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...

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.   

Hello Anthony, really interesting article, I will read your book.
I'm wondering if you may be able to help with odd links I've stumbled across that suggest there may have been trading links between Minoan, and tin producers, linked by common Celtic artefacts and archaeology.
Context, Thera (Santorini) erupted 1450BCE, the trade network collapsed, the Mycenaeans invaded Crete, then the sea peoples raided the ports for anything they could plunder. The minoan merchants scattered to trading ports: some went to Troy and Phoenicia, and others West following the Tin: Spain, then Brittany, and British Isles (becoming Celts).
I know this seems an odd link, but there is evidence I've found to support it. Celtic triskele (shown on Minoan pottery), hill graves are not Minoan (but the arch is) these are found all along the trading routes with an emphasis on metal producing islands (Malta, etc), to Spain and the British isles (Newgrange-interesting Minoan Archimedes spirals iconography), a grave stone in Northumbrian with castings for double axes on the inside, and Minoan DNA having British ancestry. I can’t explain this, other than there was long distance trade between critical tin producing nations to facilitate the Mediterranean appetite for bronze. The invasions of Ireland are interesting, they come in ships with advanced technology for their day. St Patrick driving the snakes from Ireland being a reference to driving the former Pagan beliefs out, as there were never any snakes in Ireland, so why is this iconography so important, an Apollo sun god and the study of astronomy also being important.
Have you come across anything in your study of ancient Briton that might support this? Linear A is considered a lost language, but I wonder if it could be deciphered using ancient Gaelic.

Thank you for your interesting post. I agree that it is possible that the occasional Minoan or Mycenaean may have made their way to Britain in connection with the tin trade, and it's fun to speculate on aspects of ancient British mythology that may owe some debt to this. However, it's generally agreed that the vast majority of the tin trade between Britain and the Mediterranean was conducted via a series of middlemen, so the south-western Britons would mainly have been in contact  with Bretons, and they with merchants from further south, and so on. Most of the cultural similarities you indicate are probably better explained in terms of coincidence, or indirect trade connections, or the common, ancient roots of all European cultures. There is no striking evidence of a Minoan presence in the British Isles, or that our culture and languages owed any particularly direct debt to them. As to decoding Linear A using Gaelic - the best I can say is - good luck with that! 

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