Myths of Origin
All around the British Isles there are myths and legends that tell how giants and giantesses have shaped the landscape, often forming significant landmarks. Here we look at two who are credited with forming the Avon Gorge and other parts of the landscape around the Bristol area in South West England.
The Giant Brothers
In the most well known version of the story there were two giants named Goram and Vincent who were brothers. In some older tales Goram’s brother is named Ghyston and not Vincent. There is a tradition that the change came because Bristol was an important port in the Middle Ages and had commercial connections with the Iberian wine business. As well as wine this led to the importing of the cult of Saint Vincent who was the patron of São Vicente, Lisbon; Diocese of Algarve; Valencia; Vicenza, Italy, vinegar-makers, wine-makers; Order of Deacons of the Catholic Diocese of Bergamo (Italy) (1).
The cliff face of the Avon Gorge was once known as Ghyston Rocks or sometimes just Ghyston in earlier times and there was a cave known as either Ghyston’s Cave or the Giant’s Hole. Situated at th narrowest part of the Avon Gorge was an ancient hermitage and chapel dedicated to St. Vincent. The cave became known as St Vincent’s cave and it seems the “Ghyston” became “Vincent” and that is the name he will be referred to this work.
Avona, the Giantess
Both brothers fell in love with a giantess from Wiltshire named Avona who the River Avon takes its name from. She was the female personification of the river and possibly a distant memory of an ancient goddess or spirit. Avona could not decide who she preferred between Vincent and Goram so she set them a task that would display their talents. According to this myth there was once a lake situated between Bristol and Bradford-upon-Avon in the neighboring county of Wiltshire. She proposed that the one who managed to drain the lake first would win the right to marry her. After giving much thought to the problem the giants came up with different ideas on how to achieve the task. Vincent chose to dig a channel on the south side of Clifton while Goram chose to dig a different channel that went through Henbury.
Both giants set to work and while Vincent toiled at a steady pace Goram worked furiously determined to be the winner. He worked so hard that eventually he became hot and sweaty and in need of a drink. He was a long way in front of Vincent and he thought he could afford to take a break and quench his thirst. So he sat down in his favorite chair and quaffed a large tankard of ale. It tasted so good and cooled him down so much he drank another, and another and another. He drank so much he fell asleep.
Meanwhile Vincent, who had paced himself better, finished his channel and drained the lake. From this story comes an explanation of how the narrow gorge the Hazel Brook flows through in Henbury and the Avon gorge which the River Avon passes through and other features of the landscape.
On the nearby Blaise Estate, In woods above Henbury Gorge is a formation supposedly created when Goram stamped his foot when he found out he had lost Avona to Vincent. He was so distraught he drowned himself in the River Severn estuary creating two islands, one called Steep Holm and the other called Flat Holm which are said to be his head and shoulder. There are also two other features attributed to him in Henbury gorge. The first is a short pillar topped with earth called the Soap-Dish and the second is a pool.
In another version the characters of the two brother giants are as different as chalk and cheese. Vincent was presented as being energetic and productive whereas Goram was considered to be a greedy idler. One day Goram had the idea that they should do something so that people in the future would remember them. He suggested they build a massive monument to themselves out of rocks that were to be supplied by Vincent and the bones that were leftovers from his gorging of himself with food.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vincent declined but instead suggested they work together and build a most beautiful channel for the river to run through. This seemed a bit like too much hard work for Goram who watched as his brother set about the task working steadily and energetically towards his goal. As Goram watched his brother progress he realized that Vincent’s name would live on forever through the fruits of his labor and grew jealous. Therefore, so that his own name would not be forgotten he began building his own channel some three miles distant from Vincent’s.
The Death of Goram
Having no pick-axe of his own he borrowed his brother’s and being a lazy fellow the first thing he did was use it to cut a chair in the rock so that he could sit and rest from toil. The brothers took it in turns to use the pick-axe. They would shout a warning and hurl it through the air the three miles or so one to the other. One day Goram fell asleep in his chair and never heard his brother shout a warning and the pick-axe hit him on the head, breaking his skull, killing him.
Death of Vincent
Vincent was distraught at his brother’s death, entirely blaming himself. From then on he put all of his energy into his work making the beautiful gully we know as the Avon gorge which the River Avon flows through today. Despite his achievement and his hard labour he still felt guilty about his brother’s unfortunate death and to use up his pent up energy built a stone circle at Stonehenge and another at Stanton Drew. Even these labors had not used up all his energy so he swam over to Ireland and built the Giant’s Causeway which finally tired him out. He was exhausted by his labors and still feeling guilt and grief for the death of his brother whom he missed greatly. In despair he returned home to spend the last hours of his life sitting upon the rocks looking out over the beautiful gorge he had dug that the River Avon flowed through.
These are just two versions of the legends of how the Avon gorge and parts of the surrounding landscape were formed. There are many other versions and many other legends from the rest of the British Isles crediting giants with making features of the landscape.
© 30/09/2020 zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright September 30th, 2020 zteve t evans
- Bristol History
- Vincent of Saragossa – Wikipedia
- Somerset Giants – Anthony Adolph
- Goram and Vincent – Wikipedia
- File:Avon gorge and cave arp.jpg from Wikimedia Commons Image by r Arpingstone – Public Domain
- File:Giant’s Footprint.jpg from Wikimedia Commons – Image by Mojo0306 – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.