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).
Meanwhile, back in Europe, fossil bones had quite an adventure before anyone quite figured out what they were. We already know that they were used as the bodies of heroes, but that wasn’t all. In Late Antiquity and the early medieval period, the tusks of a mammoth were displayed as those of the Calydonian Boar, as Procopius reports in De bello Gothica 5.15.8: “they are there even up to my time, a noteworthy sight and well worth seeing, measuring not less than three spans around and having the form of a crescent” (trans. H. B. Dewing). As we have seen, in Poland and Austria megafauna bones became “dragon” bones. But it seems that after 1400 the medieval practice of affixing “dragon” bones beside church doors saw a new life, with dragons swapped out for Nephilim and Giants. According to Ingvar Svanberg’s article “Swedish Cetology in the Early Seventeenth Century,” sent to me by a knowledgeable reader of this blog, in Scandinavia the fossilized bones of whales were displayed as those of the Nephilim in churches across the region in the early modern period a time when most inland people were ignorant of whales. According to contemporary accounts, in 1489 a right whale became stranded in the northern Uppland, and several chronicles agree that the peasants cut up the whale, consumed the meat, and sold the bones to several churches, which displayed them as those of the Nephilim. This was not an isolated occurrence, and such bones, many excavated from the earth, were displayed throughout inland Sweden. Svanberg says that Swedish church inventory records mention such giant bones at many churches, often displayed as Nephilim bones but sometimes as those of other giants:
Two ribs at two churches in Skåne in the 1500s one at Kviinge church and another at Herrevad’s abbey church.
He lists many more, of which some are still extant either at the churches or nearby museums. According to Svanberg, the bones’ utility as evidence of the existence of the Nephilim remained undoubted until around 1700, when Olof Rudbeck, Christopher Polhem, and Emmanuel Swedenborg began to argue that such bones were those of whales, not Nephilim. Carlus Linnaeus traveled to Visby Cathedral to view the bones of the giants on display there and determined, conclusively, that “giant bones, exhibited in the Cathedral as wonders are really whale bones.” After this, the spell of the giants seemed to break in Sweden.
Such events were not confined to Sweden by any means, and I had no idea how widespread the practice was. For example, St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna has a doorway called the Riesentor, or Great Gate, so named for a mammoth’s tibia, hailed as the shin-bone of a giant when it was uncovered and hung above the door in 1443. This time, however, the “giant” wasn’t a Nephilim but rather St. Christopher, the imaginary saint believed to have been a giant. To that end, his massive “tooth,” bigger than a human fist, shown as a relic for centuries in the city of Valencia in Spain, turned out upon examination to be yet another fossil elephant tooth.
The sheer volume of such reports—and I could list dozens more—seem to suggest that below the level of academic literature there was a widespread popular belief in giants and giants’ bones not entirely recorded among the elite. If this weren’t the case, then we would not see the 1763 second edition of the New Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, published at London, offering this definition:
GIANT’S BONES, in natural history a name erroneously given to certain fossile bones, vulgarly supposed to have been the bones of giants; but, in reality, are those of the elephant, or whale-kind.
The British Cyclopaedia of 1836 (s.v. “Elephant”) confirms that an active belief in ancient giants was still part of northern European folk culture at that time, even though science had made inroads in convincing people what the bones really were.
Is it any wonder that the generally non-elite people who settled America therefore came to the continent with the popular culture of their homelands, one where it was simply accepted fact that giants had lived and left their bones in the earth? Therefore, it should not be surprising that when the tooth and thigh bone of an extinct elephant were dug up near my home here in Albany, NY that the governor of Massachusetts declared in 1706 that it could only belong to the “Nephilim,” “for whom the flood only could prepare a funeral,” to which suggestion the Rev. Cotton Mather enthusiastically agreed in 1712.
No wonder the people who today are the heirs to folk culture continue to look for the same giants they have sought for hundreds or even thousands of years.
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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