Geomythology: On Cyclops and Lestrigons

Pellegrino Tibaldi, The Blinding of Polyphemus, c. 1550-1

In Greek mythology giants are connected to the origin of the cosmos and represent the primordial chaos which contrasts with the rationality of the Gods. They were the sons of the earth (Gea) fertilized by the blood of the castrated Uranus (Heaven). In that chaotic, primal era, strange creatures proliferated, such as the Cyclopes, and the Centaurs. Lestrigons, a tribe of man-eating giants, appears in Homer’s Odyssey. Polyphemus, is one of the Cyclopes also described in Homer’s Odyssey. Greeks believed that the Laestrygonians, as well as the Cyclopes, had once inhabited Sicily.

But the ancient myth of giants is a common element in almost all cosmogonies. In Scandinavians legends, the blood of the giant Ymo formed the seas of th Earth, and his bones formed the mountains. In Peru, Brazil, and Mexico, the giants are part of the folk tradition. Judaism, more precisely, the Talmud and the Torah, converges with Genesis on the origin of the giants.

Laestrygonians Hurling Rocks at the Fleet of Odysseus

The discovery of huge fossil bones has always stimulated the imagination of local people, giving rise to legends. We found direct reference in the works of Herodotus which mentions the large bones of the giant Orestes recovered in Acadia, or even Virgil in his Georgics speaks of gigantic bones. In the sixteenth century, Italian historians, such as the Sicilian Tommaso Fazello, used the sacred texts to demonstrate that the first populations of many islands of the Mediterranean (among them Sicily and Sardinia), were of giants. At the same time, the first notices of South American fossils were reported by early Spanish explorers. These fossils were interpreted as the remains of an ancestral race of giant humans erased from the face of the Earth by a divine intervention. Fray Reginaldo de Lizarraga (1540-1609) also wrote about those “graves of giants” found in Córdoba, Argentina.

The case of Filippo Bonanni, an Italian Jesuit scholar, is very curious. He used the topic of the giants as an element in support of his theory of the inorganic origin of fossils. He properly rejects the myth of giants, but wrongly identify the nature of fossils. The most strong supporter for the organic origin of fossils was the italian painter Agostino Scilla. He published only one scientific treatise: La vana speculazione disingannata dal senso, lettera risponsiva Circa i Corpi Marini, che Petrificati si trouano in vari luoghi terrestri (The vain speculation disillusioned by the sense, response letter concerning the marine remains, which are found petrified in various terrestrial places). The aim of the work was the demonstration that fossils, which are found embedded in sediments on mountains and hills, represent the remains of lithified organisms, which at one time lived in the marine environment. The text was later translated to Latin and it was written as a response to a letter sent to him by Giovanni Francesco Buonamico, a doctor from Malta.

Femur of Mammuth interpreted as a bone of a giant and preserved as a relic in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.

Madrisio (1718) is one of the first authors in Italy to suggest that much of this giant bones may be referred, without problem, to elephants from the past. But te real interpretative turning point takes place with the influential work of the Hans Sloane, who stressed the importance of a comparative study of the bones in various vertebrates. Applying this method, he demonstrated how the big bones and teeth found in sediments or in caves are nothing more than remains of cetaceans and large quadrupeds, remarking on the major anatomical differences between humans and other known vertebrates. Among the few precursors of Sloan, the Italian naturalist Giovanni Ciampini in 1688, using direct comparisons with the famous elephant exhibited in Florence in the Medicean Museum, was able to correctly interpret the bones found at Vitorchiano near Viterbo, initially attributed to gigantic men.

References:

Marco Romano & Marco Avanzini (2017): The skeletons of Cyclops and Lestrigons: misinterpretation of Quaternary vertebrates as remains of the mythological giants, Historical Biology, DOI: 10.1080/08912963.2017.1342640

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