How does one make the skeleton of Hercules? Take a bunch of mastodon bones and mix well.
In her excellent book The First Fossil Hunters, author Adrienne Mayor explains, in fascinating detail, how Classical myths of giants, dragons, titans, heroes, and other ill-formed monstrous beings often stemmed from a misunderstanding of the fossil record.
After all, it was not at all infrequent for people of the time to have "striking personal experiences with giant skeletons that weathered out of the ground in Asia Minor," Mayor writes, a place "where strange and immense skeletons emerge from the sand." And, with no particular reason to assemble all those gigantic bones into animal forms with which humans had no direct experience, the bones were, instead, simply fashioned together to form titanic heroes. Gods on earth. Monstrous ancestry.
A mastodon skeleton like this, for instance, seen here in its proper assembly-
-was pieced together, instead, with Herculean proportions, towering over the human figure beside it.
Heroes, titans, giants: eventually, in a time before human history, Mayor explains, a mythic war between the oversized dwellers of the Earth and the Gods themselves took place, called the Gigantomachy. Explosive battles left incomprehensible body parts scattered all over the land masses, where they were gradually buried by sand or stratigraphically entombed inside rocky cliffs.
Then humans came along, unversed in today's anatomical principles, and assembled these giant bones into a lost and mutant history for themselves. And there you have Hercules, for instance, a mutant being accidentally assembled from the remnant skeletons of other creatures.
The First Fossil Hunters by Adrienne Mayor." />
This post originally appeared on BLDGBLOG.