An Aztec Goliath

In today’s post, I would like to examine the story of David and Goliath, found in the Old Testament, and compare it to stories from Mesoamerica.

David and Goliath, one of the first Bible stories taught to young children in Sunday school, is a timeless tale that has permeated our culture. It is spoken of metaphorically—how many motivational speeches have referred to the hero David rising to the challenge and confronting the evil giant?

Let’s take a look at the David and Goliath story as recounted in the Old Testament in 1 Samuel 17:

4 And there went out a champion out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. 5 And he had an helmet of brass upon his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of brass. 6 And he had greaves of brass upon his legs, and a target of brass between his shoulders. 7 And the staff of his spear was like a weaver’s beam; and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron: and one bearing a shield went before him. 8 And he stood and cried unto the armies of Israel, and said unto them, Why are ye come out to set your battle in array? am not I a Philistine, and ye servants to Saul? choose you a man for you, and let him come down to me…(KJV)

The size of Goliath cannot be overstated. His spear was likened to a weaver’s beam, used in looms of the day, and would have been about 2.5 inches (6.35 cm) in diameter. For comparison, a soda can measures 2.6 inches in diameter. The spearhead weighed 15 pounds (6.8 kg)! Goliath wore a coat of mail armor which weighed 125 pounds (57 kg). At the time of this writing, the United States Army’s Improved Outer Tactical Vest (IOTV)—the standard issue body armor worn by ground combat units—weighs about 33 pounds (15kg). Obviously, it took a man of incredible physical stature to wield such an enormous spear, wear armor weighing the equivalent of an average 15-year-old American male, and to have a normal-sized man carry a shield in front of him.

Goliath’s height is described using cubits and a span. A cubit is a unit of measurement, used by ancient people, in which the forearm length from the tip of the middle finger to the bottom of the elbow equals a cubit. A span is a distance measured from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger. Cubits vary among cultures; an Egyptian Royal cubit was about 20.6 inches long, whereas a Roman cubit was 17.5 inches. The Babylonian Royal cubit is thought to have been 19.8 inches. It is hard to know exactly the cubit measurements for biblical verses. Some say there were two Hebrew cubits, the long and the short. The long cubit was 20.4 inches; the short cubit was 17.5. To muddy the waters, I have read in several places that length of the cubit in the Bible is 25.025 inches in length. To add further confusion, it is generally accepted among biblical scholars that Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament. Moses, of course, was raised in the Egyptian Royal Court; did he use an Egyptian Royal Cubit for his measurements?

So how tall was Goliath? If we use an Egyptian Royal Cubit, Goliath would have been 11 feet tall—he would have been a foot taller that a regulation basketball rim! If we were to accept the 25.025-inch cubit, Goliath would have stood at an incredible 13 feet. From this point forward, I will use the “common cubit” which is 18 inches (45.72 cm). According to this unit of measure, Goliath would have stood at close to 10 feet (3 meters) in height.

When looking at the story of David and the enormous Philistine, the question always arises: Is this an allegorical account or is a literal interpretation in order? Perhaps a bit of both? One aspect of the tale that sticks out to me is the specific weights and measures recorded regarding Goliath and his armaments. We find this in Deuteronomy 3:11 as well when Og, the king of Bashan is described:

For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of giants; behold his bedstead was a bedstead of iron; is it not in Rabbath of the children of Ammon? nine cubits was the length thereof, and four cubits the breadth of it, after the cubit of a man. (KJV)

Here we have a bed described that was constructed from iron. The king’s bed was 13.5 feet long and 6 feet wide, or 4.1 x 1.8 meters. This is an enormous bed! I sleep on a queen-sized mattress; the measurements are 6’8” x 5’. I am 5’10’ tall, so I have nearly a foot extra on the length of my mattress. If we apply roughly the same criteria to Og’s bed, then he would have stood at an approximate height of 12 feet.

Continuing on with the David and Goliath story:

16 And the Philistine drew near morning and evening, and presented himself forty days……23 And as he talked with them, behold, there came up the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, out of the armies of the Philistines, and spake according to the same words: and David heard them. 24 And all the men of Israel, when they saw the man, fled from him, and were sore afraid. (KJV)

Clearly, the Israelites feared Goliath and were greatly intimidated by his stature. David, though, a small shepherd boy, strengthened by his faith in God, is not afraid. He volunteers to fight the giant:

32 And David said to Saul, Let no man’s heart fail because of him; thy servant will go and fight with this Philistine. (KJV)

Something else to note in the David and Goliath story is that Goliath lived among the Philistines. He did not live in a castle in the clouds or in a cave on the outskirts of a village—he lived among average-sized people. This coincides with other legends especially those from the Americas. In North America, there is a tradition of an elite class—shamans, chiefs, and warriors—who were giants. Large skeletal remains, buried in an elaborate manner, have been found in Mound Builder sites throughout the United States.

Finishing the tale of David and Goliath, an epic battle takes place. The mother of all underdog stories unfolds:

44 And the Philistine said to David, Come to me, and I will give thy flesh unto the fowls of the air, and to the beasts of the field…49 And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth.  50 So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and smote the Philistine, and slew him; but there was no sword in the hand of David. (KJV)

Goliath was not the only giant who lived among the Philistines. 2 Samuel 21 says the following:

15 Moreover the Philistines had yet war again with Israel; and David went down, and his servants with him, and fought against the Philistines: and David waxed faint. 16 And Ishbibenob, which was of the sons of the giant, the weight of whose spear weighed three hundred shekels of brass in weight, he being girded with a new sword, thought to have slain David. 17 But Abishai the son of Zeruiah succoured him, and smote the Philistine, and killed him. Then the men of David sware unto him, saying, Thou shalt go no more out with us to battle, that thou quench not the light of Israel. 18 And it came to pass after this, that there was again a battle with the Philistines at Gob: then Sibbechai the Hushathite slew Saph, which was of the sons of the giant. 19 And there was again a battle in Gob with the Philistines, where Elhanan the son of Jaareoregim, a Bethlehemite, slew the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the staff of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam. 20 And there was yet a battle in Gath, where was a man of great stature, that had on every hand six fingers, and on every foot six toes, four and twenty in number; and he also was born to the giant. 21 And when he defied Israel, Jonathan the son of Shimeah the brother of David slew him. 22 These four were born to the giant in Gath, and fell by the hand of David, and by the hand of his servants. (KJV)

The Bible is full of tales of giants; we might owe these stories a closer look. Perhaps there are elements of truth in the accounts. Now I would like to look at another account of a Goliath-like character—this time, from Mesoamerica.

An Aztec Goliath

In 1519, Hernán Cortés landed on the Yucatan Peninsula with about 500 soldiers. His arrival was eerily similar to a prophecy set to be fulfilled that year of the return of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, promised to return after being banished long ago. Cortés, though, was no deity; Cortés was a man, driven by a lust for gold and power, who would bring the once mighty Aztec empire to its knees.

The conquistadors laid Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, to siege in 1521. This was the decisive event that facilitated the fall of the Aztecs. There was a hero—a giant—who fought against the Spanish who was said to have stood several heads taller than other men.

Like the Philistines, the Aztecs also had giants who lived among them. One of these giants, named Tzilacatzin, was a member of an elite class of warriors, known as the Otomi.

Tzilacatzin showed no fear of the Spanish; in fact, the giant struck fear into their hearts. According to the account of Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan friar who studied the beliefs of the Aztecs after he came to the New World to convert the indigenous people to Christianity:

Then Tzilacatzin, a very brave warrior, came forth with three great, huge stones, one in his hand, two carried upon his shield. They were white wall stones. He cast them and thereupon pursued the Spaniards, scattering them and dispersing them into the water. They were soaked.

Hernán Cortés, in his letters to Charles V, said this about Tzilacatzin:

The Aztecs had one formidable warrior of giant stature, called Tzilacatzin, who was wonderfully skillful with his sling, every stone he sent bringing down its man. He was made aim of all the Spanish archers and musketeers, his great stature making him easily distinguishable, but they could never hit him. On one of these days eighteen Spaniards were captured alive and sacrificed, their bodies afterwords cut up and distributed to be eaten.

Unlike the account of Goliath, who was killed by the lowly shepherd David, there is little said about the death of Tzilacatzin. It is assumed that he was killed as Tenochtitlan fell.

The story of Tzilacatzin is not an isolated incident; tales of giants permeate the legends of Mesoamerica. A group of giants known as the Quinametzin lived on the earth during a previous age. These giants, who stood at over 10 feet in height, were responsible for building the city of Teotihuacan and the pyramid at Cholula and they founded various other cities.

The end of the reign of the Quinametzin Giants is something we have heard before in other myths. The gods sent a series of catastrophes to punish the giants because they refused to worship them. This is similar to the giants who ran amok in the days of Noah before the Great Flood. In an Andean myth, the creator fashioned people from large stones. These were giants who greatly displeased their god. They were wiped out by a flood.

The world over, the similarities in the myths are too much to ignore. It cannot be simple coincidence. So the question becomes, what is the truth behind the stories?


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