Cerne Abbas Giant is a depiction of Hercules

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Written By Sedoso Feb

Enlarge / Behold, the “Rude Man” chalk giant carved on a hill above the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, England.
Barry Batchelor/PA Images/Getty Images

A major attraction of Dorset, England, is the Cerne Abbas Giant, a 180-foot-tall figure of a naked man wielding a large club carved with chalk into a hilltop. A pair of historians offers a strong case that this figure was originally meant to represent Hercules from Greek mythology, perhaps to inspire West Saxon armies, who could have used the site as a muster station. They outlined their arguments in a recent paper published in the journal Speculum. The authors also found a possible early reference to the giant in texts dating back to the mid-11th and early 12th centuries, a period in which the carving may have been reinterpreted as representing Saint Eadwold of Cerne.

“It’s become clear that the Cerne giant is just the most visible of a whole cluster of early medieval features in the landscape,” said co-author Helen Gittos, an early medieval historian at the University of Oxford, told The Guardian. “I think we’ve found a compelling narrative that fits the giant into the local landscape and history better than ever before, changing him from an isolated mystery to an active participant in the local community and culture.”

As reported previously, the Cerne Abbas Giant’s generously sized erect phallus has earned it the nickname “Rude Man,” which undoubtedly contributes to its popularity as a tourist attraction. Archaeologists have long speculated about exactly when and why the geoglyph was created.

The Cerne Abbas Giant was formed by cutting trenches two feet deep into the steep hillside and then filling them with crushed chalk. Some scholars believed the giant might date back to the Iron Age as a fertility symbol. Local folklore holds that copulating on the giant’s crotch will help a couple conceive a child, and there is an Iron Age earthwork known as the Trendle at the top of the hill in which the giant has been carved. However, there is no mention of the figure in a 1540s survey of the Abbey lands, nor in a 1617 survey conducted by the English cartographer John Norden.

The earliest known written reference to the Cerne Giant appears in a 1694 warden’s account from St. Mary’s Church in Cerne Abbas, recording the cost of three shillings to repair “ye Giant.” There are also references to the figure in a 1734 letter by the then-Bishop of Bristol and a 1738 letter by antiquarian Francis Wise. The first survey to mention the giant was published in 1763 and included measurements and a drawing. After that, mention of the giant becomes far more common in the historical record.

In 2021, archaeologists pronounced themselves “flabbergasted” when an analysis of sediment samples narrowed down the likely date for the Rude Man’s creation to the late Saxon period—a surprising result since no other similar chalk figures in the region are known to date from that period. Many archaeologists and historians thought he was prehistoric or post-medieval, but not medieval. In the 1990s, archaeologists relied on soil samples to date another well-known geoglyph—the 360-foot-long Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire—to between 1380 and 550 BCE. And the Long Man of Wilmington in East Sussex dates back to the 16th century.

The deepest samples—taken from the giant’s elbows and feet—rule out a prehistoric Roman origin, indicating that the giant was probably first made by late Saxons sometime between 700 and 1100 CE. However, other samples indicate a later date of around 1560—still predating the first recorded mention of the giant in the 1694 church warden’s account. People may have been re-chalking the Rude Man over a very long period, which would explain the different dates, as well as all the evidence suggesting the giant’s features have changed over time. A 2020 lidar scan, for instance, revealed that the impressive phallus had been added later.

Aerial view showing field below the giant and the “herepath” curving up onto Giant Hill from bottom right.
Enlarge / Aerial view showing field below the giant and the “herepath” curving up onto Giant Hill from bottom right.
Pete Harlow/CC BY-SA 3.0

Gittos and her co-author, fellow historian Thomas Morcom of the University of Oslo, were intrigued by the soil sample results indicating a medieval origin for the Cerne Giant and felt there was a unique opportunity to reconsider the chalk carving within that historical context. Some scholars had already suggested that the Rude Man was a depiction of Hercules, citing evidence that the figure may have once worn a cloak, in keeping with the traditional depiction of the demigod. Others opined that the giant had been recut in the 17th century as a parody of Oliver Cromwell, who was sometimes mocked as “England’s Hercules” by contemporaries.

According to Gittos and Morcom, the new archaeological dates placing the origins of the Cerne Giant to the ninth or early 10th century make “good sense,” particularly if the carving was meant to represent Hercules. This was a period when there was much local interest in the mythological figure,  with frequent mentions of Hercules in early medieval texts, and interest was at its peak in the ninth century, when the Cerne Giant was created.

As for why the local residents would have wanted to create a giant chalk carving of Hercules, Gittos and Morcom found clues in the surrounding landscape, most notably the impressive views of Dorset to be had from Giant Hill, as well as the carving’s proximity to major medieval routeways. The fact that the Cerne Giant is located on a “hanging promontory” site is also significant since such sites are thought to have been commonly used as meeting points for large groups during this period. Per the authors:

One reason why people might assemble in such a place is for the purpose of mustering an army, usually under the leadership of the local ealdorman [leader]. Places suitable for mustering required significant logistical support such as would be available at a major aristocratic estate: water, shelter, and provisions for horses as well as men. They were located so as to make use of major routeways and places where there were lookouts.

They also needed to be marked in some visible way. Given the longstanding characterisation of Hercules as a model of masculinity, especially among warriors and his currency in the 9th and 10th centuries, a giant image of him would have made an ideal backdrop with which to monumentalise a muster site in the landscape. This place, on major routeways, with access to copious fresh water and the supplies of an ealdorman’s estate, would have suited well…. Cutting a chalk figure of Hercules as fighting warrior, with club poised to strike, would have served as a fine rallying point, a backdrop for a call to arms, a sermon in chalk—and, perhaps, as something with which to keep a gathering army busy

That said, Gittos and Morcom also argue that the Cerne Giant’s representation likely was reinterpreted over the centuries, most notably by the 11th century, when he seems to have been identified primarily with Saint Eadwold of Cerne. This may have been due to the chalk carving falling into disrepair, its original function largely forgotten. It may also have been “a convenient way of erasing Hercules and proclaiming the monastery’s rights to the saints’ relics,” the authors wrote.

In the process of building their case for this reinterpretation, the authors believe they’ve found an even earlier reference to the Cerne Giant: a life of the saint penned by an 11th century monk named Goscelin of St. Bertin sometime in the 1060s or 1070s, later copied by a scribe circa 1150 in a manuscript now kept in the British Library. Gittos and Morcom believe it’s likely Goscnlin visited Cerne Abbey—then the third-wealthiest in the west of England—and was thus aware of the local monastery’s traditions and the chalk carving.

They specifically cite a reference to Eadwold standing atop a “sloping cliff” holding a pilgrim’s staff in his hand while looking down on a spring that marked his new home—possibly referring to a spring now known as Augustine’s well. “This is strikingly similar to the spatial relationship between the Cerne Abbas Giant, the nearby holy spring, and the abbey,” Gittos and Morcom wrote. “Goscelin has reimagined the chalk figure, not as Hercules brandishing a knotty club, but as the hermit Eadwold holding a pilgrim’s staff, from the sides of which a series of new branches are in the process.”

That particular reinterpretation didn’t last, as Saint Eadwold’s significance declined sharply later in the Middle Ages. But the many ways in which the giant’s meaning could have been reinterpreted—including, perhaps, as a 17th century dig at Cromwell—is one reason why the Rude Man continues to be such a popular attraction. “The Giant’s identity was already open to reinterpretation,” said Morcom. “The monks of Cerne wouldn’t have portrayed their patron saint as naked if they were carving him from scratch, but they were happy to co-opt him as an image of Eadwold for their own purposes. The Giant has long been loved and looked after and such reidentifications continue into the present day,”

DOI: Speculum, 2024. 10.1086/727992  (About DOIs).

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