Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:54 am
This is an appropriate question, since it is rumoured that couples creep up to the Cerne Abbas Giant at night in order to make babies. As the Giant is cut into a hill with a reasonable degree of slope on it, the mechanics of their actions must be somewhat of a challenge; but each to their own. We should hope these nocturnal visits are coordinated so as to ensure fair use, only one couple at a time and no queuing. The reason it (allegedly) happens at all is because some see the figure as a fertility symbol; I can’t imagine why.
The Cerne Abbas Giant is one of Britain’s best known hill figures, cut into the hillside near the pretty Dorset village of Cerne Abbas. It is formed of a chalk-filled trench about 1 foot deep and across, stands 180 feet (55 metres) high and depicts a nude male wielding a large knobbly club – and so on…
Some people believe the Giant represents an ancient Celtic deity, or Hercules. Actually, the age of the Cerne Abbas Giant has long been uncertain; although A Bit About Britain used to list it as prehistoric, many thought it may have been cut as recently as the 17th century. But recent investigations suggest something else entirely. There is some evidence that the Giant once had a cloak casually slung over the left arm – Hercules is often depicted with a lion skin over his arm – and a further suggestion that he once carried a severed head in his left hand. If the Giant was some 2,000 years old, as some believed, then a severed head would chime with the image of an Iron Age warrior, or god, returning from battle with his enemy’s head as a prize. Advocates of the 17th-century school of thought, however, point out that the earliest reference to the Giant is from 1694, that there is no reference to the Giant in any of the surviving records from nearby Cerne Abbey, and speculate that it is a malicious representation of Oliver Cromwell, who did not endear himself to a local landowner. If so, there was obviously more to Cromwell than the history books usually tell us.
I may as well mention that there’s a local legend that a Giant was killed on the hill and the good folk of Cerne Abbas marked round the body to preserve its outline. Are we to assume, then, that the Giant died happy?
Like all hillside figures, the Giant gets all furry and indistinct if he is not regularly attended to – a process known as scouring, which the locals must have been carrying out since at least the 17th century. During the Second World War, he was covered, not to avoid embarrassment to innocent Luftwaffe crews, but so they could not use him as a landmark. As if. Unsurprisingly, the Giant is also subject to various pranks and modifications, some of them amusing. Apparently, an American comic featuring our hero in 2015 had to censor itself, because some outlets refused to stock issues showing him au naturel. A spokesperson for the National Trust, which owns and manages this national treasure, blandly said that they “like him as he is” and had never censored him. More depressingly, the logo of Cerne Abbas Brewery, which predictably features our little friend, was partly covered with a paper fig-leaf when their ale went on sale in a bar at the Houses of Parliament.
Anyway, the easiest place to see the Cerne Abbas Giant is from a full-frontal unguarded viewing point on the east side of the A352, just north of Cerne Abbas village. The last time I was there, the poor chap seemed in need of a good scouring, so my shots are pretty useless. Of course, he is best seen from the air anyway so, to show him off in his full glory, I have taken some images from Google Earth.
I particularly remember visiting with my brother about 20 years ago. We were just trying to take in the somewhat astonishing sight on the hillside, uncomfortably close to us, when a middle-aged woman, who had been reading the information board, squeaked loudly to her friend: “Look, Ada – it says here he’s been recently re-erected.”
To return to the age debate, the results of hi-tech analysis of sediment undertaken between 2020 and 2021 surprised everyone. The enigmatic giant turned out to be late Saxon, possibly 10th century. The date range given is somewhere between 700 and 1100. Oddly enough, Cerne Abbey was founded in 978AD and it’s a puzzle why the abbey would be happy to have an image of a naked man on a nearby hillside. So more investigation is needed.