On the hills of the English countryside in Dorset, you can find the giant chalk figure of a butt-naked man wielding a bat and a mighty erection. The origins of this figure – the Cerne Abbas Giant – have been debated for centuries, but a new study believes it might finally have the answer.
There have been numerous theories about the identity of the giant. These suggestions have included a Saxon deity, a pagan fertility symbol, or the ancient Greco-Roman hero Hercules. Some even postured that the figure was meant to make a mockery of Oliver Cromwell, the 17th-century statesman who was jokingly dubbed "England's Hercules" by his enemies. According to this theory, the prominent phallus was to mock Cromwell’s Puritanism.
In a new paper, two historians gather heaps of evidence to argue that the Cerne Abbas Giant does indeed depict Hercules, created as a bold landmark to mark a spot where West Saxon armies could gather to fight off marauding Vikings.
However, the story was later rewritten by meddling monks, perhaps hoping to secure the fortunes of the local patron saint.
The researchers note that Hercules is almost always depicted in artworks with a club, as well as other motifs seen on the Cerne Abbas Giant, such as nudity and prominent ribs.
“At first glance, an early medieval date seems odd for a figure which looks like the classical god Hercules,” Dr Helen Gittos and Dr Thomas Morcom write.
“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. He was usually depicted in motion, as at Cerne, and the ribs, lower line of the stomach, and nakedness are all typical,” the study authors explain.
“Alongside his club, he was most often associated with his lionskin mantle, and it is likely that one of these originally hung from the giant’s left arm,” they add.
Despite the pagan imagery, the artwork is relatively recent and dates to around the early Middle Ages, sometime between 700 CE and 1100 CE. This was a period when Britain was a largely Christian country, although interest in the figure of Hercules persisted among some groups.
“Interest in Hercules did not end in antiquity. He continued to be a well-known cultural figure throughout the Middle Ages,” the researchers explain, noting that the mythological figure was frequently used as a symbol of strength, masculinity, and courage.
The location of the chalk giant might have served as a meeting point for West Saxon armies, the researchers note. The figure is located on the site of an estate owned by the West Saxon royal family, not far from an abundant supply of fresh water and farmland to supply converging armies.
It’s also no coincidence that the giant was created around the time when Britain was under threat from invading Vikings, highlighting the need for a mustering point for local armies to meet. What better way to coordinate the meeting of distant armies than a memo simply saying “Meet us by the big naked giant”?
Not everyone was a fan of Hercules, however. It appears that local monks made efforts to rewrite this story and reimagine the figure as the local saint of Cerne, named Eadwold. As part of their research, the historians outline a 12th-century document from the British Library in which Saint Eadwold is described as standing at the top of a “sloping cliff”, holding a staff in his hand. This, they argue, is an attempt to rebrand the giant as Eadwold.
Not only did this reinterpretation erase the image of a non-Christian hero, but it may also have helped the local monastery to claim the valuable relics of Saint Eadwold.
The new research is published in Speculum, the journal of the Medieval Academy of America.