Whether it be the towering Goliath bested by David in The Bible, the one-eyed Cyclops of Greek mythology, or the giant at the top of Jack’s fairytale beanstalk, gargantuan beings have been a cornerstone of humankind’s storytelling for millennia. And for as long as the legends have persisted, you can bet some credulous people have hunted for evidence that these out-size creatures really exist.
Some of the earliest accounts of giants are recorded in the Old Testament of The Bible. The giant Nephilim residents of Canaan, for example, are described with awe in the Book of Numbers. Moses sent some spies to the region to check them out, and when word came back it wasn’t good. The spies claimed that it was impossible to attack the mighty Nephilim, saying, “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” Moses was advised to hop it.
Then there is the best known of biblical giants – Goliath. The Book of Samuel describes the massive man as being “six cubits and a span” tall, which means he measured a mind-numbing nine feet nine inches. Goliath challenges the Israelites to produce a warrior to fight him single-handedly. The doughty David, of course, skillfully used his sling to get his rocks off and brought the fearsome giant to his knees
Contemporaneously, Armenian mythology includes the story of Hayk, a giant who founded the nation and is also believed to have helped build the Tower of Babel. Author Arpiné Khatchadourian’s 2016 work, David of Sassoun: An Introduction to the Study of the Armenian Epic, underlines Hayk’s supremacy. She wrote, “Among the giants he was the bravest and most famous, opponent of all who raised their hand to become absolute ruler over the giants and heroes.”
Needless to say, the Greeks had a word for it. Ancient Greek mythology had the Gigantes, the term from which the word giant was first derived in the late 13th century. Some of the Greek giants were believed to be entombed deep in the Earth and it was the restless writhing of those fearsome beings that caused earthquakes and volcanoes. The Greeks held that the Gigantes where born of Uranus, god of the sky, and Gaia, goddess of the Earth. Not bad going, because the couple had earlier begat another super-sized race, the Titans.
The Greeks also gave birth to the legend of Cyclops which was later taken up by the Romans. The Cyclops was a formidable giant with the horrifying characteristic of having just a single eye set in the middle of his forehead. One of those Cyclops giants, the enormous, man-eating Polyphemus, was included in the epic poem Odyssey by Homer. He described him as, “A savage being with huge strength, knowing nothing of right or law.”
Norse mythology also has a rich vein of tales involving gigantic men. These giants were called the Jötnar and were a threat not only to humans in their land of Midgard but also to the Norse Gods themselves in their territory of Asgard. The enraged Thor, god of thunder, killed one of the Jötnar, Geirröd, after the giant hurled a red hot ball of iron at him. Thor threw it back and it smashed into Geirröd’s head – well, he started it.
So the idea of powerful giants is one that is firmly entrenched in mythology and, it would seem, the human psyche. Perhaps this is why so many people have expended so much energy into trying to find conclusive evidence that these beings really do exist. And this desire has given rise to some outstandingly elaborate and entertaining hoaxes down the years.
One such tall story became known as the tale of the Cardiff Giant. In 1869, men were digging a well on land owned by William C. “Stub” Newell in Cardiff, New York State, when they were said to have discovered a ten-foot tall petrified human figure. Newell quickly began to exploit his find by charging an eager public 25 cents each to view the giant. A couple of days later, the spectator fee had risen by a gargantuan 100 percent to 50 cents.
But, in fact, the giant had been dreamt up by a tobacconist New Yorker called George Hull. The cigar man was an atheist who apparently got into a theological set to with some Methodists about Biblical references to giants. Piqued, Hull instructed a craftsman to carve a giant man from a large slab of gypsum. He then planted the statue on Newell’s land and waited patiently for a year for its discovery. Newell just happened to be his cousin.
The hoax was soon spotted for what it was by academics, with one paleontologist from Yale saying it was “a most decided humbug.” Nevertheless, Hull was paid $23,000 for the “giant” by a consortium that exhibited it in Syracuse, NY. Showman P.T. Barnum made a replica which he put on show in New York City. It was one of the consortium, David Hannum, not Barnum who first said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” And he was referring to the people in line to see the Cardiff Giant. You can still see the original sculpture at The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, NY.
An even earlier discovery in 1705 cannot exactly be classed as a deliberate hoax. It was more in the nature of a firmly held delusion. A Dutch farmer working near a village called Claverack, NY, came across a huge tooth as big as a fist and weighing five pounds. Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, the British governor of New York, paid the lowly farmworker a glass of rum for this mysterious artifact.
A bit of an oddball, Cornbury was convinced he had in his possession a genuine tooth from a biblical giant. Perhaps he was a scholar of the Book of Genesis, with its reference to “giants in the earth” before the Flood. A century or more before knowledge of dinosaurs was commonplace, people picked up on Cornbury’s idea. He now began to believe in the existence of a hitherto undiscovered species, the incognitum. This word translates from Latin as “unknown.”
Huge bones were also discovered near where the tooth was found at Claverack. This gave rise to the idea that they must have belonged to giants as tall as 60 or 70 feet. Cotton Mather, the Puritan minister from New England, quickly got in on the act. He claimed that the incognitum find meant that America was once home to biblical giants “in comparison of whom, Og, and Goliath, and all the Sons of Anak, must hardly be so much as Pygmies.” However, other residents of America at that time thought the incognitum ivories looked awfully familiar.
When similar teeth and bones were discovered in South Carolina, African slaves recognized a resemblance to those of elephants from their homelands. And so it turned out that the incognitum bones were from a pre-historic ancestor of the elephant. Cornbury and crew had been celebrating mastodons, extinct pachyderms that had roamed America thousands of years previously.
Moving nearer the present day, in 2007, the editors at National Geographicmagazine felt the need to publish an article to refute an online rumor. The publication denied claims that its researchers had discovered the bones of a giant. The doctored photograph you see here was created as an entry in a website’s competition for archaeological hoaxes in 2002. Two years later it became an early viral internet meme. The made-up montage had a reprise yet again in 2007.
Staff at National Geographic were understandably miffed by some articles accompanying the photo. They included one on Indian monthly magazine Hindu Voice’s website in 2007. It included the line, “Recent exploration activity in the northern region of India uncovered a skeletal remains of a human of phenomenal size.” The piece went on to say that a “National Geographic Team (India Division) with support from the Indian Army since the area comes under jurisdiction of the Army” was responsible for the find. All utterly fake news.
Another photograph which, to say the least, has caused its fair share of controversy is this one. It was supposedly taken in December 1942 by crew members of a British Royal Air Force flight. The plane was somewhere over occupied Norway at the height of World War II. If this guy was fighting alongside the nazis, the Allied Powers would have needed to up their game considerably.
What that somewhat murky monochrome image is supposed to show is the mysterious “Great Norwegian Mountain Troll.” It is shown making its way through the snow on a hill covered with forest, dwarfing the trees below. And it really is a photograph of a troll – but a fictitious one. The image of the giant figure is taken from the 2010 film Trollhunter. It has simply been transposed on to a generic picture of a forest by someone with little better to do.
Trollhunter is a Norwegian “mockumentary” in which some students seek out one of the cave dwelling giants of lore. The hunters discover that the trolls’ existence has been hidden from the public by government forces. The film was premiered in 2011, so the fake photograph was most certainly not taken in 1942. It was created sometime after the release of Trollhunter, and the spoof shot is clearly made with imaging software. What a giant disappointm