Sixth-Century silver plate of Hercules

The Rocks, Stained Red with Blood: A Son of Hercules Slew Giants at Salcombe, Devon?

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This was not the true etymology of Salcombe, but Geoffrey had a lively imagination in this respect and may have decided that it was. It leaves us with the possibility that, if we set place names aside altogether, Salcombe’s bloody cliffs were being explained, before Geoffrey’s time, by the story of a battle leading to the bloody downfall of a giant.

A signboard below the Tower of Hercules in La Coruña, on the north-west coast of Spain, shows the Greek hero Hercules battling the giant Geryon there, as told in local legend. This story may lie at the root of Devonshire’s tales of Corineus fighting Goëmagot, and it seems plausible that Corineus was originally imagined as Hercules’s son. (Via author)

A signboard below the Tower of Hercules in La Coruña, on the north-west coast of Spain, shows the Greek hero Hercules battling the giant Geryon there, as told in local legend. This story may lie at the root of Devonshire’s tales of Corineus fighting Goëmagot, and it seems plausible that Corineus was originally imagined as Hercules’s son. (Via author)

The Destiny of Brutus of Troy

To reach the roots of Geoffrey’s giant story, it is necessary to understand the origins of Geoffrey’s overall narrative of Brutus and Corineus. Brutus of Troy’s destiny was to populate Britain, for the first time, with his followers, who were descendants of survivors of the fall of Troy. If there was to be any drama to their arrival, they needed to face some opposition. This could hardly be human opposition, as Britain was necessarily unpopulated, so it had to be either divine – which was unlikely, considering that it was divine will which had brought them there —or monstrous. But why, of all monsters, specifically giants?

In my book Brutus of Troy, and the quest for the ancestry of the British (Pen and Sword, 2015) I argued that Corineus’s story reads like an older, stand-alone story about a giant-killing hero, into which Geoffrey had creatively intruded Brutus, and which he had used to fill-out his story of the Trojan hero. Curiously, Dr Miles Russell’s Arthur and the Kings of Britain (Amberley, 2017), published in 2017 but already completed when my book came out, draws exactly the same conclusion (though with a very different interpretation of the implications for British mythology).

In my book, I speculated that Corineus, a Trojan whom (says Geoffrey) Brutus meets in Spain, may originally have been a (non-Trojan) hero called Corunus, who came from La Coruña on the north-west coast of Spain. He may have been fathered when – as an extant Spanish myth relates – Hercules founded that port during his visit to Spain – as related in Greek myth – to steal the giant Geryon’s cattle. If so, like his father Hercules, ‘Corunus’ was a giant-killer, and on his arrival in Britain it was only appropriate for there to be some giants there for him to kill.

A victorious Hercules stands over the body of Geryon.

A victorious Hercules stands over the body of Geryon. ( Public Domain )

A stand-alone myth of ‘Corunus’, if it existed, necessarily pre-dated 1135, and could potentially have gone back to the Roman Empire, or even to the first contact between Roman and the far-west of Europe. It may lie at the root of some of the giant stories found across the West Country, and it may have been encouraged by even older giant stories, inspired by the West Country’s rocky landscape, blood-red cliffs, and the huge bones of ancient animals found in its caves. Such real elements leaned credibility and durability to any ancient tales there may have been of West Country giants, and of giants killed by ‘Corunus’. So, from what were perhaps multiple points of origin there emerged a self-perpetuating vortex in which the landscape fostered new giant stories, and giant stories explained the West Country’s topography.

Goëmagot’s Bloody Demise

In my book (p. 85), I concluded that, Plymouth’s claims aside, ‘Goëmagot may have died anywhere along the rocky shore of southern Devon, where the iron ore in the rock still makes the sea foam red’. But Clark’s idea that Goëmagot’s bloody demise was at Salcombe struck a chord with me, reminding me of some research I undertook for my Brutus book, but did not include because it seemed too tenuous.

Medieval screen in St Winwaloe's Church, East Portlemouth. It includes a depiction of St Cornelius, perhaps a distant echo of a local tale of Corineus

Medieval screen in St Winwaloe's Church, East Portlemouth. It includes a depiction of St Cornelius, perhaps a distant echo of a local tale of Corineus (John Salmon/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Directly opposite the Kingsbridge Estuary is East Portlemouth, in whose church is a 1400s rood screen depicting twenty-six Christian luminaries, including the Breton St Winwaloe, to whom the church is dedicated, and St Cornelius. St Cornelius was an early Pope who was martyred in AD 253, but at Carnac in Brittany he appears in a wholly different guise as St Cornèly, who escaped from pursuing Roman legions by hiding in the ear of an ox, and then turned the soldiers into stone – into those very lines of Neolithic standing stones which seem to march across the fields around Carnac to this day.

Comments

Note too that this is the Jurassic Coast where the cliffs are full of dinosaur bones...

Anthony Adolph's picture

Thanks for your comment. The ‘Jurassic Coast’ is actually further  east, and southern Devon is more notable for its Ice Age remains – much later than Jurassic times but still resulting in some very large bones, which our ancestors preferred to explain in terms of giants, as opposed to giant beasts.   

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