County Antrim, Northern Ireland - Giant's Causeway; New England - Connecticut River
It has often been believed that great bodies of water house fantastic creatures of all kinds. Nowadays, we often see myths of serpentine creatures hiding below the surface of which we are uninformed, but through the study of different cultures of different times we can trace how we’ve used fantasy to fill in gaps in knowledge. The photograph is of Giant’s Causeway, a span of basalt columns located in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. It resulted from an old volcanic eruption, but the Gaelic legend has it that Scottish giant Bennandonner challenged Irish giant Fionn to a duel, and so Fionn built the causeway for their meeting. Fionn defeated Benandonner by pretending to be an infant of the real Fionn. When Benandonner saw this and imagined the colossal size of the real Fionn, he fled back to Scotland and destroyed the bridge behind him so he wouldn’t be followed. More of the hexagonal basalts can be seen on the Scottish isle of Scaffa, which likely led to the existence of such a story. With legends such as this from the medieval North, we can draw parallels to modern day New England’s own brand of fantasy and how it, too, has a way of seeping into reality.
The Connecticut River is practically an exhibit for local undersea legends here in New England, home to monsters such as the Glowing Thing of Moore Lake and the 200 foot long Big Conn. The Big Conn, or “Connie” as locals call it, is rumored to have more of its kind residing in the Hog River in a concrete tunnel below Hartford, Connecticut. The possibility of such colossal sea creature has terrified and intrigued residents who have braved the dark tunnel since the 1800s.
The Viking poet Egil Skalligrimsson, depicted in Egil’s Saga, product of a family line of werewolves and trolls, represents a culture that instead of fearing legends, chose to integrate them into Icelandic society through stories. Medieval Icelanders saw the world differently than we do today. Where we tend to see bodies of water as masses of scary, unbreathable spaces, to Icelanders sea travel was the basis of society, ships being their vehicles. Egil, his father Skalligrim, the bony-faced berserk, and grandfather Kveldulf, a werewolf, who “was still only a youth when he became a Viking and went raiding,” all lived lives pirating and traveling by ship. When they weren’t at sea, they were at home on the coast until their next voyage to Norway or Ireland. The waters in which they traversed were as familiar to them as local roads are to us, and so Skalligrim founded Borg by the shoreline in Iceland for ease of travel, just as Fionn created the rocky bridge in the Irish sea. We can argue that the legend of Connie, although not having founded her home, still dominates the waters she inhabits for her sheer size. So when we think of fantastic beasts now, we may picture images of giant, terrifying snakes swimming beneath the brine, but Iceland’s medieval legends were only terrifying if you threatened their home.
The lives of giants are certainly eccentric ones of adventure and valor, anchored only by the ocean’s reach. It is when two giants of different lands clash that land becomes a valid medium. Giant’s Causeway is a hybrid of the societal giants of Egil’s Saga and the local sightings of Connie. Fionn and Bellandonner are giants living in the same world as humanity like Egil’s family, different to Connie who dwells beneath unknown waters. Medieval Icelandic tales depict giants realistically to capture the strength of their country in living beings, but Giant’s Causeway proves that these large beings of fiction compel us to question the physical world.
Giant creatures have long been in our imagination. Where once they stood as a symbol of strength, thought to have shaped the world with their titanic power over the seas, they are now often believed to swim beneath it. Humanity has grown to understand more about the dry land on which we live, but we realize that much of our water is still unexplored. This mysterious space below us has fueled the belief of modern sea monsters, but nothing like the patriotic hulks that would once walk over them. And so the legends of colossi inevitably sank below the causeways.
Ibarra, Eileen S. “The Comic Character of Fin M'Coul, the Hibernian Hercules, in Carleton's 'A Legend of Knockmany'.” Folklore, vol. 82, no. 3, 1971, pp. 212–215. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/1258403.
Kennedy, Alasdair. “In Search of the 'True Prospect': Making and Knowing the Giant's Causeway as a Field Site in the Seventeenth Century.” The British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 41, no. 1, 2008, pp. 19–41. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/30160859.
“The Big Conn: Monster or Myth.” Connecticut River Conservancy, www.ctriver.org/the-big-conn-monster-or-myth/.
Julia Thomas, Student, Fitchburg State University
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Description by: Samantha Beauchamp, Student, Fitchburg State University