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 do know, however, that Ward was quite wrong when he argued that “Our short written history and the general intelligence of the early settlers of our country have prevented many wild and superstitious stories about these great bones from being rife in America. No one mistakes them for the bones of giants, nor attributes them to the behemoth of Job or to the shipwreck of Noah’s ark.” Ha! From Cotton Mather mistaking a mammoth tooth for that of a Bible giant to various nineteenth and twentieth century schemes to pass off mammoth bones as those of giants for a paying public, the myth of giants has is alive and well in America.
Fun fact: Ward was run over by an automobile on July 4, 1906, making him the first car-related fatality in the city of Buffalo.
In his 1878 letter Prof. Ward discusses a passage from Hector Boece, the early Scottish historian, who recorded in sec. 18 of the preliminary argument to his 1527 History of Scotland what sounded like mammoth bones in describing his visit to the alleged remains of Little John, of Robin Hood fame. I adapt the account from the classic Elizabethan Scots-English translation by John Bellenden:
In the land of Moray is the Kirk of Pette where the bones of Little John remain in great admiration among the people. He was fourteen feet in height, with his breadth matching thereto. Six years before writing this work, I saw his coccyx bone, as long as the shin bone of a (normal) man, and I pushed my arm into the hole thereof. Its appearance shows how strong and square people grew in our region before they became effeminate due to their lust and intemperance of mouth (i.e. gluttony and excessive drinking).
Ward is undoubtedly right that the bones honored as those of Little John were some sort of megafauna. However, I quickly became sidetracked by Ward’s next example of a mammoth skeleton mistaken for a human giant. What a weird story it is!
According to Prof. Ward (who was wrong on the details), in the seventeenth century, giant bones were found near Rome and venerated as those of the hero Pallas, son of Evander, killed when Turnus threw a spear into his chest (Virgil, Aeneid, 10.453-489). He argued that these were mammoth bones, from the abundant deposits of such relics found in Latium. He gave no source, but I recalled hearing mention of this story before, in another Victorian article about mammoths and giants. According to James Cocke Southall, who gave more details, the story is told by Athanasius Kircher, in his Subterranean World (1665), the same work in which he investigated Boccaccio’s fossil giant. Therefore, I took the time to look up the text, which I translate here for what is apparently the first time in English:
These are the wonders which Boccaccio and Phillipus Bergomas relate of the body of Pallas: In the time of the Emperor Henry III, that is, in 1401 [note: some printings give 1501], not far from Rome, a farmer, digging deep in his field, as was his custom, found a tumulus of stone decorated with an inscription and in the tomb the corpse of a man with a very tall body to such a degree of stature that he exceeded the height of the walls of the city itself. The body was intact, and it bore a gaping wound in the chest, as though inflicted a little bit before burial; above the head of the corpse was an oil lamp burning with a perpetual flame, which neither blowing nor throwing water or any other liquid upon it could extinguish; but the flame at once disappeared by making a hole and break in the bottom. Truly this was the great corpse of Pallas of Arcadia, the son of King Evander, the companion of Aeneas in war who was killed by Turnus, king of the Rutuli in a singular contest long before the founding of Rome. All of this is confirmed by [Raphael] Volterranus. (8.4.2; my trans.)
The facts don’t quite add up—Boccaccio wrote of the corpse before 1401, and Henry III reigned in the eleventh century. Bergomas and Volterranus were early modern writers, so their opinions are unimportant since they derive their accounts from earlier and better sources. So let’s instead see how Boccaccio gives the story in his Genealogy of the Pagan Gods:
For we read that in the reign of Henry III Caesar that his [Pallas’s] body was found not far from Rome by a peasant who was digging in the earth, as intact as if it had been recently buried; and being taken from his grave he was found to surpass the height of Rome’s walls, and the gaping wound made by the huge spear still was visible, exceeding four feet in length. (12.60, my trans.)
But Boaccaccio was himself quoting still earlier reports. His exact source isn’t clear. It could have been any of a number of works, but the most widely known was the thirteenth century Chronicle of Martinus Polonus, surviving in 400 copies, but itself an often close plagiarism of still earlier works. Here is how the Chronicle reported the story:
In the time of this emperor [Henry III], at Rome, a giant’s corpse was found uncorrupted, by the name of Pallas, who had a wound four feet and a half across that still gaped where he had been injured. In truth, the body surpassed the height of the walls. And a burning lamp was found near his head, which blowing could not extinguish, nor liquid, but by a hole made with a stylus the flame was made to go out. This man, it is said, was killed by Turnus. And this was his epitaph: “Here lies, according to his custom, Pallas, the son of Evander, whom the spear of the knight Turnus killed.” (chapter 95; my trans.)
The incident was frequently cited in English and Scandinavian sources such as John Capgrave’s fifteenth century Book of the Illustrious Henries and Chronicle of England, and in the North the fourteenth century Hauksbók. At least a dozen more medieval texts make mention of the event, almost all using virtually the same words but giving a variety of dates, from 1039 down to 1065, usually favoring the years around 1053.
The best guess at the earliest source is an English one: William of Malmesbury’s Gesta regum, an eleventh century text that tells the same story with more detail, but ascribing it to 1065, after the reign of Henry III:
At that time the body of Pallas, the son of Evander, of whom Virgil speaks, was found entire at Rome, to the great astonishment of all, for having escaped corruption so many ages. Such, however, is the nature of bodies embalmed, that, when the flesh decays, the skin preserves the nerves, and the nerves the bones. The gash which Turnus had made in the middle of his breast measured four feet and a half. His epitaph was found to this effect, “Pallas, Evander’s son, lies buried here / In order due, transfix’d by Turnus’ spear.”
Sharpe’s and Giles’s florid translation masks the fact that both William and Martinus used the exact same Latin words to give the inscription supposedly on Pallas’s grave. (The version used by Capgrave has a corruption in the Latin due clearly to a transcription error.) The use of the word milites in the sense of “knight” to describe Turnus marks it as a medieval forgery. Since it is obvious that William was not present at Rome decades before his own birth, he clearly was not an eyewitness and therefore must have received the story from some among the many antiquaries working at Rome who were busy trying to interpret whatever they unearthed through Classical literature, particularly Virgil.
In case you are interested, by 1500, the Book of Howth assigned a specific height to the corpse: It was now twenty feet long, though on what authority I cannot say.
Down to the nineteenth century historians and encyclopedia authors considered the word of the medieval historians sufficient to declare that such a body, uncorrupted and entire, had been unearthed as stated. It would perhaps be more believable if the motif of the tomb and the inexhaustible lamp were not so common in medieval and early modern lore. The grave of Cicero’s daughter, allegedly found in the fifteenth century, supposedly had such a lamp, and the whole account was borrowed nearly verbatim from the story of the Pallas tomb: the incorruptible body, the inscription identifying her by name, and the inexhaustible lamp. The trope is an ancient one, borrowed from Classical and Christian literature. Plutarch wrote of such a lamp at the Temple of Jupiter Ammon in his Moralia (De Defectu Oraculorum 2) and Augustine at the Temple of Venus in City of God (21.6). Stories of such lamps occur in more than one hundred medieval texts.
So, while Prof. Ward was content to declare the body of Pallas a mammoth skeleton, the story as we have received it is so heavily fictionalized—incorruptible body, inextinguishable lamp, and all—that it’s impossible to draw an actual conclusion from it. If William is right the story held that the flesh dissolved, perhaps the story we have today was a heavily embroidered folktale used to explain a mammoth skeleton on display at Rome. The question then would be whether the medieval people made the misattribution or whether they found a Roman-era “hero’s grave” in which the Romans had interred a mammoth skeleton as a relic of the Heroic Age.
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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