What Planet is This?

27 Aug 2005

Cerne Abbas

Nestled in the valley of the River Cerne in Dorset is the ancient village of Cerne Abbas. It is generally thought that the name "Cerne" is derived from the Celtic god Cernunnos, who also gave his name to, for example, Herne Hill in London. The abbey which gave Cerne Abbas the second part of its name was founded by the homilist Ælfric in 987.

The most famous natural feature of the village is its holy well, at one time called The Silver Well but now more often known as St. Augustine's Well. An 11th century Benedictine biographer named Goscelin (or Gotselin) wrote that St. Augustine not only created the well but named the town, which Goscelin records as Cernel, from the Latin and Hebrew phrase "Cerno El". William of Malmesbury later repeats the story, and Thomas Hardy calls the place "Abbot's-Cernel" in his novels.

But the village is most famous for the chalk figure of a 180 ft. tall naked man cut into the overlooking hillside, complete with a turgid 30 ft. penis, known as the Cerne Abbas Giant. It is one of only two such human chalk figures in Britain. The debate over its origin stretches back for as long as the figure has been recorded, though it has generally been considered to date from Iron Age times. Recent archæological and archival evidence, however, suggests a more curious later origin.

The earliest reference to the Giant is from the churchwardens' accounts of 4th November 1694, "for repaireing of ye Giant 3s. 0d." Since the Giant needs recutting every thirty years, it must've been at least thirty years old by then. One of the next mentions of it is by the Rev. John Hutchins in a letter of 1751, where he writes he was told by the steward of the lord of the manor that the Giant was "a modern thing", cut by Denzil Holles only a century before. As Jeremy Harte explains, this prosaic theory was "passed over disdainfully by the clerics", but other circumstantial evidence has been offered in support.

The records of the Abbey do not once, for example, mention the Giant up to the Abbey's dissolution in 1539, though such a blatant local symbol is unlikely to have been tolerated. Moreover, Denzil Holles, who had owned the land between 1654 and 1662, was a noted opponent of Oliver Cromwell and had once described him as a "witch working to overthrow the realm". As Ronald Hutton puts it, the theory is that the Giant was a "joke on Cromwell's image as 'the English Hercules'", and indeed the Giant has come to earn the sobriquet of Hercules, along with others such as the "Rude Man". Hutton does, however, think that an ancient origin is still possible.

Harte on the other hand believes that Lord Holles may have just recut a figure that was laid down thirty years previously, in the 1630s, noting that Holles was "enjoying a country retirement after a stressful parliamentary career: it is hard to see what motive he would have for doodling a rude Giant on the slopes of his property." More recently, a survey suggested that an animal hide was once dangling from the Giant's left arm, though this trope is also identified strongly with the figure of Hercules. The skin must've been lost by the mid-18th century, because it isn't visible on the 1764 survey performed for Dr. William Stukeley, which also shows that the penis may have fused with what was once the Giant's navel.

Other evidence for a 17th century date comes from the fact that many other chalk figures are known to have been carved in the 15th to 17th centuries, for example at Oxford in the 1640s and in Plymouth by 1486, the latter of which was ordered destroyed by Charles II. The only other chalk man in Britain, the Long Man of Wilmington, has recently been tentatively dated to c.1545 by Dr. Ed Rhodes of the Research Laboratory for Archaeology at Oxford, using a technique called thermoluminescence, following excavations by Prof. Martin Bell and his team at the University of Reading. This technique is similar to the Optically Stimulated Luminescense (OSL) used on the Uffington White Horse to prove that that was cut in the Bronze Age, making it currently the only proven ancient chalk drawing in Britain.

On 23rd May 1996, a mock trial was held to determine the date of the Giant, and the majority settled on an ancient origin. It seems, however, that this is out of a sense of wanting the Giant to be something of grand antiquity, and the scientific consensus is slowly converging upon the more modern date. Researchers are now planning to apply the optical techniques used to date the other chalk figures to the Cerne Abbas Giant, so even if it does turn out to date from the historical period, it will probably be archæological techniques that have the greatest share in settling the question.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Cerne Abbas", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/cerne


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