I have some interesting news: I am scheduled to appear next Thursday night at 9 PM ET on The Rundown Live, the radio program that frequently plays host to fringe figures like Scott Wolter and Steve Quayle. I’ll be on to discuss why I don’t subscribe to the “alternative” view of human history and some of the problems I see with fringe history’s approach to research.
A Yale Professor's "Lecture" on Giants in the Time of the Great Sea Serpent Fraud
A little while back I shared a lecture that the esteemed Claude-Nicolas Le Cat gave on the subject of giants to the Academy of Science at Rouen in 1764. The full text is now on my Fragments on Giants page, but the important takeaway was that Le Cat’s lengthy list of supposed discoveries of giant human skeletons were reprinted in early editions of famous encyclopedias, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica and his lecture was recycled throughout the nineteenth century as a convenient source of “proof” of the existence of giants. Now Andy White has discovered an interesting adaptation of Le Cat’s text attributed to the scholar Benjamin Silliman, Jr., a Yale professor, chemist, and major figure in the oil industry. In 1840s, various papers claimed that Silliman gave a lecture on giants, and the text of that lecture matched the Britannica transcript of Le Cat’s lecture nearly point for point, with an odd series of typos that were as distinctive as they were clearly derived from an inferior (pirated or otherwise badly transcribed) copy of Le Cat, in which, for example, “Orestes” was given as “Grostes” or “Grestes.” Mixed in were some passages on giants from Adam Clarke’s famous commentary on the Bible and Jedidiah Morse’s Geography.
Forbidden History is a British fringe history series modeled more or less explicitly on America Unearthed and now airing on the American Heroes Channel. I reviewed one of the episodes from the British run of the series on the Yesterday channel back in February.
The episode represented as new when AHC aired it on Sunday night is the first American broadcast of “The Mystery of the Giants,” a first season outing that aired in Britain in October 2013. I therefore have taken this opportunity to review the episode and its coverage of the myth of giants. The episode differs from its British original in that AHC has replaced the original narration from show host and onetime Top of the Pops presenter Jamie Theakston with an American-accented narrator. This leads to a very strange show in which all of Theakston’s first person involvement is drained away, and he serves as nothing more than an occasional mouthpiece for questions directed by an unseen American who seems to be speaking Theakston’s thoughts as a third person omniscient narrator. I prefer the British version, frankly, which, in using the first person point of view, was more personal and engaging.
Yesterday I mentioned in passing the notion that the mound of Tell Babil, the ancient site of Babylon, was associated in Islamic tradition with a mighty wind that led to the confusion of tongues. While doing some unrelated research piecing together a page of fragments on the search for Noah’s Ark, I came across the mighty wind again in the fragments of Abydenus, which got me a little curious about this wind and where it came from since it is not in the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. We might as well start with Abydenus since that’s where I entered into this weird rabbit hole.
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.
I had no idea that Ancient Aliens: Ultimate Evidence was premiering tonight of the History Channel. There was very little publicity, and up until this afternoon my on-screen cable grid said History was showing an untitled episode to be determined. (Dish Network, I am told, listed the show as a rerun, which, in fairness, it sort of is.) I’m still not clear whether “Beyond Nazca,” as the episode is titled, is part of Ancient Aliens season seven, or is a new series as my cable company lists it. I tried checking the internet, and as of this writing a few minutes before the “series” premiere, there was literally nothing written about the show in the media. It seems that History is pretty sure that ratings for Ancient Aliens are the same no matter what they show or when, so why waste money promoting a new show when the same people will tune in anyway?
The more I’ve looked in to how fossil megafauna bones were understood in Classical and medieval Europe, the more it seems that the gigantology that took root in the United States was a holdover from the last gasps of European Nephilim furor in the 1600s, right around the time of the colonization of the United States. We have previously seen how the Spanish, particularly Catholic priests, interpreted fossil mastodon and mammoth bones as those of the Nephilim. Hernan Cortes interpreted some mammoth bones that way (Peter Martyr, Decades 5.9; Bernal Díaz del Castillo, True History of the Conquest of New Spain 78), and large bones sent from the New World back to Europe caused a sensation, prompting questions about whether the Nephilim lived in the Americas as well as the Old World. To that end, elements of Mexican mythology were purposely identified with Genesis 6:1-4, transferring the Fallen Angels to a New World locale and thus justifying American giants (Gerónimo de Mendieta, Historica ecclesiástica Indiana 2.1).
I want to start today by thanking David Bradbury for calling to my attention an astonishing medieval account of the discovery of Pallas’s body that is believed to be completely independent of and nearly contemporary with that of William of Malmesbury that I discussed yesterday. The text, from an untitled manuscript on ancient history known conventionally as the Status imperii Iudaici, dates from between 1137 and 1170 and contains bizarre details that are certainly worthy of mention. Since the text, which varies a bit among the five extant manuscripts, appears never to have been published in English—and indeed isn’t even mentioned in the scholarly cross-references on the various accounts of the discovery of Pallas’s corpse—it’s worth translating and quoting in full. The passage appears at 1.17:
Yesterday I described a case where the bones of various Ice Age mammals were recombined and mistaken for the body of a dragon in Krakow. Today I thought I’d continue the theme by digging through the old literature to find more cases where Ice Age megafauna, as geologist Henry A. Ward put it in an 1878 letter to the Rochester Union and Advertiser, “have played a prominent part in the demonology and gigantology” of Europe. As is increasingly clear, the understanding that “giant” bones belonged to Ice Age megafauna was so self-evident to Victorian scholars that it was no longer something to remark specially upon; how that widespread knowledge got forgotten between World War I and Adrienne Mayor’s First Fossil Hunters is unclear to me but seems to follow from the gradual divorce between the humanities and the natural sciences.
I’ve found it interesting to look at cases when fossil megafauna bones were mistaken for those of human giants, and I found an interesting reference to a case that occurred in Krakow, an area of Poland where my ancestors lived. It does not involve human giants but something slightly different: the bones of a dragon. Our story concerns the Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus on the Wawel Hill, the most important Polish cathedral and the place where the kings of Poland were consecrated. The extant structure was built from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries atop the ruins of two earlier cathedrals and beside a medieval castle, itself also rebuilt many times.
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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