Is the Cerne Abbas Giant one of Britain’s most loved figures?

Last updated on January 2nd, 2024 at 09:51 am

Cerne Abbas Giant, Dorset, chalk figures

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…

Cerne Abbas, GiantSome 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. However, to preserve the modesty and morals of our political elite, the logo of the 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.

Cerne Abbas, Dorset

Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted some sort of earthwork just above the Giant’s left shoulder.  Known as ‘the Frying Pan’ or ‘the Trendle’ (no, I don’t), this feature might actually be quite old.

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.”

Oh, madam!

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.

In 2023, a theory emerged that the figure did indeed represent Hercules and that it marked a muster point for West Saxon armies in their fight against invading Danes.  The land was owned by the House of Wessex in the 9th century and there was a ‘herepath’ – a military road – that led onto Giant Hill.  It is further believed that the monks of Cerne Abbey attempted to rebrand the naked figure as St Eadwold, a local hermit who allegedly planted his staff on top of the hill.

35 thoughts on “Is the Cerne Abbas Giant one of Britain’s most loved figures?”

  1. No disrespect intended. My first impression was a sort of pre-historic cricket player. Which immediately led me to the conclusion he was a warrior of some sort. We have several types of Mesoamerican and Native American warrior practices that evolved into modern games.

  2. Haha! Anyway, I would always like to think it was the more ancient date, but then even experts were fooled into thinking that some sculptures thrown off a bridge by clever teenagers in Vienna some years back were genuine ancient artifacts. Reminds me of Chesterton’s essay, ‘A Piece of Chalk,’ minus illustration.

  3. I’m surprised that so many hadn’t heard of him. There are certainly a good number of strange, interesting and very old things still hanging around in your country! I never knew he had to be cleaned up periodically – it’s rather amazing that the locals have always attended to this. Do you really think he’s prehistoric? It seems more like something that would have been made way, way back, rather than in the relatively recent 17th century. But I’m no archaeologist.

    1. I was having a beer with some of those strange, interesting, old things just the other day… I don’t know – it fits more in a prehistoric context, doesn’t it, but it’s odd that there are no earlier records. I guess they need to find some Iron Age tools at the bottom of the trench or something.

  4. I have never seen him in the flesh (or should that be chalk). But I have read that certain of his current attributes are not authentic and have been augmented and enlarged from his original status on the hillside.

  5. Wonderful piece, full of humour as always, Mike.
    “there was obviously more to Cromwell than the history books usually tell us”. Try telling that to the Irish! His penchant for massacring followers of ‘the old religion’ could well be why he “did not endear himself to a local landowner.”

  6. Hi Mike – not sure if I’m allowed to say this – he at least has balls … whereas our man in Sussex is clearly without them … de-neutered or just without … I suspect I’d better curtail this comment. Thanks for the history though … the Cerne Abbas one is much more crowd gathering than our Sussex boy … but they all attract – cheers Hilary

  7. Of course you know that I know the Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex! That one is more PG rated, if you get my meaning! So glad that the locals keep these looking good. I know you said it needed a good cleaning, but hey, at least it is protected and will be around for years to come, hopefully!

  8. In one of the less predictable (for those that know me at all) episodes of my life, I worked for several years for UKAEA. I was based in Oxfordshire but used to regularly travel for days at a time to Dorset to the Winfrith site. I admit that I probably visited Cerne more than my fair share, though I am emphatic that I never ever behaved undecorously there and that the fact that I had many children cannot be attributed to this strange fellow. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it

  9. I have just been reading about the Cerne Abbas Giant so your post is timely. I find it fascinating and would love to see it one day. I love the last lines!!

  10. I never heard of this one, either. Thanks for an interesting article. “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…” I always appreciate a good belly laugh, Mike. Many thanks for that one.

  11. So weird, I’ve never heard of this one before. It’s a bit funny that folks go there to make babies! Recently re-erected? LOL!!

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