Giants in mythology are ferocious and terrifying beasts that are feared and often subjugated, lest they take over the universe.
In Norse mythology, they dwelt in the infertile lands of Jotunheim, sworn enemies of the gods, destroyers of peace and order. Gods and humans enjoyed luscious and protected realms.
In Welsh mythology, the pesky upstart giant Rhitta Gawr grew tired of serving the Kings of England and listening to their petty concerns.
He attacked and slew all but one of the kings , the legendary King Arthur.
We side against the giants, but gods and men have their moments too.
Wind forward from the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries; past the Viking Age and the rule of King Arthur and we start to see a re-characterisation of the giant.
No longer the barbaric destroyer of peace and civilisation but a giant in thinking emerges — a phrase for someone who pushes knowledge and understanding beyond mere mortal comprehension.
The colossal stature starts to refer not to the height of the creature but the distance beyond ordinary thinking that they can see.
In 1695 Sir Isaac Newton wrote to his contemporary Robert Hooke,
“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulder of giants.”
Now an iconic phrase it was a humble recognition of the contribution to Newton’s discoveries by those who went before.
The words are then carried over to Stephen Hawking who writes about the trailblazers of physics and astronomy: Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Einstein and of course Newton in his book, On The Shoulders of Giants.
And now, when society stands on a sharp ledge, the opportunity to bravely venture into a new way of thinking on one side or attempt to re-create a past that we’re starting to recognise as unsustainable which way shall we turn?
We must move in one direction. Have we been standing on the shoulders of medium-sized people for too long?
A virus rages, unemployment soars, and the earth continue to suffer under a mass of waste and global warming. Isn’t it time to amplify some new voices?
Giants in science and mythology share two characteristics.
Firstly their stature; be it physical or metaphorical.
Secondly, their position in society, they are coming from a position outside of a status quo realm.
In Norse mythology the giants were Utangard spirits, meaning they were from “beyond the enclosure”, quite literally outsiders. Their existence represented a threat to those gods and humans of the ‘Innangard’, ‘inside the enclosure’.
The Vikings recognised the essential nature of all creatures to provide balance in the universe.
Gods and men are not infallible, and the giants keep them in check, as in Welsh mythology. They are a form of resistance.
Who Are Our Giants Now?
Who are your giants? Who are the people whose words and actions drive a new kind of future?
Who are those who provide resistance to the gods of the now? Who of those can see beyond to another future; maybe better or maybe worse but a vision that transcends the stubborn denial or ignorance of most of us.
It’s up to you whose shoulders you stand on, but I have three, probably more.
They are women of different ages, from different continents and with various missions but who share the criteria of a giant.
They see possibilities; they see dangers in the status quo and through their thinking allow me to see hope in another future.
Malala was eleven years old when the Taliban closed the schools for girls in her village in Pakistan, but she continued to speak out for the rights of education for women. The dangers involved cannot have been underestimated by Malala or her father, a champion of education for all.
Three years later in 2012 a masked gunman boarded a bus and sought out Malala, shooting her in the head for her crime of speaking out for education.
“The terrorists thought that they would change my aim and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this; weaknesses, fear and hopelessness died, strength, power and courage were born.”
Here she speaks in front of the U.N Youth Assembly in 2013, a year after the attack.
Eight years on she is the youngest person ever to have received a Nobel Peace Prize, she has graduated from The University of Oxford, and she remains a vocal champion of free education for all children globally.
A giant of courage, of vision.
Greta! I know, she’s everybody’s giant. Except perhaps the middle-aged men on talk shows who took time out from their otherwise critical job to ridicule the actions of a teenager with Asperger’s. Nice! If we’re talking of allegorical dimensions, this equates to the height of a leprechaun.
We don’t look to this teenage climate activist for fluffy optimistic advice, she presents a darker view, but she’s also leading a movement of young people and activists. She shows us emotional turmoil, but she shows us a solution in her actions.
She’s mobilised numbers in the millions across the world for action. You’ve probably seen her impassioned speech at the U.N Climate Action Summit 2019.
A giant of action and resolution.
“We are at the beginning of mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”
My third giant today is a British-Venezuelan researcher, lecturer and expert on the history of technical revolutions, amongst many other things. Carlota is currently pushing an agenda for a better world based on sustainable economic growth and new intangible models of measurement.
When discussions among world leaders are focusing on the health vs economy argument, Carlota is painting a picture of a future of wellbeing; a more equitable existence for humans and a sustainable path for the earth.
The battle between Green and Growth is sometimes presented as a winner take all fight, but Carlota sees past this and gives us options to drive a different narrative.
Quite literally a breath of fresh air. Her ideas are big and involve a change at a governmental level which depending on which part of the world you are from, can feel hopeless.
But her latest article Imagining A Good Life In A Green and Fair Society talks about cultural obstacles to a green and equitable future; negativity, consumption analysis and the way we convey our message. These things are up to us consumers. We don’t need government direction to tell us to consume less or be mindful of the world around us.
She’s long been a proponent of Universal Basic Income which finally seems to be getting a look in across different cities on the globe. It’s that a system of capitalism that under-represents so many people on the world is so staunchly defended and alternative propositions kicked down the road.
They are my three giants; the ones I research and read about. Giants who drive change and action which helps keep a light burning when other, medium-sized voices insist there is no other way.
But actually, giants are all around us. We need to give them airtime.
My clients are creating applications to keep children safe; others are building communities for those with disabilities. These are people with a vision; they’re applying a problem-solving mindset and often come from a place of disadvantage.
They’re brave, they’re fighting, and they would love to have a passenger on their shoulders.
We’ve all got medium-sized people elements; we’re busy, we’re frightened, we have a cacophony of loud voices bouncing around in our head.
Our strength wavers, we take a step in the wrong direction, we need to pay the bills, we’re only human after all.
But if we want to look further, we can do so by standing on the shoulders of real giants.
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