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The Gigantomachy in Greek Mythology

Updated on August 24, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

War was a common theme running through many stories of Greek mythology, and of course the story of the Trojan War is one of the most famous tales from antiquity.

There were other wars told of in Ancient Greece though, including the famous Titanomachy, war of the Titans, the Amazonomachy, war with the Amazons, Centauromachy, the War of the Centaurs, and the Gigantomachy, war of the Giants.

Gathering of the Gods

Jacopo Zucchi (1541–1590) - Assembly of the Gods PD-art-100
Jacopo Zucchi (1541–1590) - Assembly of the Gods PD-art-100 | Source

The Background

Most people with some knowledge of Greek mythology will recognise Zeus as being the supreme god of the Greek pantheon. This though was not always the case, and even when in power, Zeus’ position as supreme being was not always secure.

Zeus had come to power when he had overthrown his father, Kronos, and the other Titans, during the ten year war which became known as the Titanomachy. Kronos of course, had himself overthrown his own father, Ouranus, when he had castrated the sky god with an adamantine sickle.

During his rule from Mount Olympus, Zeus was also subject to periods of unrest. Dissent came from amongst the other Olympian gods, but also from outside, and Echidna and Typhoeus, had come close to overthrowing Zeus. Another attempt to overthrow Zeus was undertaken by the Gigantes, the Giants.

The Gigantes

The Gigantes were the 100 sons of Gaia, born to mother earth, when the blood of the castrated Ouranus fell onto her. Generally speaking the Gigantes were said to be born in human form, although ancient sources give differing descriptions.

In some sources the Gigantes are not necessarily gigantic, but were simply a race of man with enormous strength. In others they were true giants, often depicted with a thousand hands, and some would even tell of serpentine feet. A few of the giants were also said to be lion headed, rather than featuring the normal human head.

After their birth, the Gigantes were said to reside on the Pellene (or Phlegrae) the westernmost fingers of the Chalcidice peninsula.

Gaia gets Involved

From birth the Gigantes were troublesome, and it is often stated that they were allies to their half-singlings, the Titans, during the Titanomachy.

After the war, one of the Gigantes, Alyconeus, a noted herdsman, stole some cattle that belonged to Helios, the Greek sun god.

Gaia though was intent on stirring up trouble. The goddess had been instrumental in stirring up the Titans to overthrow Ouranus, and also had assisted in Zeus’ plan to overthrow Kronos. In both cases one reason for Gaia’s actions, was because of the imprisonment of her offspring, the Cyclopes and Hecatonchires, deep within her.

With the rise of Zeus, the Hecatonchires and Cyclopes had been released, but they in turn had been replaced by many of the male Titans, Gaia’s sons and grandsons. Gaia now sought a way for the Titans to be released, and so called for the Gigantes to take up arms against the gods of Mount Olympus.

The Gigantomachy

Gigantomachy. Engraving by Virgil Solis for Ovid's Metamorphoses Book I, 151-161. Fol. 4r, image 6. PD-art-100
Gigantomachy. Engraving by Virgil Solis for Ovid's Metamorphoses Book I, 151-161. Fol. 4r, image 6. PD-art-100 | Source


The war commenced with the 100 Gigantes facing off against the Twelve Olympians, with the Olympians only allies initially being the Moirai, the three Fates.

Zeus also had another problem, as an oracle had foretold that the immortal gods of Mount Olympus could not win the war unless they were aided in the fight by a mortal. So Athena was dispatched by Zeus to seek out Heracles; Heracles was the greatest warrior of his day, and was of course also the son of Zeus.

The Battles

The war between the Olympians and the Gigantes was said to be fierce but also an even contest; and notably Hephaestus came closest to death, before he was rescued by Helios. There were though many individual battles that took place, and with Heracles involved in the fighting it was almost inevitable that the gods of Mount Olympus would win.

-Alcyoneus and Heracles

The most famous battle to take place during the Gigantomachy was the fight between the strongest of the Gigantes, Alcyoneus, and Heracles, with the battle taking place on the Pallene peninsula.

Heracles let loose his arrows dipped in the deadly blood of the Lernaean Hydra, but whilst the giant fell to earth, the moment Alcyoneus touched the ground he was revived. It was then that Heracles discovered that Alcyoneus could not be killed as long as he remained upon the Pallene.

Heracles’ solution was simply to drag the giant off of the peninsula, and then it was a far simpler job for Heracles to kill the Gigante.

-Porphyrion, Zeus and Heracles

Heracles also had to fight the second strongest of the Gigantes, Porphyrion. In this battle Heracles was aided by his father, and Zeus distracted Porphyrion by having the Gigante lust after Hera. When the giant was distracted, Zeus unleashed his lightning bolts, and Heracles let fly his arrows, the combination of weaponry killing the Gigante.

-The Gigantes, Aphrodite and Heracles

Heracles was aided in many of his battles by Aphrodite. The Greek goddess of beauty would lure the Gigantes to their deaths. Aphrodite did this by enticing individual Gigantes to come ravish her, and when they did, Heracles would lay in wait ready to kill them. This was how Leon, one of the lion-headed Gigantes, was said to have met his death.

-The Gigantes and the Olympians

Heracles was not the only one to kill Gigantes though, and many of the Olympians would fight directly with the giants.

Poseidon was said to have crushed Polybotes beneath Nisyros, when the god of the sea threw the volcanic island on top of the Gigantes. Similarly Enceladus was killed when Athena threw Sicily onto him. Athena was also said to have killed the Gigante Pallas.

Other Olympians used their own sets of weapons and skills to kill off the Gigantes, with Artemis using her arrows to kill Gration, Hermes using his sword on Hippolytus, Zeus of course used his lightning bolts and Hephaestus using molten metal to slay Mimas.

It was another demi-god and son of Zeus who was said to have killed the most number of Gigantes after Heracles, with Dionysus killing Aplus and Eurythus amongst others.

-The Gigantes and the Moirai

The Fates were also said to have taken direct action during the Gigantomachy, and the likes of Thoas and Agrius were killed at the hands of the three sisters; the Moirai making use of bronze clubs to kill their opponents.

Heracles and Antaeus

Gregorio De Ferrari (1647–1726) PD-art-100
Gregorio De Ferrari (1647–1726) PD-art-100 | Source

The Aloadae

Gustave Doré - Dante Alighieri - Inferno
Gustave Doré - Dante Alighieri - Inferno | Source

Additional Battles

In later stories, particularly those from the Roman period, the story of the Aloadae was included in the Gigantomachy. The Aloadae were twin giants, Ephialtes and Otus, who sought to threaten the heavens by piling the Ossa, Pelion and Thessaly mountain ranges on top of each other. Their attempt though was ended when the brothers killed each other with their own arrows as they shot at a deer, which was of course Artemis in disguise.

The Aloadae though were thought of as the children of Poseidon rather than Gaia, and so the attempt of the twin brothers is generally thought to be a separate challenge to the reign of Zeus rather than being part of the Gigantomachy.

Poseidon was also thought of as the father of Albion, a giant who built up a nation on an island to the far west of the known world. This island would be named after Albion, and his descendents would live there until Brutus of Troy arrived, and the island was renamed Britain. Albion himself was said to have been killed during the Gigantomachy by Heracles.

Intrigue and Aftermath

Many writers proclaimed that the Gigantomachy was the end of all giants, but there were also writers who told of surviving giants. Indeed, the giants that were descended from Albion were thought to live on (although the story of Albion is thought of as being a later mythology, rather than Greco-Roman). In Greek mythology though, there was a survivor, and Arestaeus, was hidden away on Mount Etna by his mother Gaia, with mother earth transforming him into a dung beetle to keep him hidden.

The Gigantomachy was not just a simple war though, and there was much intrigue going on, at least on the behalf of Hera. Hera saw the fight with the giants as a way in which Dionysus might be killed. Dionysus was hated by Hera in much the same way that Heracles was; both being sons of Zeus. Various giants were cajoled into fighting with Dionysus, although of course the god was ultimately successful in each case.

The war of course also did little to soothe the anger of Gaia towards Zeus and the other Olympian gods, as some of her offspring remained imprisoned, whilst many more had now been killed.

One person who benefited from the Gigantomachy though, was Heracles, as the demi-god was greatly honoured, gained much in the form of war spoils, and most importantly for his actions would become one of the gods of Mount Olympus upon his death.


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