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Go Tell It On The Mountain

Mythical tales of giants are rooted in geological realities.

Giant’s Causeway, Antrim. According to the Fenian Cycle, Fionn mac Cumhaill, an Irish giant, was challenged to a fight by his Scottish rival Benandonner. Accepting the challenge, he built the causeway so that they could meet.A fo ben, bid bont (‘let he who leads bear the load’) is a Welsh proverb rumoured to recall the giant Brân, often Bendigeidfrân (Brân/Frân the Blessed), who was so tall that he once stretched himself between the banks of a river so that his troops might cross. In earlier stories, Brân, who no normal house could contain, is portrayed as a wise king whose severed head continued to counsel his people after his death. The best-known stories of Brân appear in the Mabinogion, written in the 12th century and based on long-standing oral traditions. Brân’s stature allowed him to stride across the Irish Sea to rescue his hapless sister from a failed marriage. In the Mabinogion he is said to have been able to traverse deep parts ‘by wading’; clearly he must have been gigantic.

Land bridges

Fanciful? Apocryphal? Maybe, though maybe not. There were people in Ireland at least 12,500 years ago and they almost certainly walked there, unaware they were doing anything memorable, across a now submerged land bridge. At this time, when so much sea water was still locked up inside continental ice sheets, the surface of what we now call the Irish Sea was around 40 metres lower than it is today, enough to expose a broad chunk of sea floor across which people and their prey (red deer, giant deer, even reindeer) wandered. Then, as land ice continued to melt, the ocean surface rose, drowning coastal lands in most parts of the world, progressively reducing the width and continuity of land bridges, such as those that connected Ireland with Cornwall and Wales. The last journeys would have been memorable, becoming enshrined in popular stories as the ocean overwhelmed the land bridge, which later generations would never see – just a great sea separating two lands. The story of Brân may well have its roots in such a scenario.

On evenings around the hearths, older folk would insist that people had once walked across places now covered by the sea, to sceptical younger listeners, increasingly intolerant of such apparently obvious fictions. Sensing this, the storytellers made their tales believable by claiming that those who had walked across the ocean were giants – so large that the water barely rose above their knees, even in the deepest places.

Immortalised in these stories, those who had made the last journeys across the gap became giants in the imagination, although they had been nothing of the kind. Just as their size was massively inflated, so were many of their achievements, their legacy, even their humanity. Today, giants are all-pervasive, in children’s stories as well as in culture-defining folk tales, such as those concerning Brân the Blessed. Yet, in the same account from the Mabinogion, it is stated that Brân crossed the Irish Sea when it was ‘not so wide’ and that he was accompanied by a multitude of Welsh soldiers; clearly he was no Brobdingnagian, able to squash his opponents effortlessly.

Assuming such a scenario to be plausible, new research allows us to estimate the time when Brân lived, which, by extension, represents the length of time that the story of his crossing the Irish Sea on foot has survived. By reconstructing the configuration of land and sea that would allow a story to be true, we can estimate the shallowest ocean level in a particular place necessary for that to be the case. Then, knowing the chronology of sea-level rises since the last ice age ended, we can assign a time to that level, giving us a minimum age for the story. In the case of Brân, the last time that the Ice Age land bridge between Wales and Ireland might have been passable was perhaps 9,600 years ago; the minimum age for the story. There is no need for giants, except to make memories more credible.

Three hundred generations

When European explorers first encountered the Klamath Indians of Oregon in what is now the western United States, they were told a story about Crater Lake, where once a huge volcano towered over the landscape until the day it erupted, its remains collapsing into the newly emptied lava chamber beneath and forming the modern ‘crater’. Geologists date the terminal collapse of this volcano to 7,600 years ago, leaving us no option but to believe that the Klamath passed on their observations of this event orally for more than 300 generations, without its essence being lost.

Far less well-known than Crater Lake is the Kinrara volcano in Queensland, Australia, about which the local indigenous people, the Gugu Badhun, have a few stories. One recalls how the watercourses in the area were once filled with fire; another states that a witch doctor dug a deep pit and, agitating its dusty contents, created a haze across the region so thick that people could not see where they were. The latter story recalls that many people were asphyxiated. Recent geological research shows that the Kinrara volcano erupted around 7,000 years ago, pouring out lavas that filled river valleys, emitting toxic gases. But the most revolutionary ideas about the ancientness of particular stories refer to what are almost certainly memories of times when the ocean surface was much lower than today, coastlines were much further out to sea and what are today offshore islands were contiguous with larger landmasses. This is the way things were during the coldest time of the last ice age, around 20,000 years ago, when sea level was 120 metres or so lower than now. Subsequently, as temperatures rose and land ice started melting, the sea level began rising, drowning the fringes of most continents. Around Australia, home to what are widely acknowledged as the world’s oldest unbroken cultures, this phenomenal rise in sea level reached its present height – and stopped rising – about 7,000 years ago.

All around Australia, which is about the same size as Europe, there are stories from as many as 23 distinct Aboriginal groups which recall times when the sea level was lower than today. If this is correct – and there seems no other possibility – then clearly these stories must have endured for more than 7,000 years. Some may even have lasted longer, based on what appear to be people’s observations of former coastlines more than ten millennia ago. Two questions spring to mind. Why did people memorise observations of coastline change and how did they sustain those collective memories for so long?

The answer to ‘why’ is likely to lie in the importance of passing on knowledge from one generation to the next. In harsh environments such as Australia knowledge was key to survival. To ensure children stood the best chance of surviving, parents needed to make sure they learned everything they knew. Education was no luxury, but the difference between life and death. One big concern was an ability to cope with environmental risks, on which every modern society is also fixated. Coping meant knowing what had happened in the past (and how ancestors had overcome it) just in case it happened again in the future. Knowledge optimised descendants’ chances of survival. And it was conveyed through more than mere stories. It was poetry and song, dance and performance, it was rock art, it was the transposition of memories on familiar landscapes. It was a world where information was everywhere.

Answering the question ‘how’ is easier because there are many records of storytelling for knowledge transmission in pre-literate societies from almost every corner of the world. While in recent, more globalised and less isolated contexts, storytelling has morphed from being instructive to being entertaining, it was formerly the principal vehicle for the transfer of knowledge. While this may have been segmented by gender and by generation, even by the time of day, it required storytellers to have accurate and complete recall and for their audiences to be attentive and comprehending. Many such societies had a system to cross-check the latter, involving persons from one patriline interrogating, and correcting if necessary, those from others and vice versa.

European exception

In most parts of the world, the sea-level rise that began after the last ice age ended came to a halt about 6-7,000 years ago. But not in north-west Europe, where the ocean surface has been rising almost unceasingly for about 15,000 years. The difference is important when we think about ancient history. Consider that everything built along the coast (like a walled city) in the last 5,000 years or so in north-west Europe has since been submerged, whereas in other parts of the world it has not. Is it any coincidence that the only places in the world where there are stories about submerged cities are in north-west Europe (excluding such tectonically active places as the Mediterranean coast)?

Take for example the ‘lost’ cities of Cantre’r Gwaelod in Cardigan Bay, lorded over by King Gwyddno, whose drunken steward, Seithenhin, one night at high tide mistakenly opened the gates that kept the ocean at bay, causing the city to be inundated and later abandoned. Most people today would regard such stories as fictions. Yet tales recalling the existence of walled cities along the shore that were subsequently overrun by the sea seem odd choices for invention. More than that, the existence of similar stories all along the western shores of England and Wales, from Lyonesse in the south to Caer Arianrhod in Caernarvon Bay in the north and across the channel off the coasts of Normandy and Brittany, are compelling evidence – not of an absence of fictional inventiveness – but the former existence of places, once well known, that were submerged as sea level rose within the past 15,000 years.

Crude calculations based on plausible locations for some of these submerged cities and knowledge of where the ocean surface was at particular times during the last 15,000 years suggest that Cantre’r Gwaelod may have been overrun by the sea at least 9,000 years ago. Why and how such stories were kept alive, largely orally, are similar to those of Aboriginal Australians. It is no coincidence that both Australian Aboriginal cultures and the Brythonic (Celtic and Breton) cultures of north-west Europe were at the fringes of global human interactions for the last ten millennia or so, largely isolated from outside influences and therefore optimally positioned to preserve ancient stories in intelligible form.

Memory and modern science

We may have underestimated humanity. In the right circumstances, collective memories – mostly unaided by the written word – can stretch back thousands of years. Such memories recall what happened in the distant past, something that modern science has often been able to confirm. It is important to get this the right way round. Science is often hailed as having ‘discovered’ the past – the 120-metre rise in sea level after the last ice age, for example – but there were eyewitnesses of this event, some of whom consigned their observations to stories that have reached us today. These people were telling us what happened 10,000 years ago but, until now, we failed to recognise their message for what it is. Instead, we had to discover it all over again

In Fiji, in the south-west Pacific, there is a young volcano named Nabukelevu (‘the great yam mound’) at the western end of Kadavu island. The first geologists to visit there (including this writer) pottered around Nabukelevu trying to get a sense of when it might have last erupted. It appeared perhaps 50,000 years ago, so nothing to be unduly concerned about. But then the local people told a story about a god who lived on the nearby island of Ono, who was accustomed to sitting each day in the late afternoon on the beach to watch the sun set. One day, he found his view of the sunset blocked by a monstrous hill – Nabukelevu – that had suddenly appeared in the west. Furious, he flew to Nabukelevu and fought its god. After a fierce battle, the god of Nabukelevu prevailed, which is why the volcano still stands. Read uncritically, this story could easily be dismissed as legend, yet it seems likely to recall volcanic activity occurring at Nabukelevu within the period of Kadavu island’s human occupation: about 3,000 years. This theory was validated when, a decade or so ago, volcanic scoria covering soil containing pottery fragments were found in a road cut around the base of Nabukelevu. The ‘legend’ proved correct.

Pause to consider that Brân’s name means ‘the Crow’, a bird of considerable size, and that maybe this name was – like the epithet ‘the Blessed’ and his giant stature – given to him posthumously. They were a celebration of his feats, subsequently impossible in a drowned world; validating them for future generations. Yet, rather than Brân, these stories may well derive from those of one Bionn, who was no giant. But, around 10,000 years ago as the land bridge between what today we call Ireland and Wales was narrowing and yearly becoming less readily passable, Bionn crossed repeatedly, regaling all she encountered, her long black hair swirling as her words flowed through the firelights of a hundred evenings, with memorable stories of her travels, the basis of those that have reached us today.

Patrick Nunn is Professor of Geography at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia.


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