I read this morning a truly dumb argument on Facebook from a conservative Christian that the gay pride rainbow flag is Satanic because it contains an imperfect six colors while God’s true rainbow contains seven colors. This is painfully ironic because Isaac Newton created indigo as the seventh color in the rainbow as part of an occult system designed to harmonize with the seven tones of the Western musical scale and various occult and Hermetic references to the mystical power of the number seven (some of which refer back to the seven days of creation, and others not so much). The Christian writer ends up endorsing the occult out of hatred for gays. That’s about perfect.
I wanted to share something that I came across yesterday, which is a very long and detailed examination of the role that fossils played in the development of the myth of giants. The text comes from the first chapter of Henry H. Howorth’s 1887 book The Mammoth and the Flood. I had long been familiar with the book in terms of knowing that it existed, but I confess to never having read it since its author, a Conservative member of the British Parliament, had written it for the purpose of refuting uniformitarian geology. Specifically, he believed that the Ice Age was a hoax that academic geologists were trying to pull over on the European public, and he hoped to prove that the so-called Ice Age was really a great flood, akin to that of Noah in the Bible.
Since I wasn’t terribly interested in the topic of whether the Ice Age really happened, I hadn’t given the book a second look. But after I saw Jack Churchward mention on Facebook that it had a section on giants, I was intrigued enough to open it up. Lo! Its first chapter is a treasure trove of information about fossils and their connection to mythology. Indeed, clocking in at almost 10,000 words, it’s also one of the longest and most sustained arguments about the fossil origins of myths and legends published in the nineteenth century.
I was especially impressed that Howorth had closely anticipated the main lines of argument—and the main evidence—that Adrienne Mayor gave in The First Fossil Hunters (2001), including the first argument I have seen prior to Mayor’s own that the legendary griffin had been inspired by the fossil fields of central Asia. Howorth noted the connection between the bizarre shape of the griffin and the types of fossils found in Asia, and he pointed to the fact that surviving objects passing under the name of griffins’ bones are in fact fossils of known creatures. He did not know about the specific fossil Mayor identified as that of the griffin—Protoceratops—but the argument is otherwise nearly the same. (Howorth’s book isn’t referenced in Mayor’s.)
But the more than half of the chapter focuses on the accounts of giants and the fossil bones that were mistaken for those of the Nephilim and Gigantes. Many of these are familiar to me from earlier research, but there are an ungodly amount I had ever heard of and I can’t even imagine how I would go about tracing them back to their origins. Most of them are lifted, sometimes nearly verbatim, from earlier sources—Cuvier’s books on fossils and geology, Figuier’s The World Before the Deluge, etc.—but Howorth seems to have had a knack for collating accounts.
The one thing that tends to stand out is the fact that early modern scientists were really impressed by the skeletons of giants and struggled to understand them, while early modern regular folk seem to have shrugged their shoulders and moved on with their lives. Consider this account that Howorth summarizes from Athanasius Kircher’s book on the subterranean world: “In 1550 some workmen, repairing a tomb at Culatrari near Entella, found a tomb containing a skeleton twenty-two cubits high, which they set up in sport, and then threw stones at until it was destroyed, the teeth alone remaining.” Such an account is hardly unique, and it probably explains why so many who dug up big skulls felt compelled to try to wear them like helmets, one of the weirded side-themes in accounts of giant bones. Sadly, I wasn’t able to find it in Kircher’s text; it doesn’t appear on the page Howorth specified in Kircher, or in the two secondary sources he cited either. The real source, as it took me a ridiculous amount of time to find, is Fazellus’s History of Sicily 1.6. There, the story is set in the town of Calatrasi, “not far from Entella.” How Howorth got the name so mangled, I can’t say, but it’s one of the problems with all gigantology: Tracking the real sources and original stories is painful work, and usually not worth it.
Anyway, do check out the chapter in my Library. It is a long but very interesting read.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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