Cerne Abbas Giant


Cerne Abbas Giant
   On a hillside above Cerne Abbas, Dorset, stands the figure of a giant, 55 metres (180 feet) high, waving a huge knobbed club, and with an erect penis measuring 26 feet (7% metres). Its age is hotly disputed. There is no reference to it before 1694, when churchwardens' records show a payment of three shillings 'for repaireing of ye Giant'. John Hutchins in his History of Dorset (1774) described it as 'a modern thing, cut out in Lord Holles' time' (i.e. 1641-66), and this unromantically late dating could be the true one. However, there undoubtedly were medieval *hill figures elsewhere, while the one at *Uffington is prehistoric, so a medieval or even a pre-Conquest date for the Cerne Abbas figure is arguable. A silt-luminosity test, as at Uffing-ton, would settle the debate.
   Assuming him to be old, the main theory about the Giant views him as a Romano-British representation of Hercules, dated about ad 200, since Hercules wielded a club.
   Resistivity tests hint that there was once something hanging from his extended left arm, which could have been the lion-skin of Hercules. Alternative suggestions are mostly Celtic: that he is the Irish god called the Dagda, or the Gaulish thunder-god Taranis, both of whom wield clubs, or that the object in the left hand was a severed head. The Saxon thunder-god, Thunor, has also been proposed.
   Like other hill figures, this giant needed periodical scourings to maintain his visibility, and in the 18th century these were being done every seven years. They sometimes went beyond mere maintenance - at some stage, someone elongated the penis (Grinsell, 1980). There may be a link between the scourings and the May Day games formerly held in a prehistoric enclosure on top of the same hill; but this is uncertain, as hilltop games were common.
   In view of the giant's notable physique, it is not surprising to hear various versions, more or less discreet, of a belief that he can confer fertility. Already in the 19th century it was being said that 'if a girl sleeps on the giant she will be the mother of many children', and in 1922 J. S. Udal, in his Dorsetshire Folk-Lore, explicitly stated that a man and woman wanting children should make love on the giant's penis; writing in 1968, H. S. L. Dewar found it was then common for women and girls to 'visit the figure and perambulate his frame' to get a husband, to keep a lover true, or to have children. The practice continues - during the 1990s * Wicca groups have held ceremonies there for infertile couples, who then follow Udal's prescription.
   ■ Marples, 1949: 159-79; Leslie Grinsell, Antiquity 54 (1980), 29-33; J. H. Bettey, Antiquity 55 (1981), 118-21; Rodney Castleden, The Cerne Abbas Giant (1996).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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