Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Kircher's giants

Athanasius Kircher is perhaps the most interesting mind of the Seventeenth Century. The German born Jesuit wrote over forty books on comparative linguistics, volcanoes, music theory, magnetism, China, diseases, and anything else that crossed his path. He claimed to be able to read Egyptian hieroglyphics, he used the newly-invented microscope and suggested that the tiny "animacules" caused plague and other diseases, he was the first European to publish Sanskrit, he coined he word "electromagnetism", he built a museum of mechanical gadgets, and he designed the cat piano. A recent collection of conference papers about him was entitled "The Last Man Who Knew Everything."

The times he lived in and the broad range of his interests ensured that a lot of what he wrote was bunk and, for almost 300 years, he was dismissed as a colorful crank. Lately, that's begun to change. Kircher was an influential figure in his day and it's not possible to write an accurate account of the scientific revolution without taking him into account. Even before his intellectual rehabilitation began, his books had been rediscovered as objects of art. Many of them are illustrated with fantastic illustrations and interesting maps--one shows the location of Atlantis. One of his most frequently reproduced illustrations compares the sizes of famous giants.

Kircher's Giants. Source.

Most cultures have a tradition of giants. I won't say "all", because whenever you say that there will be a cultural anthropologist who will show up to make a liar out of you. But there is quite a rich tradition in what became Western Civilization. The tradition drinks from four fountains. The first, is the mythology of Classical civilizations. This included the Titans, whom the gods of Olympus had to vanquish before they could rule, and the heroes, who must have had a great stature to match their great acts. Next, was the Jewish tradition, which was well known even before Christians made it dogma in the remains of the Roman Empire. This included the Antediluvian giants of Genesis 6; the tribes defeated by Moses, Joshua, and David; and the ancient patriarchs themselves. Third, were the local traditions of Northern regions gradually incorporated in Christendom. Finally, were the actual discoveries of large bones found in caves and plowed up in fields from time to time. By the time Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, the first two fountains had been combined into a kind of standard list. Over the next thousand years, giants from the other two fountains were added to the list.

Kircher's famous illustration is from the second volume of his wonderful book Mundus Subterraneus (The Underground World). It shows five figures all in the same pose. Two are from ancient sources, two are from recent (to him) sources, and one is a normal man. The four on the right ascend from left to right while the one on the far left overshadows them all. His position, out of order, demonstrates his specialness. The point of the illustration is not to provide visual comparison of famous giants; it is to make a point about that particular giant. Kircher, who later writers would call gullible, thinks that giant is ridiculous.

The biggest giant is from the works of the late Medieval satirist Giovanni Boccaccio. Boccaccio was a pivotal figure in Italian literature, but he was also a literary critic and historian. In his Genealogia deorum gentilium (Genealogy of the Gods and gentiles), he tried to make sense of confused and often contradictory accounts of the Greek and Roman pantheons and, as much as possible, tie them into local histories. The giant illustrated by Kircher was a discovery that happened in Sicily during Boccaccio's lifetime. Some writers have said Boccaccio claimed to have been a witness to the discovery. He didn't. He was 400 miles away in Tuscany at the time and only reported what he was told. So, what was he told?

In 1342, near Trepani, on the western end of Sicily, a group of workers, digging the foundation for a new house, uncovered a deep cave. They climbed in and found a great grotto where they saw the figure of a seated man of almost unimaginable size. In his hand he held a staff as large as ship's mast. According to their report, he was 200 cubits tall (300 or 400 feet, depending on your cubit). The workers hurried back to the village of Erice to share the story of their discovery. Soon, a crowd of 300 people armed with torches and pitchforks marched to the work site and entered the cave. Once inside the grotto, they paused, all frightened and awestruck except for one brave man who stepped forward and touched the staff. It disintegrated leaving only dust and some iron pieces. He then touched the leg of the titan who also turned to dust leaving only some enormous teeth.

The teeth were taken to the Church of the Annunciation where they were strung on a wire to be displayed. This was a common practice in the days before museums. Wonders of nature were given to churches to inspire the faithful with the endless wonders of God's creation. Boccaccio does not report what happened to the iron. We can safely assume that the local blacksmith took advantage of the free materials.

There was some debate over the identity of the giant. Some thought he was Eryx, a legendary early king and founder of the village. Although a demigod himself, Eryx was killed in boxing match with his fellow demigod Hercules. The opposing and more popular theory was that he was the cyclops Polyphemus and this was the cave where he was blinded by Odysseus and his crew. In making that claim, they faced some competition. Over the years, a number of villages had discovered a number of caves containing the bones of a number of giants and all had proclaimed their giant to be Polyphemus. Classics scholars, then and now, believed that the Odyssey described an itinerary of real places around the central Mediterranean and that Sicily was the home of Polyphemus. Even the average peasant knew this and was proud of the history of their island. If the local giant wasn't Polyphemus, enough giants had been found that no one doubted that the island had once been home to a whole race of them.

In the early Twentieth Century, the Austrian paleontologist Otheniel Abel wondered if there was more to the story than mere myth . Fifty years earlier, in 1862, Hugh Falconer, one of the first great authorities on the diversity of extinct proboscideans, had presented a paper on the discovery of the remains of a dwarf elephant on the island of Malta. Falconer named it Elephas melitensis. In the years after that, other dwarfed species were found on most of the major Mediterranean islands. All of these species, except one, are believed to descended from Palaeoloxodon antiquus, the straight-tusked elephant. The exception is a dwarf mammoth that lived on Sardinia. Sicily is especially rich in these fossils, having been home to three different species of dwarfed elephants at different times. Abel thought the skeletons explained the origin of the cyclops myth.

Most land mammals share a basic skeletal structure, but proboscieans and humans have some very specific resemblances. These are mostly in the limbs. Both have long straight limbs with short ankles or wrists and five digits. Laying the disarticulated bones of a probosciean out on the ground, it's easy to form something that looks like an enormous, stocky human. Then comes the problem of the skull. Abel pointed out that the most distinguishing feature of the skull, if the tusks are missing, is a huge hole in the middle of the face. This is the nasal cavity with all of the attachments for the trunk. The eye sockets are on the sides of the skull are almost unnoticeable. This would make it very easy for an awestruck discoverer to mistake the nasal cavity for the socket of a single huge eye.

Elephas melitensis. Source.

Other differences in the skulls can be explained by the fact that giants are, by definition, monsters. Add to this the fact that probosciean skulls are not solid and bony. They are made of thin plates, honeycombed with sinuses and, when dried out, tend to fall apart at the first touch leaving nothing to be systematically examined.

Kircher raised some rather sophisticated environmental and bio-mechanical arguments against the possibility of a giant of that size having ever existed. He said it couldn't have been taller than forty feet. His illustration is meant to show how silly the claims of Boccaccio's informants were. Kircher thought the other figures on his illustration were reasonable. Starting next to Boccaccio's monster is the little, tiny figure of a normal human who barely reaches his ankle. Reaching to mid-calf is Goliath of Gath, who normal guy David smote with a stone. The figure on the far right, which Kircher calls the giant of Mauritania, was a skeleton found in Morocco according to the highly respected Roman writer Pliny [actually, it was Plutarch]. To his left was a giant found within the living memory of Kircher's elders and, artistically, the most important influence on his illustration.

When the prominent Basel physician Felix Plater was called to Lucern in 1584 to care for the ailing Colonel Ludwig Pfyffer, he expected to spend his spare time collecting rare plants on the neighboring mountains and visiting with his friend Renward Cysat. He was successful on both counts. He gathered over a hundred samples of plants unknown to him and Cysat had a special treat for him: mysterious bones.

Cysat explained that, seven years earlier, a tremendous storm had buffeted the village of Reyden, a village that Plater had passed through on his way to Lucern. When the brothers of the local monastery came out to inspect the damage, they found that an ancient oak on Kommende Hill had been knocked over. Tangled among it's roots were the bones that Cysat now showed Plater.

Many of the bones were damaged and only a few fragments of the skull remained. Naturally, the workmen were blamed for mishandling them. Plater convinced the city council to let him take them back to Basel with him for study. From the long bones of the arms and legs and, especially, digits that appeared to be a thumb, Plater felt confident in telling the Lucerners that they had the remains of a human giant. By his calculations, it stood fourteen strich tall (nineteen feet) in life. Since giants were not part of any local traditions, he believed that it must have lived and died during some prehistoric time before normal humans arrived in the mountains.

Plater asked Hans Bock, an artist who happened to be painting his portrait at the time, to prepare large drawings of the bones and an imaginative drawing of the giant as it must have appeared in life. In Boch's reconstruction, the heavily bearded giant stands with one hand on a dead tree, perhaps the oak, naked except for a laurel and a girdle of oak leaves. The beard and garb of leaves make him look like the Green Man and probably indicate his primitive state. Despite Plater's conclusion that the giant and normal people had never lived together, Bock included a modern man, gaping in awe at the giant, for comparison.

The Lucerners were delighted, both with Plater's conclusions and with Bock's drawings. The bones were put on display in the city hall and the giant was made the shield-bearer of the city coat of arms. They had a version of Bock's drawing painted on a tower attached to the city hall with a poem telling the story of his discovery. That wasn't the end of the giant's fame. In the next century, Cysat and members of the city council decided to decorate the three footbridges that connected the two parts of the city across the Reuss River. They hired Hans Heinrich Wägmann, a local artist, to paint triangular panels to be hung inside the bridges attached to the roof trusses. Prominent citizens were encouraged to sponsor panels and in return, their family crests were incorporated into the paintings. Cysat bought panel number one on the Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke). For the subject, he chose Bock's giant along with a poem that he composed.

The giant of Reyden displayed on the Kapellbrücke. Source.

Kircher, or his artist, used some version Bock's drawing as the standard giant to illustrate the relative sizes of famous giants and discredit Boccaccio's giant. All six of Kircher's giants have the same posture and attire of Bock's giant. In a modern court of law, that would probably be enough to nail him for plagiarism. In his day, the modern concept of plagiarism was just emerging and the first copyright laws were still a generation in the future. His use of Bock's drawing would have been considered more along the lines of an homage to the original artist than theft.

There were apparently differences among the three original versions of the giant—Bock's drawing, the tower mural, and the Kapellbrücke panel. I only have access to one, but I can make an educated guess at the source of Kitcher's version. Bock's original drawing was sent back to Platter in Basel and ended up in the library of the local Jesuit monastery. Even though Kircher was a Jesuit, he would have had to have visited the monastery to have viewed it. Kircher spend most of his productive life in Italy, rarely going far from Rome. The mural on the tower is gone. After years of neglect, the city decided it was irreparable and had it painted over in the 1860s. I haven't been able to locate any surviving drawings or photographs of it. Later, the stucco was scraped off the tower to reveal the underlying stone walls. In 1993, a fire destroyed most of the Kapellbrücke. Cysat's panel was one only thirty (of the original 158) that was saved. Like Bock's original drawing, Kircher never saw the panel or the tower, though it's possible that he may have seen sketches made by some other traveler. If he did, he didn't mention it.

Kircher's written description of the discovery gives a clue as to where he might have seen the giant. Platter published an account of the discovery in a collection of medical essays in 1614. Kircher's version bears no resemblance to this. Except for short paragraphs before and after, the majority of his account is a long quote of a legal affidavit filed by Cysat in Lucerne. We don't have to look far to discover where found the affidavit.

In 1661, three years before that volume of Mundus Subterraneus appeared, a small book written in German by Cysat's son appeared in Lucern. The book was a history of the city and the surrounding countryside. In the context of describing the towers and bridges of the city, the younger Cysat tells the story of the giant of Reyden. At the center of his narrative is his father's affidavit. He also included the poem from the tower along with a drawing of the giant.

Young Cysat's illustration. Source.

When Platter examined the Reyden bones, the idea of historically real giants was just beginning to be challenged. Because giants are unambiguously mentioned in the Bible, these challenges were in the form of arguments that the Bible used the word giant in an allegorical sense; the giants of the Old Testament were great in their capacity for evil, not in their actual stature. This position did not automatically kill the giants. Writing almost ninety years after the discovery of the Reyden giant, the most Kircher would say was that real giants weren't mush bigger than twenty feet tall. In the early 1700s, the French academy published a flurry of papers arguing both sides of the giant question. As late as 1764, the influential doctor Claude-Nicolas LeCat could receive a polite hearing before the academy while arguing for the historical reality of giants.

What finally did the giants in was the development of the sciences of comparative anatomy and paleontology. When Cysat showed Platter the bones, he had very little to compare them with. He knew whales and elephants were very large animals, but no accurate anatomical information was available to him, not even good drawings. It was only after his death that showmen were able to acquire elephants from India and show them in towns and villages in Europe. The first anatomical studies were in the 1780s, well after Kircher was dead. Paleontology, building on comparative anatomy, took another hundred years to develop.

In 1783, the young naturalist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach traveled through Switzerland. He knew the story of the giant of Reyden and wanted to see what the truth was. In Lucerne, he found that Platter had returned the bones to Cysat who put them back in their place of honor in the Council Hall. By then, only three fragments survived. After an examination, he felt confident identifying them as the bones of an elephant. His confidence was as strong as Platter's and more accurate. Thirteen years later, he was one of the first to decide that the mammoth and mastodon were distinct species, different from the known species of elephants (he was also one of the first to assert that Asian and African elephants were different species).

The last of the Reyden giant. Source

By 2013, only one fragment remained in Lucerne. It now resided in the Lucerne Natural History Museum instead of the Council Hall. That February, the keeper of the museum website and Adelheid Aregger, a journalist with an interest in cultural matters, got into a conversation about the bones. Looking over Blumenbach's account of his visit they realized that he had taken pieces with him when he left. Aregger and her husband continued to look into the story. The Blumenbach collection at Göttingen included quite a few bones. Using isotope analysis, they were able to identify two pieces of mammoth thigh that had come from the same soil as the as the remaining piece in Lucerne. Kircher got blacklight posters and the Lucerne bones didn't. But they're still pretty cool.


  1. Is Lucerne the same location of the Hadron Collider? If so. is there any connection between them? Portal to bring back the giants?

  2. Yep, same place. I hadn't thought of the time travel angle. It would explain a lot.

  3. What if all the bones found were not just from Mammoth?
    As I see that he likes the old books, read this in Spanish -although I have translated the piece that I refer to as best I could, it is at the bottom of the page, because my language is not English- of another Spanish Jesuit named Juan de Velasco, tired of the Scientists of the time attributed the enormous bones found to prehistoric animals wrote that appears in his book "Historia del reino de Quito en la América meridional".

    Perhaps the Mammoths build sepulchres? The title of his next book xD

    Another story is found in "The history and antiquities of Allerdale Ward", with a giant skeleton in complete armour, sword and battle-axe.

    Opening the PDF with Adobe Acrobat Reader in thumbnails, page 330.

    A greeting