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GIGANTES
(The Giants)
Battling Giant
Illustration from Harry Thurston Peck,
Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898)

REVOLT OF THE GIANTS

The Giants were tall and frightening creatures with long hair and beards. They were born to Sky (Uranus) and Mother Earth (Gaea) at a place called Thracian Phlegra ('place of burning') and they numbered twenty-four.

Mother Earth was angry because Zeus had confined her children, the Titans, to the deepest pits of Tartarus, after defeating them following a ten-year war. Furious, she directed the Giants to gain revenge by attacking Mount Olympus, with orders to overthrow Zeus and his fellow Olympians.

"But Earth, vexed on account of the Titans, brought forth the giants, whom she had by Sky. These were matchless in the bulk of their bodies and invincible in their might; terrible of aspect did they appear, with long locks drooping from their head and chin, and with the scales of dragons for feet."
Apollodorus, Library and Epitome (ed. Sir James George Frazer)

So what did these terrible creatures look like? Harry Thurston Peck, in Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898), had this to say about their appearance:

"In the oldest works of art the Giants are represented in human form and equipped with armor and spears; but in course of time their attributes became terrific -- awful faces, long hanging hair and beard, the skins of wild animals for garments, trunks of trees and clubs for weapons.

"In the latest representations, but not before, their bodies end in two scaly snakes instead of feet...In the Gigantomachia of Pergamus (see image below), the grandest representation of the subject in antiquity, we find a great variety of forms; some quite human, others with snakes' feet and powerful wings, others with still bolder combinations of shape; some are naked, some clothed with skins, some fully armed, and others slinging stones."


The hound of Artemis attacks a Giant,
from the Altar of Zeus at Pergamon,
Marble, c. 180 BC

The Giants gathered together and, without warning, began to hurl huge rocks, oak tree trunks and fire-brands upwards from their mountaintops, laying siege to mighty Mount Olympus and startling the unsuspecting Olympians. The 24 Giants threatened to overwhelm the gods with their ferocious attack, piling huge rocks one atop another in an effort to construct a stairway to Heaven.

Giants prepare to attack Olympus

To make matters worse, Hera, wife to Zeus, prophesized that the Giants could never be killed by any Olympian god -- only a single, lion-skinned mortal could perform this Herculean task, she said. But even that would be futile if the Giants got their hands on a sacred herb that grew on earth. This wonderful plant, created by Mother Earth for her children to use, rendered invulnerable anyone who consumed it, and it was up to the Olympian gods to find it before the Giants did.

Zeus held a war council with Athena, war-like goddess of wisdom, and the two crafted a plan of action. Athena went off to find Heracles (Hercules), the lion-skinned mortal whom Hera had referred to. Meanwhile, Zeus ordered Helios (the sun god), Selene (the moon goddess) and Eros (god of love) not to shine until his task was complete, using the cover of darkness to evade the army of Giants and safely descend to earth.

Zeus then groped around the earth, guided by the feeble light of the stars, until he found the magical herb. It was exactly where Athena had said it would be, and Zeus hurried with it back to Olympus, thrilled to have located it before his enemy did. It was none too soon, for the embattled Olympians were under terrific attack from the Giants, who grew bolder and stronger by the moment, having risen perilously close to Olympus.


Giants laying siege to Mount Olympus, home of the gods

Athena had returned with Heracles, the only mortal who could save the gods, according to Hera's prophecy. As usual, he was clad in the skin of the Nemean Lion and carried his famous huge club and dreaded bows and arrows. His arrows had been dipped in the putrid blood of the dying Lernean Hydra, which made them deadly poisonous.

The great hero at once let fly an arrow at the charging leader of the Giants, a brute named Alcyoneus (his name literally translates as 'Mighty Ass'). The aim was true -- Heracles was the mightiest mortal warrior of all time -- and the arrow found its mark, dropping Alcyoneus to the ground.

But instantly the Giant sprang back up to his feet, uninjured in spite of the poisoned arrow, much to the dismay of the Olympians. The land of Phlegra was the creature's native home and falling to its soil at once revived him. As long as Alcyoneus remained on Phlegra, he was unbeatable. Things looked real bad for the gods!

Quick-thinking Athena shouted to Heracles to drag the brute to another country. Swiftly Heracles immobilized Alcyoneus, tossed him over his broad shoulders, and rushed him over the Thracian border. The Giant's breath was so revolting that an ordinary mortal would have been overcome at once, but Heracles used the magical herb that Zeus had brought to plug his nostrils, rendering the ogre's halitosis moot. Once away from Phlegran soil, Heracles had no trouble crushing the creature's skull with a mighty blow from his huge club, and the leader of the Giants lay dead. One down, 23 to go...

From the mighty pyramid of rocks constructed by the Giants leaped Porphyrion, second in command and even more hideous than his dead brother. This monster was so frightful, the terrified Olympians scattered in fear, looking for places to hide. Only brave Athena stood her ground, ready to defend her palatial home.

Battle of the Giants
Led by Athena, the Olympians mount a charge against the Giants
(Mural at Thanasi's Olympus Greek Restaurant)

Porphyrion wanted nothing to do with Athena (he was smarter than he looked), rushing by her and lunging at Hera, Queen of the Olympians. The beast tried to strangle her, but a timely arrow from Eros turned his blood-lust to pure lust: Wounded in the liver by the love god's arrow, Porphyrion was gripped by uncontrollable desire.

He ripped off Hera's exquisite robe, and that was enough to arouse Zeus' jealous wrath. Seeing his wife about to be molested, the king of the Olympians roared at the Giant, knocking him to the ground with a thunderbolt. The creature sprang up immediately, but Heracles, returning to Phlegra just in time, was there to finish him off with an arrow.

While this was happening, the Giant called Ephialtes ('Nightmare', 'He who leaps upon') had gotten the best of Ares, god of war. Ephialtes was the third leader of the Giants and definitely a ferocious force to be reckoned with. It looked as if Ares was doomed but Apollo shot an arrow that pierced the Giant in the left eye. Heracles quickly followed with another arrow, this one striking the creature in the right eye.

That was the end of Ephialtes. Talk about a nightmare!

The Olympian gods then took turns felling Giants, as Heracles stood nearby and promptly dispatched them one by one with his poisonous arrows.

Heracles kills the Giants
Heracles shoots arrows at the Giants,
From an ancient Greek vase

Here's a brief play-by-play of the action:

  • Hecate burned Clytius with her torches, prepping him for Heracles.

  • Dionysus wounded Eurytus with his thyrsus, providing an easy target for Heracles.

  • Hephaestus scalded Mimas ('Mimicry') with a ladle of molten metal. An arrow from Heracles and he was toast.

  • Athena crushed the skull of Pallas with a stone and stripped his skin when he tried to rape her. Heracles finished the job by dealing the death blow with his club.

  • The Fates also took part in the rout, swinging brazen pestles very effectively. The dazed Giants hardly had time to figure out what had hit them, before Heracles finished them off.

Only the peace-loving goddesses Hestia and Demeter refused to take part in this mighty battle, standing aside in dismay, horrified by the carnage all around. At stake was the fate of the universe, but they couldn't bring themselves to participate.

The demoralized Giants, all their leaders now dead, fled back to earth, beating a hasty retreat, with the Olympians in hot pursuit. Enceladus, a fleet-footed Giant, tried to outrace Athena, but she simply picked up a titanic chunk of earth and threw it at the monster. Enceladus lay flattened underneath the soil, which became the island of Sicily.

Not to be outdone, Poseidon, god of the sea, broke off a sizable chunk of the island of Cos with his trident and hurled it at Polybutes. The Giant lay buried underneath this islet of Cos, ever since then called Nisyros.


Poseidon, mounted on a white horse, attacks the Giants,
Image from an ancient Greek vase

The end of the Giants was near. The remaining retreating offspring of Mother Earth made a last stand at Bathos, near Arcadian Trapezus. The Giant Hippolytus was next to expire, stricken down by Hermes, who had borrowed Hades' helmet of invisibility and had snuck up unseen on the creature. Artemis, goddess of the hunt, cut down Gration in mid stride, piercing him with her silver arrow.

Thoas and Agrius were dispatched by the Fates, who were having a merry old time swinging their pestles and watching Giant heads split open. Zeus with his thunderbolts and Ares with his spear took care of all the rest. In all instances, Heracles stood nearby, ready to deposit an arrow in each fallen Giant.

The Satyr Silenus, who was always found in the retinue of Dionysus, god of wine, claimed to have killed the Giant Enceladus while fighting at his master's side. He further embellished the story by bragging that it was the braying of his donkey that had initially spread panic among the Giants, scattering them. But nobody believed him, because Silenus was drunk most of the time and probably hallucinated the whole bloody affair...

Dionysus kills a Giant
Dionysus wounds a Giant, with Silenus nowhere in sight :)
From an ancient Greek vase

The Giants lay dead, their revolt crushed, many of them buried under the earth and transformed into volcanoes; but that only made Mother Earth more upset. Not only were her children, the Titans, imprisoned in Tartarus, but now her beloved Giants had been slaughtered. What's a mother to do?

Mother Earth lay with Tartarus and created Typhon, the largest monster ever born. This hideous creature was next to challenge Zeus and the Olympians, and challenge them he did. Good thing Athena was around. But that's another story...

 

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