The Rocks, Stained Red with Blood: A Son of Hercules Slew Giants at Salcombe, Devon?
The myth of Brutus of Troy is well over a thousand years old, yet it continues to fascinate and current scholarship seeks to find new truths hidden in its mossy folds. John Clark’s excellent paper ‘Trojans at Totnes and Giants on the Hoe: Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historical Fiction and Geographical Reality’ was published in Transaction of the Devonshire Association (148, 89-130, June 2016). It provides an excellent modern assessment of the story, written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (c. AD 1135), of the landing of Brutus of Troy and his side-kick Corineus in Devonshire and their battle with the giants they found living there, which resulted in Corineus defeating the giants’ leader, Goëmagot, and flinging him off a cliff.
It was thanks to this that Britain was freed from the rule of giants, and could be settled by Brutus’s followers – people who are the mythological ancestors of the British living here today.
Brutus of Troy, illustration from History of Hector Prince of Troy (London, 1728-1769) (Public Domain)
Gog and Magog parading through the City of London in the annual Lord Mayor’s Show; this pair were once believed to represent the giant Goëmagot and his adversary Corineus, the companion of Brutus. (Photo via author)
But where was this cliff, this place of resounding significance to British mythology and, if we can find it, what can we learn from its location?
The Giant’s Downfall
Geoffrey says this cliff was at a place called saltus Goëmagot, ‘Goëmagot’s Leap’. Clark shows that, whilst the 1508 printed version of Geoffrey translates this into Cornish as ‘Lamgoemagot’, the original was saltus Goëmagot. Clark analyses the places where Geoffrey may have imagined Goëmagot’s downfall taking place. Maybe it was Gommerock (as named on Ordnance Survey maps) or Godmerock (as named by Theo Brown, ‘The Trojans in Devon’, Trans. Devonshire Assoc., 1955 pp. 68, 74), a ruined fortified Medieval building on the east side of the Dart’s mouth, opposite Dartmouth Castle, but this place name is just as likely to have been inspired by Geoffrey’s story as to have been its inspiration. Maybe it was at Plymouth, which had its giant figures on the Hawe; in 1486 John Rous certainly made the assertion that this was ‘saltus Gogmagog’ (sic), but again these figures and Rous’ assertion may have resulted from Geoffrey’s story, rather than being its cause.
Clark rejects both and makes a fresh suggestion, that Geoffrey, who loved basing stories on faux-etymologies, created saltus Goëmagot in his imagination out of the place name Salcombe (on the Kingsbridge Estuary, not Salcombe Regis near Exeter). He shows that this place name was recorded in 1244 as Saltecombe, ‘salt valley’. That rendering is probably close to its original form, and is highly unlikely to have been inspired by Geoffrey’s History. Thus, when Geoffrey insisted that saltus Goëmagot was still so-called in his day, he may have been telling the truth, but only inasmuch as this was his audacious interpretation of the actual place name of Salcombe, if he thought it was from ‘Salte[s] Combe[got]’.
Clark wonders if Geoffrey made up his name for the giant, Goëmagot, from the ‘combe’ of Salcombe. I doubt that. First, ‘Goëmagot’ is similar to the names of giants (Goram, Cormoran, Fomorian, etc) found all across Britain and Ireland and even of Gourmailhon, a giant living in Brittany.
‘The giant Cormoran was the terror of all the country-side.’ (Public Domain)
Unless all these were inspired by Geoffrey (which is unlikely) it is simpler to conclude that his ‘Goëmagot’ was adapted from an earlier, indigenous term for a giant. Secondly, if Geoffrey genuinely thought the ‘combe’ of Saltecombe’ was a corruption of the giant’s name, he cannot also have made the giant’s name up from ‘Combe’.
Salcombe Castle with its red rocks, which may have been thought to have been stained red by giants' blood (Nilfanion/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Clark observes that there are red rocks next to Salcombe’s castle, and speculates that these may have inspired a story that the color came from giants’ blood. He quotes a story, in James Fairweather’s c. 1897 guide to Salcombe, that a field on the cliff top near Salcombe castle was called Gutter Field because of a bloody battle. He asks, ‘was there already a local story [which inspired Geoffrey] of a cliff-top conflict to explain the ‘blood-stained’ rocks?’ If so, then Geoffrey may have associated ‘combe’ with an existing term for giants, and come up with the pun – that the ‘salt’ of Salcombe recalled the saltus or ‘leap’ of Goëmagot, as he was flung off the cliff there by Corineus.
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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)
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. (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 (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.
Part of the 'Kermario alignments' of Neolithic standing stones near Carnac, locally believed to have been Roman legionaries, turned to stone by St Cornèly (Photo: Anthony Adolph)
This seems like the Christianization of a pagan myth, with St Cornèly subsuming the role of an earlier, wilder character, maybe our ‘Corunus’. Perhaps it is significant that the Carnac alignments are said to be haunted by spirits called Kerions, which remind us of Geryon, the giant whom Hercules slew in Spain.
The root of St Cornelius’s name is probably the Latin cornu, ‘horn’, so he was thought to be a protector of (horned) cattle. At Carnac each 13 September, local cattle were driven to his church and assembled in an arc, or horn-shape, in the hope that the saint would bless them. This may have aided St Cornelius’s assimilation with ‘Coronus’s’ father (as I speculated) Hercules, who was known to have wrested the finest cattle in the world from the giant Geryon.
St Cornely, shown on the tower of the church dedicated to him in Carbac, Brittany (Photo: Anthony Adolph)
Giant-Slaying Father & Son?
The bloodiest hour for Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Corineus, after joining Brutus in Spain, comes when they reach the Loire Valley. Reminding bystanders volubly of his giant-slaying credentials, Corineus leads a wholescale slaughter of Gauls. If this is indeed adapted from an older myth about a son of Hercules called ‘Corunus’, then maybe his next adventure after the Loire, as his fame was spread up the western seaboard of the Atlantic by travelers, fishermen, and traders, was a battle in Brittany which resulted in his enemies being turned to stone. This does not appear in the version adapted by Geoffrey, but Geoffrey may deliberately have edited it out so as to speed his heroes on their journey to Britain.
The closest land-fall to Brittany is Prawle Point, after which mariners could enter the Kingsbridge Estuary. Perhaps the veneration of St Cornelius there, which is implied by his presence on the rood screen, was a similar Christianization by the church’s Breton founders of the same pagan hero whom they had disguised back home as St Cornèly – the pagan hero ‘Coronus’ who may, perhaps, have slain giants in Devon just as his father Hercules had slain them in Spain and around the Mediterranean.
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Carnac parish church, with its statue to St Cornèly half way up the tower (Photo: Anthony Adolph)
As I wrote above, I did not include this argument in my Brutus book because it seemed too tenuous, but if this idea places ‘Corunus’ at East Portlemouth, then it may be no coincidence that Clark’s entirely independent line of thinking locates Corineus immediately over the estuary at Salcombe. If an ancient myth of giant-slaying ‘Corunus’, son of Hercules, had reached southern Devon, then perhaps Salcombe’s blood-red rocks were identified as a plausible place for his slaying of a giant. Perhaps echoes of this, surviving in local folklore, reached the ears of Geoffrey of Monmouth who, already possessed of a written version of ‘Corunus’ myth, fortuitously united the two by turning ‘Salcombe’ into saltus Goëmagot, as Clark suggests, the place where Corineus killed Goemagot.
Of course, this is all entirely unprovable, but when two different scholars of the same subject follow two completely different routes, but end up on either side of the same Devonshire estuary, we may wonder if this is more than mere coincidence. It seems to be a step further towards proving the existence, buried in Geoffrey’s story of Brutus of Troy, of an ancient myth of a giant-killing son of Hercules, ‘Coronus’, who rid the west-country of giants.
Anthony Adolph is a professional genealogist and author of Brutus of Troy, and the Quest for the Ancestry of the British, which tells the full story of the mythological national founder of Britain. His book, Brutus of Troy, has been reviewed on Ancient Origins by author and historical researcher Petros Koutoupis.