The Cerne Abbas Giant, also known as the Cerne Giant and the Rude Man, is a chalk drawing of a naked man wielding a club on a hillside in Cerne Abbas, a village in Dorset. It is the most-visited site in the entire county.
Both the identity and date of the Giant remain a mystery, with theories ranging from a prehistoric fertility god to a 17th-century parody of Oliver Cromwell.
History of the Cerne Abbas Giant
No one knows when the Giant first appeared on the hillside of Cerne Abbas. His presence is first recorded in 1694 in the accounts of the churchwarden of St. Mary's Church in Cerne Abbas, which records that 3 shillings were paid for "repairing ye Giant." Successive churchwardens have used the symbol of the Giant on lead plaques on the roof of the church.
There are many theories about the identity of the Cerne Abbas Giant. One common interpretation is that he is a prehistoric or Celtic fertility god or symbol. There is a mound below the Giant's now-empty left hand, which could be a remnant of a severed head—this was a common ancient Celtic religious symbol. Adding credence to this theory is that another hillside chalk drawing, the White Horse of Uffington, is thought to date from this early period. And the Trendle, an earthwork on the hill above the Giant, has been dated to the Iron Age.
Another possibility is that the Cerne Abbas Giant is the Greco-Roman hero Hercules. Hercules was often depicted naked with a club in his right hand and a lion skin draped over his left shoulder—and scientific tests suggest there might once have been something draped over the Giant's left side. There is also a collection of Roman terracotta statues depicting the Giant in the Museum of Arles in France. If the Giant is Hercules, he may have been drawn during the reign of Emperor Commodus (180-193 AD), who believed himself to be a reincarnation of Hercules and revived the hero's cult.
A third theory is that the Giant was drawn by the Benedictine monks of the nearby Cerne Abbey. It may not be the sort of drawing one expects from monks, but a similar figure once existed close to the Benedictine Priory at Wilmington in Sussex. In addition, this theory could explain why the apparently pagan image was allowed to survive so close to a major monastery. Of course, a later date for the Giant would explain this, too.
Departing from all these theories of an early date is the interesting possibility that the Cerne Abbas Giant is actually a 17th-century parody of Oliver Cromwell. In 1774, Rev. John Hutchins claimed the Giant was created by Lord Denzil Holles, the owner of the hill from 1642 to 1666, to satirize the puritanical rule of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was mockingly referred to as "England's Hercules" by his enemies.
Despite a commission of numerous scholars hosted by Bournemouth University in 1996, the question of the Giant's origins remains unanswered. In 1997, students from the same university provided the Giant with a female friend as a field archeology experience. She was only temporary, however, and the Cerne Abbas Giant stands alone on the hillside.
Academic study aside, popular belief has long had it that the Cerne Abbas Giant is an aid to fertility, and that lovemaking within the figure's prominent male organ assists in conception. In addition, young women used to sleep on the Giant, preferrably within the phallus, to ensure a future marriage. For hundreds of years, it was local custom to erect a maypole within the nearby earthwork known as the Trendle (see below), where childless couples would dance to promote fertility.
What to See at the Cerne Abbas Giant
The Cerne Abbas Giant is a figure of a club-weilding naked man on a grassy hillside to the north of the village of Cerne Abbas. He has a very prominent penis, a disproportionately small head, and a simple, almost comical face that doesn't match the fierceness of his form.
The Giant is 180 feet (55 m) high and 167 feet (51 m) wide. In his right hand, he wields a knobbed club that is 120 feet (36.5 m) long. His left hand is outstretched and strangely long, and may have once held a severed head or lion skin (see theories above).
The drawing of the giant was formed by cutting away the grass to reveal the underlying white chalk, then adding a chalk infill (which has been periodically restored over the years). The trench is 1 foot (0.3 m) wide and 1 foot deep.
Above the Giant's left shoulder is a small square earthwork called the Trendle, which has been dated to the Iron Age. Its purpose is uncertain, but it is widely thought to be the site of an ancient temple.
While you're here, there are several more interesting places to explore in Cerne Abbas village (which is a lovely place in itself), including ruins of a wealthy Benedictine abbey, a sacred well, and a fine 14th-century church.
Unless you have a helicopter, the Cerne Abbas Giant is best seen from the lay-by viewpoint and parking area on the east side of the A352 highway.
Giant Hill is fenced off to prevent erosion to the figure, but you can walk around the Giant and above the Trendle on the Giant Hill footpath, which is easily reached from the parking area or the village. The figure is difficult to make out from close up, but the walk is well worth it to inspect the chalk trenches and admire the beautiful views of the Dorset countryside from the top of the hill.
Quick Facts on the Cerne Abbas Giant
|Names:||Cerne Abbas Giant|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||50.813694° N, 2.474740° W|
|Address:||Cerne Abbas, England|
|Lodging:||View hotels near the Cerne Abbas Giant|
- Timothy Darvill et al, Oxford Archaeological Guides: England (Oxford University Press, 2002), 381.
- Informational panel in St. Mary's Church, Cerne Abbas (November 2006).
- Cerne Abbas - Mysterious Britain
- Personal visit (November 2006).
Map of the Cerne Abbas Giant
Below is a location map and aerial view of the Cerne Abbas Giant. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.