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Cerne Abbas Giant
Cerne Abbas
Cerne Abbas  locality
Dorset  county
England  country
United Kingdom  country
Europe  continent
Main date(s)
50.813694° N, 2.474740° W

Description of the Cerne Abbas Giant

The Cerne Abbas Giant is a figure of a club-weilding naked man on a grassy hillside to the north of the village of Cerne Abbas. He has a very prominent penis, a disproportionately small head, and a simple, almost comical face that doesn't match the fierceness of his form.

The Giant is 180 feet (55 m) tall and 167 feet (51 m) wide. In his right hand, he wields a knobbed club 120 feet (36.5 m) long. His left hand is outstretched and strangely long, and may have once held a severed head or lion skin.

The giant was made by cutting away the grass to reveal the underlying white chalk then adding a chalk infill (periodically restored over the years). The trench is 1 foot wide and 1 foot deep.

Above the Giant's left shoulder is a small square earthwork called the Trendle, which has been dated to the Iron Age. Its purpose is uncertain, but it is widely thought to be the site of an ancient temple.

There are many theories about the identity of the Cerne Abbas Giant. One common interpretation is that he is a prehistoric or Celtic fertility god or symbol. There is a mound below the Giant's now-empty left hand, which could be a remnant of a severed head - this was a common ancient Celtic religious symbol. Adding credence to this theory is that another hillside chalk drawing, the White Horse of Uffington, is thought to date from this early period. And the Trendle, an earthwork on the hill above the Giant, has been dated to the Iron Age.

Another possibility is that the Cerne Abbas Giant is the Greco-Roman hero Hercules. Hercules was often depicted naked with a club in his right hand and a lion skin draped over his left shoulder - and scientific tests suggest there might once have been something draped over the Giant's left side. There is also a collection of Roman terracotta statues depicting the Giant in the Museum of Arles in France. If the Giant is Hercules, he may have been drawn during the reign of Emperor Commodus (180-93), who believed himself to be a reincarnation of Hercules and revived the hero's cult.

A third theory is that the Giant was drawn by the Benedictine monks of the nearby Cerne Abbey. It may not be the sort of drawing one expects from monks, but a similar figure once existed close to the Benedictine Priory at Wilmington in Sussex. In addition, this theory could explain why the apparently pagan image was allowed to survive so close to a major monastery. Of course, a later date for the Giant would explain this, too.

Departing from all these theories of an early date is the interesting possibility that the Cerne Abbas Giant is actually a 17th-century parody of Oliver Cromwell. In 1774, Rev. John Hutchins claimed the Giant was created by Lord Denzil Holles, the owner of the hill from 1642 to 1666, to satirize the puritanical rule of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was mockingly referred to as "England's Hercules" by his enemies.

Academic study aside, popular belief has long had it that the Cerne Abbas Giant is an aid to fertility, and that lovemaking within the figure's prominent male organ assists in conception. In addition, young women used to sleep on the Giant, preferably within the phallus, to ensure a future marriage. For hundreds of years, it was local custom to erect a maypole within the nearby earthwork known as the Trendle (see below), where childless couples would dance to promote fertility.

Giant Hill is fenced off to prevent erosion to the figure, but you can walk around the Giant and above the Trendle on the Giant Hill footpath, which is easily reached from the parking area or the village. The figure is difficult to make out from close up, but the walk is well worth it to inspect the chalk trenches and admire the beautiful views of the Dorset countryside from the top of the hill.

Holly Hayes
October 27, 2011

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