Wednesday, 19 December 2012


The story of the ascension of the Olympian Gods to mastery over the Heavens is an epic one indeed. After a cosmic struggle which endured for ten years, the Titans, the elder race of gods, were cast down into the depths of infernal Tartarus (for the story please click here). The young gods were victorious, and a new age of peace was at hand. The Earth was made, and mankind created. Heroes rose and fell, kingdoms and peoples too. Yet an ancient vengeance ever lay in the shadows, with cataclysmic forebodings...

The Giants Rise
Painting by Giulio Romano,
Sala dei Giganti, Palazzo del Te, Mantua
There came a time, many long ages of men after Zeus the Thunderer was crowned upon the throne of Olympus, when a poison ran through the Earth. For Gaia, matriarch of all things and Mother Earth herself, was roused to anger. Mother to the Titans, she could bear the suffering of her children no more. How could the Olympians rest sound and safe, knowing their own fathers and mothers, her sons and daughters, were cruelly bound in the depths of the Earth, far from the touch of the Sun's rays? As the Olympians rejoiced in peace and made merry on the golden plains of the Earth, Gaia's anger was building. In a fit of rage, Mother Earth gave birth once more. But it was no god or fair creature that her womb bore now. Her form bursting with her monstrous brood, at the Plains of Phlegra they at last burst forth, with a roar of thunder which caused the stars to shake. From the tear in her side they came. Towering high over all other beings on the Earth, the Gigantes breathed their first. Malevolant spirits like no other, some walked in the shapes of men, other twisted and contorted into grotesque shapes, writhing with serpents and strong beyond belief. The Giants sprang from Gaia's womb clad in the vestments of war, hate their first thought, to the skies their first gaze. A dark shadow spread across the Earth. Stars grew pale. The Great Bear fled below the Ocean, and the creatures of the Ocean frantically dived to the root of the World in fear. The Giants grew swiftly, nine inches every month, until soon their might could scarcely be supported by the vaults of matter. The Gods high on Olympus were in grave consternation. Who were these creatures, and what was their purpose? The anger of a scorned mother terrible to behold, Gaia spoke to her brood, and roused them to her fury;

           " Children, ye shall conquer Heaven: All that ye see is the prize of victory;
             win, and the Universe is yours. At last the son of Kronos shall feel the weight
             of my wrath; he shall recognise Earth's power... Why has Earth no honour?
             There hangs luckless Prometheus in yonder Scythian vale, the vulture feeding
             upon his breast; yonder, Atlas supports the weight of the starry Heavens upon
             his head, and his grey hair freezes solid with cruel cold. Arise, my avengers,
             the hour is come at last, shatter the chains of the Titans; rally to the aid of thy
             mother... Go forth and conquer; throw Heaven into disarray, tear down the towers
             of the Sky! "
                        - GAIA ROUSES THE GIGANTES TO WAR

The words of Earth are as the first trickles of a thundering waterfall, as the Giants bellow to the skies. The injustice of millennia, and endless age of hate, every injury of a lifetime is bound into the moment. In their minds, each already feels the victory. They imagine Poseidon bound in chains, dragged threw the oceans that once he ruled. Ares lies vanquished upon the mortal plain, Venus defiled and Athena conquered. With dreadful din, the Giants charge, eyes burning. The greatest among them, Alcyoneus, leads the path to war, the glory of invulnerability his, whilst favoured by the Earth - and far, far below, tremors in the Earth herald the revolution deep in Tartarus, as the Titans awake.

Chaos on Olympus
Painting by Francisco Bayeu
Watching from on high, Iris, the the herald of Olympus, frantically calls to the Gods. Soaring through the skies astride the rainbow that was her steed. Spirits far and wide answered her call, the nymphs and naiads and dryads, all rallied to Heaven's defence. Even Hades, lord of the Underworld, for whom the affairs of the Overworld were so often so trivial, readied his brazen chariot and prepared once again to stand side by side with his brothers. From the wide Oceans, Poseidon came, royal fingers gripping his shining trident. There seated in all his glory, lightning blazing before his glistening throne, was Zeus the Thunderer, Son of Kronos and King of the Gods. To his kin and faithful few, the Son of Kronos called now to steady their nerve:

          " Deathless host, whose dwelling place is, and ever must be, the sky, ye whom
            no adverse fortune can ever harm, mark ye how Earth with her new children
            conspires against our kingdom and undismayed has given birth to another brood?
            Wherefore, for all the sons she bore, let us give back to their mother as many
            dead; let her mourning last through the ages as she weeps by as many graves
            as she now has children. "
                      - ZEUS RALLIES THE GODS

The fire of hope sparked in the divine ranks, "the clouds echo the blast of Heaven's trumpets", as the might of Heaven and Earth entered the field of War. From the peak of Olympus the Gods marched forth in blinding array, from fiery Phlegra the Giants stormed upon the roots of the mountain, spirits burning with the fire of vengeance. The very surface of Mother Earth is thrown into chaos. Islands abandon the seas, mountains are thrown to the deep, the rivers thunder through the land, as Gaia's anger flares, and the sinews of her offspring  swell with radiating power. Alyconeus and Porphyrion, the mightiest of the brood, lead the charge, their wrath bent upon the highest crags of the mountain. Far behind, a giant tears up Athos the towering mountain, and hurls it upon the Olympian host, who scatter in fear. Oeta claims Pangaeus and sends it soaring through the sky. A terrible din rends the air, as the two lines clash, bloodthirsty Ares leading the Olympian charge. "Brighter than flame shines his golden shield, high towers the crest of his gleaming helm". Into the fray he hurls his mighty form, the battle rage rising in him, as he hurls his sword into the chest of the Giant Pelorus. The serpents which writhed in place of legs hissed their defiance, and in that moment a deathly silence fell. The first had fallen, and the Gigantes saw the broken body of their brother. The words of Gaia were words no more, and their rage was terrible to behold. The Giant Mimas seized the island of Lemnos and hurled it at the lord of war, meaning to shatter his divine skull. Within an inch of ruin the war god came, had not his javelin found its unfortunate mark. Chaos enveloped the world, as the cosmos erupted in all out war.

The Gigantomachia
Image taken from a 5th - 4th century Attic Amphora,
Musée du Louvre

Spurred on by their wounds, not weaker did the hideous brood of Gaia grow, but stronger still. Porphyrion, rippling with power, fell upon the gods as a tidal wave upon the broken coast. The immortal gods were thrown to the ground, and the march of the Giants was relentless. Then came the blasphemy greatest of all. Otus and Ephialtes, their stature beyond compare, fixed their gaze upon the crest of Olympus. Together, they raised Mount Ossa high into the air, and with all their might, cast it upon the summit of Pelion. The way was open now. Together the brothers stormed Olympus, the summit of their vile construction aiding their climb. As the foot of the Giants fell yonder upon the Hall of the Gods, that Artemis, the keen eyed archer saw their wicked scheme. All too well had poor Actaeon known the wrath of the huntress, that spirit now turned upon the defiling Giants. But it was with great shock that spread through the gods, for it was not enough this time. The Lady of the Hunt was relentless, but Otus and Ephialtes were greater still. The accursed Apostates moved in, victory near at hand. Far, far below, impious Tartarus shuddered as the bonds of the Titans began to weaken. It was in this moment, that Apollo, brother to Artemis, saw his sister in her plight. His mind racing, his aim with the bow was unparalleled, yet he had not time to slay them both. In desperation he sent a deer between the two. In the confusion, Artemis took flight, and the brothers, bellowing their frustration of their missed chance, hurled their spears at the deer. Yet their aim was not that of their tormentor, and in their folly each transfixed the other. With a terrific din, their vast bodies fell from Olympus, crashing to the Earth far below, and Gaia's fury grew stronger yet.

Far below, the Olympians were distraught. No foe had ever set foot on sacred Olympus, their omnipotence shattered forever it seemed. In their hour of darkness, an Oracle was heard in the vaults of Olympus, a prophecy. The arcane verse spoke of a ray of hope, and Zeus listened. The Gigantes were fearsome indeed, and no immortal hand would stay their destruction. When Gaia heard of this, she sought out a herb that would render her brood immune, sensing danger. But the Thunderer, lord of the skies, commanded Dawn, the Moon and Sun to rise upon his command only, and in the darkness Mother Earth could not find the herb. No immortal hands could harm her brood, the prophecy had said. So to the mightiest of mortals the Olympians turned, their last hope. In a dream Athena, lady of wisdom and mistress of stratagems, came to Heracles, slayer of beasts and sacker of citadels. The time had come for him to prove his rightful place as the son of Zeus, and aid his father in his darkest hour. Seizing his bow, the mighty hero heard her call, and made haste with all speed to the plain of Phlegra.

Where Alyconeus and Porphyrion marched, devastation fell in their wake. Not one among the Olympians could stand before them, so terrible was their power. It was to them that Heracles raced now. His fingers feeling for the feathers of an arrow, the son of Zeus loosed a deadly shaft at Alyconeus. With a roar the Giant fell from the Mountain, a strike fatal to all other beings. But this was not all other beings. With a deafening crash his body struck Mother Earth. From the moment his flesh touched that of Gaia, his wounds began to heal. The voice of Athena sounded in Heracles' ear - Alyconeus could not be killed whilst he fought in the land in which he was born. So mighty Heracles dragged the bellowing Giant from the plains of Pallene, there to die. The fury of the Giants reached its apex, as one among them made forward to crush Ares. Athena, spying the danger, rushed forward and raised her deadly Aegis, upon the face of which was emblazoned the face of the Gorgon. Wise Athena knew that she needed not the deadly point of any spear, the dreadful visage of her shield was enough. The Giant, seeing her, let out a cry and charged. "When, at a distance from his foe, without a wound, he found himself rooted to the ground, and felt the murderous glare turn him, little by little, to stone, he called out 'What is happening to me? What is this ice that creeps o'er my limbs? What is this numbness that holds me prisoner in these marble fetters?'". Fear flooding him for the first time, he felt the cold chill of death envelop him, as his powerful flesh became unyielding stone. Echion, nearby, sensing his brother's doom, snarled and charged the wise goddess. Valiant was his duty to his kin, but audacious his assault. His blade cut the very air as it hurtled towards her crown, and victory would have been his, had not he glimpsed the Gorgon's stare in the corner of his eye. Athena's spear pierced his side, as the other froze in rock.

The Fall of the Giants
Painting by Guiliano Romano
Sala dei Giganti, Palazzo del Te, Mantua
Panic swept through the Gigantes, as hope rekindled the spirits of the gods. Yet nothing would dent the fury that spurred on every inch of impious Porphyrion's gargantuan form. The roaring serpents that formed his legs bore him into the heart of the Ocean, as he grasped the island of Delos in his crushing grip. The Aegean trembled with terror, Thetis and her kin fled from the depths, the Palace of Poseidon, the pride of the deep, lay abandoned now. High on Mount Cynthus, the peaks rang to the cries of the nymphs upon it, the spirits that had once taught young Apollo to shoot the wild beasts, in cold dread now. Now they called out in desperation, the people of Delos, a plea for help. As the mighty Giant turned on Heracles and Zeus together, Cupid loosed an arrow at him, filling him with untimely desire. As his eyes saw Hera standing near, he was filled with irresistible desire. Releasing Delos, Porphryion charged after her, and the cosmos shuddered. Spirits and gods fled in fear before his warpath, none stood in his way. He laid his hand upon the daughter of Kronos, and she screamed out in fear. Seizing the weapon forged for him and him alone, Zeus the father of gods and men hurled a thunderbolt at the defiling giant. In the breast the bolt struck him, and the Apostate was thrown to the ground. Down but unvanquished, Porphyrion rose once more, and his eyes were as the pits of Tartarus, burning as glowing coals. Seizing their chance, Heracles and Apollo rushed to Zeus's aid. Taking an arrow each, they fired. The dart of Heracles struck true into the Giant's right eye, Apollo's his left, and at last the bane of Olympus fell cold to the ground. Hope spread through the gods, and they fell upon the dismayed brood. Dionysus conquered Eurytus, Hecate slew Clytius and with molten iron did Hephaestus immolate Mimas. Encelados turned to flee, but Athena crushed him beneath Mount Vesuvius, there bound forever in torment. Ever after has the mountain spat forth fire and quaked the Earth. Polybotes charged through the Ocean, and wrought terrible carnage, before Poseidon, the son of Kronos, smote him with the island of Nisyrus. Hermes, invisible to all other eyes, for he bore the helm of Hades, conquered Hippolytus, and Artemis, rejoining the fray, brought down Aigaion. The Three Fates laid low Agrios and Thoon, and Zeus the Thunderer hurled his flaming darts to and fro, the anger of the king of the gods unstoppable, the fury at the desecration of his holy places. In his wake strode his son, Heracles, saviour of the gods. The blood of the Giants soaked the Thracian lands, and ever after her people were a hostile and savage nation. The War was ended, and the greatest threat to Olympus had been cowed, as the Titans fell back to their slumber, dormant once again...

The importance the Ancient Greeks placed on the myth of the War of the Giants, or Gigantomachia, cannot be overstressed. There is scarcely a temple in the Greek world which does not bear an image of it, including the Parthenon itself, and the Great Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Now at last, the peaceful rule of the Olympian Gods was assured. Ever after the titanic struggle between the gods and the Giants served as inspiration to the Greeks when under attack from foreign foes, especially one that lay just across the Ocean...

United Kingdom

Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(The grand poem of the Gigantomachia, in archaic glory)

United States

Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(The grand poem of the Gigantomachia, in archaic glory)

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