The Cerne Abbas Giant, Dorset
by Philip Carr-Gomm
Personally I have never felt affronted by the Cerne Giant and have no time at all for the simpering old ladies who cluck-cluck every time they pass it. The only residents I sympathize with are the elderly males or tired Dorchester business men who are constantly reminded by their wives and mistresses en passant of how far short they fall of the splendid male vigour displayed before them.
~ The Hon. Ophelia Pashley-Cumming
There are two giants carved on hillsides in southern England. In Sussex, the Long Man of Wilmington stands 70 m (227 ft) tall and is really a Long Person since only an outline of a figure can be seen holding a staff or pole in each hand. In Dorset the Cerne Abbas Giant, nicknamed ‘The Rude Man’ is 55 m (180 ft) tall, with his most outstanding – or upstanding – feature being 7.2m (30 ft) long. His club is longer – 36m (120ft), each eye is 1m (3ft) in diameter and his shoulders measure 14 m (45 ft) across.
Theories abound as to his origin – he may be a Celtic god cut into the turf before the Roman invasion of 43 AD, or he may be a figure venerating the cruel Roman emperor Commodus who after beating the Scots in 184 AD called himself Hercules Romanus. He may have been created by dissolute monks from the nearby abbey, or he could be a caricature of Oliver Cromwell created in the 17th century by his critic Denzil Holles.
The strong masculine presence of the god of Giant Hill is balanced by the strong feminine presence of water which is found in abundance at the foot of the hill – in the waters of the holy Silver well, in the watercress beds of Cerne river, and in the town pond beside which on May Day a Maypole was once erected.
Today the village has become a place of pilgrimage for Pagans celebrating the inherent sexuality of Nature and for couples hoping to conceive a child.
The Giant survives as an image redolent with meaning concerning warrior-heroes, fertility, aggression, the tenacious adherence of rural communities to a totem, a Father-Protector. He has handed us back a portion of the past that would otherwise have been grassed over and been lost forever.
Paul Newman, The Lost Gods of Albion
In the chalk downland of Dorset in south-west England, the sleepy village of Cerne Abbas, with its 700 or so inhabitants is famous for its great figure of a giant which is carved into a hill on its outskirts. The hill is unsurprisingly known as Giant Hill and the best view of it can be obtained by swooping low over the village and surrounding countryside on GoogleEarth with the viewing set at an angle to give you a good impression of the contours of the land.
If you have had difficulty in conceiving a child you might want to make the pilgrimage to this place physically rather than virtually, but you would need to bear in mind that the hotels here are often full. If the reports are to be believed, the practice of making love on the giant’s phallus to encourage conception is on the increase, and the site is a popular tourist destination.
The Chalk Hill Figures of Britain
Chalk hill figures are a unique feature of the hillsides of southern Britain. The earliest known example, the White Horse of Uffington, has been dated to the Early Iron Age or Late Bronze Age, between 1400 and 600 BC. Many of the hundred or more figures that we know about are of more recent origin – some have been cut into the earth very recently, such as the giant figure of British Prime Minister John Major wearing only underpants and a traffic cone on his head, cut into the turf outside Brighton by the cartoonist Steve Bell in 1994 in protest over the government’s road building programme. Others were created during the 18th and 19th centuries or earlier, but the recent scientific dating of the Uffington horse has now proved that the tradition of creating vast figures on hillsides is indeed ancient, and that for at least three thousand years the inhabitants of southern Britain have been engaged in a spectacular form of landscape art.
The Uffington horse forms part of a sacred landscape that includes the Neolithic long barrow of Wayland’s Smithy, the flat-topped tump of Dragon Hill beneath the horse, and the Bronze and Iron Age hill fort known as Uffington Castle beside it. The Long Man of Wilmington – the Cerne Abbas giant’s brother, or perhaps sister since the figure is without a phallus – stands above its own small tump, and beneath tumuli that crown Windover Hill in Sussex. The Cerne Abbas giant is similarly set within a sacred landscape that includes a square double-banked enclosure known as the Trendle or the Frying Pan, and a holy well.
Celebration and Fertility
The figure of the giant is of course striking because he displays an erection – an image that is still considered so provocative that photographs or artwork of an erect male remain for the most part illegal. But here in Dorset this image is on daily display – upsetting some, and intriguing or amusing others who come to see it. Increasingly, though, he has come to be seen as an image of celebration and reverence for those who are inspired by nature spirituality – whether they are Pagans, Wiccans, Druids or simply people who feel no affinity with conventional religions but find spiritual sustenance in an appreciation of Nature. This spiritual approach affirms the inherent sexuality of life rather than denying it, and the Cerne Abbas giant has become an icon for the celebration of fertility and sexuality.
We now know that his penis has increased in length over time. Depictions from the 18th century, and postcards as late as 1901, show a navel with the tip of the penis just below it. But in 1908 the image was so overgrown a subscription was raised in the neighbourhood and the giant was scoured and the trenches filled with fresh chalk. By the time the archaeologist Flinders Petrie surveyed the site in 1926 the giant had surpassed the ambition of most men and his organ had eclipsed his navel, having grown by 1.83 m (6 ft).
Perhaps it is a coincidence that his erection is aligned directly with the summer sunrise – or perhaps this reinforces the theory that he represents the solar god Helia.
The Visit of St.Augustine
In 603 St Augustine is said to have visited the village where he received an unusual welcome. He was jeered at by the locals, who fastened cows’ or fishes’ tails to themselves as a mark of disrespect – driving the missionaries three miles out of the village. But, so the story goes, the villagers relented, the idol Heil or Hegle was destroyed and a spring miraculously rose from the ground permitting their baptism.
The spring can be found in a corner of the cemetery which was once the abbey churchyard. Shaded by lime trees it is protected by a wishing stone which displays an eight-petalled flower or wheel. Some see in it a Catherine wheel commemorating the martyrdom of St Catherine who was tied to a spiked wheel before being beheaded. Others prefer to see it as a symbol of the Pagan wheel of the year, marking the eight festival days of seasonal celebration. Traditionally the well was known as Silver Well, perhaps after Sylvanus the Roman pan-like god, and its waters were believed to have healing properties and were said to aid fertility and well-being – particularly in women.
May Day and Morris Men
One of the eight feast days of pre-Christian and now contemporary Pagan practice is Beltane on May 1st. At this time the burgeoning fertility of the land is celebrated and Cerne Abbas provides an ideal setting for such a festivity. Even the village’s name is appropriate since it may derive from the Celtic fertility god Cernunnos. For the last thirty years or more the Wessex Morris Men have climbed Giant Hill to dance with a strange horned creature, half man, half bull, and made of painted wood with a horsehair beard, called the Ooser which is lent to them each May by the Dorset County Museum.
The Morris Men dance in the Frying Pan above the Giant’s head because in 1901 the former sexton of Cerne reported that in the old days the villagers used to dance around a maypole erected there. Later other villagers disputed this, saying that the maypole was erected beside the pond in the middle of the village. The historian Rodney Castleden believes the whole area was a sacred site of the Durotriges tribe who cut the giant figure during the Iron Age as a symbol of ferocity, fertility and healing. Below the hill was the sacred spring and a sanctuary or reception area for pilgrims – you can still detect the remains of this in the various earthworks which can be seen on satellite images of the Abbey field.
In this scheme the Frying Pan, or Trendle, was a temple or shrine to the god Helis, or perhaps to the Celtic god Nodens, who was worshipped by the Durotriges. A bronze handle ploughed up at nearby Blandford Forum that depicts Nodens naked with a club in his left hand and the fertility symbol of a hare in his right, suggests a connection with the Cerne giant, particularly now that archaeological surveys suggest the figure originally held something in his free hand – though frustratingly only a few lines, and no clear image, are discernible.
William Stukeley and Ronald Hutton
But there are other theories to explain this powerful figure. In 1764 William Stukeley, the founding father of archaeology, suggested that the figure was Hercules, and in modern times the historian Ronald Hutton has advanced the theory that the figure was cut in the 17th century by local landowner Baron Denzil Holles as a lampoon against Oliver Cromwell, who had been dubbed ‘the English Hercules’.
Another theory is that the figure was a sort of Chaucerian jest – cut into the turf at the time of the church’s waning power, during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. Four years prior to this the abbot was accused of keeping concubines in the abbey’s cellar, entertaining them at table, and allowing the monks to play cards all night. Was the figure carved by the monks or by critics deriding the lewd abbot? The archaeologist Stuart Piggott, who helped restore the giant after its war-time concealment from German bombers under brushwood by the Home Guard, believed the figure originated with the second century cult of the Emperor Commodius, who was likened to Hercules.
The archaeologist Paul Newman is unconvinced and notes that Commodus’ reign was brief and unpopular, and that it is unlikely he would have been portrayed with an erection. He believes the figure may well be older and points to the ancient and primal associations of the male figure as warrior and fertiliser which are inimical to the later eras proposed by other theorists: “A proud physique and enormous club had little relevance to the Age of Monasticism or the Enlightenment. Neither would the giant relate to Cavaliers and Roundheads or the subsequent Restoration.”
One day we may be able to date the figure exactly. But perhaps the historians are all wrong and the local folklore is correct – that what we see is the outline of a real giant who was captured and pinned down by villagers as he lay sleeping after a meal of many sheep. Whatever we choose to believe about its past, the Cerne Abbas giant today conveys a complex and powerful message. It is the only place in the world where a vast image of a naked man with an erection is displayed in full public view.
The Cerne Abbas giant, with his club raised in defiance conveys the paradoxical nature of human sexuality – that it can be both an animal and a spiritual experience, and that it can be both creative and destructive. The erect penis can be a vehicle for love, pleasure and procreation, but it can also be used to violate and abuse. As long as something remains hidden it can never be fully understood, and men have for centuries surrounded the image of the erect penis with taboos and legal restraints. It symbolises male power – and authoritarian patriarchy demands that it remain hidden. As we move into a more egalitarian age we can start to look at this image and all that it represents – to demystify it, to free ourselves, perhaps, from our fear or envy of it, and to celebrate it too, as a source of pleasure.
Many an honest Puritan must have eyed it askance from under his broad black hat; and during the decades of Queen Victoria’s reign it must have offered an uncivil affront to the refined susceptibilities of the ladies and gentlemen, who in comfortable carriages smelling of expensive upholstery hot in the sun, rolled along the dusty roads from Sherborne to Dorchester.
Even more than the horses, hill-figures of human form capture the imagination. Of these the Cerne Giant of Dorset is the most famous, on account of his swaggering immodesty.
603 AD – St Augustine’s mission destroys the ‘idol of Heil or Hegle’ at Cerne, according to The Life of St Augustine
987 – Cerne Abbas Abbey founded
1654-1662 – The land is owned by Denzil Holles who may have organised the creation of the figure to satirise Oliver Cromwell
1694 – The first record of the giant – the church warden pays 3 shillings ‘for repareing ye Giant’
1754 – Dr Richard Pococke states that the lord of the manor pays for the lines to be scoured (cleared) every seven or eight years
1764 – The earliest published account of the giant in The Gentleman’s Magazine. William Stukeley proposes he is Hercules at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries
1774 – The historian John Hutchins reports the story that the Parliamentarian Denzil Holles’ servants cut the giant in mockery of Oliver Cromwell
1868 – Renovation opposed by the local vicar in the first recorded scouring
1880 – General Pitt Rivers inherits the land, scours the giant and encloses him in a six-sided pen to protect him from revellers and their Queen Victoria Jubilee bonfire of 1887
1908 – The scouring that is likely to have extended the giant’s penis by 1.83 m (6ft)
1926 – Sir Flinders Petrie conducts a survey of the site
1939-1945 – The figure is hidden under brushwood by the Home Guard to prevent German planes using it for navigation
1956 – A thorough scouring carried out by a Swindon building firm
1979 – The same firm scours it again – 5 men took 11 weeks to do this
1980 – The artist Kenneth Evans-Loude proposes cutting a figure of Marilyn Monroe nearby
1996 – Bournemouth University holds a Commission of Enquiry into the age of the Giant held at Cerne Abbas