It can be easy to laugh at people who imagine that the ancient wonders of the world were built by space aliens or Atlanteans, but I find it interesting to see how these modern beliefs connect to earlier religious claims that the same structures were actually the work of the Nephilim in the days of old. The line of connection is quite clear: Ancient astronaut theories emerge from layering space aliens (or, earlier, Theosophical space spirits) onto mid-Victorian claims about a lost race from Atlantis, assigning to aliens stories previously told of Atlanteans. These in turn were explicitly linked to still earlier tales of giants, as Ignatius Donnelly testifies in identifying Atlantis with the “antediluvian” world of the pre-Flood giants, writing of the Atlanteans that “their mental superiority and command of the arts gave them the character of giants who arrived from the East.”
Since ancient times, it had been the trend among traditional cultures to ascribe the great works of the past to giants. Pausanias reported that Mycenaean ruins were thought to be the remains of the Cyclopes’ homes. Medieval people attributed everything from Stonehenge to Roman ruins to the pyramids of Egypt to Bible giants. In the New World, the Aztec re-imagined the old ruins of Teotihuacan and other early cities as the work of giants.
Nevertheless, we tend to think of the attribution of old buildings to giants as a product of medieval superstition, something banished by the Enlightenment. That’s why I was doubly surprised to find English theologian Thomas Stackhouse’s A New History of the Holy Bible from 1737 contained a remarkable passage listing specific buildings that he believed were built before the Flood by Giants. He starts by explaining his belief that ancient monuments are the work of the Nephilim, either before or after the Flood:
But I forbear more Instances of this Kind, and, refer the Reader, for his farther Conviction, to such authors as have professedly handled this Subject, shall only crave leave to make this remark—that, in all probability, no small Part of the eldest Cities, Towers, Temples, Obelisks, Pyramids, and Pillars, some of which are still remaining; and deservedly esteem’d the Wonders of the World, were the Structure of these antient Giants; and, as they surpass the Ability of all later Ages, so they seem to me to be the visible and undeniable Remains, Monuments, and Demonstrations, not only of their Existence, but of their prodigious Stature and Strength likewise; since in an Age, ignorant of mechanical Powers and engines, such vast Piles of Building could no otherwise have been erected.
In a footnote, he specifies the particular buildings that are wonders of the world and therefore likely the work of Giants, and they are basically the ones you would expect, more or less:
The works of this kind which our author reckons up, are, 1. The Giants Dance upon Salisbury Plain in England, now called Stone-henge. 2. The Giants Causeway in the north of Ireland. 3. The Circular Gigantic Stone at Ravenna 4. The Tower of Babel. 5. The Two Obelisks mentioned by Herodotus. 6. The Temple of Diana in Egypt. 7. The Labyrinth in Egypt. 8. The Lake Moeris, 480 miles long, and dug by human labour, all by the same Herodotus. 9. The Sphinx of Egypt. 10. The most ancient Temple in Egypt, 11. The Agrigentine Temple. 12. The Pyramidal Obelisk, all mentioned by Diodorus Siculus. 13. The Temple of Solomon. 14. The Palace of Solomon at Jerusalem. 15. That at Balbeck 16. That at Tadmor. 17. The Palace and Buildings at Persepolis. 18. The Temple of Belus at Babylon. 19. The Temple at Chillembrum; and, 20. The first Temple of Diana at Ephesus.
One would have imagined the Pyramids on that list.
The above inventory is, according to our author, his own expansion and distillation of some commentary in William Whiston’s Collection of Authentick Records from 1727, an early attempt to translate and comment on the various apocryphal and pseudoepigraphic texts. I unfortunately have not found online access to the second volume of that collection, wherein the passage on the monuments of the Giants appears, but I trust that Stackhouse managed to refer to it correctly. However, it does make it difficult to parse what belongs to Whiston and what was original to Stackhouse.
The places claimed as the work of the Giants are a mixture of places treated as amazing monuments in Classical Antiquity and those that took on such associations in medieval times. Most of the items listed are rather prosaic Classical wonders, but the appearance of Chillembrum (modern Chidambaram) in India is a bit of a surprise, as is Tadmor (Palmyra) and Argigento in Sicily.
It’s interesting that Whiston didn’t just list the largest or most impressive of monuments, but rather those he considered particularly well-wrought and skillfully constructed.
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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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