The Cerne Giant
Location: The Cerne Giant, Cerne Abbas
The Fertility Giant
The Cerne Giant is one of three ancient figures cut into the English chalk downs, the others being the Long Man of Wilmington in East Sussex and the Uffington White Horse in Berkshire. This chalk-cut figure, 55 metres high and 51 metres wide, is more than a mere outline: the face, ribs and genitalia are also depicted; indeed, since the eighteenth century, the erect phallus has incorporated what used to be the navel, and thus its length has increased by over 1.5m. Local legend suggests that a real giant terrorized the village and was eventually killed and beheaded on the hill, and his figure was traced in the chalk around his body, which is still scoured every seven years. He sometimes strolls down the hill to drink at the stream and gobble up any stray sheep.
The conspicuous genitalia may indicate some sort of fertility cult, and certainly, until recent years, Maypole dancing took place on Mayday in the small rectangular earthwork enclosure, just above the figure, known as The Trendle or Frying Pan. If the May Pole is a phallic symbol, then it can have found no happier home than the vicinity of the Giant. On May Day, The Wessex Morris Men, who celebrate its forty sixth anniversary this year 2003, will perform their annual ritual dance at the Trendle, at sunrise. The morris dancers then process into the village to dance in the square outside the Red Lion. For more event information visit THE WESSEX MORRIS MEN WEBSITE.
Until well into last century an engagement or marriage was sealed with a visit to Cerne Abbas, and it was long customary for couples - especially childless couples - to have sex there on May Day, as the Giant's copious fertility guaranteed conception. It is said that women who wished to conceive used to spend the night on the figure, and belief in its power to impregnate seems to have persisted through the centuries.
In 1958, the Marquis of Bath and his wife Virginia visited the site. For five years, they had tried without success to have children together, and then someone told them about the Giant. They laid on him, and ten months later their daughter Silvy was born. The Marquis was aware that he was in the Giant's debt: 'It worked for us and in gratitude we gave Cerne as Silvy's middle name, and made G. Cerne godfather at the christening - the vicar never noticed.'
The date of the giant is unknown but, with its great club, 36.5 metres long, it is generally thought to represent the Roman god, Hercules, and thus may date from the second century, a time when the Emperor Commodus revived worship of this god, and posed as his incarnation. However, others suggest that the giant is a caricature of Oliver Cromwell and is only 350 years old. This argument centers on the fact that there is no reference to the giant in any historic documents until 1694. The giant is protectected as a scheduled ancient monument and was given to the National trust in 1920 to ensure its permanent protection. Until he became too old to continue his visits, the Marquis made an annual spring pilgrimage to the Giant with Silvy - now Lady Silvy Cerne McQuiston, so that she could tell her godfather what she had been up to since last they met.