Over the last 300 years, the Giant's Causeway has often been described as 'The Eighth Wonder of the World'
This extraordinary natural feature is in County Antrim on the northeast coast of Northern Ireland. The area consists of an estimated 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns. The tops of the columns look like stepping stones that lead from the foot of the cliffs out into the sea where they disappear. Although most of the columns are hexagonal, some have 4, 5, 7 or 8 sides. The tallest columns are about 12 metres high (nearly 40 ft). It has been managed by the National Trust since 1961 and in 1986 was declared a World Heritage site.
Across the sea, Fingal’s Cave, on the Scottish island of Staffa, is formed by identical hexagonal basalt columns, probably a huge influence in the development of the Finn McCool story.
How was it made?
Engraving of Susanna Drury's painting, 1768
The Giant's Causeway gives us a peek into Earth's ancient past. It was formed 60 million years ago by a volcanic eruption. Europe was moving apart from North America and magma spewed up through the cracks. The lava cooled on contact with the air, hardening into basalt. Then, hundreds of thousands of years later, another eruption force lava out again. But this time the lava cooled down slowly making a deep pool. The cooling rock cracked in many places making the columns of the Causeway. Further eruptions hid these columns deep underground for many millenia. The retreat of the last ice age, only about 15,000 years ago, exposed the columns as they are now.
Amazingly, the Causeway was only discovered in 1692 by the Bishop of Derry, who told the authorities in Dublin of his find. News soon spread and the discovery was announced 1693. Watercolour paintings of the Causeway by an artist called Susanna Drury in 1739 made the site famous internationally. It was a French geologist , Nicolas Desmarest, who first suggested that volcanic action was the likely answer to its formation.
Are there other Finn McCool stories?
Finn McCool - illustration by Stephen Reid, 2013
Finn McCool is also called Fionn Mac Cumhaill – his father was called Cumhaill. He is one of the most famous of the heroes / giants of Irish mythology. There are stories about his father’s abduction of his mother - the daughter of a powerful Druid and about his birth and growing up – like King Arthur he was sent away to be raised to keep him safe. There are stories about him obtaining wisdom and a magic thumb that he only had to suck to get the right answer to a problem. Tales of his heroic defeats of monsters, invaders and other evil doers abound as do stories of his acquisition of various wives. For a time, he led a band of heroic warriors called the Fianna and there are many legends about their daring and sometimes gory deeds. There are also a number of different tales about his death – including one, in which, again like King Arthur, he lies asleep with his warriors in a hillside awaiting the call to rise once more and defend Ireland in her time of need.
What role do giants play in myths and legends?
Illustration from 1665 suggesting giant bones
Cultures worldwide contain stories of monstrously big and strong human-like beings. They are often portrayed as primeval beings like Pan Gu, sometimes as the precursors of the gods, sometimes in conflict with them as in Greek and Norse mythologies. Even the Old Testament has its giant, Goliath, who was overcome by the small youth, David.
Throughout Europe it used to be believed that giants were responsible for the huge structures and megalithic monuments, some now known as man-made like Stonehenge, and some natural, like the Giant’s Causeway and the Devil’s Dyke, and many myths and legends sprung up around them.
The giants featured in folk-tales and stories are often brutish and stupid, very often outwitted by the hero of the story, like Boots in How the Troll was Tricked, rather than beaten in a straight fight. Sometimes, however, giants are good creatures who help out mankind and defeat other monsters, as in Slaying the Dragon and Cheating the Devil. Whatever their role, giants have been part of the mythology of humans throughout time and the world over.