Gigantomachia: Dionysos attacking a Giant, Attic red-figure pelike, c. 460 BC, Louvre.
In Greek mythology, the Giants or Gigantes (Greek: Γίγαντες, Gigantes, singular Gigas) were a race of great strength and aggression, though not necessarily of great size, known for the Gigantomachy, their battle with the Olympian gods, who were unable to defeat the Giants without the aid of the hero Heracles. According to Hesiod, the Giants were the children of Gaia (Earth) and her husband Uranus (Sky), born from the blood that fell upon Gaia when Uranus was castrated by their son Cronus.
Archaic and Classical representations always show the Giants as man-sized hoplites wearing armor, fully human in form. Later representations (after c. 380 BC) show Giants with snakes for legs. In later traditions, the Giants were often confused with Titans and others opponents of the Olympians.
Giants, buried under the ground, were said by some to be the cause of volcanic eruptions.
The name "Gigantes" implies "earthborn", and Hesiod's Theogony makes this explicit by having the Giants be the offspring of Gaia (Earth). According to Hesiod, Gaia mating with Uranus bore many children: the first generation of Titans, the Cyclopes and the Hundred-Handers. But Uranus "hated" his children and, as soon as they were born, he imprisoned them inside of Gaia, causing her much distress. And so Gaia made a sickle of adamant which she gave to Cronus the youngest of her Titan sons, and hid him to wait in ambush. And when Uranus came to lie with Gaia, Cronus castrated his father, and "the bloody drops that gushed forth [Gaia] received, and as the seasons moved round she bore ... the great Giants." From these same drops of blood also came the Erinyes (Furies) and the Meliai (ash tree nymphs), while the severed genitals of Uranus falling into the sea resulted in a "white foam" from which Aphrodite "grew". The mythographer Apollodorus also has the Giants being the offspring of Gaia and Uranus, though he makes no connection with Uranus' castration, saying instead that Gaia "vexed on account of the Titans, brought forth the Giants".
Homer makes three brief mentions of Giants in the Odyssey, though it's not entirely clear that he and Hesiod understood the term to mean the same thing. Homer makes Giants among the ancestors of the Phaiakians, a race of men encountered by Odysseus in the Odyssey, saying that Alcinous, the ruler of the Phaiakians, was the son of Nausithous, who was the son of Poseidon and Periboia, the daughter of the giant Eurymedon. Alcinous says that the Phaiakian, like the Cyclopes and the Giants, are "near kin" to the gods. And Odysseus describes the Laestrygonians as more like Giants than men.Pausanias, the 2nd century AD geographer, reads these lines of Homer to mean that, for Homer, the Giants were a race of mortal men.
The 6th–5th century lyric poet Bacchylides calls the Giants "sons of the Earth". Later the term "gegeneis" ("earthborn") became a common epithet of the Giants.Hyginus has the Giants being the offspring of Gaia and Tartarus.
Confusion with Titans and others
Though clearly distinct in early traditions, Hellenistic and later writers often confused the Giants and their Gigantomachy, with an earlier set of offspring of Gaia and Uranus, the Titans and their war with the Olympian gods, the Titanomachy. This confusion extended to other opponents of the Olympians, including the monster Typhon and the Aloadae, the gigantic brothers Otus and Ephialtes (though in the case of Ephialtes it is probably the case that there was a Giant with the same name). For example the first century Latin writer Hyginus, includes the names of several Titans: Coeus, Iapetus, and Astraeus, along with Typhon and the Aloadae, in his list of Giants, and Ovid, seems to conflate the Gigantomachy with the later siege of Olympus by the Aloadae.
Homer describes the Giant Eurymedon as μεγαλήτορος ("greathearted"), and his people as ὑπερθύμοισι ("overweening") and ἀτάσθαλος ("reckless, presumptuous, wicked"). Hesiod calls the Giants κρατερῶν ("strong, stout, mighty") and μεγάλους ("great") which might or might not be a reference to their size. Though a possible later addition, the Theogony also has the Giants born "with gleaming armour, holding long spears in their hands".
Bacchylides calls the Giants arrogant saying that they were destroyed by hybris. The seventh century BC lyric poet Alcman (fragment 1 PMGF) probably also used the Giants as an example of hybris (for which offense one might suffer the "vengence of the gods") saying "they suffered unforgettable punishments for the evil they did".
Homer's comparison of the Giants to the Laestrygonians is suggestive. The Laestrygonians, who "hurled ... rocks huge as a man could lift", certainly possessed great strength, and possibly great size, as their king's wife is described as being as big as a mountain.
Over time, descriptions of the Giants make them less human, more monstrous and more gigantic. According to Apollodorus the Giants had great size and strength, a frightening appearance, with long hair and beards and scaly feet.Ovid makes them "serpent-footed" with a "hundred arms", and Nonnus has them "serpent-haired".
Poseidon and Giant, c. 475-470 BC
The most important divine struggle in Greek mythology was the Gigantomachy, the battle fought between the Giants and the Olympian gods for supremacy of the cosmos. It is primarily for this battle that the Giants are known.
The references to the Gigantomachy in archaic sources are sparse. Neither Homer nor Hesiod mention anything about the Giants battling the gods. Homer's remark that Eurymedon "brought destruction on his froward people" might possibly be a reference to the Gigantomachy and Hesiod's remark that Heracles performed a "great work among the immortals" is probably a reference to Heracles' crucial role in the gods victory over the Giants. The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women (or the Ehoia) refers to Heracles having slain "presumptious Giants". And another probable reference to the Gigantomachy in the Catalogue has Zeus produce Heracles to be "a protector against ruin for gods and men".
There are indications that there might have been a lost work, a Gigantomachia, which gave an account of the war: Hesiod's Theogony says that the Muses sing of the Giants, and the sixth century BC poet Xenophanes mentions the Gigantomachy as a subject to be avoided at table. And in fact the Apollonius scholia says that in the "Gigantomachia" Cronus (as a horse) sires Chiron by matting with Philyra, but the scholiast may be confusing the Titans and Giants, since Chiron did apparently figure in a lost poem about the Titnanomachy and it is hard to imagine what role Chiron might have played in such a poem about the Gigantomachy.
The late sixth early fifth century BC lyric poet Pindar provides some of the earliest details of the battle. He locates the battle "on the plain of Phlegra" and has Teiresias foretell Heracles killing Giants "beneath [his] rushing arrows". He calls Heracles "you who subdued the Giants", and has Porphyrion, who he calls "the king of the Giants", being overcome by the bow of Apollo.Euripides' Heracles has its hero shooting Giants with arrows, and his Ion has the chorus describe seeing, on the late sixth century Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Athena fighting the Giant Enceladus with her "gorgon shield", Zeus burning the Giant Mimas with his "mighty thunderbolt, blazing at both ends", and Dionysus killing an unnamed Giant with his "ivy staff".
The most detailed account of the Gigantomachy is that of the mythographer Apollodorus. None of the early sources give any reasons for the war. Scholia to Iliad 14 mention the rape of Hera by the Giant Eurymedon (possibly the incident being referred to in Odyssey 7) and according to scholia to Pindar's Isthmian 6, it was the theft of the cattle of Helios by the Giant Alcyoneus that started the war. But Apollodorus, who also mentions the theft of Helios' cattle by Alcyoneus, suggests a mother's revenge as the motive for the war, saying that Gaia bore the Giants because of her anger over the Titans (who had been vanquished and imprisoned by the Olympians). And seemingly, as soon as the Giants are born they begin hurling "rocks and burning oaks at the sky".
There was a prophecy that the Giants could not be killed by the gods alone, but they could be killed with the help of a mortal. Hearing this, Gaia sought for a certain plant (pharmakon) that would protect the Giants. But before Gaia or anyone else could find it, Zeus forbade Eos (Dawn), Selene (Moon) and Helios (Sun) to shine, and harvested all of the plant himself, then had Athena summon Heracles.
According to Apollodorus, Alcyoneus and Porphyrion were the two strongest Giants. Heracles shot Alcyoneus, who fell to the ground but then revived, for Alcyoneus was immortal within his native land. So Heracles, with Athena's advice, dragged him beyond the borders of that land, where Alcyoneus then died (compare with Antaeus). Porphyrion attacked Heracles and Hera, but Zeus caused Porphyrion to become enamoured of Hera, whom Porphyrion then tried to rape, but Zeus struck Porphyrion with his thunderbolt and Heracles killed him with an arrow.
Other Giants and their fates are mentioned by Apollodorus. Ephialtes was blinded by an arrow from Apollo in his left eye, and another arrow from Heracles in his right. Eurytus was killed by Dionysus with his thyrsus, Clytius by Hecate with her torches, and Mimas, by Hephaestus with "missles of red-hot metal" from his forge. Athena crushed Enceladus under the Island of Sicily and flayed Pallas, using his skin as a shield. Poseidon broke off a piece of Kos called Nisyros, and threw it on top of Polybotes. (Strabo also relates the story of Polybotes buried under Nisyros, but adds that some say Polybotes lies under Kos instead.)Hermes, wearing Hades' helmet, killed Hippolytus, Artemis killed Gration, and the Moirai (Fates) killed Agrius and Thoas with bronze clubs. All the rest were "destroyed" by thunderbolts thrown by Zeus, with each Giant being shot with arrows by Heracles (as the prophecy seemingly required).
In the Gigantomachy from a 1st-century AD frieze in the agora of Aphrodisias, the Giants are depicted with scaly coils, like Typhon
Various places have been associated with the Giants and the Gigantomachy. As noted above Pindar has the battle occur at Phlegra ("the place of burning"), as do other early sources. Phlegra was said to be an ancient name for Pallene (modern Kassandra), and Phlegra/Pallene was the usual birthplace of the Giants and site of the battle. Apollodorus, who placed the battle at Pallene, says the Giants were born "as some say, in Phlegrae, but according to others in Pallene". But the name Phlegra and the Gigantomachy were also often associated, by later writers, with a plain in Italy, west of Naples and east of Cumae, called the Phlegraean Fields. And at least one tradition placed Phlegra in Thessaly.
According to the geographer Pausanias, the Arcadians claimed that battle took place "not at Pellene in Thrace", but in the plain of Megalopolis where "rises up fire". Another tradition apparently placed the battle at Tartessus in Spain.Diodorus Siculus presents a war with multiple battles, with one at Pallene, one on the Phlegraean Fields, and one on Crete. Strabo mentions an account of Heracles battling Giants at Phanagoria an Greek colony on the shores of the Black Sea. Even when, as in Apollodorus, the battle starts at one place, Individual battles between Giant and god might range farther a field, with Enceladus buried beneath Sicily, and Polybotes under Nisyros (or Kos).
The presence of volcanic phenomena, and the discovery of the fossilized bones of large extinct animals throughout these locations suggest themselves as explanations for why such sites became associated with the Giants.
Under the assumption that early depictions of Zeus battling single snake-footed creatures represent his battle with Typhon, the earliest representations of Gigantes are found on votive pinakes from Corinth and Eleusis, and Attic Black-figure pots, dating from the second quarter of the 6th cectury BC. Though all the early Attic vases are fragmentary, many common features in their depictions of the Gigantomachy can be ascertained. They depict large battles, including most Olympians, with a central group containing Zeus, Heracles and Athena attacking Giants to the right. Zeus mounts a chariot brandishing his thunderbolt in his right hand, Heracles, in the chariot, bends forward with drawn bow and left foot on the chariot pole, Athena, beside the chariot, strides forward toward one or two Giants, and the four chariot horses trample a fallen Giant. In three early examples, Gaia also appears in the central group, shielded behind Herakles, apparently pleading to Zeus to spare her children.
On either side of the central group are found the rest of the gods engaged in combat with particular Giants. While the gods can be identified by characteristic features, for example Hermes with his hat (petasos) and Dionysus his ivy crown, the Giants are not individually characterized and are only identified by name. The fragments of one vase from this early period name five Giants: Pankrates against Heracles, Polybotes against Zeus, Oranion against Dionysus, Euboios and Euphorbos fallen and Ephialtes (Getty 81.AE.211). Also named, on two other of these early vases, are Aristaios battling Hephaestus (Akropolis 607), and Eurymedon and (again) Ephialtes (Akropolis 2134). An amphora from Caere from later in the sixth century, gives the names of more Giants: Hyperbios and Agasthenes (along with Ephialtes) fighting Zeus, Harpolykos against Hera, Enceladus against Athena and (again) Polybotes, who in this case battles Poseidon (with trident) holding Nisyros on his shoulder (Louvre E732). This motif of Poseidon holding the island of Nisyros, ready to hurl it at his opponent, is another common feature of these early Gigantomachies.
The Gigantomachy was also a popular theme in late sixth century sculpture. The most comprehensive treatment is found on the north frieze of the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi (c. 530–525 BC), with more than thirty figures. From left to right, these included Hephaestus (with bellows), two females fighting two Giants, a male (probably Dionysus) striding toward an advancing Giant, a female in a chariot drawn by lions which are attacking a fleeing Giant, the archers Apollo and Artemis, a fleeing Giant (Ka[n]tharos?), the Giant Ephialtes lying on the ground, and a group of three Giants opposing Apollo and Artemis. Next comes a missing central section presumably containing Zeus, and possibly Heracles, with chariot (only parts of a team of horses remain). To the right of this comes a female (Hera?) stabbing her spear at a fallen Giant ([Porphy]rion?), Athena fighting two Giants, a male (Ares?) stepping over the fallen Astartas to attack Biatas and another Giant, and Hermes against two Giants. Then follows a gap which probably contained Poseidon, and finally four more figures on the far right.
The theme continued to be popular in the fifth century BC. A particularly fine example is found on a Red-figure cup (c. 490–485 BC) by the Brygos Painter (Berlin:Ch F2293). On one side of the cup is the same central group of gods (minus Gaia) as described above: Zeus wielding his thunderbolt, stepping into a quadriga, Heracles with lion skin (behind the chariot rather than in it) drawing his (unseen) bow, and ahead Athena thrusting her spear into a fallen Giant. On the other side are Hephaestus flinging flaming missiles of red-hot metal from two pairs of tongs, Poseidon, with Nisyros on his shoulder, stabbing a fallen Giant with his trident, and Hermes with his petasos hanging in back of his head, attacking another fallen Giant. None of the Giants are named.
Phidias used the theme for the metopes of the east facade of the Parthenon (c. 445 BC) and for the interior of the shield of Athena Parthenos. Phidias' work perhaps marks the beginning of a change in the way the Giants are presented. While previously the Giants had been portrayed as typical hoplite warriors armed with the usual helmets, shields and spears, in the later part of the fifth century the Giants begin to be depicted as less handsome in appearance, primitive and wild, clothed in animal skins or naked, often without armor, and using boulders as weapons. A series of Red-figured pots starting in the 420s BC, which may have used Phidas' shield of Athena Parthenos as their model, show the Olympians above fighting the Giants below.
With the beginning of the fourth century BC comes the first portrayal of the Giants as anything other than fully human in form, with legs that become coiled serpents with snake heads at the end. This motif becomes the standard for the rest of antiquity, culminating in the Gigantomachy frieze of the second century BC Pergamon Altar, where the theme receives its most extensive treatment, with around a hundred figures.
Fountain of the Giants in the gardens of Versailles.
Some of the Giants identified by individual names were:
Alcyoneus: One of the strongest of the Giants, along with Porphyrion. Slain by his own grandnephew, Heracles.
Porphyrion: One of the strongest of the Giants, along with Alcyoneus. He is referred to by Pindar as king of the Giants. Wounded by his nephew Zeus with lightning bolts and finished off with an arrow by his grandnephew Heracles.
Agrios: Clubbed to death by his three nieces/grandnieces, the Moirai, with clubs of bronze.
^Pausanias, 8.29.1–4. Smith, "Gigantes" and Hammond, "Giants", following Pausanias, both assert that, for Homer, the Giants were a "savage race of men". For the mythographer Diodorus Siculus, the Giants were also a race of men, see 4.21.5, Gantz, p. 449.
^According to Gantz, p 446: "In all, the account rather suggests that the huge bulk of Antiphates' wife is not typical of the Lastrygones as a whole. But they are clearly thought of as good-sized, although whether it is in this respect that they are like the Gigantes and unlike men we cannot say; the Odyssey's emphasis might be thought to fall more on their uncivilized behjavior"
^Gantz, p. 449; Grimal, p. 171; Tripp, p. 251. The late 4th century AD Latin poet Claudian expands on this notion in his Gigantomachy14 ff. with Gaia urging the Giants to war saying "Up, army of avengers, the hour is come at last, free the Titans from their chains; defend your mother."
^Compare with Hesiod who seems to have the Giants born, like Athena and the Spartoi, fully grown and armed for battle.
^Compare with Pindar, Nemean1.67–69 (mentioned above) where Teiresias prophesies that Heracles will aid the gods in their battle with the Giants.
^Antaeus, another offspring of Gaia who was an opponent of Heracles, was immortal as long as he was in contact with the earth. Heracles killed Antaeus by crushing him while holding him off the ground.
^As noted above Pindar has Apollo kill Porphyrion.
^Gantz, p. 452; Pollitt 1990, pp. 22–23; Pausanias, 6.19.12–14; Frazer, note to Pausanias 6.19.12 "The people of Megara — built a treasury" pp 65–67, note to 6.19.13 "In the gable — is wrought in relief the war of the giants" pp 67–69,
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