We all know that ‘giant’ means ‘big’ and unless otherwise stated, ‘a giant’ means a human like, bipedal person who just happens to be really big. You would think that the giant is a fairly simple creature compared to say, fairies or witches, however it doesn’t take much close examination before this happy misunderstanding starts to unravel. In the majority of creation myths I have come across giants were there first, so humans are in fact giant like bipedal persons who just happen to be really small!
It’s not just humans who turn up late to the party; the Greek, Roman, Norse and Celtic gods are all preceded by their giant counterparts. In all these cases the gods interbreed with or directly descend from the giants before fighting with and eventually supplanting them. It is often during, or as a result of, these struggles that some of the giants take up elemental functions as the bringers of winter, earthquakes or drought. It seems that when new gods establish themselves the old gods get demoted to giant status and have to carry the can for anything that goes wrong. It’s not entirely unlike politics.
Giants who were once gods (or were nearly gods but didn’t have the PR), “proto gods” if you like, often retain magical abilities and sufficient knowledge that gods who come after will consult with them in times of doubt. The Norse god Odin goes in disguise to see the giant Vafthrudnir and the two trade questions. Vafthrudnir, who was born before the world was formed, makes their contest “more interesting” by suggesting they stake their heads on the outcome. Odin agrees and after he has learnt all he wants he tricks the venerable Jotun by asking a question to which only Odin could know the answer.
When humans do turn up we very rarely have to deal with the elemental giants, they like to keep that in the family as it were. The typical giant that we encounter will be male. Some are friendly, the Cornish giants of Towednack and Carn Galva offered protection to the humans in their area, usually from other giants. Although they can be tricked many of them are sly and not to be underestimated. It is not at all uncommon for giants to have committed murder and amongst the murderers a goodly proportion are inclined to eat those they have killed. Giant homes tend to the extremes being caves or castles but either way they are heaped with treasure. This is often stolen from the local populace along with livestock and sometimes maidens or wives.
The question is: who are these earthly giants? Are they sad left overs from another race of nearly gods, unemployed elementals as it were? Are they pick and mix monsters, there to add some jeopardy to a psychological adventure? Are they perhaps just big people?
After 1066 the Norman Barons, having taken the land by force, built castles from which they oppressed the Saxon peoples and taxed them for the privilege. The “noble lords” considered the ordinary people to be their property and maintained their hold on the country with extreme violence and persecution. Being military men with the diet that wealth affords, they probably were on average taller (and fatter) than those who toiled in the fields to provide for their voracious appetites, especially when sat on their war horses. It is easy to see how they might be viewed as monsters. Stories in which a plucky lad tricked, robbed and even killed the big bully in the castle would be very popular amongst the downtrodden peasants. Sadly, the stories were just that and any actual uprisings or attacks on the upper crust were punished with death. These “sociopolitical” giants stayed in their castles and, like the gods before them, considered themselves entitled to their privileges won through violence as they morphed in to the British upper class. We might not like it but size really does matter.