Of the Great Giants
According to British medieval legend and myth, the island now known as Britain was once named Albion after an exiled queen named Albina. She was the eldest of a family of sisters who had been exiled from their homeland in Greece, though some versions of the story say Syria. How this came to be is an outlandish and in many ways disturbing story, found in the 14th century poem, Des Grantz Geanz (“Of the Great Giants”) which was popular in its time and probably best read as an allegorical work. British traditions of the Middle Ages were heavily influenced by the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth in his book Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) written about 1136 that tells that when Brutus of Troy arrived on the island that been revealed to him in the Prophecy of Diana, he found it was just as she had described, being a green and fertile land populated by only a few giants. Brutus and his Trojans fought the giants until at last the biggest and strongest of them was left the only one left alive. His name was Gogmagog and Brutus had deliberately saved him to fight his own champion Corineus who thrilled at such challenges.
Geoffrey of Monmouth never said where the giants had come from or why the island was called Albion. This perplexed medieval scholars and a story evolved that attempted to explain this discrepancy. According to medieval tradition, before the fight began Brutus was said to have asked Gogmagog who he was and of the origin of his people. Gogmagog was said to have given the Trojan a fantastic tale revealing the origin of the giants and how the island had been named, “Albion”. Presented next is a retelling of the story Gogmagog allegedly told Brutus and has been sourced from several medieval and Anglo-Norman accounts and more recent works.
Albina and her Sisters
According to Gogmagog the story of the origin of the giants of Albion began 3,970 years after the world began. In a country now called Greece there ruled a very powerful king. This king was very noble and very righteous and the head of a strict patriarchal state and society. His queen was a very beautiful woman and they had a very happy marriage and were blessed with thirty beautiful daughters who were said to be very tall in some accounts. The giant confessed he did not know all their names but knew the eldest, tallest and most influential of these was named Albina.
He told Brutus, that in accordance with the custom of the time and of their society the king decided that their daughters had come of sufficient age to marry. He then decided without consulting his daughters which daughter would marry which of the many kings, princes and rulers that would be a good political match for his realm. All thirty of the daughters were then married to their allotted husbands with much ceremony and fanfare.
However, his daughters were said to be very proud and strong-willed women who wanted their own wellbeing and desires met. They were fiercely independent and hated the idea of being married to men who were not of their own choosing and did not love. To them it was an indignity and an insult to have to be subjugated in any way to any man regardless of how rich and powerful he was or whatever benefits it might bring for their father’s kingdom.
A Murderous Plot
They vowed they would be no man’s possession and instead would be the rulers of all men regardless of their status. To further these vows they plotted together in secret and hatched a most extreme plan. At the same time and on the same night they would murder their husbands as they lay in bed next to them asleep and unaware.
Gogmagog told Brutus that the plan was agreed by all except for the very youngest who loved her husband, but out of fear kept her opposition secret. She did not want him hurt but she was terrified of her sisters especially Albina, believing that if she did not take part in the plan or betrayed it to anyone they would kill her. Nevertheless, she could not bring herself to hurt the man she loved. She said nothing about her feelings to her sisters but fell into a black depression not knowing what to do. The company of sisters having made their plan and with the date and time agreed vowed to carry it out and returned to their husbands.
When the youngest sister returned to her husband she became ill with worry and fear. She became so upset that her husband, who loved her as much as she loved him, asked her why she appeared so distressed and asked directly if it was something he had done, or not done, that had so upset her. She broke down in his arms and told him all about the murderous plan. In tears she confessed that she was meant to kill him but could not because she loved him so much.
She revealed how her sisters had all sworn to carry out the plan in secret and had made her swear the same and told him how terrified she was of them. Her husband loved her dearly and he knew she loved him and would never do anything to hurt him. He told her not to say a word to anyone and he would deal with it himself. The very next day he took her to see her father and told her to tell him what she had told him.
Tearfully, she told her father everything confessing all the horrific details of the plot. Her father was shocked and ashamed that his daughters could think of such a thing and he was very, very, angry. Once he understood the full evil of it he summoned his other daughters and their husbands to him immediately. He then revealed the plot to the shock and horror of their husbands and the anger and dismay of his other daughters.
Naturally, their husbands could not believe their wives could have hatched such a murderous plan. Their wives were now afraid of what their father and their husbands would do next, but had no feelings of guilt, only dismay that their plot had been discovered. However, because of their pride they did not fully see the consequences their plan would bring. Their biggest fear was that they would lose their lavish privileges but they were to lose much more than that.
The Real Danger of the Plot
To make sure he knew exactly what they planned and that they knew his own opinion of the matter their father interviewed them separately. He told them their behaviour was unacceptable and subverted the very fabric of the state and the society of his realm. He left them in no doubt that he thought they had brought shame on him and shame on themselves. None of his daughters showed any remorse or shame and it seemed to him they attempted to find spurious reasons for their behaviour in a vain attempt to defend and justify it.
He saw them as a danger to his realm and a threat to the long established patriarchal society and family that was the bedrock of his state and would have condemned them to death. However, as head of that state and society he saw himself as a man of justice and law and he summoned his judges and a date was set to put them on trial. He exonerated his youngest daughter and sent her back to live happily with her husband.
The day of the trial came and the twenty-nine women were brought before the judges who heard their case impassively and fairly as the laws of their society required. When all evidence had been given they came to the judgement that the twenty-nine should be sent into exile without reprieve. For this purpose a ship was made ready and the women forced on board. They wailed and cried out for mercy but none was given. The ship was not provided with food or water or any piece of equipment or article that would have helped them or given them comfort. There was neither mast, sails or oars to drive the ship, or rudder to steer it. The ship was towed out into the sea with the women on board to be taken by the wind and the water currents to wherever fate decreed.
So it was that these twenty nine women who could have been great queens instead found themselves cast adrift in the vastness of the sea with no food or water, powerless, helpless and bereft of all society but their own. All they could do was put themselves in the hands of the gods and accept whatever fate would bring them.
Their thirst and hunger grew with each day and the seas began to churn. Waves rocked the boat lapping over the sides as the wind drove it further and further from their homeland. The women soon fell sick and lay in the bottom of the ship wailing and groaning. All the time they were in fear that the ship would be overcome by the waves as a terrible storm caught them and bore them with amazing speed many, many miles across the sea.
Carried by the wings of the storm the ship at last ran aground upon an unknown shore that had no name. The sisters though shocked and emaciated by hunger and thirst were unhurt and debated what should be done. At last Albina as the senior stepped off the ship and became the first human to set foot on the land and claimed it for herself. Tentatively the other sisters followed her lead for they really had little choice as they were famished and near to death. On the shore they quickly found cool, clear spring water in abundance and wild fruits, nuts and plants that satisfied their hunger, but the sisters yearned for meat.
The Island of Albion
The sisters at this time did not know the land was uninhabited by humans. They assumed because of its fertility and the abundance of fruit, nuts and plants that there must be humans somewhere that ruled over it. Roaming inland they found no other people and rightly believed themselves to be the only humans, but their arrival and presence had been observed. No matter where they roamed they found no sign of human habitation which surprised them greatly. They explored the woods and valleys and climbed the hills and mountains but no trace could they find of other humans. From what they saw they believed the land could have supported many great civilisations but none could they find. Nevertheless, although they could see no sign of human life they were being secretly watched.
There came a time when Albina called her sisters to her and told them that despite the abundance of the land they had found no other humans. She told them how lucky they were that the storm had brought their ship to this land where at least they could live out their days without starving. She reminded them that they could never return to their homeland and that she proposed they face their destiny and make this land their own. Then she proposed that as the eldest and the first of them to set foot on the land that it be named Albion after herself and that she should be their leader and their chief. She then asked if any of them had objections to this. No objections were brought and she was accepted as their leader and chief among them and the land was named Albion.
The Women of Albion
So they reconciled themselves to their new homeland and fate. They ate the fruits, the nuts and the plants and drank from the cool clear spring waters that abounded. With the passing of time they discovered the best ways to harvest the good store of the land and they learnt the seasons that were best for different purposes. Although they did not go hungry they began to see the movement of the birds, animals and fish that were most plentiful throughout the land and they began to yearn for the taste of meat.
When they had been queens they had gone hunting as was the custom and had gained considerable knowledge and skill in the chase.
In their homeland they had servants, dogs, hawks and horses and they had weapons to kill with. In Albion they had none of these things and to begin with were at a loss as to what to do. As the lust for meat grew stronger with each passing day, being intelligent and resourceful women, they began to make their own weapons from what was available. They discovered how to shape flints into knives and arrowheads and invented traps to catch the unwary beasts and soon they were feeding on the blood and meat of the creatures of Albion.
They used their flint knives to dress and slice meat and cut the skin from their victims using the hides to make clothes and other items. From the flints they learnt how to make fire and cook their meat and they drank from the clear bubbling springs of Albion. They grew strong and they could feel vitality running again through their veins and they began to experience a longing for male companions, but there were none, but they were being watched.
The Incubi of Albion
The sisters had left the world they had known and entered into a completely unknown world beyond their experience and knowledge. With no one else to help them they made the best of what they could, but they did not realize they were not alone. There were beings in Albion they knew nothing of and had no understanding of. These beings were called incubi and were not human but were spirits of darkness. They sensed the feelings of the sisters and fed off their passions and emotions drawing strength from them and grew strong, enjoying their torment and always seeking to increase it. Invisible to the women they waited patiently biding their time but always watching.
When the women were asleep at night they would visit them. They appeared as the handsome men in their dreams, but these were no men they were spirits of the darkness and allied to Satan. They came to them in the night and lay with them. Each one of the sisters had their own demon lover but they were only aware of them in their dreams and in their feelings. In this way the sisters spawned a race of male giants who were the demon seed of the incubi. The giants spread and dominated Albion for long ages before the arrival of Brutus and the Trojans. Gogmagog told Brutus he was now the last of this race of giants that were the children and descendants of Albina and her sisters.
The Giants of Albion
He told Brutus that his people made the caves and holes in the wild places of the island their homes and built the great buildings seen ravaged by the wind and rain of countless centuries. He told him that some of his people took to the mountains thinking they may find security and they prospered and multiplied and were the lords of Albion and had no peers and no rivals. Their pride and arrogance grew and they wished to dominate all living things and the earth itself, for they were strong and powerful and nothing could withstand them in those days. Then he said in sadness, to their shame and ruin they could not agree between themselves and factions formed among them and they fought against one another.
Murder prevailed and the island of Britain ran red with giant’s blood and still they fought among themselves until only twenty-four giants remained. Gogmagog then told Brutus that with his arrival with his Trojans followers they could not match the weapons used against them and had no answer to their numbers. He reflected that with all of his kind dead he had been captured and given the choice of being killed there and then, or face Corineus in single combat to the death and he chose the latter.
He then informed Brutus that what he had just told him was the origin of the giants of Albion and how the island had been named and with the story of Albina and her sisters revealed all of his questions had been answered. Then he urged him to let the fight with Corineus begin, having no doubt that he would be killed whoever won and ended his narrative.
Brutus renamed the island Britain after himself and with no giants left on the island the Trojans flourished and multiplied and built a proud civilisation based upon their values. Their descendants ruled for many centuries but like the giants with their success they grew in pride and strength. Then came bitter infighting and bloodshed and they were severely weakened. From over the seas came successive waves of enemies who would eventually succeed in taking the rule of the island from them as the Trojans had taken it from the giants.
Is there Relevance Today?
Was the story of Albina and her sisters just a curious story invented to tell how an uninhabited island was named and became populated by giants or is there more to it than there seems? The real meaning may be found within in the mind of each reader through their own experience of the world living in their own time and comparing the world of Albina and her sisters, Gogmagog and Brutus with that of their own. Can a legend or myth from medieval society have any relevance in modern society or is it just another curious story?
To read all the articles in this series, visit the British Legends Series page or select from the list below:
- British Legends: The Founding of Britain: Brutus of Troy and the Prophecy of Diana
- British Legends: The Mabinogion – The Dream of Macsen Wledig
- British Legends: Gogmagog and the Giants of Albion
- British Legends: Treachery, Murder, Lust and Rowena: The Rule of Vortigern
- British Legends: The Origin of Albion and the Bloodlust of Albina and Her Sisters
Recommended Books from #FolkloreThursday
Sources & Further Reading
Fouke le Fitz Waryn: Introduction | Robbins Library Digital Projects
Fouke le Fitz Waryn | Robbins Library Digital Projects
Hardyng’s Chronicle, Book 1 | Robbins Library Digital Projects
Hardyng’s Chronicle, Book 2 | Robbins Library Digital Projects
In the Middle: Albina Myth: Standard Reading
Giants and Enemies of God revised | Lynn Forest-Hill – Academia.edu
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