When unknown carvers scoured human and animal forms into hillsides throughout Britain, they could not have foreseen how many generations of observers would be baffled by their artistry. The Cerne Abbas giant, carved into a hill in Dorset in southern England, is one of the most enduring and mystifying sights of ancient Britain. Over the centuries, he has weathered the elements and prevailing climates of morality alike, but for all the time that he has threatened with his club and shocked with his phallus, our understanding of the giant’s purpose has advanced little.
The naked figure is 180ft (55m) tall. His head is relatively small and bald and his features rudimentary, but his nipples, ribs, penis and testicles are strongly etched. His right hand merges with a massive 121ft (37m) long notched club which overshadows the entire image.
The primitive, but strangely graceful, outline of the Giant of Cerne Abbas is framed by a trench 2ft (60cm) wide and deep, scoured into the chalk hillside. Since the early 18th century, local people have re-scoured the giant’s outline and repacked the furrows with chalk every seven years. This practice continued until the National Trust took over the care of the figure – the site now receives regular grass trimming and is fully re-chalked every 25 years.
Many legends have grown up around the Cerne Abbas giant. According to local folklore, dating back at least to the Middle Ages, he was said to represent a real giant who wreaked havoc in this area of the Dorset countryside by eating sheep and causing general destruction. One day he lay down on the hillside to digest his latest meal and fell asleep. Determined to rid themselves of the troublemaker, the local people seized the chance to kill the giant, then carved his colossal outline in the chalk.
The symbolic significance of the giant’s left hand, which may have held an animal skin, has been the subject of much debate. A pelt would be in keeping with the most enduring legend surrounding the giant – that he represents the Graeco-Roman god Hercules, who was often depicted naked, wielding a club and clutching a lion skin. There is some evidence to support this belief. A similar image was depicted on a fragment of Romano-British pottery found in Norfolk, and there was a Hercules cult in the Roman Empire under Emperor Commodus (ruled AD 180-193) which probably had devotees in Britain. The giant may have been the emblem of this cult, or the Celtic equivalent of Hercules. The name Helith, Helis or Heil, which was traditionally used for the Cerne Abbas giant, could well be a corruption of Hercules.
There is historical proof, too, that letters and numbers may once have been carved between the feet of the giant. One theory suggests the letters were ANO, standing for anno – ‘in the year of’ – and the missing numbers 1748, the date when the figure is known to have been recut. Some commentators go further, alleging that this was, in fact, the year in which the figure was first created, as a son of quasi-historical folly.
Could the Cerne Abbas giant really be an 18th-century fake – or are its origins destined to remain buried forever in the mists of antiquity? The local legend of a marauding sheep stealer supports the view that the giant is ancient. In addition, there is its similarity with other hill carvings: many are close to ancient burial sites, which certainly hints at their prehistoric origins.
The Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, for example, lies just below the Iron Age hillfort of Uffington Castle, bu the horse itself is thought to be around 1000 years older. Many believe the Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex to be Neolithic, since it is close to a Neolithic long barrow and other burial mounds, while the Westbury White Horse is situated below the Iron Age earthwork of Bratton Castle. And just above and to the right of the Cerne Abbas giant’s head lies the Trendle, a small, square Iron Age enclosure where Mayday festivities were enjoyed.
Of all England’s chalk figures, the White Horse at Uffington, Oxfordshire, is by far the most elegant. But controversy has dogged its origins. In the 18th century it was thought that the horse might be a commemoration of the ninth century AD victories of a Saxon king. More modern theories put it about 1000 years earlier and associate it with the Celts. The Celts greatly revered the horse, and images of animals in a similar style appear on Iron Age coins and buckets found locally. Recent research, however, dates the figure to an even earlier style – that of the late Bronze Age, around 3000 years ago.
But the figure may not be that of a horse at all. Although the tail is conventionally horse-like in style, the beak-shaped jaw is more like that of a dragon. If the figure was originally a dragon, it would lend credence to the legend that St George killed such a beast at nearby Dragon Hill.
Westbury White Horse is a more conventional depiction of a horse than its Uffington counterpart/4zynua hillside on the edge of Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. Dating from 1778, the current Westbury image is a remodeling of a far earlier animal more akin, by all accounts, to the one in Oxfordshire. It is quite possible that the Westbury horse of today was shaped more to the taste of the commissioning landowner.
The Long Man at 230ft (70m) tall, the chalk figure on a hill at the eastern end of the South Downs near Wilmington in Sussex is one of the largest images of the human figure in the world. He has been variously identified as a Roman soldier, St Paul, and even a prehistoric surveyor, owing to the presence of two staffs, which could be sighting poles. Scientific dating of the Long Man, as with the other chalk figures, is precluded since his outline has been frequently re-scoured, but he was possibly carved between 2000 and 2500 years ago.
Only two hill carvings represent men – the Cerne Abbas and Wilmington figures – while the others appear to be various effigies of horses. Even here, however, appearances may be deceptive because at least one of these famous ‘white horses’ – that at Uffington – may depict a dragon. The 365 ft (115m) long image, so sharp hat it can be seen 15 miles (24km) away, lies close to a flat-topped mound known as Dragon Hill. Legend has it that this was the very place where St George slew the dragon, its blood spilling on two patches of earth and rendering them infertile to this day. The numerous other carved white horses in the British countryside almost certainly represent more mundane quadrupeds, possibly created in honour of an ancient Celtic goddess, Epona, who was usually symbolized in the form of a horse.
Theories abound as to why ancient peoples carved these figures. The more staid suggest that they were attempts to create images of local gods, much as later Christians made statues of the Virgin. Among the more fanciful theories is the suggestion that the carvings were intended to catch the eye of space travelers. The truth is that no one knows for certain why they were created, although folklore may help to pinpoint their purpose.
Since legends of fertility rites associated with ancient sites are common throughout British folklore, the theory that the giant is a pagan fertility symbol is widely accepted. The Cerne Abbas giant’s club points towards the Trendle, where fertility rituals were once enacted. Childless wives supposedly became fertile after spending the night there, and infertile couples who slept on the carving overnight were believed to be guaranteed a baby.
The proximity of many of England’s hill figures to ancient sites associated with fertility rites, such as dancing around the maypole, gives a major clue to their origin and purpose. The maypole can be thought of as echoing much of the Cerne Abbas giant’s phallic symbolism, while also acting as the focus for May games such as Morris dancing. Traditionally, maypoles were painted in red and white stripes and decorated with flags and flowers. Once these were raised, the festivities could begin.
But it seems unlikely that the true purpose of the Cerne Abbas giant will ever be known. Like the other ancient hill carvings in the British Isles, it remains a potent image of an era that will continue to fascinate and perplex for generations to come.