Bones of the Gigantomachy

In her excellent book The First Fossil Hunters, author Adrienne Mayor explains how Classical myths of giants, dragons, titans, heroes, and other ill-formed monstrous beings often stemmed from a misunderstanding of the fossil record. It was not at all infrequent for people of the time to have “striking personal experiences with giant skeletons that weathered out of the ground in Asia Minor,” Mayor writes, a place “where strange and immense skeletons emerge from the sand.” And, with no particular reason to assemble all those gigantic bones into animal forms with which humans had no direct experience, the bones were, instead, simply fashioned together to form titanic heroes. Gods on earth. Monstrous ancestry.

A mastodon skeleton, for instance, seen here in its proper assembly—

[Image: From The First Fossil Hunters by Adrienne Mayor].

—was pieced together, instead, with Herculean proportions, towering over the human figure beside it.

[Image: From The First Fossil Hunters by Adrienne Mayor].

Heroes, titans, giants: eventually, in a time before human history, Mayor explains, a mythic war between the oversized dwellers of the Earth and the Gods themselves took place, called the Gigantomachy. Explosive battles left incomprehensible body parts scattered all over the land masses, where they were gradually buried by sand or stratigraphically entombed inside rocky cliffs.

Then humans came along, unversed in today’s anatomical principles, and assembled these giant bones into a lost and mutant history for themselves. And there you have Hercules, for instance, a mutant being accidentally assembled from the remnant skeletons of other creatures.

4 thoughts on “Bones of the Gigantomachy”

  1. Minor mythological quibbling perhaps, but I don't recall Hercules ever being described as a giant or of giant proportions. (In fact he fought against the Giants on the side of the Olympians.)

    A more apt phrase might be "Cyclopean proportions", given the speculative connection between Elephantidae and the Cyclops myths. I'm curious how Mayor feels about the connection.

  2. The ancient Greeks believed that the mythic heroes, like Hercules, Achilles, Ajax, etc, were giants, three times the size of present-day humans. That's why they could battle giants and monsters (and why on vase paintings they appear the same size as the gods and giants). Notably, the limb bones of mastodon and mammoths, the most common fossils to be found in Greece, are about three times the size of human limb bones and have the same shape as human bones.
    Adrienne Mayor

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