Yesterday Andy White offered a thoughtful blog post on the reasoning behind the search for giants among creationists. White discovered that creationists subscribe to a theology of degeneration, whereby God’s perfect creation is gradually winding down, leading to smaller and weaker creatures over time. As a result, for the Bible to be literally true, it would require that ancient animals and people be larger than those alive today, for they were closer to the perfection of the original creation, before original sin. Thus, the search for “giants.”
This is not a new idea by any stretch. There was a long tradition in ancient times that the ancients were larger and stronger than their modern descendants. In the Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel, we learn that Moses was a giant, though only a fraction of the size of the Nephilim. But this wasn’t confined only to the ancient Jews. In the Ugaritic texts, we learn that the Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh stood 11 cubits (16.5 feet) high. The Greeks routinely ascribed to their heroes gigantic status, identifying the bones of extinct elephants as those of the heroes. Even as late as the Middle Ages, a reflex of this belief contributed to the story that the builders of the Egyptian pyramids were five times the size of medieval humans (Al-Maqrizi, Al-Khitat 1.40). What’s particularly amazing is that this belief persisted for centuries after the Arabs had begun excavating Egyptian graves and could see for themselves that the people of ancient times were no taller than they.
More generally, such beliefs seem to be a popular reflection of the broader theme of degeneracy found in many ancient cultures. Hinduism has its concept of the Yugas, the great ages of the universe which gradually decay into chaos and corruption. Hesiod, writing in Works and Days 109-201, describes the five ages of man, degenerating from the godlike perfection of the Golden Age to the misery of the present. (However, at 156-169 Hesiod’s version contains a heroic race, the only one to improve on its predecessor, meaning that the decline was not inevitable.) That the Greeks viewed the earlier ages as giants comes to us from the story of Talos, the last survivor of the Age of Bronze, who was himself a giant, as recorded on vase paintings and as stated implicitly in Apollonius’ Argonautica 4.1639-1693 and explicitly in the Orphic Argonautica 1358-1360. Ovid repeats the theme as the four ages in Metamorphoses 1.89-150, omitting the heroic age and canonizing the idea of permanent decline.
In Judaism the Ages of Man show up as the dream vision of Daniel 2:31-45, in which the declining value of the materials used to make a great statue symbolize the corruption of each successive kingdom. St. Augustine offered a Christian version, derived from Jewish precedent, in On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed 22, in which he describes the six ages of the world, keyed to Biblical events. Dante, in The Divine Comedy (Inferno 14.103-116), adapts Daniel’s version the Ages of Man.
Apparently under the influence of Hellenic philosophy, the concept of gigantism is bound up in the moral argument of decline, even though it sits uneasily beside the Genesis 6:4 assertion that the “giants” represent moral evil and therefore are an aberration in the scheme of creation.
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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