‘Brutus! There lies beyond the Gallic bounds
An island which the Western sea surrounds,
By giants once possessed, now few remain
To bar thy entrance or obstruct thy reign’
Geoffrey of Monmouth
Giants appear in many world myths. In Indo-European mythology we find a common theme: they are primordial beings who are killed or restrained, then replaced, by the gods of culture. In the Hindu and Norse myths a giant (Purusa/Ymir) is slain and dismembered by the gods and the world is created from his body. The Titans of Greek mythology are overthrown and imprisoned in Tartarus by the Olympian gods. In Irish mythology, the Formorians (from fo ‘under’ and mór ‘great’ or ‘big’: ‘underworld giants’) are subdued and displaced by the Tuatha Dé Danann.
We find similar narratives in British mythology. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, when Brutus arrives in Albion (Britain) it is ‘inhabited by none but a few giants’. Brutus and his company force the giants into mountain caves so they can till the ground and build houses. The giants unsurprisingly rebel. Led by Goemagot (a giant ‘in stature twelve cubits, and of such prodigious strength that at one shake he pulled up an oak as if it had been a hazel wand’) twenty giants make a ‘dreadful slaughter’ of Brutus and his company. The Britons in turn massacre all the giants but Goemagot, who is kept alive to wrestle Corineus. After the giant has broken three of Corineus’ ribs, the warrior snatches the giant onto his shoulders, runs with him, and hurls him into the sea where his body is torn apart on craggy rocks. The place where he fell is called Lam Goemagot, ‘Goemagot’s Leap’.
Albion is the oldest name for Britain. It is attested by Classical writers such as Pliny the Elder (1AD) and Ptolemy (2AD). In the writings of William Blake, Albion appears as a giant personifying Britain whose fall results in the division of the Four Zoas: Urizen (head/air), Luvah (heart/fire), Tharmas (water/the body), and Urthona (earth/the loins). I have often wondered whether Blake, as a visionary poet, tapped into an ancient British creation myth similar to the dismemberment of the primordial giant underlying Albion being inhabited by giants.
In ‘The Second Branch’ of The Mabinogion the central characters are giants: Brân, ‘Blessed Raven’, and his sister, Branwen, ‘White Raven’. Brân and Branwen are the children of the sea-god Llyr and their mother is either Penarddun, ‘Chief Beauty’, or Iwerydd, ‘Atlantic’. Brân is King of Britain and Branwen marries Matholwch, King of Ireland, showing their connections with sovereignty.
We know Brân is a giant because he ‘has never been able to fit inside a house’. From this we might infer that Branwen is a giantess. However, her marriage to Matholwch, during which she is forced to work in his scullery, suggests she is not as large as Brân. When Brân goes to war with Matholwch for mistreating Branwen we receive further intimations of his size. Crossing the Irish sea he is described as ‘a huge mountain… moving… a very high ridge on the side of the mountain, and a lake on each side of the ridge’. Brân is the mountain, the ridge his nose, and the lakes his eyes. He is tall enough for his body to form a bridge across the river Liffey.
Another important pair of characters are also giants: Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid and his wife Cymidei Cymeinfoll. Llasar is described as ‘a large man with yellow red hair… huge, monstrous… with an evil look about him’. Cymidei is ‘twice his size’. They emerge from a lake in Ireland, Llasar carrying a cauldron on his back. Matholwch takes them in. Because of their prodigious production of offspring (a fully armed warrior each month and a fortnight!) who insult, harass, and torment the nobles, the Irish people devise a way of killing them. They build an iron chamber, lure the giants in with food and drink, then set fire to charcoal incinerating all except Llasar and Cymidei. The pair escape to Britain where they are welcomed by Brân. Brân allows them to populate the British landscape. This might be seen as a foundation legend for the numerous landmarks associated with giants known today.
Llasar and Cymidei gives the cauldron and Brân. Brân gives it to Matholwch who ironically uses it during the battle against the Britons to resurrect his dead Irish soldiers. Brân triumphs narrowly over the speechless ranks, but is mortally wounded by a poisoned spear in his foot. He asks the seven survivors of his army to cut off his head and bear it back to Britain where they bury it under White Hill to protect the island. Branwen dies of a broken heart and is buried in a ‘four-sided grave… on the banks of the Alaw’. Bedd Branwen, ‘Branwen’s Grave’ can be found at Llanddeusant beside the Alaw on Anglesey.
Whilst Brân is away fighting, his son, Caradog, is murdered by Caswallon ap Beli who seizes the throne, which is later passed on to his brother, Lludd. This story shows the descendants of Beli (culture gods) replacing the descendants of Llyr (primordial giants/gods of the sea) as rulers of Britain.
Later Arthur digs up Brân’s head because he cannot not bear the thought of any other being defending Britain except for him. Arthur is Britain’s giant slayer par excellence. He slaughters the giant of St Michael’s Mount and Rhitta Gawr, and orders his men to kill Diwrnarch Gawr, Dillus Farfog, and Ysbaddaden Bencawr. His son, Llachau/Lohot, kills a giant called Logrin. These stories form part of the destructive process through which Arthur and his supporters kill and subordinate the primal and otherworldly deities of Britain and assert his rulership as a human culture hero and king.
Unfortunately many of our giant sites are associated with stories of how their gargantuan inhabitants meet their end. An example is Maelor Gawr, whose abode is Pen Dinas, ‘Head of the Citadel’, or Dinas Maelor, ‘Maelor’s Citadel’, an Iron Age hill fort site south of Aberystwyth. For reasons unknown Maelor is captured in Cyfeiliog and sentenced to death. He asks his enemies a final request: to blow on his horn three times. The horn is so loud and forceful that on the first blow his hair and beard fall out, on the second his finger and toenails fall off, and on the third the horn blasts apart and crumbles into pieces. Maelor’s son, Cornippyn, hears the horn whilst hunting. He sets off to rescue his father so fast he tears the head off his hound. He spurs his horse on in one leap over the river Ystwyth and is slain during his attack on Maelor’s captors. His headless hound still haunts the locality…
St Collen slaughtered a giantess named Cares y Bwlch (‘Girlfriend of the Gap/Pass’) at Bwlch Rhiwfelen. Cares was a flesh-eating giant who lived in the pass and terrorised the people of Rhysfa Maes Cadfarch. Collen went there with his sword at the ready and demanded she appear to him. During their battle he sliced off her right arm and the unfazed giantess picked it back up and beat him with it (!). Collen then managed to slice off her left arm and kill her. Afterward he washed his sword in the well now dedicated to him. Rhysfa Maes Cadfarch became known as Llangollen.
Landmarks associated with giants can be found across Britain particularly in hilly and mountainous locations. Cadair Idris is named after the giant Idris who holds his seat on this haunting and formidable mountaintop. The giantess Melangell sleeps on a ‘Giant’s Bed’ at Pennant Melangell. The Rhuddgaer stones crossing Afon Braint are known as ‘Giant’s Stepping Stones’. The ‘Giant’s Stone’ in Turton was thrown by a giant from Winter Hill. Stonehenge was built by giants and is known as ‘The Giants’ Dance’. Prehistoric burial chambers are frequently identified as ‘Giant’s Graves’. Ancient fortresses, such as Dinas Maelor and Caer Eini, are the abodes of giants.
Giants may be killed, but they cannot be erased from living memory. From the depths of the dreaming land they speak to us as world shapers emerging from the underworld and dying into their graves. Giants are with us, living and dead. From the beginning of the world they have been here as the shifting forces of its primordial geology and they will still be here watching over the world from their mountainous seats when our culture has vanished.