Painting of a mythological giant walking in the sea with a group of children on a beach looking at the giant

Giants in folklore, myth and legend

Mythical giants are powerful, enormous humanoid beings. They appear in legends, myths and folklore from all over the world. There are mighty Celtic giants, like Cormoran and Gogmagog, and there are ginormous giants from central Africa (hello Bumba!). There are awe-inspiring Australian giants, like Crooked Mick, whose many incredible skills included kicking a crocodile to the Moon and baking pies so light that a gust of wind could carry them away. And there are gargantuan ancient Greek giants, like Pallas, whose skin was used as a shield by Athena during the cosmic battle between giants and the Greek gods.

What’s the difference between a giant and an ogre?

In general, a giant is a mythical humanoid creature that is massively huge. They can be gentle and good, or bad tempered and evil, or a bit of both. An ogre, on the other hand is usually a bad giant who eats human flesh – unless you’re talking about Shrek, of course, who is much smaller than your average ogre and not evil, just misunderstood.

Authors, dramatists and film-makers have often been keen to include giants in their storytelling. Giants feature in traditional fairy tales like Jack and the Beanstalk and The Selfish Giant, by Oscar Wilde. Their appearance in books and on film ranges from Grawp in the ‘Harry Potter’ series, to Roald Dahl’s BFG.

But we’re not here to talk about kind and gentle, dream-catching, snozzcumber-eating giants. We’re here to talk about the scary ones; the ones we definitely wouldn’t want to meet alone on a dark night, or at any other time for that matter. Let’s look at our top five terrifying giants. 


Grendel is a monstrous giant (or should that be ogre?) from the epic poem Beowulf, which was written in Old English by an unknown author sometime between 700 and 750 CE. In the text he is described as ‘a creature of darkness, exiled from happiness and accursed of God, the destroyer and devourer of human kind’. Eek, sounds scary to me! But Grendel isn’t just evil, he’s also stubborn. Every night he attacks King Hrothgar’s mead-hall and kills his soldiers. Beowulf is the only man who can successfully engage Grendel in combat. He rips off the giant’s arm, only to come face to face with the wrath of Grendel’s mum later in the story. Grendel’s mother isn’t described as a giant according to the text, otherwise I guess she’d be number one on this list!

Natural History Museum, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons


In Norse folklore, jötnar are the large and powerful giants who live in their own, dark, cold and barren land. They are the enemies of Norse gods like Odin, Thor and Freyja and are often in conflict with them. Some are regarded as fire or frost giants and, while they have supernatural powers, they also have common flaws like greed, jealousy and vanity.

Signed "H. L. M.", Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


There are several cyclops in Greek mythology, and I think it’s safe to say that none of them are particularly friendly. The most famous cyclops is Polyphemus, a man-eating cyclops who features in Homer’s story The Odyssey. After causing havoc amongst his men, he is eventually killed by the hero Odysseus, who can then make his escape.

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


One of the most famous giants in Greek mythology is a Titan called Atlas. He is usually shown holding the globe of the Earth on his shoulders. Atlas might be mighty, but he’s really not that scary – in fact he’s often characterised as ‘stout-hearted, strong, resilient and a bit gullible’. The 16th century Flemish geographer, Gerardus Mercator, dedicated his first book of maps to Atlas. That is why books of maps still carry the god’s title today. The Atlas mountains in North Africa are also named after him. This guy might not be that terrifying, but he’s definitely a force to be reckoned with. No doubt, if he put down that massive planetary orb, he’d be very dangerous indeed! After all, have you seen those guns? 

Gustavo Trapp, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Japanese Oni

The oni are demons, ogres or trolls. They form an important part of Japanese folklore, though they may have originated in China. The oni are hulking figures often shown with horns, sharp claws, fangs and tusks. Blimey! They may be given a third eye, extra fingers or toes, and usually carry a large club as a weapon (all the better for smooshing you with). Mainly coloured pink, red or blue-grey, they often turn up as the villains in Japanese fairy tales. They also feature in art, literature and theatre, where characters playing them wear frightening and colourful masks. Click here to read more scary stories from the world of AQUILA.

Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760-1849), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Written by John Davis