There are many places in Ireland said to be the domain of giants, as well as ancient monuments believed to have been built by them. Often, people make the assumption that a giant in this context means a physically huge person. However, you may be surprised to learn that, originally, the description 'giant' could describe any supernatural being, from a fairy to a spirit, and even a revenant returned from the dead.
Writing in his work, Demons and Spirits of the Land, Professor Claude Lecouteux explains how this transformation and distortion occurred. The first and most important point he makes is that medieval Christian writers rejected the spirits of the land as demons. This included the localised animist beliefs, as well as the wider-known deities. Lecouteux writes, "The clerical interpretation of pagan beliefs and their demonization have, until now, formed an obstacle to the understanding of scriptural accounts, as well as their interpretation."
This has obviously been the case when it comes to how fairies in Ireland have been Christianised and given a later origin of having been ejected from heaven. What is most important, as well as mysterious, is how, when we push past the Christian distortion of the spirit realm, we find, as the French anthropologist, Gilbert Durand, showed, a vast, unexplainable link between all of the Proto-Indo-European accounts of supernatural beings. With all of the folk interpretations, cultural changes, and belief systems on top of them, though, it is easy to see why the nature and identity of the fair folk has changed over time. Perhaps, as some have argued, fairies don't mind this, as it prevents us humans from truly understanding their motivations and purpose.
Haroldstown Dolmen is one particular ancient monument said to have been built by a giant. The cap-stone is said to bear the drawn-down finger marks of the giants hand. Dolmens are also sometimes known as giant's tombs in European folklore. Descriptions in Germanic and Danish lore speak of giants beds and even "chambers of the giants" but, as I have mentioned, this does not necessarily refer to physically huge beings, and may instead record a place linked to supernatural creatures and beings of many types.
Returning to Lecouteux again, "These individuals are more than oversized humans and possess supernatural powers like being able to move instantaneously over great distances and to become invisible at will." Sound familiar?
Later religious interpretation classified these beings such as the djinn and watchers, and the animistic and mystical geography of the land all became subject to the prevailing beliefs and traditions. The "sinfulness" of fairies can be compared to the banishment of "giants". As Lecouteux notes, this is really the "sin" of pride, and these magical folk had to be put in their place for their indiscretions.
The other factor we need to understand is how the written word almost vanquished the oral tradition. It's painful to listen to someone tell us how monks saved us Irish from ourselves and how we wouldn't have folklore or mythology without them. As has been mentioned many times, lots of indigenous peoples have kept their histories and cultural stories intact for thousands of years and it is really the shadow of colonialism, in my own view, which argues otherwise. For Europe and Ireland, the spirits of the land were renamed and re-categorised. Latin names of Roman spirits, initially. Then, alas, in many cases only the characteristics of the spirit were retained, and as Lecouteux describes, even then it was usually only the shared traits which were kept.
There was a type of dismissal in this practice: a relegation of the pagan world which was kept alive only by local knowledge of place by those who lived in the specific area. This tactic was adopted, initially, by Pope Gregory in 600 AD, "...the temples of the idols in those nations ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God."
Latin and Roman terminology, then, attempted to bury the ancient beings and beliefs. Indigenous names and sites were stripped, both in figurative and physical terms. Populations lost contact with the traditional fair folk their ancestors had been brought up alongside. All of the different categories of supernatural being were placed within a context of reduced terminology in order to reduce their power and influence.
This deliberate assimilation and obfuscation can also be seen in the Icelandic and Northern European description of elves where land spirits and elves and dwarves were merged. As Lecouteux notes here, it is often forgotten that these beings were not only considered helpful at times, but they were worshipped! Like Irish fairies, the church demonized elves and connected them to Satan. This then led to a similar fate for giants and the helpful dead of wild places. This in turn gave us the common misconception of Trolls also being evil and devilish in nature.
All across Ireland we see these places associated with giants, fairies and demons. The terminology today seems to denote the physical characteristics of the location and whether it is a place of healing, or a cursed site, beleft alone. This is a shame, as, most likely, the resulting cultural interaction is based upon a mistranslation and deliberate attempt to bury an ancient ancestral and 'fairy' relationship.
I suppose, in concluding, I am left with the question of how this has impacted upon our perception of fairies based upon the written accounts. Do I really believe the distortion stopped with the medievalists? No, not at all. It is easy to see this all the way up to the first attempts to curate Irish animist spirituality, in my own view. The astounding and hopeful factor, though, is that we still can connect to the authentic numinous by physically interacting with the wild, and the places of these spirit forms.
Also, the local stories and encounters have themselves changed form, or, maybe, reverted to something closer to the original, with individual characteristics and requests by these beings often reported by contemporary visitors and accidental tourists to the realm of the Other. In this sense, all of the peripheral 'strangeness' must be included in our writing and our attempts to uncover these once buried spirits as they continue to emerge. (C.) David Halpin. Photo: Haroldstown Dolmen, Co. Carlow.