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Cerne Abbas Giant

also known as Rude Man or Rude Giant

Cerne Abbas, Dorset

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The Cerne Abbas Giant is a hill figure of a giant naked man on a hillside near the village of Cerne Abbas, to the north of Dorchester, in Dorset. It is huge, 180 feet (55 metres) high, 167 ft (51 m) wide.

It is one of only two human images on hillsides in Britain the other being the Long Man of Wilmington.

The figure, also known as the Rude Man or the Rude Giant (rude meaning naked), is carved into the side of a steep hill, and is best viewed from the opposite side of the valley or from the air. The carving is formed by a trench 12 inches (30 centimetres) wide, and about the same depth, which has been cut through grass and earth into the underlying chalk.

In his right hand the giant holds a knobbed club 120 ft (37 m) in length.

The Cerne Abbas figure has conventionally been viewed as a great symbol of ancient spirituality.  A mound below the giantís left hand may be the sculpted remnant of a severed head which he once clutched Ė a rather grisly if common ancient Celtic religious symbol.

Alternatively, the Roman hero Hercules was

Cerne Abbas Giant viewed from above
Illustration created by Dave Fararance

often depicted naked with a club in his right hand and a lion skin draped over his left shoulder. Scientific tests have suggested that there might once have been something draped over the giantís left side, but long grassed over, (see more on this below).

Denzil Holles who owned Giant Hill from 1642 to 1666 was a fierce critic of Oliver Cromwell, some suggest the Cerne Abbas Giant seeks to satirise Cromwell's stern puritanical rule.

No one knows why or by who it was created, although there are many legends. The earliest written reference to the Giant was made in 1694, in a record for payment in the Cerne Abbas churchwarden's accounts of three shillings toward the re-cutting of the giant. This was followed by other references in 1742 and in 1751, John Hutchins wrote in his Guide to Dorset that the carving had only been done the previous century.

Another reference to the figure can be found in the Gentleman's magazine of 1764, where the figure is described and depicted with a navel, that has long since disappeared.

Some suggest its style and proximity to an Iron Age earthwork suggests a much earlier origin.

There are numerous theories as to when and why the giant was created, a popular one is that he is the Greek-Roman God Hercules, who is often represented with a club and an animal fur. It has been suggested that the figure was once depicted carrying an animal fur in his left hand. It is possible that worshipers of Hercules arrived in the early part of the Roman invasion, which then became amalgamated with a God of a local Celtic tribe. The theory given the most weight by historians is that it was created during the reign of the Emperor Commodus between 180-193 AD, he believed himself to be a reincarnation of Hercules and allowed the cult to revive.  The suggestion that the figure is Hercules was first made in 1764 by William Stukeley.

Some now believe it was probably made by servants of the Lord of the Manor, Denzil Holles, during the English Civil War. There has been speculation that the figure is a parody of Oliver Cromwell, who was sometimes mockingly referred to as "England's Hercules" by his enemies.

Other stories suggest that the monks at the nearby monastery cut the giant as a joke on an Abbott called Thomas Corton, who was expelled from the area for malpractice. This is unlikely but its close proximity to a ecclesiastical house is strange, how could such an obviously pagan symbol have survived for so long, especially through puritanical times and the reformation. It may be that the religious buildings were built close to the giant as a form of amalgamation of the Pagan site. This was common practice, and many churches are built on, or near to, sites that were once Pagan religious centres.

According to one tradition, recorded from a farm labourer in the Gentleman's Magazine, the figure is the representation of a Danish giant who had led an invasion of England from the coast. He had fallen asleep on the side of the hill, and the local villagers had taken advantage of his slumber and cut off his head. They had then drawn around his prone body in the manner of a gigantic police chalk line, to show where he met his doom. However, the chalk figure sometimes rose from the dead on dark nights, to quench his thirst in the local stream, a habit also common to certain standing stones.

The giant's obvious sexuality and virility was put to use in fertility folk magic. Local women who wanted to conceive would spend a night alone on the hillside - most productively within the confines of his giant phallus, and young couples would make love on the giant to ensure conception. Because the phallus is 15% the height of the drawing (excluding the club), the penis length would equal roughly 26 centimetres (10 in) on the average male frame. Very much a phallic symbol on account of the figure's distinct erect penis and testicles, for hundreds of years it was local custom to erect a maypole upon the earthwork about which childless couples would dance to promote fertility, and even today childless couples are known to visit the site in order to copulate in the hope that they might conceive a child.

Recently, a group of archaeologists using special equipment found that part of the carving had been allowed to be obliterated. According to these findings, the free arm should have held a depiction of an animal's skin, giving credence to the theory that the giant was a depiction of a hunter, or alternatively, Hercules with the skin of the Nemean Lion over his arm. It has also been suggested that his large erection is, in fact, the result of merging a circle representing his navel with a smaller penis during a Victorian re-cut. 

During the Second World War, the giant was disguised to prevent the Germans from using him as an aerial landmark. Since then he has always been visible, receiving regular grass trimming and a full re-chalking every 25 years.

Just above the giant's head is a small Iron Age earthwork which encloses a roughly square piece of land, this is known as the 'Frying Pan' or the 'Trendle' and it was within this enclosure that the Mayday Maypole was erected during the festival celebrations. Like many traditional village Maypole ceremonies this practice died out in the 19th century.

Publicity stunts - In modern times the Giant has been used for several publicity stunts and as an advertisement for "...condoms, jeans and bicycles." A low-key example was the sponsorship of the 1983 scouring by the brewers Heineken. As a publicity stunt for the opening of The Simpsons Movie on the 16 July 2007, a giant Homer Simpson brandishing a doughnut was outlined in water-based biodegradable paint to the left of the Cerne Abbas Giant. This act angered local neopagans, who pledged to perform rain magic to wash the figure away. The Pagan Federation subsequently distanced themselves from a misquote by an unnamed tabloid concerning the supposed rain dance, whilst at the same time confirming that they cannot condone such commercial usage.

In August 2007 a report in the Dorset Echo said that a man claiming to be the "Purple Phantom" had painted the Cerne Abbas Giant penis purple. It was reported that the man was from Fathers 4 Justice but the group said that they did not know who it was.

Location: Cerne Abbas Giant, Cerne Abbas, Dorset

Grid Reference: ST667017 Ceremonial County: Dorset

Map Link: StreetMap

Aerial photo: Google Aerial Photo

Getting there: Half a mile North of Cerne Abbas, Dorset. The village of Cerne Abbas is eight miles north of Dorchester on the A352 Sherbourne road. The best viewpoint is beside the A352.

Other Useful Websites: Mysterious Britain   Cerne Abbas Village   Another page Wiki   www.hows.org.uk/personal/hillfigs/cerne/cerne.htm
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Other Location Pages: Long Man of Wilmington
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By: Keith Park Section: White Horse & Hillside Features Key:
Page Ref: cerne_abbas Topic: Hillside Last Updated: 01/2012


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