Sailor Tall Tales Led to the Myths of South American Giants
During his sixteenth century expedition to circumnavigate the world, explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s ships dropped anchor off Patagonia – a sparsely populated region at the southern end of South America. There, the explorer and his men came across a naked giant singing and dancing on the shore. Magellan ordered a sailor to make contact with the big native, by singing and dancing in turn, as a means of demonstrating friendliness. The strategy worked, and the giant was induced to meet Magellan. As described by a scribe who kept a diary that was later turned into a book account of the voyage: “When he was before us, he began to marvel and to be afraid, and he raised one finger upward, believing that we came from heaven. And he was so tall that the tallest of us only came up to his waist”.
Capturing the Patagonians for a Voyage
The explorers proceeded to make contact with the rest of his tribe, and in subsequent weeks, they hunted with them, and built a house ashore to store their provisions. When Magellan was ready to depart, he wanted to take some Patagonians to display back in Spain. So he invited some aboard his ship with the lure of trinkets, got them drunk until they passed out, and placed them in chains. When the Patagonians sobered up, the ships were already underway, sailing away from their homeland. Sadly, the kidnapped Patagonians did not survive the voyage. Nor, for that matter, did Magellan. However, the sailors who completed the trip and returned to Spain brought back with them tales of a land inhabited by giants. Tales that grew into the myth of Patagonian Giants. With the passage of time, the tall people encountered by Magellan’s ships kept growing taller – at least in the telling.
Later voyages described encounters with Patagonians who stood 10 feet tall. As if in a race of one upsmanship, others reported that they had contacted Patagonians whose height was measured at 12 feet. Yet others encountered Patagonians who truly towered above normal people, measuring 15 feet in height. Reports of the South American giants would grip European imaginations for over 250 years. The first challenge to the tall tales came from the famed British seaman and pirate, Sir Francis Drake, who encountered Patagonians during his own circumnavigation of the globe. As described by his nephew:
“Magellan was not altogether deceived in naming these giants, for they generally differ from the common sort of man both in stature, bigness and strength of body, as also in the hideousness of their voices: but they are nothing so monstrous and giant-like as they were represented, there being some English men as tall as the highest we could see, but peradventure the Spaniards did not think that ever any English man would come hither to reprove them, and therefore might presume the more boldly to lie.“Yet, as late as 1766, rumors circulated that a British ship had encountered a tribe of 9 foot tall natives. However, when the ship’s account was finally published, the natives were recorded as being 6 and a half feet tall – tall, but not incredibly so, and certainly not giants. In reality, the tribe in question, the Tehuelche, were statuesque and bigger than average. But they stood in the 6 foot range.
The Native American Chief Who Became a City of Gold
The myth of El Dorado, the City of Gold, seems to have changed like a message in a game of telephone, gradually getting altered with each retelling, until the final recipient ends up with something completely different than the original message. It began with the first Spaniards who came in contact with the native Muisca people, in today’s Colombia. They heard stories about chiefs who coated themselves in gold dust, before rowing into Lake Guatavita, about 35 miles northeast of modern Bogota, to drop golden gifts for the water god. The Spaniards coined a term for those mythical Muisca chiefs: El Hombre Dorado, or “The Golden Man”.
The City of Gold is Born
Over the years, and with repeated retellings, El Hombre Dorado was transformed. What began as a tribal chief coated in gold dust became a city made of gold, then a kingdom of gold, and finally a fabulously wealthy empire that had more gold than the rest of the world put together. The story was helped by the fact that Spaniards and other Europeans had encountered significant amounts of gold gold among the natives of the Caribbean coast of South of America. So they reasoned that there must be a huge source of gold somewhere in the interior.
As the years went by, many Spanish Conquistadors and other European adventurers who heard the El Dorado story version describing a city of gold, came to believe in its existence. Wishful thinking took hold and ran with them, and the lust for gold and fabulous riches said to be found in the mythical city ended up fueling various expeditions and searches in the 1500s and 1600s. None of them managed to discover the nonexistent city of gold. However, seekers who stuck to the original version of the story, about tribal chiefs dropping golden gifts into a lake, had some success. They set out to drain Lake Guatavita, and lowered its level enough to recover hundreds of golden artifacts from around the lake’s edges. However, whatever treasures had been tossed into the deeper waters remained beyond their reach.
The Search for El Dorado
Other than the partial success at Lake Guatavita, the only results of the search for El Dorado were numerous lives wasted in fruitless treasure hunts. One of the more jinxed searches was carried out by the English courtier and adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh, who conducted two expeditions in Guiana in search of El Dorado. In the second expedition, in 1617, an aging Raleigh grew too feeble to endure the rigors of the search. So he set up a base camp in Trinidad, and sent his son, Watt, up the Orinoco River to find El Dorado. The attempt ended in utter disaster, and in the death of Raleigh’s son in a battle against the Spaniards. Things did not end much better for Raleigh himself: upon his return to England, its king, James I, ordered him beheaded for defying his orders to avoid conflict with the Spanish.
The French Hero Who Gave Rise to the Story of Bluebeard
The legend of Bluebeard, about the serial wife killer, can be traced back to Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais, better known to history as Gilles de Rais (1404 – 1440). A nobleman from Brittany, Rais’ family, the House of Montmorency, was one of the oldest, most respected, and most distinguished aristocratic families of France. From an early age, Rais lived up to the high expectations of a scion of such an illustrious clan. By age 15, he had distinguished himself militarily during a series of wars that wracked the Duchy of Brittany. Rais distinguished himself even more in Anjou, fighting for its duchess against the English in 1427. He eventually became a national hero, as Joan of Arc’s chief lieutenant and right hand man. Then Rais’ true nature emerged, and his celebrated career was cut short, along with his head, when it was discovered that, away from the limelight, he was a monster.
When Joan of Arc rose to prominence in 1429 to challenge the English, who had been rampaging throughout France for decades, Gilles de Rais was already a celebrated military man, notwithstanding his youth. He was assigned to Joan of Arc as one of her guards, and fought in several battles at her side. Rais particularly distinguished himself in her greatest victory, the lifting of the English siege of Orleans. He then accompanied her to Reims for the coronation of king Charles VII, who made Gilles de Rais Marshall of France – a distinction awarded to generals for exceptional achievements.
Gilles de Rais had inherited huge landholdings and estates from both his father and maternal grandfather. He then married a rich heiress, and that fortunate match brought him even more extensive holdings, and made him one of France’s greatest land owners. With so much wealth and property at his disposal, Rais hung up his spurs, sword, and shield, and retired from the military in 1434. However, it soon became clear that while Rais had been extremely good at fighting and managing fighting men in combat, he was simply nowhere near as good at managing money. It did not take him long to dissipate his fabulous wealth with a lavish lifestyle that rivaled that of the king who, unlike Rais, had an entire country that he could tax in order to refill his coffers.
Alchemy, Satanism and True Nature
Within just one year of Rais’ retirement, he had managed to lose most of his lands. Indeed, he was so inept at managing money and his estates, that his family secured a decree from the French king, forbidding Rais from mortgaging what was left of his property. So to raise more cash, Rais fell in with some charlatans, who got him hooked on alchemy – the medieval version of the Nigerian Prince scam. Rais began sinking both his time and whatever money he could get a hold of, to invest in “research” that he was promised would lead to the discovery of a way to turn base metals into gold. He also turned to Satanism, hoping to gain knowledge, power, and riches, by summoning the devil. That was not the worst of it, however: another thing that Rais turned to was the serial rape, torture, and murder of children.
In 1440, an increasingly erratic Rais de Gilles got into a dispute with local church figures. A hot headed aristocrat, hopped up on machismo and unused to having his wishes denied, Rais escalated things, until he ended up kidnapping a priest. That triggered an ecclesiastical investigation, that unearthed some pretty horrific stuff. It turned out that the once celebrated national hero had been murdering children – mostly boys, but also the occasional girl – by the dozens. His standard operating procedure had been to lure children from peasant or lower class families to his castle with gifts, such as candies, toys, or clothing. He would initially put them at their ease, feed and pamper them, before leading them to a bedroom where Rais and his accomplices would seize their victims.
A Grisly Truth
As he confessed in his subsequent trial, Rais got a sadistic kick out of watching his victims’ fear, when he explained just what it was that he had in store for them. What was in store for them was nothing good – but we can skip the gory details. Suffice it to say that it involved torture and sodomy, and ended with the child’s murder, usually via decapitation. The victims and their clothing would then be burned in the fireplace, and their ashes dumped in a moat. After Gilles confessed to his crimes, he and he and his accomplices were condemned to death. He was executed on October 26th, 1440, by burning and hanging, simultaneously. His infamy inspired the fairy tale of Bluebeard, about a wealthy serial wife killer.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading