Viewing the Cerne Abbas Giant

by JoHarrington

The Victorians thought the chalk figure pornographic, but they would. Visit Cerne Abbas to see for yourself.

The well endowed man graces a Dorset hillside, his outline etched into the chalk. At 55 meters (180ft) tall, this is one of England's Scheduled Ancient Monuments and protected by the National Trust.

Cerne Abbas Giant has featured in everything from tourist guides to jeans commercials. He's been at the center of political protests. Even The Simpsons have paid homage with a Homer impersonation in a movie trailer.

But who and what is he? And where is the best place to view him for yourself?

Visiting the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset

Even the journey to this English landmark is enjoyable. The countryside is very picturesque.

The Dorset countryside is unassumingly beautiful. Rolling hills, once formed beneath a prehistoric sea, now fill the landscape clad in green fields and trees.

The hills undulate, charming and enchanting. Here and there, cows or sheep nibble away at the grass.

Streams trickle beneath weather-worn wooden foot-bridges before meeting the pretty River Cerne. Farmhouses and cottages appear organic in their construction, nestled amidst the folds like they have always been there.

We had driven north from Dorchester, with eight miles worth of pleasing scenery drifting by our windows. It was mid-May. The distant trees - looking like hazy giant broccoli to the more irreverent eyes - were in blossom.

My friend likened it to a Gainsborough painting. I had to concur.  Then, on the subject of art, we pulled onto a car-park off the A352 and there was the chalk carving that we'd come to see.

We weren't alone. Everyone from hardened hikers in walking boots to families with young, excited children running ahead were here too.  Parties paused at the picnic tables to eat in the sunshine.

We all lingered by the gate to see the huge picture carved into the hillside. Cerne Abbas Giant really is a very large man.

What is the Cerne Abbas Giant?

The hill figure is just one of several gracing England's chalky slopes. It's listed as an Ancient Scheduled Monument.

Once every twenty-five years, National Trust gardeners make the trek up onto Giant's Hill and begin to dig into the soil.

Ninety million years ago, this landscape was at the bottom of a shallow sea. Tiny marine creatures lived out their lives and died above it. Their bodies, encrusted in shell-like plates, sank into the sediment. Several millennia on, their remains have fossilized into chalk; and this is what peeps through as the bedrock.

Centuries of British people have learned that white chalk shows up very nicely, when cut deep enough through the grass.  They can make pictures in the landscape; and we so do.

In Wiltshire, Kent, Sussex, Yorkshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Dorset, wherever the bedrock is chalk, hill figures can be found. 

One of the most famous of all is the Cerne Abbas Giant.  It's located just north of the city of Dorchester, in rural Dorset.  Each line is 30cm (11.9") deep and wide; and it depicts a naked man brandishing a knotted club.  It can be seen for miles across the valley. 

Without the quarter century re-carving, the grass would finally swallow the giant whole.  This is why the National Trust have been given the task of maintaining and protecting this familiar English landmark.

The organization have built a barbed wire fence around the site to restrict access to those visiting. They may look, but cannot touch, nor trample, nor add bits with a spade. 

For the ladies visiting, this may or may not be a relief.  It is said that any woman spending the night lying upon the giant's sizable phallus will be pregnant by morning.  I watched from a roadside, then climbed up the tracks, but I didn't attempt to push beneath the boundaries. It didn't seem worth the risk of having to explain that one to the birth registrar.

Books about Cerne Abbas Giant

Buy these guides to learn more about the ancient (and modern) British chalk hill figures.
Chalk Figures of Wessex (Wessex Series)Lost Gods of Albion: The Chalk Hill F...Ancient Hill Figures of Britain Pb
The Cerne Abbas Giant, or Cerne Giant, and more recently referred to as the Rude Man and the Rude 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, England. T...

The Homer Simpson Giant Controversy

Was it right to use this site to promote a commercial movie? The debate raged at the time.

In 2007, publicists for The Simpsons Movie climbed up onto Giant's Hill.  On the slope alongside the famous chalk figure another was added.

This was Homer Simpson, resplendent in his underwear, holding aloft an over-sized donut. The giant seemed to eye-ball him warily. At least, he didn't lower his brandished knotted club. Homer merely grinned right back.

For some, this was the height of hilarity.  It was a bit of fun designed to garner newspaper inches and a word of mouth buzz about the upcoming film.  Homer wasn't permanently cut into the chalky soil.  In fact, he was drawn onto the grass in biodegradable paint. The next rainfall washed him away.

Homer Simpson chalked onto the Cerne Abbas Hillside

But many did not see the joke.  It was crass Americanism or capitalist interests despoiling an ancient monument.  Worse still, for the Pagans, it was religious sacrilege.

Would such a stunt have been pulled at Mecca?  How come no-one considered covering St Peter's Basilica in Vatican City with this same image?  But commercialism had been allowed to make a mockery of a Pagan God at his sacred space.

Ann Bryn-Evans, the Wessex joint district manager of the Pagan Federation, was amongst those on site to protest.  She told BBC News"I'm amazed they got permission to do something so ridiculous."

All over the country, outraged Pagans viewed it as an endemic slight against our religion. Amongst them, die-hard Simpsons fans suddenly took a very dim view of the show.  I recall the furor very well. It seemed like it was the only topic of conversation at moots, covens and in Pagan forums on and off-line.

The cheaper newspapers delighted in portraying my religion as full of humorless, ignorant cranks. It was made very clear that intolerance against our beliefs and spiritual heritage was not only acceptable, but should be encouraged.

The broadsheets took a more subtle approach, wheeling out the historians to point out the flaw in Pagan reasoning - no-one knew for certain that the Cerne Abbas Giant was a) ancient nor b) a fertility god.

While utterly sickened by the provocation of smug journalists, I had to agree with the latter.  The sources simply aren't there.

Should Homer Simpson Have Been Painted onto Giant's Hill?

The addition was temporary and no trace now remains of it. But it was solely there for commercial purposes.
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Which God is the Cerne Abbas Giant?

Hercules in the Celtic tongue, or a West Saxon deity named Helis, Helith, Heil or Hegle, are the major contenders.

In David Rankine and Sorita D'Este's excellent book The Isles of Many Gods, the Cerne Abbas Giant is amongst those listed (p157). This is 'an A-Z of the Pagan Gods and Goddesses worshiped in Ancient Britain during the First Millennium CE through to the Middle Ages'.

For them, and for everyone protesting the Homer Simpson incident from a Pagan viewpoint, the figure on the hillside is Helis, aka Helith. 

Their cited source is HJM Green's archaeological research for Oxford University, which was published in Pagan Gods and Shrines of the Roman Empire (1984).

He concluded that there was undoubtedly a God local to Cerne Abbas called Helis. He also observed that people in the local towns and villages still referred to the chalk figure as Helis.

Green then speculated that Roman invaders had imported their God Hercules into the British Isles. The native Celts had then Cymrized the name into Helis and that was who was etched into the chalk.

This theory was given a further boost in 1997, when a geological survey revealed that the Cerne Abbas Giant has changed over the years.  He used to have a cloak draped over his arm too, as well as a severed head at his feet. As you can see in the image of Hercules above, the knotted club and cloak are certainly associated with him.

(Incidentally, Cerne Abbas Giant didn't used to have such a large phallus either. He had a distinct circle as a naval, which eventually became merged with his previously smaller erection.)

Unfortunately, all of this is largely circumstantial evidence, based too strongly on oral history. There is nothing wrong with the latter, until you realize that Helis or Helith has a better etymology in Saxon lore and they never met the Romans in Britain.

In the 16th century, John Leland visited St Augustine's Well, in nearby Cerne Abbey. He found that the spring was known for its restorative properties; and that it had originally been dedicated to Helith, a Saxon God or Goddess. The name comes from the same root as the word 'health'.

After the Norman conquest, Gotselin the Frenchman became Archdeacon of Canterbury. He used the position to study the life of St Augustine. In 1099, Gotselin completed his Historia Translationis St Augustini, which discussed the saint's evangelism in the Cerne Valley. 

The locals worshiped Hegle or Heil. Statues of the God (or Goddess) lined the well. But Augustine smashed them all before converting the 'Heathens' into Christianity.  The spring was renamed there and then as St Augustine's Well.  Gotselin cited an unnamed Saxon source, which dated that as occurring around 603 CE.

All of this very firmly places Helis (or a variation of the name) in the area right at the foot of Giant's Hill.  We can be certain that the deity was worshiped in the Cerne Valley before the coming of Christianity.

What none of it does is point categorically to the chalk figure upon the hill and state, "That is Helis."

The deity in question was apparently associated with water and, in Britain, those tend to be Goddesses.  The person outlined on the hill is very, very obviously masculine.

Cerne Abbas and its Giant

Buy Cerne Abbas Mementos on eBay

A Giant Phallic Parody of Oliver Cromwell

A widely held belief is that the Cerne Abbas Giant was a Commonwealth era political protest.

Every attraction website from the National Trust to the Dorset Tourist Board tells visitors that the Cerne Abbas Giant possibly dates from the 2nd century CE.

The emphasis there is on 'possibly', because there is nothing to support that supposition.  In fact, a commonly held theory is that the chalk figure dates no earlier than the 17th century.

In this telling, it is pointed out that Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, was often referred to by the nickname The Hercules of Britain.  It is thought that Lord Denzil Holles, a Parliamentarian who took Cerne Abbey as his manor home, cut the figure into the hillside as a slur.

There was the Hercules of Britain (with King Charles I's severed head at his feet), with no ruling tradition behind him.  He was no ancient ruler.  In fact, in this rendering, Cromwell was mostly notable for being a large phallus.

The origin of this story comes from Reverend John Hutchins, who combined his pastoral role in various Dorset parishes with being an historian.  He claimed to have been told by Cerne Abbas villagers that the giant was 'a modern thing'. This information was published in his book, The History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset (1774).

However, in 2009, Rob Wilson-North, an historic environment manager, uncovered the traces of a late 16th century landscaped garden in the grounds of Cerne Abbey.  He found a couple of earthworks and a gulley which perfectly matched the giant's most prominent attribute. The implication was that the garden had taken its inspiration from the chalk figure.

Even pushing the dating to its latest extreme only took us to the early 17th century.  The English Civil War (thus Cromwell's ascent to power) didn't start until 1642.  The Hercules of Britain tag wouldn't have made any sense at all before then.

Nevertheless, this was a garden ultimately owned by Lord Denzil Holles, who moved in also during 1642. If the dates could be made to match, then maybe we could simply conclude that he had a thing about phallic landscapes.

Given enough circumstantial evidence to link the Cerne Abbas Giant with Helis, and thus a history dating back to at least 603 CE, the Cromwell story should have been dismissed as hearsay. But there is more evidence in its favor.

The earliest written reference to this chalk figure is in 1694, when churchwardens were given an allowance for keeping the grass trimmed on the hillside.  Not only is the figure missing from the historical narrative before that, but everything around it fills the void.

Just over the brow of the hill is an undisputed ancient earthworks known as The Trendle. Until the 17th century, the slope was called Trendle Hill not Giant's Hill.

What do you think Cerne Abbas Giant represents?

Respected historians and geologists are still debating this one, so your guess is as good as theirs!
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The Best Place to See the Cerne Abbas Giant

Has anyone remembered to pack a hang-glider? Or hot-air balloon? How about a handy jet propulsion back-pack?

If we're absolutely honest, then seeing the chalk figure from above is the most perfect view of all.  The fact that he's facing the sky has led some to theorize that Cerne Abbas Giant is a sky god.

However, assuming that you don't have a plane to hand, the second best viewpoint is from the small car-park just off the A352. 

There are a dozen or so bays to park up and just wander out. 

I couldn't help noticing that even the distant trees appear to have been landscaped to frame him.

For those wishing to make more of their visit than nipping in and out of their car, then a short walk around the corner will reveal a picnic area. Tables and benches are already arrayed waiting for your lunches.  There's also a larger car-park close to it.

Further along is Kettle Bridge, a picturesque stone construction over a river that positively babbles.  The nearby village of Cerne Abbas is sign-posted here.  There are plenty of pubs, restaurants, cafes and public conveniences there, as they are well used to catering for tourism.

However, remaining on the track will lead through a pleasant woodland walk onto Giant's Hill itself. I saw no easy access here for those with mobility issues, as the steps up onto the hill track are rather steep.  There was also a stile to navigate, which would not allow passage for a wheelchair or mobility scooter.

If it's any consolation, the best views of the giant have already been left behind in the car-parks and picnic area. Up above the carving is too close.  You can see it well enough, but you can make no sense of what you're seeing. They're just so many chalky white lines.

What is the lure up here (other than those wishing to become preternaturally pregnant) is the wonderful scenery across the rest of Cerne Valley. 

There is a three mile circular walk, which isn't very taxing, though does become steep in parts.  The route takes trekkers beneath the giant, across the slope and up onto the ridge-way, before a descent back into the woodland.

I found it all to be very beautiful, but not at all the best view of the giant.  For that, stay on the road itself.

Map to the Cerne Abbas Giant

A car-park off the A352, 8 miles north of Dorchester, is the best place to catch an eyeful of him from the ground.

Buy Maps for the Cerne Abbas Area

If you really want to go exploring, then a more detailed map of the landscape would be ideal.
Cerne Abbas and Bere Regis, Blandford Forum and Beaminster (Explorer Maps)

This map is part of the Ordnance Survey's Explorer series designed to replace the old Pathfinder map series. At 1:25,000 scale this detailed map shows a host of attractions incl...

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Exp 117 Cerne Abbas & Bere Regis (Explorer Maps)

OS Explorer Map is the Ordnance Survey's most detailed map and is recommended for anyone enjoying outdoor activities like walking, horse riding and off-road cycling. Providing c...

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Updated: 10/12/2012, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 06/04/2012

Your Dad sounds absolutely amazing! What an imagination to have!

lou16 on 06/04/2012

I grew up in Dorset and my dad used to tell us lots of stories, basically taking bits of folklore and legends and then mixing them up with a little storytelling flair. In his story the Cerne Abbas Giant was an actual giant and is responsible for a number of names of villages in Dorset ie Puddletown was where rain gathered in one of his footprints and as for the 'Piddle' villages - you can imagine what they represented! I forget how in his story the giant became 'trapped' as a chalk figure, but it was entertaining. Sometimes it's nice to have a little mystery about the actual origins :)

JoHarrington on 05/24/2012

You're very welcome. :)

At one time, they experimented with just having sheep up there to keep the grass trim. It didn't work so well, so now it's human beings every 25 years re-cutting the lines.

Jackie on 05/24/2012

I love that even now, people still go up there to maintain this beautiful (if a little phallic) piece of history.

Thanks for explaining why there's this huge picture of a naked guy carved into our countryside!

JoHarrington on 05/23/2012

I'm intrigued by the thought that the bonfire might have been in the Trendle. I know that it's been used for a long time for May Pole dancing. Summer solstice is just around the corner, so they could possibly have been getting ready for that.

Unless, of course, it was just burning random stuff while landscaping!

Thanks for your comment.

Kate on 05/23/2012

I agree the best view is from the main road but the views from up there are stunning . I was there over the weekend and noted a bonfire all ready in the neighbouring field. I would love to be there for that

JoHarrington on 05/23/2012

Thank you very much.

In that case, you might be better off visiting one of the thirty or so less phallic chalk hill figures in the country. The vast majority are horses galloping across slopes.

Either that or climb up beside the Cerne Abbas giant and look at the landscape from his viewpoint. It is, indeed, very beautiful.

dustytoes on 05/23/2012

Sorry, but I'd hate to see that figure disrupting beautiful scenery. As always Jo, you've written an interesting page.

JoHarrington on 05/22/2012

:D Yes, I can so see that. LOL

chefkeem on 05/22/2012

Looks to me like his nose was too big and slipped down his chest, over the years.

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