The Mysterious Origins of the Cerne Abbas Giant
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The Cerne Giant is an ancient naked figure sculpted into the chalk hillside above Cerne Abbas in Dorset. Standing at 180ft tall the Cerne Giant is Britain’s largest chalk hill figure and perhaps the best known.  The Cerne Giant is an ancient naked figure sculpted into the chalk hillside above Cerne Abbas in Dorset. Standing at 180ft tall the Cerne Giant is Britain’s largest chalk hill figure and perhaps the best known. Many theories have surrounded the giant’s identity and origins, including ancient symbol of spirituality, likeness of the Greco-Roman hero Hercules, mockery of Oliver Cromwell and fertility aid. In 2021, after extensive scientific analysis, National Trust archaeologists concluded the giant was probably first constructed in the late Saxon period. Above the giant is a rectangular earthwork enclosure, known as the Trendle, which is believed to date back to the Iron Age. It is still used today by local Morris Dancers as a site for May Day celebrations.

 

 176 first known drawing from the Gentlemans Magazine

First Known Drawing from the Gentlemans Magazine - 1764

 

Many theories have surrounded the giant’s identity and origins, including ancient symbol of spirituality, likeness of the Greco-Roman hero Hercules, mockery of Oliver Cromwell and fertility aid. In 2021, after extensive scientific analysis, National Trust archaeologists concluded the giant was probably first constructed in the late Saxon period. Above the giant is a rectangular earthwork enclosure, known as the Trendle, which is believed to date back to the Iron Age. It is still used today by local Morris Dancers as a site for May Day celebrations.

 

The Cerne Abbas Giant aerial side

 

The giant was given to the National Trust in 1920. Part of conserving the giant means leaving it alone as much as possible – the chalk is replaced every decade or so, a process that takes days of work by National Trust rangers and volunteers. The more the ground is disturbed, the quicker the giant erodes away.  

 

Denzil Holles 1st Baron Holles of Ifield

Lord Holles Portrait from the 1640s

 

Holles, the Cerne Abbas landowner, has been suggested as the person who ordered the giant to be cut in mockery of his political adversary Cromwell.  Later on, the 4,000 square metres (0.99 acres) site where it stands were donated to the National Trust by its then land-owners, Alexander and George Pitt-Rivers, and it is now listed as a Scheduled Monument. During World War II the giant was camouflaged with brushwood by the Home Guard in order to prevent its use as a landmark for enemy aircraft.

 

bottom up view

 

From different viewpoints, in different lights, the Giant can look starkly white or at times be just a faint outline. The best viewing spot for the Giant is from the Giant’s View car park, but there is also a short walk up to the Giant’s feet.

replanting around giant 1

 

According to the National Trust, the grass is trimmed regularly and the giant is fully re-chalked every 25 years. Traditionally, the National Trust has relied on sheep from surrounding farms to graze the site. However, in 2008 a lack of sheep, coupled with a wet spring causing extra plant growth, forced a re-chalking of the giant, with 17 tonnes of new chalk being poured in and tamped down by hand.

 

Renovation in 2008

 

In 2006, the National Trust carried out the first wildlife survey of the Cerne Abbas Giant, identifying wild flowers including the green-winged orchid, clustered bellflower and autumn gentian, which are uncommon in England.

 

Maintenance of the Giant 1

 

In 1921 Walter Long of Gillingham, Dorset, objected to the giant's nudity and conducted a campaign to either convert it to a simple nude, or to cover its supposed obscenity with a leaf.  Long's protest gained some support, including that of two bishops, and eventually reached the Home Office. The Home Office considered the protest to be in humour, though the chief constable responded to say the office could not act against a protected scheduled monument.

 

Cerne Abbas Giants phallus

 Cerne Abbas Giants phallus

 

Whatever its origin, the giant has become an important part of the culture and folklore of Dorset. Some folk stories indicate that the image is an outline of the corpse of a real giant.  One story says the giant came from Denmark leading an invasion of the coast, and was beheaded by the people of Cerne Abbas while he slept on the hillside.  

 

fertility ceremonies 1

 

 Other folklore, first recorded in the Victorian era, associates the figure with fertility.  According to folk belief, a woman who sleeps on the figure will be blessed with fecundity, and infertility may be cured through sexual intercourse on top of the figure, especially the phallus.  In 1808, Dorset poet William Holloway published his poem "The Giant of Trendle Hill",  in which the Giant is killed by the locals by piercing its heart.

 

CerneAbbasHomer 1

 

In 2015, the giant was used as a character in an online comic book published by Eco Comics; the giant's character appeared in various adventures accompanying a character based on St George, though his erect penis was removed from the artwork as many "outlets, particularly in the US, refuse any form of nudity in comic books".

 

Theres a beer which gives you mystical sexual powers 1 2

 

The giant's image has been reproduced on various souvenirs and local food produce labels, including for a range of beers made by the Cerne Abbas Brewery. In 2016, the BBC reported that the beer company's logo had been censored in the Houses of Parliament.