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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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)

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)

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.’

‘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’.

Blood-Stained Rocks

Salcombe Castle with its red rocks, which may have been thought to have been stained red by giants' blood

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.

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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