The Cerne Abbas Giant is a towering figure carved into a chalk hill above the quaint and ancient village of Cerne Abbas near Dorchester, Dorset. The Giant is 55m long and 51m wide and holds a club that is 36.5m long – he is thought to have once also held a cloak or a severed head, but there is no longer any evidence of these. At the above mentioned dimensions, the Cerne Abbas Giant is the largest of such man-made human figures found in England. The second largest is the Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex, but that figure is in a mere outline form. The Cerne Abbas Giant, on the other hand, is notoriously well-detailed – aside from the well-depicted face, chest, ribs, and fingers, the most famous of its details are an erect phallus and testicles. It is speculated that the figure was either once a tribal totem – announcing the tribe’s virility and strength to all comers in much the same obvious manner as advertisement billboards do in modern times – or had links with a fertility cult.
Certainly the Cerne Abbas Giant has long being subscribed with fertility inducing powers – the name ‘Cerne’ itself is said to be derived from the Celtic God of Fertility ‘Cernunnos’. According to local lore, an infertile couple can conceive after spending a night within the figure. The best time for this is considered to be on May Day. A sight line taken up the Cerne Abbas giant’s penis has been found to point directly at the sun as the sun rises over the hill crest on this particular day. If young girls sleep on the figure they will later in their lives bear many children – if young girls walk around the figure thrice their lovers will stay faithful to them. Pagan May Day festivities were held in the ‘Trendle’ or the ‘Frying Pan’ and such celebrations have been mentioned in Philip Stubb’s ‘Anatomy of Abuse’, written in 1583 – apparently, crowds of pagans thronged to the site and spent the night there engaging in rowdy amusements, which included frr sexual behaviour. Pagan Maypole dancing continued in England until 1635 by which time Christianity had gained a sufficient enough stronghold to step in and declare the fun times over.
A Benedictine Abbey had been founded near the site in 987 A.D. It is this that gave the place the additional nomenclature of ‘Abbas’. There is an ancient spring water well nearby, dug no doubt by the Pagans but claimed by the Christians as their own miracle. According to their lore, the palce was visited by Saint Augustine in search of converts and he leaned on his staff here while preaching – and the well sprang forth from that same exact spot. When the Cerne Abbas pagans drove Saint Augustine away, preferring to stick to their old ways where wells were dug not made to miraculously appear from someone else’s labors, they brought catastrophy upon themselves – they began to beget children with fish tails and this phenomenon was averted only after they relented and agreed to convert to the new religion. A fish-wife’s tale, of course.
According to the Doomsday Book of 1086, the whole Cerne Abbas parish and some of the surrounding villages were attached to the Bebedictine Abbey, and such was the importance of the abbey that in the coming years Cerne Abbas developed into an important and bustling town. However, with the destruction of the Abbey in 1539, the town went into a decline and reverted back to a sleepy village. It is a very picturesque one though with some very eye-catching medieval architecture. Cerne Abbas has been mentioned as ‘Abbots Kernel’ in the novels of Thomas Hardy.
To get back to the Cerne Abbas Giant though, he is thought to have Celtic or Roman origins., and may represent either a Celtic deity or the Roman God Helith or Hercules – the worship of Hercules was revived in Rome around the Second Century B.C. by the Emperor commudus, who believed himself to be a reincarnation of the God, and some believe that the Cerne abbas Giant may have been cut into the hillside by Roman soldiers during this period.
According to local legend, the Cerne Abbas Giant was a real live Danish Giant that had been attacking the local population for sometime – apparently tired from his terrorizing tactics, he fell asleep on the inviting green hillside and the resourceful locals seized the opportunity to creep upon him and rid themselves of the nuisance by cutting off his head. Then, setting a precedence for modern police procedures, they drew an outline around the dead body, taking care to include the decapitated head in the right position. This warned off other giants and none other ever descended on the village again. The Cerne Abbas Giant, however, instead of staying peacefully dead is supposed to rise from the outline on dark nights and go to the local stream to quench his thirst.
In recent times, modern archaeologists have expressed doubts about the ancient origins of the Giant. While there are many writings about the pagan rituals, there is no mention of the Cerne Abbas Giant itself in any of the Medieval documents. The first reference appears only in 1751 in a letter by John Hutchins, a Dorset historian, who speculates in it that the Giant might be from the earlier century.
There is a good chance that the Cerne Abbas Giant might be a sixteenth century hoax afterall, but, even if so, it remains an impressive hoax and is well-worth a visit.