Wondrous Tribes: Patagonian Giants

A European watches a Patagonian giant swallowing an arrow to cure his stomach ache (1602)

Giants are not, properly speaking, one of the wondrous tribes of the Greek and Roman classical writers. Virtually every culture on the planet has some kind of myth about incredibly large humanoids, from eight or ten feet tall up to the size of mountains—and beyond. In Norse mythology, the entire world was created from the dismembered body of the giant Ymir.

Nor are giants alien to North and South America, continents filled with slant-eyed giants, stone-skinned giants, and every possible variation of huge, man-eating ogre. There is one particular tribe of giants, however, that I should discuss in this series on the intersection of Old World myth and legend and the exploration of the New World. These are the giants of Patagonia at the extreme southern tip of South America.

Though the bones of “giants” (actually large prehistoric animals) have been discovered throughout North and South America, Magellan’s voyage to circumnavigate the globe brings us an account of a first-hand meeting between Europeans and a tribe of giants. The story is related by Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian nobleman who accompanied Magellan on his voyage. Pigafetta relates the following story that took place as they rounded the tip of South America in 1520:

One day we suddenly saw a naked man of giant stature on the shore of the port, dancing, singing, and throwing dust on his head. The captain-general sent one of our men to the giant so that he might perform the same actions as a sign of peace. Having done that, the man led the giant to an islet where the captain-general was waiting. When the giant was in the captain-general’s and our presence he marveled greatly, and made signs with one finger raised upward, believing that we had come from the sky. He was so tall that we reached only to his waist, and he was well proportioned.

It was once assumed that the name “Patagonian” is derived from Spanish pata, meaning “leg,” “paw,” or “foot.” (We saw that same root in Patasola in my post about monopods.) If the final syllable is taken as an augmentative, then Patagonia might then be translated something like “Land of the Bigfeet.” Nowadays, however, most people think Magellan took the name from Primaleon, a popular novel of the time. In that work, there is a race of wild people called by that name. Word of Magellan’s discovery spread, and later world maps would sometimes even label this region “Land of the Giants” (regio gigantum).

What are we to make of this report? It is possible that Magellan encountered members of the Tehuelche people, who were, in fact, unusually tall—at least compared to the relatively short 16th-century Europeans. We’re talking six-footers, not ten-footers. When Sir Francis Drake visited this same region in 1628, he encountered these tall native people. Though acknowledging their impressive size, he is quick to call Magellan out for his gross exaggeration:

Magellan was not altogether deceived in naming these giants, for they generally differ from the common sort of man both in stature, bigness and strength of body, as also in the hideousness of their voices: but they are nothing so monstrous and giant-like as they were represented, there being some English men as tall as the highest we could see, but peradventure the Spaniards did not think that ever any English man would come hither to reprove them, and therefore might presume the more boldly to lie.

Ah, the joys of professional rivalry!



A Field Guide to Mythological Humanoids

In order to avoid having loads and loads of races in the Into the Wonder series, I’ve devised the following system to evaluate and categorize the entities found in various world mythologies. Mind you, this system won’t work in every fictional universe, so caveat lector!

Contrasted with a run-of-the-mill, plain vanilla human…

  • Does this humanoid display vast magical powers?
    It’s probably a fae (sídhe, elf, jinni, nunnehi, etc.)
    Is it unusually good-looking?
    Definitely a fae!
  • Is this humanoid secretive and crafty?
    It’s probably a dwarf (dvergr, dactyl, etc.).
    Does it live underground?
    Definitely a dwarf!
  • Is this humanoid unusually short?
    It’s probably one of the little people (brownie, kobold, yunwi tsunsdi, etc.).
    Does it try to play tricks on you?
    Could be a little person if the tricks aren’t too mean.
    Does it try to clean your house or do your chores?
    Definitely a little person!
  • Is this humanoid unusually tall?
    It’s probably a giant (slant-eye, stonecoat, ispolini, etc.).
    No other distinctive features like powerful magic or a taste for human flesh?
    Definitely a giant!
  • Does this humanoid want to eat you?
    It’s probably an ogre (Laestrygonian, zimwi, water cannibal, etc.).
    But it’s no bigger than an ordinary human!
    Doesn’t matter, it’s probably an ogre!
  • Does this humanoid want to scare you?
    It’s probably a bogeyman (boggart, hey-hey man, nalusa falaya, etc.).
    There’s no such thing as a bogeyman.
    Tell that to him!
  • Is this humanoid just plain weird?
    It’s probably a troll (jaettertroll, fomor, stallos, etc).
    But I thought trolls were…
    You thought wrong. Trolls are just plain weird.

The Elves of Scandinavia

Now it’s time to unpack more fully what Norse mythology can tell us about elves and related supernatural beings. Since the last Germanic culture to be Christianized was that of Scandinavia, the pagan practices of that region give us perhaps our best shot at piecing together the mythological world that gave us elves.

The “Good Guys”

The first thing to note, then, is that this culture gives us a basic vocabulary for identifying a number of different types of supernatural beings.

On the one hand are human-like beings that are generally well disposed to humans. In the Proto-Germanic language, these beings are called:

  •  Ansuz (plural, ansiwīz): “gods” or “life forces”
  • Albiz (plural, albīz): “elves”

In Old Norse, ansiwīz are called aesir (singular, áss) and albīz are called álfar (singular, álfr). There is another Old Norse word that comes into play here, and that is vanir (singular, vanr).

In Norse mythology, there are two groups or tribes of gods, the aesir and the vanir. Vanr, however, is actually a fairly rare word in Old Norse. Nor does there seem to be a clear Proto-Germanic basis for this word, although some have suggested possibilities based on an even earlier parent language, Indo-European. Most of the time, the pairing is in fact presented as ássálfr, not ássvanr.

Based on this and other linguistic evidence, Alaric Hall (Elves in Anglo-Saxon England, 27, 36) raises the possibility that vanr and álfr were originally synonyms. If this is correct, then perhaps in the Proto-Germanic period, these two tribes of gods would have been called ansiwīz and albīz.

According to Norse mythology, these two tribes went to war in the far distant past. The war ended with a truce, the exchange of hostages, and a unified pantheon.


In Old Norse, the word áss is often used of a god generally, without reference to his or her specific tribe. A female áss was an ásynja (plural, ásynjur). The most famous aesir are Odin, the king of the gods, and his son Thor, the god of thunder. Also in this group are Tyr, a war-god; Frigg, Odin’s wife; and many others.

In general, the aesir were, for lack of a better term, more “Olympian” in outlook. They valued order, masculinity, and power. With a few notable exceptions, they were closely connected with the themes of power and warfare.


My main interest, however, is with the álfar (or vanir). In contrast with the aesir, these beings were more “chthonic” or earth-centered. They were generally associated chaos, fertility, femininity, and wealth. Again with some notable exceptions, they were more closely linked with the earth’s material and sensual gifts.

The most notable vanir were Freyr, the ruler of Álfheimr (“Elf-land”); his sister Freyja, the goddess of love and fertility; and Jörð, the earth-goddess.

In pagan times, álfar were offered sacrifices called álfablót. These sacrifices were conducted in late autumn, when the harvest was in and the animals were fattest. They were local observances mainly administered by the lady of the household. Other forms of entreating álfar, such as for healing of battle-wounds, were observed at any time of year.

The “Bad Guys”

There are also numerous monstrous beings that are generally opposed to humans and their interests. There are three important Proto-Germanic terms for these beings, each with a corresponding Old Norse term:

  • Etunaz (plural, etunōz): “giants” (Old Norse, jötunn, jötnar)
  • Dwergaz (plural, dwergōz): “dwarves” (Old Norse dvergr, dvergar)
  • Thurisaz (plural, thurisōz): “ogres” (Old Norse thurs, thursar)

The Old Norse terms jötunn and thurs were often used synonymously. The “frost giants” that play an important role in the myths are, for example, technically “frost ogres” (hrimthursar). Furthermore, some jötnar are not “gigantic” at all, but human sized, and female jötnar are sometimes even described as beautiful creatures, desired as wives by both aesir and álfar.

“Giants” and “ogres” were creatures of the wild, lords of nature often possessing great magical powers. They were usually hostile toward gods, elves, and humans. But there are also times of truce between these “monsters” and the more human-like creatures. And, as I just said, some gods and elves even married female giants.

Finally, “dwarves” were crafty miners and metalsmiths, associated with both the underworld and death.

Tolkien’s Elves

The elves one encounters in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings draw heavily from Norse mythology: they are tall, beautiful, powerful, and strictly aligned alongside humans and against humanity’s monstrous foes.

It should be noted, however, that even humanity’s allies in Norse mythology are not necessarily safe to be around. Odin, the king of the gods, is a case in point. The “historical” Odin delighted in war both to feed the wolves and ravens that were his companions and to fill his hall, Valhalla, with heroes who would stand beside him at Ragnarök, the Norse “apocalypse.” He was, in fact, a ruthless and conniving wizard. The fact that the Norse placed him at the head of their pantheon should reminds us that the aesir and álfar/vanir play by their own rules, even if they are more kindly disposed to humans than, for example, the frost giants. They are good (for certain values of goodness), but they are not always safe.