Notebook, 1993-


[From: Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]

Between History and
Legend - The Battle of the Giants

Greek mythology informs us that in the beginning the gods of Olympus were not the dominant powers. On the contrary, they were faced with many powerful enemies and only after a terrible struggle were they able to overcome these formidable foes before assuming supreme and unchallenged control of the world. Among the numerous enemies they had to overcome were the Giants. The place of [p. 90] contests with these Giants, as ancient written sources specifically say, was in the western part of the Chalcidice, in the plain of Phlegra, 'the place of burning', an area that is unusually wild and even to this day retains something of its inhospitable nature. The question arises as to who these Giants were. They may well have been mythical beings, mortals, but as tall as mountains, who fought with all their might and strength hurling rocks and boulders as large as hills and mountains against the immortals as the myths relate, or they may have been some barbarian tribes that gave battle to the first Greeks who were not yet known as Greek but possessed various other names, as different and numerous as those of the gods who took part in the battles. The choice of the battlefield west of the Chalcidice is significant since it would indicate that the Giants may have been some invading primitive and barbarian tribes that had intended to occupy what was to be eventually the Greek world, but were defeated by the gods [who were perhaps tribal chieftains]. Such a theory, rather bold in concept from the point of view of interpretation of the myths, is supported by certain scholars who base their contentions on other events which had actually taken place, such as the great cataclysm which is recorded in most mythologies, and which was responsible for the destruction of much of mankind.

The Battle of the Giants went through many stages, and the opposing forces as related by the ancient authors were the following: on the side of the gods were Zeus and Athena who were in the forefront of battle, Hera, Apollo, Haphaestus, Artemis, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Hecate, the Fates, and Hermes who were second in line, followed by Dionysos who must have been a later addition to the forces of the deities. This formidable lineup was opposed by the Giants who numbered about a hundred of whom thirty-four are known by name. Engeladus was reputed to be their chieftain according to some sources. The struggle was desperate and unequal and Zeus was forced to appeal for help from Heracles who responded wholeheartedly. But what would Heracles represent in this instance? Was he an individual or a later addition to the myth to enhance his fame even more? Authorities on [p. 91] Greek mythology are unable to agree, but in all likelihood his participation was a latter accretion to the story. The Giants advanced according to the legend as far as the foothills of Olympus where a great battle ensued. But the gods were eventually victorious and the Giants were wiped from the face of the earth. Those scholars who insist that the battle of Giants was an actual event maintain that the Giants were barbarians who fought against the more civilized inhabitants of Greek lands who dwelt in the area from Olympus southwards, and were defeated.

The rather ingenuous and widespread interpretation is rejected by most scholars of Greek mythology, and it is mentioned here only for the sake of curiosity. The battle of the titans and of the Giants is, in their view, a product of the imagination and a poetic description of the struggle between the old deities in the Greek lands, the most primitive of which are represented by the Titans and the Giants, and more recent and more developed as represented by the gods who took part in the battle to eventually become dominant. Some scholars on the other hand, maintain that the battle of Giants, at least in its early phase, was symbolic of the struggle between good and evil.

It is nevertheless worth the while to examine certain episodes from the battle of Giants as these were recorded by the ancient authors. Wishing to avenge the death of his brother, Porphyrius [a Giant] launched an attack against Heracles who was a favourite of Hera. Seeing that he could not do otherwise, Zeus inspired an uncontrollable lust in the Giant for Hera. Porphyrius thereupon seized Hera, tore her robes from her and was prepared to violate her. It was at this moment that Heracles acted and slew him with an arrow. But Aphrodite too played a similar role in the episode. She shut Heracles in a cave and then by using all her allure and charm attracted the Giants to the cave where Heracles destroyed them one by one. Athena, on the other hand, played a more heroic part for she fought as a warrior and with her spear was able to dispatch many of the Giants.

The gods were in the end triumphant, their final battle being with Typhoeus. This contest was also difficult since the other gods left Zeus to do battle alone. The two contestants came to grips in Syria where Typhoeus succeeded in capturing Zeus and cutting the tendons of his arms and legs, and conveying him to Cilicia. But there Zeus was saved, thanks to the intervention of Hermes who stole the severed tendons and replaced them in their proper place, whereupon Zeus freed himself and defeated Typhoeus in a second encounter, although the Giant had hurled entire mountains against him without affect. Zeus finally overcame Typhoeus by hurling his thunderbolts and forced the enemy in the end to flee to Sicily where he crushed him with the volcano Aetna. The latter incident has led many scholars to believe that it is symbolic of the volcanic upheavals which destroyed the Cyclades and left in the subconscious of mankind scenes of terrifying events which had once befallen it, never to be completely forgotten.

In closing this chapter, we should point out the theory that the gods were heroes, kings or mighty men who lived many centuries ago and were subsequently deified. This theory had been supported in antiquity by Euhemerus, and before him by Leo of Pella, Magasthenes, and Hecataeus. Euhemerus who lived in the third century B.C. and came from Cyrenaica was a philosopher who propounded this notion in his work the ´Divine Record═. This theory which came to be known as Euhemerism had considerable influence in [p. 92] antiquity and numerous philosophers adopted its conjectures. But Euhemerism knew its greatest popularity in the Roman period when its concepts were translated into Latin, and in the second and third centuries after Christ was used as a primary source by the apologists of Christianity against idolatry.

On the other hand, the theory of Euhemerus was vehemently attacked by the philosophers Callimachus and Eratosthenes, whereas Aelian, Plutarch and Cicero described him as an atheist.

Contemporary historical scholars who support the contentions of Euhemerus include the Frenchman Moreau de Jonnes, and the German Em. Hoffmann. [pp. 90-93]

[Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]



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