Who are the giants found in Croatian stories? Meet the forgotten people associated with legends about curses, exploits, and the discovery of bones

It is believed that long ago people were the size of giants. There are legends of graves with large human bones inside, and this has served as evidence for the belief that people of yore were gigantic in height.

Foto: Giulio Romano, Pad divova, 1536.

Stories about giants are widespread throughout Croatia.  One such story hails from the island of Brač and tells about strong people who had only one eye in the middle of their foreheads.  Another is a legend that tells about the existence of giants in the valley of the Mirna River in Istria. There is also the legend of the Vedic giants who left their original settlements and retreated to the forests of Bilogora, an area of low mountains in central Croatia, as well as the legend of a one-eyed giant from Paklenica who lived in a cave.

Many legends tell of giant human bones buried in tribal graves known as Illyrian Mounds. It is said that the skulls of these ancient people had horns on them. There is also a story that archaeologists in the 1970s excavated several mounds in what is today home to a poultry farm in the village of Borovci near Metković. Velika Gomila (Big Mound) once stood at that location and people claimed it was the largest in the whole village.

Stone from this mound was taken to fill a section of the Adriatic Highway along the exit from Metković towards Opuzen. Because this part of the highway is a sloping road, car accidents are a common occurrence. Urban legend suggests that more car accidents happen here than anywhere else in the Neretva Valley because of the fact that stones that once marked the final resting place of important Illyrian tribesmen were re-appropriated to build the highway. What’s more, all the workers who removed the stones from the mound died unusual deaths, ranging from strange infections to car accidents.

Stories about giants in the Neretva Valley go back to ancient times, and it is important to note that the people of Neretva remember them as “those who were there before us”. These legends tie in to Illyrian burial mounds that contain the bones of people who were, according to locals, up to two meters and forty centimeters tall.

There are a lot of mounds like this in the area, so locals understand what they are. They have never demolished them, and have treated them with respect.

In the area spanning the mountain Velebit, legends are told about giants called Nemri, which ethnologists consider to be exclusive to the local population. The Nemri are also known as the “Old People”, and this term is still relatively familiar to the inhabitants of the Dinar region. Today the Nemri are a lost people who could not die a natural death and lived in this area before the Greeks. Many legends about the Nemri are also related to the sites where the necropolises of medieval tombstones called stećci (singular: stećak) are located.

Istrian legends often mention giants, and some Italian writers such as Carls De Franceschia, who tells of giants from the Motovun area, have written about these beings, perhaps due to the fact that Istria is so close and has historical ties with Italy. The history of the town of Motovun is connected with a legend that tells of the existence of giants in the valley of the river Mirna. They were so big that they could move tools and large stones great distances.

The most famous legend about giants from this region is certainly the one about Veli Jože. In this legend, dwarves were evil little people who could not do strenuous work due to their short stature. As a result, each city had its own giant who did this work.

Motovun’s giant was Veli Jože. The locals often did not treat him very nicely, so when Jože got angry, in order to scare them, he would shake the Motovun bell tower. One day, Veli Jože was sent by a dwarf to Venice in a galley. On the ship he met a giant named Ilija who told him about freedom. In a big storm on the way to Venice, the galley ran ashore and Veli Jože managed to save himself and swim to the Istrian coast. At that moment, he decided to find all the giants and persuade them to fight together for their freedom. When he had gathered them all, he proposed a rebellion for their freedom. The dwarves, however, bought the giants wine and gold and persuaded them to return as servants to their cities. Everyone agreed except Veli Jože, who decided to enjoy his freedom and never returned to Motovun.

We can also mention the legend of Ban Dragonja. He was one of the most famous Istrian giants (along with the giant Veli Jože) after whom the Istrian river Dragonja is called today. According to legend, before Istria was inhabited by humans, giants lived in the valley of the river Mirna, and the main one among them was the giant Dragonja.  He was also called the giant Orač because he plowed the seafloor from the plateau Ćićarija towards the sea.

In the Lužina forest, according to legend,  in ancient times there lived greedy giants who built the Asparagus Cave (Sparožna jama), the largest cave in the Kastav region. Those who have been inside claim that its underground dark halls are former palaces of giants.

Giants in Croatian mythology

In Croatian Folk Mythology, Nikola Sučić writes about giants as huge people who came across to regular people as demigods. He describes them as real monstrosities and savages who ate and drank a lot and had hearts of stone and acted like demons.

They lived in hills, waters, forests, seas, caves, glaciers and snow, as well as underground, so they were divided into forest, water, sea, and fire giants. In folklore, the most famous giants are Ognjan, Leđan, Snježnik and Snježana, Orjen, Klek, Triglav, Svitogor, Kamenokid, and Drevolom.

In the realm of semi-light, ruled the giants Ognjan – the giant of fire, Svitogor – the giant of winter, and Leđan – the giant of ice. The giant Svitogor was the most powerful giant, and his dwellings were situated at inaccessible heights. Leđan liked Svitogor’s daughter Strijelka, who longed for light and bright beings, which is why Leđan was very angry and killed Svitogor, and later from his body came the earth from which a tree of light sprang, from his blood came Svitogorsk Lake, and from the gorges on which Svarog built a bright city were what was from by his bones.

In her story Regoč, Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić mentions the town of Legen (Leđan).  Nikola Sučić describes it as a town built of ice in where the giant Leđan lived and ruled winter. The people of Leđan thought that they should rule everyone, so they froze everything they could in front of them and ordered Snježnik to snow at any time of the year. Gaining strength and power in this way, Leđan soon became violent and arrogant and turned his entire empire into ice with the help of the wild winter of Moran.

All the creatures rejoiced in the new order except the giants and the underworld god Crnobog (Chernobog), who wanted to destroy all life on Earth. Giants and gods alike took part in this fight for justice and the victory of good over evil. The giants hated everything that was divine, beautiful, and good and they feared Perun and his arrows. The giants overestimated the power of their race and opposed gods whom they considered to be weaker and one day decided to start a war. They climbed on each other’s shoulders to destroy the Moon, the Sun and the Skylight, but Perun managed to shoot them down with his arrows. The giants then set fire to the forests out of anger, and the giant Vodan released all the springs of water and sea to put out the fire, effectively wiping out the giants with a flood. Other giants were petrified and turned into hills, thus creating legends about giants in Croatian mythology.  The main names here are Klek, Orjen, and Snježnik. While the giant Klek was trying to escape, Perun hit him with his arrow in the right vein, and the people called that vein the river Dobra or Đula.

It is interesting that people, specifically the elderly who had the opportunity to inherit the traditions of the hearth by word of mouth, believe in giants and other mythical beings as if they were completely normal phenomena in the world and live as cohabitants of spiritual beings.

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