Tall tales: ancient British giants, Stonehenge, and the mythological founding of Albion Mark Horne The Skeptic

As a British man of not inconsiderable height, I was very interested in a session I attended at the recent Awakenings Expo, in which Hugh Newman expounded ideas from his book The Giants of Stonehenge and Ancient Britain, co-written with Jim Vieira. 

What evidence did he have for 21-foot giants roaming these islands in millennia gone by? What do the children of Noah have to do with it? How do Merlin and Uther Pendragon fit into all this? Was this going to be a tired re-tread of the well-documented fakes of supposed Nephilim and Canaanite giants? 

As Newman put it in his Expo programme article: 

Religious documents, medieval chronicles, oral traditions and origin stories all recount converging tales of giants being an integral part of the founding of the British Isles… These giants were not only giants in stature, but also giants in intelligence, skill and wisdom. 

Collating hundreds of historical accounts of massive bones and skeletons being found in the vicinity of sites such as Stonehenge, adds some credence to the idea that age-old myths encoded detailed histories and insights from many thousands of years ago.

Newman’s talk was more or less split into these two distinct themes, with discussions of the accounts of giants in the histories and myths of the British Isles that he complemented with accounts of actual giants and giant skeletons in the historical records, the cover-up of which he suggested may be something of an establishment conspiracy. 

Some of these myths and legends are, of course, mutually contradictory.

Go forth and multiply (your nation’s founding myths)

One account had the descendants of Noah’s son, Ham, founding Britain via Africa, and according to Newman that “Noah’s lineage is often said to be giants.” Interestingly, some fundamentalist Christians also believe that the Amorites – descendants of Ham – were giants, although living in Mesopotamia rather than Africa. 

Another founding myth that Newman recounted attributed the founding of Britain to Albion, the giant son of the Greek sea-god Poseidon. Yet another had the founding of Britain attributed to Albina, described by Newman as a Greek princess, though elsewhere as an Etruscan Goddess, an exiled queen, a daughter of a Syrian King, or even, in an article by Newman himself, the daughter of Roman Emperor Diocletian. I’m unsure why Newman seemed untroubled by the attribution of the founding of Britain to the offspring of a Roman Emperor who began his reign 240 years after the Romans began their occupation of Britain. 

Still, Albina certainly makes for a good story to tell a rapt audience; she led her 33 wicked sisters to kill all of their husbands, and with her sisters birthed a race of giants to populate and found Britain – including (apparently) Merlin! 

Adding to the appeal of both of these latter stories is the Albina / Albion name link, which popularly, albeit incorrectly, links the name of the island of Great Britain to a mythical figure. The likely correct etymology relates to the Greek word for white, given that the cliffs of Dover are the shortest crossing point from the continent.

In the Expo programme Newman cited Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) as a source for some of the above, and described Monmouth’s work as “a controversial historical account”, which is an interesting way of describing a book known to be of little historical value for several hundred years. 

Furthermore, all of these accounts seem to place the settlement and founding of Britain in the last few thousand years, at the most. This is quite a significant issue, given that the discovery of stone tools places the earliest human ancestors on these islands almost a million years ago, and the discovery of Neanderthal remains shows that our very close cousin lived here as far back as 400,000 years ago. These islands may then have been uninhabited from around 180,000 years ago, as the climate first grew too harsh, and then the Doggerland connection to the continent flooded, but we again see Neanderthal occupation from 60,000 years ago, and then a homo sapiens presence from around 40,000 years ago. No mythical figures are needed to found a country that is already inhabited, with a population of one million by 1400BCE. 

I enjoyed learning about some of the founding myths of Britain, but the myths he weaved into these accounts are just that – pure mythology, based on legends and pseudohistorical source materials, and contradicted by actual evidence. This does not, of course, mean that his giant skeletons are false. What, then, of his evidence for the remains of giant humans in Britain?

Three grains of salt

Newman said that he found over 250 accounts of the remains of giant skeletons in the archaeological and historical record, though I did not appreciate from his talk that some of these “giants” are reported to be between seven and nine feet; substantial, certainly, but barely beyond the limits of what is encountered today among exceptionally tall people

The claims of giants are also undermined when we consider the variations in the measurement of a foot – although the modern standard is almost 30.5cm, a foot has ranged from 25cm to 33cm, so a the smallest, someone described as 8 feet may be “only” 6 feet and 7 inches by modern standards, and someone described as even 10 feet tall would “only” be 8 feet and 2 inches. While in England we have had a notional standard foot since the end of the thirteenth century, by which three grains of barley made an inch and 12 inches made a foot, this was not rigorously standardised until 1824. Even if we were to completely trust Newman’s sources, there is clearly scope for variation, especially considering the use of approximations in rural areas and the regions, where properly calibrated rulers were unlikely to be commonplace. 

These caveats aside, what of Newman’s specific examples of giants? 

Scriptural Motivations 

Newman mentioned the discovery in 1719 of a 9’4” skeleton near to Salisbury, described in A Theological, Biblical, and Ecclesiastical Dictionary by John Robinson (1830):

Calmet says, that in 1719, near Salisbury in England, a human skeleton was found, which was nine feet four inches long.

The Antoine Augustine Calmet referred to here was a Benedictine monk and occultist, most famous for his Bible commentaries, and so perhaps with some motivated reasons for finding examples of giants. Calmet refers to the apparent finding in a translated section of his commentary on what was meant in the Bible by “giants”:

As to the existence of giants, several writers, both ancient and modern, have imagined, that the giants of Scripture were indeed men of extraordinary stature; but not so much as those have fancied, who describe them as three or four times larger than men are at present. They were, say they, men famous for their violences and crimes, rather than for their strength, or stature. 

But it cannot be denied, that there have been men, of a stature much above that common at present.

He goes on to mention several accounts that he believes confirm the existence of giants – including Homer’s Odyssey – before getting to the Salisbury case: 

In the year 1719, at Stonehenge, near Salisbury, in England, a human skeleton was found, which was nine feet four inches long. Gazette of October, 1719; under the date of 21 September.

This is likely a reference to the London Gazette,but a search of the 1719 editions frustratingly did not yield any results. 

Newman also references a correspondent to the 1895 Notes and Queries Volume 91 in his programme article, the full text of which can be found online: 

A French paper on giants gives a list of several, whereof the biggest is one found near Salisbury, and the reference is to a French paper, 1719. Its length was 9ft. 4in. English, which is the largest human stature of which I ever heard. At Salisbury I remember in childhood a mound in a field, north of St. Edmund’s Churchyard, called the “giant’s grave.” Is there any account of this skeleton, and where is it kept? – as a skeleton of that size was surely worth preservation. E.L.G.

St Edmund’s is now an arts centre and the area to its north is a sports ground and housing. The only two “giants grave” burial sites listed online near Salisbury are ten miles to the south and twenty miles to the north – neither sound like the near-churchyard mound to which E.L.G. refers. 

All we have to go on here is a mention of an apparent giant skeleton by a Bible scholar who gives credence to the historicity of the work of Homer, referencing an unsubstantiated finding 300 years ago in Salisbury, and backed up by someone with a potentially faulty childhood memory. An actual giant skeleton would be excellent evidence. A detailed, witnessed account with facts that can be followed up would at least be worth a second look. This is just an archival curiosity.

The True Measure of a Man

Another of Newman’s archival giants does at least come with a more definite source – Sir Thomas Elyot, a Tudor diplomat and scholar, who wrote in 1542 that he saw a giant skeleton at Ivy-Church monastery near Salisbury: 

I my selfe beynge with my father syr Rycharde Elyote, at a monasterye of regular chanons, callyd Iuy churche, two myles from the citie of Sarisburye, behelde the bones of a deade man founde depe in the grounde, where they dygged stone, which be­inge ioyned togyther, was in lengthe .xiiii. foote and tenne ynches

This is from the second of six editions of Elyot’s 1538 The dictionary of syr Thomas Eliot knyght, and it does not include this reference until this expanded second edition of 1542, at which point it became known as Bibliotheca Eliotae rather than Elyot’s Dictionary.

Curiously, in the Awakenings Expo programme, Newman says that the reference was from the Dictionary rather than the Bibliotheca, and uses an apparently direct quote from Elyot that refers to it being a “13 foot and ten inches” skeleton found “three of four miles from Stonage” (a variant spelling of Stonehenge) rather than a 14’10” skeleton found two miles from Salisbury, as Elyot actually wrote.  

It is quite startling to find that Newman’s direct quote from Elyot is apparently incorrect and differs in at least two key details, especially as Newman’s argument rests partly on the premise that these archives are accurate enough to be worth considering as fact. 

This error could, of course, arise from an error in a later publication or source that Newman worked from (although the fifth Bibliotheca printing still has the height as 14 feet) but the point stands: brief eyewitness accounts without corroborating evidence are unreliable and prone to error. 

Newman himself notes in this article that different versions of the story give different heights, from 12 feet to 14 feet ten inches, but the difference of almost a metre in height doesn’t seem to concern him and he says that “Many different heights are mentioned, but one thing is agreed upon, this was a seriously big skeleton.”

While these inconsistencies are problematic for his argument, what of the actual skeleton itself? A publication local to the area in question, Wiltshire Notes and Queries (1893) has the following suggested explanation:

Perhaps this may in part be explained by what happened here ten or twelve years ago. Lord Radnor’s keeper, in digging out a fox in a British encampment called the “Lynckets”, about a mile from this, found the skeleton of a Saxon chief with the brass boss of his Shield with silver studs on his breast, and the remains of sword, Spear, and knife; and he was deemed to be a giant of a man, as they measured his arms against the keeper’s, who was 6 ft. high, and found them 2 or 3 in. longer. But it turned out they measured his legs instead of his arms, and he was really of very ordinary stature.

This may or may not be the correct explanation for Elyot’s giant, but Wiltshire Notes and Queries does at least give a potential source for Newman’s quote, as it has too a direct quote, purportedly from the Bibliotheca, that incorrectly says Elyot gives the height as 13’10”. 

A Conspiracy of Papier Mache 

Newman spoke of a giant 24- or 25-foot textile and papier mâché figure used in pageants and festivals, apparently created in the fifteenth century by the Salisbury Guild of Merchant Taylors. This was paraded around on St John the Baptist’s day, 24th June, which Newman connected to the summer solstice and Stonehenge, and finally became known as St Christopher in the eighteenth century. 

St Christopher was originally known as “Reprobus” and was a 7.5 foot Canaanite – a tall man, certainly, but not a giant – but in his programme article Newman cites Jacobus de Voragine’s thirteenth century Golden Legend, which described St Christopher as being twelve coudees or cubits tall – so between 18 and 21 feet tall. 

Again it is very problematic to take this account as fact: it was written a millennium after the man it described lived, has its source in the writings of two other church figures (St Ambrose and St Vincent Ferrer), and it is part of a religious text that sits alongside accounts of the lives of Noah, Adam and Job. For some Christian fundamentalists, this may be a reliable source, but I’d suggest a degree of caution for the rest of us. 

Why does Newman think this giant effigy holds any more truth than, say, the Royal de Luxe Liverpool Giants of the twenty-first century? 

…the reality of the association of giants to the great circle suddenly made sense. Why would a secret brotherhood want to maintain this tradition for so long? Had the founders hidden some secret knowledge lost to us in the modern era? It seems they were holding on to the pageant because it encoded certain truths as to the origins of their beloved Stonehenge.

The article goes on to speak of the Cangi / Cangick Giants, the supposed builders of Stonehenge, who Newman also links to the Canaanites of the Bible, and who he suggests may have been the inspiration for the St Christopher effigy in Salisbury. 

I’m unsure why a conspiracy, inexplicably kept secret for centuries and yet on display for all to see, is even a more convincing explanation than the many other myths and legends of Stonehenge’s construction, never mind the various proposed theories backed up by actual evidence. 

We have well-documented archaeological investigations in Stonehenge and Wiltshire that have consistently failed to discover any giant skeletons, and DNA extraction from Neolithic remains at Stonehenge that suggests an origin in keeping with the well-known expansion of farming across Europe from Anatolia, some 2,000 years before the Biblical Canaanites lived. 

No conspiracies required. 

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Was Britain really founded by a race of ancient mythical giants? Obviously not, but try telling that to attendees at the Awakenings Expo
The post Tall tales: ancient British giants, Stonehenge, and the mythological founding of Albion appeared first on The Skeptic.