Read on for some of the facts, myths and history that inspired ‘The Last Giant’.
‘One character trait many (giants) had in common was melancholy, sometimes relieved by a doleful resignation which reflected the knowledge that their race had reached its twilight stage….We read of giants as loners, survivors of a race which flourished before ordinary men emerged to challenge their superiority.’ 9
When Brutus, first arrived in Britain it is said that he found the island to be inhabited by giants, their ruler was Albion. Albion used all his might and strength to defend the island from the Romans but he was defeated when Brutus’s army tricked the giants by digging a trench filled will sharpened tree trunks into which the giants fell and were impaled. Following his victory Brutus renamed the island as Britain. 9
Evidence for the existence of giants can be found in the landscape, the ancient Hill figures, such as the chalk giant of Cerne Abbas; megalithic monuments and long barrows, suggest that long ago there were once giant builders in Britain and supports the ancient European tradition that people had once been taller and stronger but had degenerated after a golden age. 3
Giants may or may not have played a real part in the history of the island but they would have featured strongly in the minds of our ancestors for British mythology is rich in stories of their exploits.
The Tale of Bran the Blessed
Bran is the most loved of all the giants, son of the god Llyr and once the benevolent ruler of Britain, and so big that it was said that no hall could accommodate him.
Bran’s sister Branwen was to marry the Irish king, Maltholwch, thereby uniting the two nations. However, during their wedding day celebrations, Bran’s trouble-making brother, Evnissyen (or Efnisien), infuriated that the match had been made without consulting him, mutilated the Irish king’s horses and there began a feud. Bran tried to make amends, offering the king his own horses and gold and finally his magical Cauldron of Healing, if the king would only return to the wedding feast.
Maltholwch accepted the cauldron and reluctantly returned, but after the wedding news of the offence caused by Evnissyen spread through Ireland and its people turned against their new queen, Branwen, demanding that some vengeance be taken on her. As punishment Matholwch humiliated Branwen by forcing her to become a scullery maid.
No man was allowed to leave Ireland for Britain for fear that news of her mistreatment would reach Bran’s ears. But Branwen trained a starling to carry a letter to her brother and so he found out….
No ship was big enough to carry Bran, so he waded through the sea to Ireland behind his fleet of warships, like a mountain amongst a forest of masts.
Maltholwch hoped that Bran would be stopped at the Linon River, which was enchanted with a lodestone to drag any passing ship into the depths, but Bran stretched himself across from bank to bank so that his men could march over him to confront the Irish king.
Maltholwch, seemingly wanting to make peace with the giant, Bran, offered to build him an enormous hall so at long last he would have something to live in and Bran gladly agreed. But the king had other plans; he had placed one hundred assassins in leather bags and hung them, like bags of flour, from the pillars of the great hall. Once the celebratory feast began the assassins would jump out and murder Bran as he ate.
It was Bran’s brother Evnissyen who thwarted the plan, he questioned the contents of the sacks and, feeling the head of a man within one he pinched it, crushing the assassin’s skull. He gave all one hundred sacks the same treatment until all the would-be murders had been despatched, and he told no one.
So, the celebratory feast went on that night, with the corpses still hanging undiscovered in the sacks but Evnissyen wasn’t finished yet. After the feast and enraged by the king treachery, he took his revenge and threw Malthowch’s beloved son into the fire.
A terrible battle commenced. Many were slain on both sides but the king Matholwch, who still had Bran’s cauldron of healing, was able to revive the corpses of his men to rejoin the fight and outnumber Bran’s dwindling forces.
Evnissyen, horrified at all the British deaths he had caused threw himself amongst the Irish dead and was duly placed in the cauldron, once revived he stretched out and shattered the cauldron. Without its healing power Bran’s army easily defeated the Irish king but although he had won the battle Bran’s victory was short-lived; for he had been fatally wounded, shot in the foot with a poisoned spear.
Before he died he instructed his warriors to cut off his head and carry it to London where it would be buried under the White Tower. From there his magic would protect Britain as long as the head remained undisturbed. Of the enormous horde that travelled to Ireland only 8 returned with the head, one of which was Branwen, but as she reached home she died of grief. 9
The legendary giant warlord of The Last Giant, was a god venerated in Roman-occupied north Britain, especially in what is now Cumberland and Westmorland. Some see him as a forerunner of Bran the Blessed. 4
The stone-carved monsters that decorated the water spouts of medieval cathedrals, allowing the water which flowed from the roof gutters to escape clear of the walls. 1 The name comes from the French word, Gargouille, from the Latin gargula, which means throat or gullet, and connected to the French verb, gargariser- to gargle. 5
Some say that the purpose of the gargoyle sculptures on churches and cathedrals is to remind god-fearing folk of how close they are to hell, where terrifying monsters and strange beasts dwell, or perhaps they are demons employed to fight fire with fire and frighten off other demons.
‘There once existed an enormous population of gargoyles, a sort of society of stone people, animals and monsters living in an aerial environment. Hundreds of gargoyles can still be seen today’. 5
Most gargoyles are based on the forms of real or mythological beasts made monstrous. The creatures represented by the gargoyles are likely to have carried their own meanings to the people of the Middle Ages.
Lions were one of the most popular beasts to be depicted, symbols of loyalty and vigilance; they are valiant, regal and powerful. Dogs are also commonly found, known for their faithful service, patient and always on guard. When monkeys are used it’s often in an unfavourable light, the peoples of the medieval world thought that their similarity to and mimicry of humans was devilish; mocking and presumptuous. Gargoyles carved in the form of birds, are most at home in the aerial habitat, they could be depicted as either noble creatures, like eagles or as comic figures, such as partridges. 5
Crows are part of the family of Corvids that also includes Rooks and Ravens. They are large birds with raucous cries and glossy black feathers.
Crows are often seen as ill omens or symbols of misfortune which might be due to their reputation as carrion-feeders. In that capacity they would have been frequent visitors to the battlefields where they could feast on the corpses of the fallen warriors.
In Celtic mythology crows have associations with war and death. They were the allies and companions of the Irish battle goddesses, Morrigan and Badbh. 12 ‘When she perches on the shoulder of the dying Cúchulainn, Mórrígan takes the form of a hooded crow. The crow-goddess Cathubodua was an ancient Continental patroness of battle. The Welsh Brân means crow.’ 4
In some cultures crows are regarded as Spirit Messengers, ‘Full of intelligence, cunning and playfulness, the crow was seen as a guardian of sacred law among the tribes of North America, a creature whose far-seeing eye saw past, present and future all at once.’ 2
In Scottish folklore the crow is said to have 27 cries which impart information about the future to the listener. When a murder of crows is crying all together it is thought that only the wisest seer can interpret their meaning. 2
Hagoday is an old term for a sanctuary door knocker, back in the day when wrongdoers on the run from the law could claim sanctuary within a church for a year and a day. They only need lay a hand on the ring of the Hagoday to be under its protection. 5
Weasels belong to the genus Mustela. Unlike the black weasel of the story they are usually brown with white or yellowish under parts.
They were described thusly by Coues in 1877, ‘The forehead is low and the nose is sharp; the eyes are small, penetrating, cunning and glitter with an angry green light.’ 6
Weasels are pure carnivores, adapted in every feature of their body and behaviour to live as hunters. The name Mustela means mus (mouse) and telum (spear).Their heads are slightly flattened and pointed; suited to poking into small holes to seek out their prey. They have large round ears which lie back against their heads and bright beady black eyes. They can swim, climb and run like bolts of lightning. 6
‘Weasels are generally seen as the villain of any nature story…weasels look like killers and they are killers…’ (Wood 1946 from. 6) However in older times these creatures were better appreciated; Native Americans regarded the capture of the weasel as a piece of great good fortune that would lead to wealth and power. 6
Taxidermy is the practice of trying to create life-like versions of animals, usually birds or mammals, from their corpses, using their own prepared skins, glass eyes and various supporting structures. 3
It may be traced to the ancient custom of preserving trophies of the hunt, but from the time of Enlightenment it was used principally for the study of Natural History. Henceforth private collections and museum exhibitions of animals from all over the world were created. As science progressed means of preserving the skin, fur and feathers from decay developed and it became possible to re-create the appearance of live animals by stuffing the skins and mounting the creatures in ‘natural poses’ 3
Cannibalism and Headhunting
Head-hunting, in its original sense, was the practice of cutting off the head of a slain enemy to keep as a trophy.
Head-hunters and others often consumed bits of the bodies or heads of deceased enemies as a means of absorbing their vitality or other qualities and reducing their powers of revenge. 3
The Celts were really keen on headhunting and collecting. They cut of the heads of their enemies slain in battle, preserving them carefully so they could be displayed with pride. In Celtic society owning the head was to retain and control the power of the dead person, parting with such a trophy would diminish the holder’s power. 7
The war-like culture of the Giantlords and Gargoyles owes much to the ancient Celts:
‘A combination of skill and almost supernatural bravery characterised the cult of the hero among Celtic societies…. Such boldness held together an empirical Celtic power - in life, the warriors were the political mainstay; after death, their deeds lived on in songs, poetry, and tales.’ 8
The Celts recorded their history verbally, in stories that were passed down through generations or in the craftwork of their ornaments and weaponry, so most of written accounts we have of them are from their Roman enemies and contemporary historians.
‘The whole race…is madly fond of war, high spirited and quick to battle, but otherwise straightforward and not of evil character. And so when they are stirred up they assemble in their bands for battle, quite openly and without forethought, so that they are easily handled by those who desire to outwit them’ (Strabo, Greek Historian). 7
‘they are ready to face danger, even if they have nothing on their side but their own strength and courage…their strength depends on their mighty bodies, and on their numbers...to the frankness and high-spiritedness of their temperament must be added the traits of childish boastfulness and love of decoration….It is this vanity which makes them unbearable in victory and so completely downcast in defeat. (Geog. 4.4.2.) 7
Celtic Battle Dress
Celtic warriors were reputed to have sometimes fought naked but for their weapons and their torc necklaces. They believed that if their gods desired them to fall in battle then armour would not save them and so was redundant.
They were said to have intimidated their Roman enemy before battle by appearing defiant and in the nude, bragging, shrieking, shaking their long hair and ‘showing an outrageous contempt for their own lives.’
The Berserkers were a lifelong fellowship of Viking fighters who took their name from the bearskin outfits that they sometimes wore. They rolled their eyes and foamed at the mouth, bit their own shields, and sometimes even fought stark naked, replying on sheer fury and their fighting prowess to prevail. Some fought drunk, but others relied on the rush of adrenaline that combat invoked. 8
A Glorious Death
In Old Norse mythology, the souls of heroes slain in battle were carried to Valhalla (the hall of the einherjar, the heroic dead) by the Valkyries (choosers of the slain), to spend their eternity in joy and feastings.
When the time came the heroic dead would form an army to fight alongside the Norse gods in their final battle, Ragnarok. To keep battle-fit they would spend their days in Valhalla fighting one another. Each evening their wounds healed so that they could enjoy drinking mead from the skulls of the vanquished, feasting, listening to music and storytelling before fighting again the next day. 8
‘For the Norse warrior, the reverse of the coin of worldly fame was a willingness to confront death fearlessly, even in he face of insurmountable odds. Fighting men were expected to show contempt for the ‘straw death’ of those who die in their beds.’ 8 The Vikings believed that those who suffered a ‘straw death’ would be denied Valhalla and instead spend a grim afterlife in Hel, their shadowy underworld realm. 8
One aged hero, Strakad, desperate to avoid a straw death, dressed himself in all his gold and finery to attract an assassin to kill him, the ploy worked and he was beheaded (although a version of the story has it that his headless body continued to fight for a time after). 8
Funeral Rites and Pyres
The word funeral is taken from the Latin word for ‘smoke’, referring to the practice of cremating the dead.
The practice of cremation on open fires was introduced by the Greeks as early as 1000 BC as an imperative of war. Corpses were incinerated on the battlefield then the ashes were sent to back home to be ceremonially entombed. Cremation became so closely associated with valour and military glory that it was regarded as ‘the only fitting conclusion for an epic life.’ 3
In pagan burials and cremations, the dead body was often accompanied by grave goods; jewellery, weapons, food, and drink, and sometimes animals such as a horse or dog. 11 Grave goods may have included the possessions of the deceased, or mourners’ gifts to the dead, and were thought to equip the dead for afterlife. 10
1. The Oxford Dictionary of Art. Ed. Ian Chilvers. Oxford University Press, 2004. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.
2. The Element Encyclopaedia of Magical Creatures. John and Caitlin Matthews (HarperElement 1996).
3. Britannia Online Encyclopaedia.
4. A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. James McKillop. Oxford University Press, 1998. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.
5. Holy Terrors, Gargoyles on Medieval Buildings. Janeta Rebold Benton. Abbeville Press 1997.
6. Weasels and Stoats. Carolyn King (Christopher Helm Ltd) 1989.
7. The Ancient Celts. Barry Cunliffe Oxford University Press 1997.
8. Ancient Civilizations: The Illustrated Guide to Belief, Mythology and Art. General Ed. Professor Greg Woolf. Duncan Baird Publishers 2005.
9. British Folklore, Myths and Legends. Marc Alexander. Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1982.
10. The Archaeology of Death and Burial. Maike Pearson. Sutton Publishing Ltd 1999.
11. A Dictionary of English Folklore. Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud. Oxford University Press, 2000. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Farrington Chancellor Press 1997.