evaluation of various early modern Italian authors and their differing opinions on whether the giants were real or whether their bones belonged to prehistoric animals. Here the authors offer a useful service in referencing and discussing a large number of cases of “giant” bones hitherto untranslated into English. They note, though, that the discussion in Italy tended to follow that of England and France, where first Hans Sloane and then Georges Cuvier declared the bones of giants to be those of fossil elephants.
Overall, the article is good and a decent overview of the subject, with some genuinely obscure material not often available in English. But in terms of originality, it offers little to nothing not familiar from more than two hundred years of similar studies, and the copyediting, translating, and proofreading leave much to be desired. The authors, who are scientists rather than Classicists, are sometimes led astray by their trust in deceptive early modern sources and their own lack of knowledge of the Classics they cite secondhand. This is an unfortunate weakness that detracts from their work.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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