I Was Once Ignorant of Great Bones

In Flavius Philostratus, Heroikos 8.18, a character known as “the Phoenician” is told about the gigantic bones of various ancient heroes and demi-gods which had been found in various places.

After listening to the list, the Phoenician says that he didn’t formerly believe in such stories about Greek heroes and demi-gods, but does now on the basis of the ‘great bones” which have been discovered. And it gives rise to this great line:

ἐγω δε μεγαλα [ὀστα] μεν ἠγνοουν, ἀνοητως δε ἠπιστουν
“I was ignorant of such great bones, and out of ignorance I disbelieved.”

Adrienne Mayor argues in The First Fossil Hunters that the great bones which were found, and which were attributed to Greek heroes and demi-gods, were typically the remains of mastodons and whales.

However, none of these opinions of so-called modern science should pose any sort of problem for the true believer in giant heroes and demi-gods. As a believer in giant heroes and demi-gods, I don’t have the luxury of dispensing with things just because our culture thinks we should. Culture isn’t the final arbiter of truth. Revelation is. Sure, Adrienne Mayor may believe, based on the presuppositions of her materialist-naturalist worldview, that the giant bones of heroes and demi-gods are just “mastodons” and “whales”. But has anybody seen one of these so-called “mastodons”? No – so it equally depends on FAITH. We have different perspectives PRECISELY because I see life through the lens of faith in giant heroes and demi-gods and she does not. It is for this reason that our views on several issues differ…I simply recognize that, at the end of the day, we approach problems and issues from differing starting points.

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New (2011) Edition of Adrienne Mayor’s The First Fossil Hunters

Adrienne Mayor - The First Fossil HuntersIn The First Fossil Hunters, Adrienne Mayor discusses dozens of examples in which ancient Greek and Roman writers and artists interpreted fossils as evidence of the existence of ancient giants.

Many ancient Greeks and Romans reassembled the fossilised bones of mammoths, mastodons, and whales in human form, “creating” ancient, dead, giant humans. (As Stewart  Guthrie notes in Faces in the Clouds, humans are forever projecting human forms onto other things.) Mayor suggests that myths about the Giants, Cyclops, Griffins, etc, may have originated in the discovery of these enormous bones and the attempt to make sense of them as beings from the past or faraway places.

Her book is full of fascinating facts about giants and other creatures, and has now been reissued in a revised version. You can read the introduction to the 2011 edition here, which provides a good overview of the content of the book.

While we should be wary of treating naturalistic explanations as the sole explanation for the origin of giant traditions, the fact that ancient Greeks and Romans identified some fossils as giants and monsters is well supported in Mayor’s book. It is safe to say that the ancient discovery of fossils is, at least, a contributing or supporting reason for the ancient belief in such fantastic creatures.

Mayor’s account may also shed light on the narratives about giants of the Bible – such as the story of the large sarcophagus attributed to King Og of Bashan.

h/t: Michael Heiser