The Cerne Abbas Giant: Drawing of a ‘Rude Man’ Erects Folktales of Fertility Enhancement
The Cerne Abbas Giant is a huge hill figure depicting a naked man wielding a club, its most prominent feature being its erect phallus, which has led to the speculation that the Cerne Abbas Giant functioned as some sort of ancient fertility god / symbol. But not everyone agrees on the story behind this enormous geoglyph.
The Cerne Giant, also known as the ‘Rude Man’, is one of the best-known hill figures in the UK. It is located close to the village of Cerne Abbas, in the Southwestern English county of Dorset, hence its name.
The Cerne Giant. (Dun.can/CC BY 2.0)
What Do We Know About the Cerne Abbas Giant?
Little can be said with certainty about the Cerne Abbas Giant. The information we do have about the hill figure includes its size and the technique used to make it. The Cerne Abbas Giant measures 55 meters (180 ft) long and 51 meters (167 ft) wide and was created by having shallow trenches cut in the turf, and then backfilling them with chalk rubble. This technique was also used to make other hill figures such as the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, and the Long Man of Wilmington in East Sussex. Apart from this information, details such as the figure’s age, as well as its identity, have been, and still remain, a subject of debate.
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The first reference to the Cerne Abbas Giant was made in 1694 and is a record of a payment of three shillings made by the churchwarden of Cerne Abbas for the re-cutting of the hill figure. In 1751, the first written account of the Cerne Abbas Giant was made by John Hutchins in his Guide to Dorset. As no reference to the Cerne Abbas Giant prior to the end of the 17th century has been found (the existence of the Uffington White Horse, as a comparison, has been noted as early as the 11th century), it has been suggested that this hill figure was created during the 1600s.
Who is Depicted in the Cerne Abbas Giant?
According to a rather interesting story, the Cerne Abbas Giant was supposed to be a caricature of Oliver Cromwell. The story goes that there was a local landowner at that time by the name of Denzil Holles who despised Cromwell. As the Lord Protector’s supporters are said to have depicted Cromwell as a modern-day Hercules (or mockingly by his enemies as ‘England’s Hercules’), Holles decided to make a parody of this.
Others, however, are of the opinion that the Cerne Abbas Giant was created at a much earlier date. Some believe that the Cerne Abbas Giant is a depiction of the Celtic god Nodens, who was worshipped by the Durotrige tribe who lived in the Dorset area prior to the arrival of the Romans. Others argue that the Cerne Abbas Giant is a representation of Hercules, and therefore was made during Roman times.
According to a local legend, a giant form Denmark invaded the English coast, and as he slept on the hillside, he was decapitated by the people of Cerne Abbas. To mark the spot where the giant was slain, the Cerne Abbas Giant was drawn.
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A Folk Cure for Infertility
Regardless of its age and identity, the Cerne Abbas Giant has been regarded since Victorian times, at least, as a fertility symbol, due to its erect phallus and testicles. According to folklore, a woman could increase her fertility by sleeping on the giant, whilst having sex on the figure, especially on its phallus, was reputed to be a cure for infertility. According to a report from 2010, the women of North Dorset have three children each, on average, which is nearly double the national average. This has been regarded by some as proof that the folklores may have some truth in them after all.
Today, the Cerne Abbas Giant is a scheduled monument of England, and owned by the National Trust. In 2008, wardens from the National Trust, along with volunteers, restored the giant, as erosion and the growth of algae, lichen, and weeds on the giant’s outline over the years has caused the figure to fade. Access to the Cerne Abbas Giant itself is now restricted, to reduce future damage and erosion. Couples hoping to improve their fertility by sleeping on the giant have to go somewhere else.
Cerne Abbas Giant Renovation (10) The Giant's testicles are just about to receive their new layer of chalk which will be tamped down by the National Trust Volunteers. In the foreground is the outline of the Giant's inner thighs showing the subsurface after removal of old chalk. (Nigel Mykura/CC BY SA 2.0)
Top Image: An aerial view of the Cerne Abbas Giant. Source: WE (World English)
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