F Rosa Rubicondior: Old Dead Gods - What Does The Cerne Abbas Giant Depict And When Was It Created?

Wednesday 27 March 2024

Old Dead Gods - What Does The Cerne Abbas Giant Depict And When Was It Created?

The Cerne Abbas Giant, Cerne Abbas, Dorset, England.

Photo: Ray Gaffney. © National Trust.
Uncovering the mystery of Dorset’s Cerne Giant

The thing about most of the ancient monuments and hill markings like the Uffington White Horse after whom the district of Oxfordshire I live in was named, is that no-one knows what religion the people who made them believed in or how, if indeed it did, their religion inspired (or required) them to create these monuments. I have written extensively about monuments such as Stonehenge, Durrington Walls, Silbury Hill, Avebury Stone Circle and West Kennet Long Barrow as example of how little we know about these ancient people and their religion(s) because these ancient monuments stand as testament to the transient and ephemeral nature of gods and religions on the scale of human history.

Unlike science, which, if some disaster befell humankind and all memory of a major science were expunged from memory, could be reconstructed from basic principles because it describes reality, religions, once lost and forgotten are lost forever because there is nothing substantial upon which to found a rediscovery. The entire edifice of religion is unsupported and insubstantial, being nothing more than collective imaginings and handed-down stories and myths, dependent entirely on faith to sustain them in the absence of evidence.

What can you tell me about the Cerne Abbas Giant? The Cerne Abbas Giant is a famous hill figure located in the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, England. It is a large chalk figure carved into the hillside, depicting a naked male figure holding a club. The figure is around 180 feet tall and is one of the largest hill figures in Britain.

The origins and purpose of the Cerne Abbas Giant are shrouded in mystery and debate. The earliest known reference to the giant dates back to the late 17th century, but its exact age and purpose are uncertain. Some theories suggest it may be of prehistoric origin, possibly dating back to the Iron Age or even earlier, while others propose it could be a depiction of a Celtic or Roman deity.

The figure's prominent feature, a large club held in its right hand, has led to various interpretations. Some believe it represents Hercules, while others associate it with fertility rituals, given its positioning near a ceremonial site. The figure's phallic symbolism has led to suggestions that it may have served as a fertility symbol or been linked to ancient pagan fertility rites.

Today, the Cerne Abbas Giant is a popular tourist attraction, drawing visitors intrigued by its mysterious origins and imposing presence. The National Trust, which manages the site, works to preserve and maintain the figure for future generations to enjoy and study.
Things are a little different with one famous monumental hill marking however - that of the Cerne Abbas giant - a hill carving of a naked man wielding a club and displaying his gender for all to see. He appears to be a representation of the Greek hero, Hercules. But quite why he was carved on the hill above Cerne Abbas in Dorset, England is still a mystery.

Ironically, perhaps, given what the figure proudly displays to the world, the best place to see it is from the local church carpark.

According to a new study by Thomas Morcom and Helen Gittos, it was probably constructed in the 9th or early 10th century and was reinterpreted as an Early Christian saint, St. Eadwold, by the monks of a nearby monastery - which led to it being conserved and renewed at regular intervals. Local legend has it that a barren woman who sat on the tip of the giant's phallus at night would be cured and made fertile. In fact, the tip of the phallus was originally the navel which has been incorporated into the phallus to enlarge it even more.

The study's authors have published their findings in a paper in the University of Chicago Press journal, Speculum. It is also described in a University of Chicago Press news release:
Uncovering the mystery of Dorset’s Cerne Giant

For centuries, the Cerne Giant, a figure carved into a hillside in Dorset depicting a nude man carrying a club and stretching some 180 feet high, has fascinated locals and visitors to the area. The history of the giant, however, and in particular, its age, has long been a mystery. A new paper in Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies proposes that the Cerne Giant can in fact be dated to the early Middle Ages, and, as a result, its cultural context and significance more clearly understood.

“The Cerne Giant in its Early Medieval Context,” by authors Thomas Morcom and Helen Gittos, acknowledges that previous attempts to date the giant placed its creation either sometime in prehistory or in the early modern period. Using a technique called optically stimulated luminescence, researchers for the National Trust theorize that the hillside monument was actually constructed in the period between 700 and 1100 A.D, and potentially used as a mustering site for West Saxon armies.

This dating breakthrough also sheds new light on various historical interpretations of the Cerne Giant’s identity. Many scholars had posited that the giant was modeled on the myth of Hercules, and although, as the authors write, “[a]t first glance, an early medieval date seems odd for a figure which looks like the classical god Hercules,” there was in fact a swell of interest in the Greek hero during the ninth century, lending credence to this hypothesis.

Another popular theory regarding the inspiration for the giant was its basis on a Saint Eadwold. The authors propose that the residents of a Benedictine monastery, built in Cerne in the late tenth century, actively propagated this idea, redirecting interest in the giant away from Greek affiliations and towards Christian ones.

One final persona bestowed upon the giant was that of a pagan god called Helith. The authors of the Speculum paper write that this identification was a mistaken one, the result of a misreading, in the thirteenth century, of an account of the giant written in Latin.

The new findings concerning the Cerne Giant’s age and history make greater sense of this string of theories regarding its identity. Ultimately, as the authors write, this complicated biography is all “part of the history of the giant and what continues to attract so many people to him.”

The recent dating of the Cerne Abbas Giant came as a surprise. This huge, naked figure was cut into a Dorset hillside not, as many have supposed, in prehistory, nor in the early modern period, but in the early Middle Ages. This means that for the first time it is possible to place the Cerne Giant within a cultural context. In this article, we propose an explanation for when and why he was originally cut as an image of Hercules. We also argue that, contrary to conventional views, he is referred to in an early medieval source and that this, in turn, helps to demonstrate that by the eleventh century he was being reinterpreted in a surprising way, as Saint Eadwold. This is only one example of many such reimaginings, among which one of the most enduring is that he is neither classical hero nor saint but instead an image of the pagan god Helith. We end by showing how that idea came into being.

New Dating Evidence

The Cerne Giant is a massive image of a naked man carved into the chalk bedrock of a hillside above the village of Cerne Abbas (Fig. 1). He stands almost 60m high, brandishing a club in his right hand, with his left arm outstretched. His feet are turned towards his right, as if walking. His bald head is tear-drop shaped, with eyes, eyebrows, nose, and mouth. On his naked torso are depicted an erect penis, nipples, ribs, a belt, and a belly button; the latter appears to have been incorporated into his penis in 1908, making his phallus more prominent now than it was originally.1
Fig. 1. The Cerne Abbas Giant, Cerne Abbas, Dorset, England.
Photo: Ray Gaffney. © National Trust.
There have been discussions for centuries about when the Cerne Giant was first carved. In 1996, a trial was held in the village hall to test three arguments: that it was cut in prehistory or in the early Romano-British period; that it was carved in the seventeenth century; and that its origins matter less than its subsequent biography.2 With no conclusive evidence to go on, Martin Papworth, senior archaeologist for the National Trust, set out to try to find some. In spring 2020, he worked with Mike Allen and Philip Toms to date the monument using a technique called optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) together with environmental analysis of the soils. OSL is a method for dating when minerals, in this case the quartz in the chalk, were last exposed to sunlight. This might be because the quartz crystals were covered over either by hillwash or by newly deposited chalk placed on top. The technology has been used since the 1980s, especially for dating layers of sediment but also brick and mortar. Studies that have checked OSL dates with independent dating methods have demonstrated their reliability.3 In order to take soil samples, four small trenches were cut across the upper line of the giant’s elbows and the soles of his feet.4 We await the final publication of the results, but nonetheless it is clear that they reveal a great deal about how and when the giant was originally constructed and subsequently maintained. This article is intended to help contextualize the archaeological evidence, and it has already led to the initiation of new research on the history of this rather extraordinary place.5

Initially, the outlines of the giant were lightly scooped out as terraces about 65cm wide and 15cm deep into the natural chalk of the hillside.6 Without maintenance, rain and rabbits would gradually fill in the outlines with soil. As a comparison, a white horse cut into chalk near Uffington (Berkshire) in the 1860s, and not thereafter maintained, was still visible in 1922 but had disappeared by 1949.7 The Cerne Giant was maintained in two ways:
  • By scouring the chalk to clean it of hillwash and overgrowth.
  • Or, more labor intensively, by also bringing in chalk from elsewhere and packing it into the trenches.
The former leaves less trace than rechalking, although because only the outline is kept clean, the hillwash builds up by the sides of the outlines, so there is more archaeological evidence than one might think. The stratigraphy shows that after the initial cutting, silt washed down the hillside and filled the shallow trenches. There was then a major effort to rechalk the giant using “chunky chalk” which survives to a depth of 35cm and includes pieces of flint within it (Figs. 2, 3).8 After this, more silt accumulated, followed by another rechalking, this time also using “chunky chalk” but from a different source which contained no flint.9 Above that, there are layers of rammed chalk of different textures, of which the most recent ones can be identified with known rechalkings, especially the most recent ones in 1956, 1978, 1995, 2008, and 2019.10 In other words, the giant has been largely kept visible through scouring, except for two major rechalkings; it is only within recent times that regular rechalking has become the preferred method of maintenance.

Fig. 2. Excavations in progress showing the trench through the giant’s left foot, 2020, Cerne Abbas, Dorset, England.

Photo: Martin Papworth. © National Trust.
Fig. 3. A section down to the lower chunky chalk cut into the geological chalk, 2020, Cerne Abbas, Dorset, England.

Photo: Martin Papworth. © National Trust.
The OSL dates are useful because they give us information about the early stages of the chronology. They cannot precisely date when the figure was cut, but rather when the silt began to accumulate within his outlines and when the hillwash built up downslope of them.11 The dates indicate that the outlines of the giant were silting up in the period 700–1110 AD, with a midpoint date of 905 (this date comes from his right elbow). This is confirmed by a second sample, from the silt in the bottom of the trench in his right foot, which gave dates of 650–1310 AD, with a midpoint date of 980. These early medieval dates are confirmed by two other samples from higher up in the stratigraphy which both have a midpoint date of the mid-thirteenth century.12 They are also supported by the analysis of snail shells in the soils, which reveals that the early levels contain snails first introduced into Britain in the Middle Ages.13 It is therefore most likely that the giant was cut in the early Middle Ages rather than earlier or later, although it could have happened anytime within the period of c. 700–1100. The dates also suggest that he was not much cleaned after having been initially cut but that he was then substantially rechalked.

An early medieval date certainly fits with the form of his face. The distinctive tear-drop shape is akin to other human faces in Anglo-Saxon art, such as the ones on the Sutton Hoo scepter, the Finglesham buckle, and figurines from Kent and East Anglia (Figs. 4–7).14 There are some parallels for this shape from Scandinavia, but it is quite different from classical models, and it is less common from the eighth century onwards.15 An early medieval date also fits with recent work on the depiction of human forms in this period. Images of naked human bodies began to be produced from the seventh century onwards, and males tended not to be depicted completely naked but often as wearing a belt.16 It is not clear whether the lines beneath the giant’s ribs were meant to indicate the base of his torso, as is often shown on classical images, or the line of his belt; a LiDAR survey suggests they did once extend right across his torso and, if so, are likely to be a belt.17 For these reasons, the physical form of the Cerne Giant is compatible with the new dating.
Fig. 4. The face of the Cerne Giant, Cerne Abbas, Dorset, England.

Photo: Mark Way, CC BY-ND 2.0, via Flickr.
Fig. 5. Face on the “scepter” from Sutton Hoo, early seventh century, Suffolk, England. London, British Museum, 1939,1010.160.

Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum.
Fig. 7. Face on a figurine from Carlton Colville, seventh century, Suffolk, England. London, British Museum 2001,0902.1.

Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum.
Fig. 9. Roman gilded statue of Hercules, second century AD, Rome, Italy. Rome, Pio-Clementino Museum, MV.252.0.0.

Photo: Sergey Sosnovskiy, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Fig. 11. Sculpture depicting Hercules, late Roman, Corbridge, England. Corbridge Roman Town Museum, DP045083.
Photo: © Carole Raddato.
Fig. 13. Sculpture depicting Hercules, late Roman, Deneuvre, France. Deneuvre, Musée Les sources d’Hercule, A.A 359.
Photo: © Carole Raddato.
Fig. 6. Face on a buckle from Finglesham, seventh century, Kent, England. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, LI1326.23.

Photo: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.
Fig. 8. Roman gilded statue of Hercules, second century BC, Rome, Italy. Rome, Musei Capitolini, MC1265.

Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 10. Statuette of Hercules, Colchester, England. Colchester, Colchester Collections, 1936.901A.

Photo: Helen Gittos.
Fig. 12. Sculpture depicting Hercules, late Roman, Deneuvre, France. Deneuvre, Musée Les sources d’Hercule, S.A.8.
Photo: © Carole Raddato.
However, the dating evidence produced by these excavations came as a shock—to the archaeologists involved, to the local community, and to the interested public.18 It also came as a surprise to those of us who study the early Middle Ages. In what follows, we demonstrate that an Anglo-Saxon context for the giant’s creation makes good sense.


At first glance, an early medieval date seems odd for a figure which looks like the classical god Hercules. The resemblance has been recognized since at least the mid-eighteenth century, when the giant was identified as “our High Admiral Hercules” by William Stukeley.19 Stuart Piggott in the 1930s made the case more fully, and the giant is now accepted as an image of Hercules in the Lexicon iconographicum mythologiae classicae.20 The club is the clue. Hercules was one of the most frequently depicted figures in the classical world, and his distinctively knotted club acted as an identificatory label, like the keys of Saint Peter or the wheel of Saint Catherine.21 He was usually depicted in motion, as at Cerne, and the ribs, lower line of the stomach, and nakedness are all typical (Figs. 8–13).
The social and political background to the probable creation of the Cerne Abbas hill figure is interesting as it was a time of instability and the beginning of the end of the Anglo-Saxon dynasty, which was to be the last native dynasty to rule the English. In 1066 it would be swept away and replaced by Norman French dynasties. Christianity, in the form of Catholic monastic orders, was asserting itself not by replacing the local gods and religions but by incorporating them into local versions, so, for example, a local Anglo-Saxon holy man of hermit, Eadwold, had been declared a Christian saint, and adopted by the monks at the local monastery at Cerne, who then identified the figure of Hercules with Eadwold and probably incorporated local customs and religious practices into a local form of Christianity.

Who was Saint Eadwold? Saint Eadwold, also known as Eadwold of Cerne, was a saint venerated in medieval England. He was a monk who lived during the 9th century and is associated with the monastery at Cerne Abbas in Dorset, England. Eadwold is primarily known through local tradition and hagiographic accounts rather than extensive historical records.

According to tradition, Eadwold was a pious monk who lived a life of devotion and austerity. He is said to have been a relative of King Æthelstan of Wessex, although details about his family background are scarce. Eadwold is particularly associated with Cerne Abbas, where he is believed to have been a hermit or monk.

Saint Eadwold is often credited with founding the religious community at Cerne Abbas and establishing a hermitage or cell in the vicinity. He is revered locally as a holy man and a patron saint of the area.

However, due to the limited historical documentation from this period, much of what is known about Saint Eadwold is based on later medieval legends and traditions rather than contemporary records. Despite the scarcity of historical evidence, he remains an important figure in the religious history of Dorset and is venerated as a saint by some.

What was happing in Southern England around 980 AD?

Around 980 AD, Southern England was experiencing significant political and social changes. Here are some key events and developments that were occurring during that time:
  1. Anglo-Saxon England: Southern England, like the rest of the country, was part of Anglo-Saxon England, which was divided into several kingdoms or territories ruled by Anglo-Saxon kings. By 980 AD, the Kingdom of England was emerging, with Wessex as its dominant power.
  2. Viking Invasions: Throughout the 9th and 10th centuries, England faced repeated invasions and raids by Vikings, particularly in coastal areas. By 980 AD, the Viking incursions had significantly impacted the political landscape of England, leading to the establishment of Danelaw, an area in the north and east of England where Danish law and influence prevailed.
  3. Reign of Æthelred the Unready: Around 980 AD, King Æthelred II, also known as Æthelred the Unready, ruled England. His reign was characterized by conflicts with the Vikings, internal strife, and instability. Æthelred's efforts to combat Viking raids included paying large sums of money, known as Danegeld, to buy off Viking invaders, although these payments were often ineffective in preventing further raids.
  4. Church and Monasticism: Southern England, like the rest of the country, was deeply influenced by Christianity during this period. Monasteries and religious institutions played a significant role in the socio-economic landscape, serving as centers of learning, agriculture, and community life.
  5. Agricultural Society: Southern England in the 10th century was primarily agricultural, with a feudal system in place where land was held by lords who granted portions to vassals in exchange for military or other services. The economy was largely agrarian, with most people engaged in farming, herding, or related trades.
Overall, the period around 980 AD was characterized by political instability due to Viking incursions, the consolidation of power under Anglo-Saxon rulers, and the continued influence of Christianity and feudalism in Southern England.
Christianity was proving to be a flexible tool for subverting and dominating the local culture of the native Anglo-Saxons in England and Celts in Cornwall and Wales, hence the abundance of local saints after whom the churches were named.

And Hercules, which was probably a remnant of Roman rule is one of the few pre-Christian religions of which we know anything at all; all the others having died and been consigned to the graveyard of long-dead gods whom no-one mourns, and whose passing changed nothing just as their presence had changed nothing because prayers to them like prayers today had been prayers to an imaginary being with no powers to change or influence anything.

Unlike real things, gods can be created out of nothing and will disappear without trace when their last believer dies or stops believing in them.

Ten Reasons To Lose Faith: And Why You Are Better Off Without It

This book explains why faith is a fallacy and serves no useful purpose other than providing an excuse for pretending to know things that are unknown. It also explains how losing faith liberates former sufferers from fear, delusion, and the control of others, freeing them to see the world in a different light, to recognise the injustices that religions cause and to accept people for who they are, not which group they happened to be born in. A society based on atheist, Humanist principles would be a less divided, more inclusive, more peaceful society and one more appreciative of the one opportunity that life gives us to enjoy and wonder at the world we live in.

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