History for the fantasy buff: Giants’ bones in Ancient Greece

mastodonA while back, I recommended a book by Adrienne Mayor called Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs, about unconventional tactics of war in the ancient world. I’ve recently discovered another of her books, The First Fossil Hunters, about how ancient peoples’ discoveries of prehistoric fossils may have influenced their stories and mythological beliefs. I strongly recommend this book. This is a new scientific concept, and it’s profound. I always assumed that Greek (and other) myths were simply made-up stories. But what if these stories were invented at least in part to explain their discoveries of huge fossils?

From Solinus, writing in 200 A.D.:

“As for the hugeness of men in olden times, the relics of Orestes are proof. His bones were found at Tegea by the Spartans on the information from the Oracle and we are assured that they were 7 cubits long.” During the Roman war against the pirates in Crete, “rivers flooded outrageously and broke up the ground. After the water receded, among the many clefts in the ground was found a skeleton of 33 cubits.” … “At Phlegra, before there were any men there, the story goes that a battle was fought between the gods and the giants….Great proofs and tokens of that war have and continue to appear to this day. Whenever the streams rise with rainstorms, the waters overflow their banks and flood the fields, they say that through the action of the water are discovered bones like men’s carcasses but far bigger. Due to the immeasurable hugeness of the bones they are reported to have been the monstrous bodies of the army of giants.”

The Greeks believed that in the time before theirs, the world was populated with giants (also called heroes), who were like men, although sometimes monstrous in appearance, and much bigger and stronger. They were convinced of this because they found bones of monstrous size which they took to be human. In fact, these were the bones of long-extinct Ice Age animals such as mammoths and mastodons and woolly rhinoceroses (not dinosaurs because there are no dinosaur fossils in Greece). Because Greece is a tectonically active region, they tended to find single bones or just fragments, rarely a complete skeleton. Often they would have just a single enormous femur or shoulder blade.

In around 560 B.C., the Spartans found what they believed to be the bones of Orestes. They buried them in their city, believing that having the bones interred within their city would give them the military prowess to defeat their rivals.

Athens, not wanting to left out, went searching for heroes’ bones of their own. They recovered some giant bones from the island of Sykros, which they believed were the hero Theseus, and interred them within their own city.

This set off the ancient bone rush, in which every Greek city sought to acquire its own set of heroes’ bones and bury them with honor in their city.

What were they actually burying? Probably the fossilized skeletons of enormous Ice Age mammals.


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4 Responses to History for the fantasy buff: Giants’ bones in Ancient Greece

  1. CJ Burright says:

    Fascinating post, Amy. I’m going to have to check out some of Mayor’s books.

  2. This is so cool. Great post!

  3. John Oberon says:

    I really have difficulty believing they couldn’t tell the difference between the skeleton of a man and an animal. They weren’t any less intelligent than we are.

    • Amy Raby says:

      I don’t think it has anything to do with intelligence. They didn’t find complete skeletons, just one or two bones, or fragments of bones. And a femur looks like a femur looks like a femur. I think if an ancient Greek found a wolf femur, he might be able to correctly identify it if he has seen wolf bones and human bones before. But these were the bones of long-extinct animals with no modern animal of that type still living in the area. And if you only find one giant femur or shoulder blade, and you’re not a paleontologist, it’s pretty hard to tell what sort of creature it came from.

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