Proof of giants exists in the most unlikely places.
by Ruben De Somer
Once upon a time people believed in giants. Some stories were pure fiction, while other tales were definitely believed to be true. People in many European countries, including Holland, England, France, and Belgium, created giant puppets from wood and textiles based on these stories. Each giant had its own name and its own story. In some cases the story came first and then the giant was made; in other cases the giant was made first and the story created afterward. Why were these tales accepted? Oftentimes, it was because people had seen material proof of these giants. In some cases, huge blocks of stone and tumuli were seen as the graves of giants. However, when science and archaeology became more advanced,people realized that these contained the remains of normal-sized human beings. But our story doesn’t end here. Sometimes the bones of giants were discovered and early science couldn’t explain these peculiar relics.
In several European countries, there are known to be huge bones that could only have come from giants. The 17th-century writer Johan Picardt, in his Annals of Drenthe, records that in 1541 the bones of a giant were found in an iron coffin in the vicinity of Angoulemme, France. Picardt reports that he also saw giant bones in Bourbon in France.He also mentions the finding of a body in Romenburg near Leiden,Holland. The body was taken to Germany by Emperor Maximilian. These bones were probably seen later in Worms by Marcus Van Vaernewijck, a Flemish writer, as mentioned in his Den Spieghel der Nederlandscher audtheyt (Mirror of Dutch antiquity), also known as Historis de Belgis, published in 1568. In the same book, he mentions that during the time of Charles VII, several giant bones were found in Valencia which were 13 feet long and which were thought to be those of giant humans. I was curious to know whether the region of Flanders also had bones of giants. We had giant puppets, so it wouldn’t come as a surprise if we also had giant bones. I discovered that Flanders was home to three accounts of giants and their bony remains. The stories are very diverse. One case is connected with the founding of the city of
Antwerp, another case involves a giant ghost in Moregem, and in the third case, two giants (some sources say three) are involved in the erection of a church in Hamme.
Around A.D. 1500 in the Antwerp Steen (stone castle), several giant bones were found. While visiting Antwerp, the great artist Albrecht Dürer saw these bones and wrote the
following: “I have seen several bones of the Great Giant in Antwerp. The thigh bone measures four feet and a half, the shoulder blades are bigger than the back of a well-built man… The man was 18 feet tall. He ruled over Antwerp and performed many miracles.” Among the other bones in this collection was a giant tooth, mentioned by the 16th-century Dutch writer J. Van Gorp. The giant in this tale was known by the name of Druon Antigoon. After Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, he attempted to conquer England as well.During his absence, his general Silvius Brabo was to rule the area. Brabo took a well needed holiday, pausing to rest in the fields near the Scheldt. Later that day, he decided to visit the embankment on the other side of the river. However, his soldiers told him that the only accessible spot was guarded by Druon Antigoon—a fierce giant who had to be paid a fare if anyone wanted to access the spot. Those who couldn’t pay had a choice—they could either fight the giant or lose their right hand. If they chose to fight, they would be squashed by the giant’s club.What a choice! Silvius Brabo challenged Druon Antigoon, and after a long battle the giant perished. Brabo chopped off the monster’s head and right hand. He raised the giant’s hand above his head and threw it across the Scheldt, shouting: “Tot bij de plek waar hand valt, zal de streek Brabant heten!” (The area will be called Brabant from here to the spot where it falls!) When Julius Caesar returned to Gaul from his quest in England, he was so impressed with Brabo’s courage that he gave him numerous gifts of land. According to the legend, “Antwerp” came from handwerpen, which means “throwing a hand.”
The Giant’s Bone in Hamme
In 1840, the Flemish writer Jaak van de Velde wrote some lines about a giant bone in Hamme. The bone could be seen at the left side of the church portal. Allegedly the colossal bone belonged to a giant. Van de Velde adds that there still is a street in Hamme which is called the reuzenstraat, the giant street. This street is the place where the giant from Hamme used to live.
Lindanus of Ghent wrote in his De Teneramonda libri tres that in ancient times two giants lived in Hamme, one at each side of the Durme. One day they had a row about who was the tallest. So they went to Thielrode where a church was being built. Both could reach the roof, and together they placed the keystone on top of the church wall.According to Sanderus in his Flandria Illustrata, vol. II, published in 1735, the stone came from the Durme River. Sometimes people talk about three giants and say these giants didn’t go to Thielrode to measure their height but to build a church in Hamme. Interestingly enough, they didn’t need a scaffold, because they were able to reach the roof without one. One of them never used a boat to cross the Durme River but waded through the water, having no trouble with the depth. There is another story that explains why the bone was placed in the church: Hundreds of years ago in Hamme and Tielrode lived two giants. They were very good friends and not malevolent, though they were very strong. When the church was built in Hamme, they argued over who could place the closing stone at the top of the church portal. The one who could do this feat had the right to kill his opponent. Both started building the church and in the end it was the giant of Hamme who won and placed the stone.
“Friend,” the giant said, “I don’t want your blood, but after your natural death, your right leg has to be placed in this church as a memorial to my victory!” The giant of Thielrode promised this, and the bone is still hanging in the church. Currently the bone can be found in the city hall of Hamme, where it is kept in a glass shrine.
Laying a Giant’s Spirit in Moregem
In Moregem a small chapel is consecrated to one of the many incarnations of the Virgin Mary, Onze-Lieve-Vrouw ten Real Giants in the Low Countries? Doorn. In the chapel a huge bone can be seen. According to some, the bone arrived there when the child of the local lord was attacked by a huge animal (a mammoth?) and saved in a miraculous way. Another legend claims that the lord brought the bone back to Moregem from one of his long journeys. There he encountered a huge animal that he killed and brought the bone back as a proof of his tale. However, some assert that the bone belongs to a giant, a being who lived here long before man. His bone was placed in the chapel so that all would be peaceful again. People believed that his ghost still wandered in Moregem, long after his demise. It never hurt anyone, but the people were never at ease after finding the bone. So they decided to place it in the chapel, and this act removed their fears. Are these the bones of giants?
A Mammoth Rib
The Hamme bone measures four feet long. One of the main reasons why the bone still exists is because it was venerated as a holy relic. Is this a real giant’s bone?
According to a guide for Flanders published in 1966, Gids voor Vlaanderen, the bone is the rib of a mammoth. After having discussed the bone with biologist J.Van Eegro, we came to the conclusion that the bone is definitely a rib, though quite a large one, about 1.15 meters in length and about 6 centimeters thick. However, if the other legends are true, and the beast was a mammoth killed by one of the Moregem lords, a new cryptozoological mystery pops up. The castle dates from the 18th century. But mammoths have been extinct for more than 40,000 years.
Where did the Lord of Moregem go on his travels? If the mammoth was killed in Moregem, where did it come from? It is possible, of course, that the bones were found during excavation works or dredging, or that they just washed ashore. The origin of the Antwerp bone is the only certain one. Experts have determined that the giant bones belong to a whale and not to a giant human being. The tooth observed by Van Gorp was an elephant’s tooth. A few days before his viewing of the huge teeth, he had seen the excavation of two giants.When he visited the skeleton again, he took the alleged giant tooth with him and discovered that it was the same as the excavated ones.
Giants Were Not Human
Bones and folklore seem to be old acquaintances. The answer to our question, “Are there bones of giants in Flanders?” can easily be answered. Yes, there are, but they aren’t human. They are the remains of whales, mammoths, and elephants. Some of our other questions have been answered, but new riddles were also created. We would also like to thank J. Van Eegro, for the images and J.Walraet for opening the chapel of Moregem and for pointing out the mammoth legends.
Ruben De Somer is an archaeologist and anthropologist in Sint-Amandsberg, Belgium. He also teaches religion to students aged 14–18.
For related information on the topic of giants, check out this recent blog: http://frontiers-of-anthropology.blogspot.com/2011/03/fomorian-giants-adenas-and-giants-of.html