Found within the mythology and folklore of countless disparate cultures across the world, are stories of giants; sometimes described as mighty men and women of towering stature but sometimes portrayed as a distinct race of huge humanoids.
This is not the place to rehash the debate as to whether the giants of antiquity were really metaphors for meteorological phenomena, the wildness of nature or invading armies. Nor do I propose to get bogged down in the debate about what constitutes a giant. There are, of course, confirmed cases of gigantism in humans but people over 2.2 metres (7.5 feet) tall are very rare and this is supported by the archaeological evidence. However, there have been old bones found in the south of France that suggest some humans might have been considerably taller than this. In 1890, three bones found at a Bronze Age tomb near Montpellier suggest a human that likely stood 3.5 metres (11.5 feet) tall. Some years later, in 1894, further bones were uncovered a few miles away; skulls as large as 80cm (32 inches) in circumference that indicated people of between 3m and 4.6m (10-15 feet) in height. The bones were confirmed as human but it seems that, inexplicably, no modern scientific analysis has been undertaken on them.
In general, folklore and mythology present us with two distinct sorts of giants; the first is a normal person but unnaturally tall, sometimes said to be as much as twice the size of their contemporaries; the second are individuals of colossal proportions, 30m (100 feet) or more high.
All cultures seem to carry tales of giants in their folklore and the global spread of such stories has led some to question whether in fact a race of giants did once share the earth with the ancient ancestors of today’s humans. Were the earliest myths based on reality or, over time, were the facts distorted into mythological legend? Perhaps, humanity, unable to explain certain topographical features invented a race of giants greater than man and powerful enough to have created clefts, mountains and other remarkable natural features; such explanations then entering mythology.
Like Great Britain, Brittany was said to have once been inhabited by a race of giants. There are a few references to giants in the hagiographies of the early Breton saints but they are fleeting and formulaic and most likely metaphors or medieval tropes rather than actual people. In Brittany, winds and storms were sometimes deemed to have been blown by mountain-dwelling giants but their activities here were far more popularly ascribed to shaping the landscape.
Many topographical features and megalithic monuments across Brittany are named after giants; by far the most commonly found is Gargantua. For many years it was thought that this character first appeared in François Rabelais’ satirical novel of 1532, The Horrible and Terrifying Deeds and Words of the Very Renowned Pantagruel, King of the Dipsodes, Son of the Great Giant Gargantua; the first of five books Rabelais wrote about the adventures of two coarse gourmand giants. However, some scholars have argued, unconvincingly, that Rabelais might have drawn inspiration from lost medieval legends about the Celtic god Gargan.
One of the advantages of this theory is that it helps to neatly explain why so many sites and megalithic monuments bear Gargantua’s name. It is perhaps easier to accept that these structures were originally associated with a similarly named ancient Celtic deity than that they were all popularly re-named by illiterate peasants within two hundred years of Rabelais’ publication. According to some, the most likely explanation for the success of this massive rebranding programme is that the old sites were already named after some local legendary giant whose identity was, over time, supplanted by the popularity of Gargantua’s reputation. Sadly, these changes were so effective that no trace of the original names survive.
Gargantua has left his mark across the country’s toponyms and folklore but more traces of the giant are found in Brittany than in any other region of France. I had initially intended that this post would highlight these giant imprints but having, too quickly, discovered some 70 sites linked to the giant here, I will instead focus on just a few.
Local tradition credits Gargantua and other giants with modifying the Breton landscape in any number of marvellous ways and many features are claimed to be his chair, bed, bowl or spoon. The giant’s footprint is attested near Saint-Jacut while other sites claim depressions made by his knees and elbows. His sabots are said to lie in several locations across Brittany, including Pont-Aven, Saint-Brieuc and Treillières. A local legend asserts that, one day, he abandoned his wooden sabots which allowed the local villagers to heat their homes for thirty years.
Several menhirs are reputed to have been Gargantua’s teeth; the stone in Saint-Suliac is said to be one that he accidentally swallowed before vomiting it. On the west bank of the Arguenon estuary, the strange basalt boulders known as the ‘Singing Stones’ of Guildo were also said to have been vomited by him. The giant’s vomit was likewise said to have created two promontories that strike out into the Bay of Saint-Malo; the Pointe de la Garde and the Pointe du Décollé. Similar origins were attributed to the nearby islands of Île Agot and Grand-Bé, the latter having been induced following a meal of 790 cows. Just across the Bay of Saint-Malo, the spit of land known as Rocher de Bec Rond is another feature formed by Gargantua’s vomit although another legend says that it was his excrement.
Many of the rocks and islets off Brittany’s north coast were also ascribed to Gargantua’s actions. Sometimes they were said to have been thrown by him from the mainland such as Île Louët and Île Noire in the Bay of Morlaix, while others were pebbles dropped from his pocket, such as the Grande-Feillâtre reef. One legend says that Gargantua’s parents, crossing Brittany on their way to Great Britain to aid King Arthur in his battle against Irish invaders, each carried on their head a rock brought from the East; one dropped rock is now Mont Saint Michel, the other became Tombelaine, an island about 3km away.
Spending time painting on Brittany’s north coast in 1879, Paul Sébillot learned of the long-standing rivalry between the inhabitants of Saint-Cast and Saint-Jacut: two fishing villages that faced each other across the Arguenon estuary. One of the bones of contention between these two communities was the fishing rights around a group of rocks known as the Bourdinots. The people of Saint-Jacut claimed the rocks because they had been thrown from their village by Gargantua. The folk of Saint-Cast acceded that the giant had moved the rocks but that he had placed them for their benefit as a mark of his disdain for the people of Saint-Jacut.
The story told in Saint-Cast was that Gargantua had been returning home to Plévenon when he came across a boat from Saint-Jacut loaded with fish caught around the Bourdinots. He devoured the boat, crew and catch but as he walked past Saint-Jacut, the stench of rotting fish made him vomit; the boat’s ballast stones being thrown out to sea, where they formed sundry rocky islets. Another version of the tale tells Gargantua did not eat the boat; the smell of its cargo alone was enough to make him retch.
The islets of Verdelet near Pléneuf-Val-André and Rocher de Bizeux near Saint-Malo, were reputedly pebbles shaken from Gargantua’s sabot, as were those off the beach at Sables-d’Or-les-Pins. Similarly, menhirs in Guérande and Saint-Aubin were other bothersome stones found in his sabots, likewise the many boulders scattered across the moors of Cojoux and Haut-Brambien.
Well-fed by the people of Plouarzel, Gargantua is said to have thanked them by clearing their fields of large stones but ill-treated near Plougastel, he scattered the ground between there and Huelgoat with boulders. The fertile soil around Roscoff was attributed to the peasants once having collected and spread the giant’s excrement over their fields. The origins of some rivers here were also attributed to Gargantua; he having watered the earth so fully that the Frémur and the Arguenon rivers began to flow. His urination was also said to have created a stream near Saint-Cast and even the harbour at Paimboeuf.
According to Rabelais, Gargantua was born in the East, through the left ear of the daughter of the King of Butterflies, after she had carried him for eleven months. However, Breton legends tell that he was born of a dwarf who had carried him for two years and that she gave birth in Plévenon, although another legend says that he was born at the end of the world, on the Pointe du Raz overlooking the Atlantic ocean.
Gargantaua’s height is unfixed in Rabelais’ works and seems to vary according to the situation; he was 367 cubits (170m) tall at three years of age but was sometimes able to fit inside a normal house. In Breton legends, he is always colossal; able to cross to Jersey, 56 km (35 miles) away, in a single step and to reach Ouessant, some 212km (132 miles) distant, in two or three strides, even able to circle the world in eight days. He was said to have swallowed ships at sea between Saint-Cast and Saint-Malo and urinated in the ocean whilst standing with a foot in each town, which lie 16km (10 miles) apart. The giant was even believed to have swallowed the sea mist, keeping it all within him for three days.
Some tales say that Gargantua lies buried with his head at Cap Fréhel and his feet 27km (17 miles) away at Saint-Suliac; his tomb being marked by a menhir on Cap Fréhel known as the Finger of Gargantua. This 2.7m (9 feet) high granite megalith has, in the past, also been known as Gargantua’s Tooth and as Gargantua’s Penis. Another account tells that the giant is buried under a dolmen near Corlay in central Brittany.
A legend has it that the giant died at Cap Fréhel after a battle with the korrigans and the islets that litter the coast hereabouts are parts of his body lost during the bitter struggle. Although another tale tells that he is buried under Mont Garrot near Saint-Suliac and that it was necessary to fold the giant seven times in order to fit him into his valley tomb. An alternate legend says that he lies buried between the Petit Bé and Grand Bé islands off Saint-Malo.
Yet another Breton tale of his death says that, one day, relaxing near the Rance estuary, Gargantua stretched his leg and accidentally knocked over a small boat from which issued a piercing cry. He bent down and picked up a little shape unlike anything he had seen before; it was the Fairy of the Waters. Gargantua was smitten, he fell deeply in love with her while regretting that she was so small. However, his voice frightened her and she fled. Happpily, she returned some time later and she coyly engaged his attentions for a century. At the end of this time, Gargantua wanted to wed but the fairy’s family only consented to the marriage on condition that the newlyweds should have no children.
The giant carried his wife on his thumb and they were happy together for a while but, one evening, the evil witch who had not been invited to the wedding, came to visit them with a gift of marigolds. The next day the fairy told Gargantua that she was going to be a mother and her husband declared that, in order not to violate his oath, he would have to eat their child.
While the giant was asleep, the fairy went to consult her old nurse who lived in a cave on Île Rouzic. The old fairy told her that she would make Gargantua swallow a kid goat and that her daughter would raise the child in a cave under the waters of the sea. Three months later, the fairy presented Gargantua with a heavily swaddled kid, which he swallowed in a single mouthful. Alas, the fairy had a second child and the giant devoured a piglet in its stead; there were four more children and Gargantua successively swallowed a dog, a doe, a calf and a young colt.
Then came a seventh child but Gargantua arrived home just at the moment of childbirth and asked for the newborn. The nurse, who had not prepared anything, found herself at a loss but thankfully espied a large rock which she wrapped in a blanket and presented to the giant. However, the stone was mainly quartz and caused Gargantua to break a tooth. Angry, he kicked-out at the nurse but she was too fast for him and his foot crashed into the earth, sinking the ground to form the basin we now call the Plaine de Mordreuc.
Another version of this tale says that, furious at being tricked, Gargantua lashed out at the nurse and in his wild fury, his blow fell upon his newborn son who was killed instantly. Horrified by this spectacle, the townsfolk tormented the giant to such an extent that he became ill and died one year to the day after the death of his son.
The quartz block greatly upset the giant’s stomach and made him very thirsty. Being so close to the sea, he threw his head into the ocean and sucked in the water so furiously that, without noticing, he swallowed an English fleet that had been cruising there. Sometime later he felt pains akin to iron grappling hooks tearing his stomach; he returned home to consult his doctor and, following his advice, decided to go to the East. Unfortunately, the bewildered sailors, fearing themselves lost, lit their lamps and fired all their cannons in hopes of hearing a response. Gargantua was therefore very ill when he reached India. His doctor managed to make him vomit the fleet, which was now in a very bad state, but the giant’s health failed him and so his father’s friends built for him a suitable tomb; the Himalayas.
The fairy mourned the loss of her husband fiercely and went to join her children under the water. It is said that they are the ones who devour ships and men during storms, without ever being able to satisfy their infernal hunger.
Aside from Gargantua, one of the most infamous giants to terrorise Brittany is found in several medieval tales about King Arthur. These tell of a brutal Spanish giant, described as 30 feet (9m) tall, who had made his lair on the summit of Mont Saint-Michel where he held captive the Duke of Brittany’s niece. Many bold knights had tried to rescue the lady from the clutches of this man-eating giant but all had met their end before they could even gain a footing on the island; the giant sank all their ships by throwing massive boulders onto them. Undaunted by the sight of so many smashed ships and broken bones, King Arthur resolved to rescue the Duke’s kin and avenge the deaths of so many noble men.
Accompanied by his knights, Sir Kay and Sir Bedivere, Arthur crossed to the island under cover of darkness but decided to face the brute alone. After a fierce and lengthy battle in which Arthur managed to slash the giant between the eyes before being struck on the arm by his club, the king emerged victorious. Having killed the giant, Arthur instructed his knights to cut off its head for the men of Brittany to stare upon. Unfortunately, the Duke’s niece was already dead by the time Arthur landed on the island; her young body unable to survive the giant’s violation.
Another medieval story featuring Brittany’s giants is the 14th century Tale of Melusine, a fairy who grew up on the fabled Isle of Avalon and who was condemned to assume, from the waist down, the form of a serpent every Saturday. One of her ten sons, Geoffroy à la Grand Dent (Geoffroy with the Big Tooth), so named because of the solitary boar’s tusk that protruded from his mouth, beheaded the giant Guédon who had long terrorised and oppressed the people of Guérande in southern Brittany.
It was reputed that over a thousand knights had previously battled Guédon but each encounter had ended with victory for the 15 feet (4.6m) tall giant. Having left his retinue in the valley, Geoffroy’s horse climbed to the giant’s castle where he found an opening in the wall. Challenging the giant to duel, Geoffroy taunted him until he appeared armed with a massive scythe and long flail. Battle was commenced as Geoffroy charged at him with his lance but the first swipe of the giant’s scythe cut down his horse and a fierce fight raged. Geoffroy was wounded in the shoulder but was able to cut one of the giant’s hands off. Enraged, the giant struck his flail with such force that Geoffroy was able to bend beneath its arc and cut off one of Guédon’s legs and with his next blow, the giant’s other hand. Lying helpless on the ground, Guédon lost his head which Geoffroy kept as a souvenir of his victory.
Just 55km (34 miles) to the east, at the northern end of the Lac de Grand-Lieu, France’s largest natural lake, lies a small island on which stands a lonely menhir. According to local legend, this stone blocks the entrance to an abyss whose waters created the lake; this void contains an enormous giant whose efforts to free himself from this subterranean cell, create the storms that sometimes sweep the lake. The giant is condemned to stay imprisoned until a virgin maiden can remove the guardian stone. For this, she will need to hold in her right hand a blessed belt which she must pass around the giant’s neck, who, thus tied, will become docile and a devout Christian.
Found in the folklore of western Brittany is Hok-Bras, a giant who was said to have possessed the ability to grow at will but who was described as barely 15 feet tall on his ‘ordinary days’. Many marvellous acts were attributed to him: the Monts d’Arrée range were a rock pile he created for amusement; to win a wager, he brought down the moon between his teeth; in need of a pond to bathe in, he dug-out the channel now known as the Harbour of Brest. It was while drinking in this body of water that a storm blew a three-decked warship into his path and straight down his throat. Hok-Bras ran in wild panic but the weight of a fully armed first rate ship of the line caused him to sink into the mire in the heart of the Monts d’Arrée. Having struggled to free himself, the unsteady giant stumbled and broke his head upon the very pile of rocks that he had created. Hearing of the giant’s fate, it is said that Noah came and sawed off his beard to make the frames of his ark and carried away his teeth to provide ship’s ballast; it taking three strong sailors to carry each tooth.
One story tells that Hok-Bras was desperately in love with a fairy who was amused to tease him with hopes that she might, one day, return his affections after he had proved himself worthy. Having literally heard his death throes from 14km (9 miles) away, she was so overwhelmed by guilt over her behaviour towards him that she transformed into an enormous black dog; the beast still roams the Monts d’Arrée, mourning the giant’s death at night.
In the far west, the rocky coastline between Pointe de Dinan and Le Château de Dinan was said to have been the stony citadel of a community of giants; wreckers of ships, they feasted on the flesh of drowned sailors. One night, according to tradition, they decided that it might be amusing to torment the korrigans who lived in a nearby cave. However, the korrigans were alert to the giants’ lumbering approach and scattered amongst the rocks. As the giants explored the cave in search of the little folk, they did not notice that the number of little cooking fires had increased dramatically and soon, the floor of the cave was ablaze; thick acrid, blinding smoke filled the cavern. The korrigans were unable to look and witness the destruction of their home; they were all too busy collapsing the cliff face over its only exit.
Little is now known of some of the region’s giants, sometimes even their names have been lost to us. This is the case in the magical Forest of Brocéliande where it was said that, no longer under the guardianship of the wizard Merlin and the enchantress Viviane, the forest gained a new overlord. This king of Brocéliande was said to have been a black giant with only one foot and one eye. All the beasts of the forests submitted themselves willingly to this giant who could summon them all with just a cry and who hurled them, as he desired, against his enemies.
Many of Brittany’s impressive chaoses, such as that at the Gorge of Corong, were said to have been created by Boudédé, a giant often described as the first man of Brittany. One day, walking along the river banks, he was bothered by some pebbles that had found their way into his sabots; he took them out and tossed them into the water. Thus were formed the massive granite boulders that we see strewn haphazardly along the valley today.
Several local legends in northern Brittany talk of Rannou, a giant whose colossal strength was attributed to the virtues of a potion that the giant’s mother had received from a mermaid. Unfortunately, his mother had not dared to give him all the potion to drink and this fear was, eventually, to be his undoing for legend says that he needed the full draught to thrive. Having taken just half the dosage, his body was unable to survive the precocious decay that ultimately shattered his bones.
The stories about Rannou invariably portray him as a generally decent, albeit quick-tempered man; his killings are not done out of malice but as a last resort to right a perceived wrong. The rocks that he throws over great distances have an uncanny ability to find their mark; crushing those that slander or demean him in some way.
A typical legend tells that, one morning, Rannou was walking along the banks of the Douron estuary when his peace was disturbed by the insults of some lads on the opposite bank. Filled with the bravery of being out of range, they were amused to mock and provoke the giant with impunity. However, they had underestimated Rannou’s strength and the power of his rage. The giant uprooted a huge rock, with such force that his arms were imprinted upon it, and promptly hurled it across the estuary, straight at the foulest loudmouth whose bones were crushed beneath this impromptu burial slab; saving the town the cost of a burial.
A megalith near Morlaix was said to have been a stone once carried by Rannou in the palm of his outstretched hand but having carried it for over 10km, he dropped it just outside the town where it has sat for six centuries, waiting for a second Rannou to come and complete its journey. Likewise, an isolated stone near Plestin is known as Rannou’s Chair. Some believe that the stories surrounding Rannou the giant are the exaggerated folk memory of a minor 14th century Breton nobleman, Rannou Tréléver, Lord of Kervescontou, whose many exploits saw his memory transformed locally into a hero popular enough to withstand being supplanted by Gargantua.
While it is rather more popular to talk of gentle giants these days, the association of brute force with giants was one of the constants of folklore and literature for centuries and it is perhaps fitting that I end with a quotation from one of the giants of world literature, the playwright William Shakespeare who wrote: “Oh, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.” A sentiment as relevant today as it was when written over four hundred years ago.