The Cerne Abbas Giant is one of the more famous figures carved into the chalk cliffs of England. He can be found on the aptly named 'Giant Hill' overlooking the village of Cerne Abbas in the county of Dorset, just off the A352. He measures 180 feet in height and 167 feet in width, made up of trenches cut deep into the chalk, and wields a large knobbled club in his right hand. His most prominent feature, however, is his erect penis (measuring eight feet in length), which was considered so shocking by the Victorians, that the trenches constructing it were filled in with earth and it was hidden beneath the grass before being unearthed once again by the Pitt-Rivers family and The National Trust in 1920. (It was covered over once again, along with the rest of the giant, during WWII in order to stop German bombers using it as a landmark for getting to the nearby city of Bristol.)
Today the giant stands proudly in all his glory on the hillside, and is seen as a centre for fertility rites. Maypole dancing has occurred at the site for centuries, the sun rising in line with the giant's phallus on May 1st, although the more traditional site of Maypole dancing is in 'The Frying Pan' or Trendle. (This is a rectangular earthwork sited just above the giant's head and thought to possibly be a temple site, dating from the Iron Age. More fanciful explanations of the sites usage described the Trendle as a focus for sacrificial activity, similar to that seen in the film The Wicker Man, but there is no evidence to substantiate this...) Other traditions connected to the site involve barren couples copulating on the grass within the giant's penis, and childless women lying on the same grass overnight, in the hope of bearing children. Young women who wished to keep their lovers faithful were told to walk around the giant three times.
As to the origins of the giant, no one is sure of who cut him into the chalk, or when. There are several different ideas as to how and why he was created.
- Local tradition states that a giant was slain on the hill, and the villagers of Cerne Abbot drew around his outline, creating the giant as it stand today.
- The giant may represent a fertility God of the ancient Celtic Durotriges, a tribe who lived in Dorset before the invasion of the Romans. Another Celtic name associated with the giant is Helith, a god promoting good health and well-being.
- The giant may represent Hercules, and if so would suggest a late Iron Age date, or early Roman one. This would tie in the the Trendle temple site, and possibly be linked to the Roman revival of Hercules as a God by Emperor Commodus in the 2nd century AD.
- The figure is first cited in literature in 1634, when the local church warden was paid three shillings to re-cut the trenches of the giant's outline. Many believe the giant is in fact an elaborate hoax, created in Medieval times, as there are so few references to him in literature.
- Ronald Hutton, a historian responsible for researching the history of the giant, believed he was created by the servants of local landowner, Lord Holles, in the 17th century, after his estate went into receivership after the Civil War.
- An aerial photography site suggested he might be a caricature of Oliver Cromwell, but didn't have any evidence for this assumption.
- A more fun explanation for the giant stems from the abbey, based in Cerne Abbas. It is thought that the younger clergy cut the giant into the hillside as an affront to their bishop.
- Ley line enthusiasts and members of the archaeological lunatic fringe believe the giant is a representation of the constellation Orion, although there is no evidence for these claims.
- Pseudo_Intellectual recalls that the Cerne Giant was discussed as one of the promotional images for Viagra. (Although this was in a editorial cartoon and, therefore, may not be total legit ;o)
So you can make your mind up for yourself. Unlike the White Horse of Uffington
, another hillside figure, there is nothing written about the giant in any known literature written before the Medieval period. This does suggest that the giant is fairly recent in date.
The giant can be viewed all year round, although the hillside is fairly steep with little shelter, so a good day is suggested if you want to visit. There is no admission fee and parking can be found at the foot of the hill, provided by The National Trust.
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For pictures of the giant, see