Something stirs, and has probably stirred for millennia in the landscape around Cerne Abbas.
Who is the Giant?
The Giant stands watch over acres of undulating hills and fertile , water-fed, green valleys. No one knows how old he is. He has defied archaeology, and in the end it comes down to which sorts of evidence one places one’s faith in … although the consensus is that he was put there as some sort of message.
Those who place their faith in the written word point out that the first (surviving) written evidence of the Giant is in the Churchwardens’ accounts of 1694 (“for repairing ye Giant, 3 shillings”). They favour the theory that he was created as a political lampoon of Cromwell by Denzel Holles, who owned the land at the time. Others note the Giant’s similarity to Hercules and imagine Roman soldiers creating him as a statement, perhaps in a similar way to how regimental badges were created on Salisbury Plain during WW1.
If you talk to those who’ve lived here for generations – who remember running around his outline as a child or playing a sort of hopscotch between the parts of his tackle, he is prehistoric. More recently Peter Knight has examined archaeoastronomical alignments and came to the conclusion he is Iron Age, created not long before the Roman invasion.
Cerne Abbas, a Healing Place
For those that live in Cerne, the Giant can best be described as a sort of benign Spirit of Place. He has survived all those centuries because villagers have scoured him periodically. Many feel that there is power here, and healing. The well was, among other things, a healing well. It is named after St Augustine, who supposedly came here when sent by the Pope in 597 to reconvert the English, but may be older. Almost 200 years later St Edwold, brother to the King Edmund who was martyred by the Vikings and then ended up in Bury St Edmunds, is said to have escaped politics to be a hermit by the Well.
Christianity was here with the Romans – the world’s oldest known mosaic of Jesus (4thC) was found only 15 miles away at Hinton St Mary. A Roman coin with the Christian chi rho sign which had been pierced to be a necklace was also found in the area.
A Benedictine Abbey was founded in 987 and so this settlement by the Cerne River became named after it. It was well known as a seat of great learning in the Middle Ages. Aelfric wrote translations of the Bible and early English commentaries whilst Abbot of Cerne and the Bishop of Stavanger in Norway was educated at Cerne Abbey. The medieval Irish/Saxon prayerbook Book of Cerne (so-called because a greater part of the content refers to and links with Cerne Abbey) is now held in the Cambridge University Library. Cerne Abbey was at one time the wealthiest in Dorset, richer than both Sherborne and Abbotsbury taken together.
The Mysteries Continue
In May 2017, three weeks after the first Cerne Giant Festival, a crop circle in the form of an ancient vesica pisces appeared in a field north of the base of the Giant. Most who saw it agreed it was a feminine image. Pagans saw the Goddess in it, Catholic Christians saw the Virgin Mary and noted it had appeared almost exactly 100 years after the famous vision of Mary at Fatima in Portugal (which was 13 May 1917). By the end of the year, this circle had become the third most visited of the 30+ on this year’s Crop Circle Connector website.
A mandorla is a pointed oval, and represents the intersection of the two circles in a vesica pisces. It symbolises the union of opposites in harmony and balance. In Christianity it usually contains a figure of Jesus or Mary, and is about a human in perfect balance between the necessity of material existence and the Divine. The seals of Benedictine abbeys were always mandorlas, and Benedictine abbeys always had Mary as one of their patron saints. However, it is interesting that all three of the saints in the Cerne 15thC abbot’s seal were female.
“The (Cerne) abbot’s seal … shows in three canopied niches full-length figures of the Virgin crowned, with the Child in her right hand, and a sceptre fleur-de-lis in her left hand, St. Catherine with crown, nimbus and wheel on the left, and St. Margaret with crown on the right standing on a dragon and piercing his head.”
This is an abbot’s seal from Abingdon Abbey – but it has Mary and two male saints
There was a St Catherine’s chapel on Black Hill, south of Giant Hill. A St Catherine’s wheel may be seen on a stone by the Well, and the symbol is also sacred to Pagans as it represents the 8 seasonal festivals of the year. St Margaret is a feminine counterpart to George. The energy lines which define ley lines are called ‘dragon lines’ in China, and some who work with the so-called ‘earth energies’ believe the stories are not about destroying the dragon so much as harnessing its energy.
2020 News: The Giant was Christian?!!!
In March 2020, just as the first Covid Lockdown was about to take place, the National Trust found funds to pay for invasive archaeological tests that had never been done before. Trenches were dug across the Giant’s elbows and the soles of his feet. The layers of rechalkings could clearly be seen. It is very difficult to get permission to do this, and these kinds of tests are expensive. Then Lockdown happened.
The first test was examining fragments of snail shells, and the results of this became public the following autumn. The shock for those in the ‘Giant is prehistoric’ school of thought came: the lowest layer contained fragments of snail shells of species unknown until medieval times (ie after Roman – they are believed to have been imported accidentally some time from that time onwards). Those in the ‘Giant is 17thC’ school scoffed as it appeared their theory was correct.
Then the result of the next test, Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL), arrived the following May and shocked everyone. OSL can detect when tiny quartz grains in the sediment were last exposed to light. Sediments at various depths in the trenches were analysed. About halfway down the infill was dated to a massive re-chalking at about 1250 in which earlier chalked layers had been dug through and re-packed. This is 350 years after the founding of Cerne Abbey by the Saxon Aethelmaer in 897AD, and the land was owned by Cerne Abbey! Sediments at the trench bases were dated to around 900AD.
So now it is the turn of scholars of the AngloSaxon period to be excited, as artifacts from that period rarely turn up, especially in the west. And there all the time the biggest, most famous, regional artifact ‘belonged’ to them! There is now at least one academic paper in preparation. Surprisingly, it is not a surprise for them that the Giant is AngloSaxon, now that they are looking closely at other forms of corroborating evidence. The AngloSaxons were particularly fond of Hercules, and many have believed that the Giant is a portrait of Hercules.
By 1250, however, the AngloSaxons had become history but something – usually pilgrims – was making the Abbey very wealthy. Was it devotion to the Saxon saint Edwold? Was the Giant repurposed into a sort of billboard advertising Edwold to pilgrims?
Does the Giant have a ‘Message’ for 21stC Humanity?
Peter Knight ( The Cerne Giant: Landscape, Gods and the Stargate) believes that the Giant is about 2000 years old, and that he has survived because each generation could identify with some archetypal aspect of the Giant. This gave them the impetus to carry out the arduous and, what is on the face of it, somewhat pointless exercise of regularly scouring him. Is he simply an archaic curiosity or has he a message for us today?
The geological era we are currently in is called the Anthropocene because humanity is leaving its imprint on the planet in a way never before experienced … and the most striking of these is the detrimental effect of humans upon the fertility of the land and of its ecosystems. As a species we see the planet as something to consume; however if you study the workings of ecosystems the most striking aspect is that everything is reused, recycled, or turned into something even more useful (like the humus in soil). It is only gradually dawning on us that we are truly at a crossroads. And when the penny drops it compels us to respond in some way.
But in an urbanised society where does one start? We are so divorced from the natural world it can be overwhelming. The answer is to ENGAGE. The ‘Cerne Giant Festival 2022’ aims to raise awareness of, explore and pay tribute to, the humans and other forces which have been influenced by our landscape from ancient times. There are a number of activities planned in and around Cerne Abbas including Beer Making, Minibeast Safaris, Talks, Performance Poetry, Walks, a Ceilidh and of course Morris Dancing. To check out what appeals to you Google @CerneGiantFestival. We hope to see you there!!
If we find it hard to believe that the inmates of the monastery at Cerne Abbas could have sponsored the making of the giant, that says more about us than it does about them.Alice Raw,
Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford
The name “Heilith” looks like the Old English word hæleð, ie haeleth, which means “man” or “hero”.Prof Richard North, University College, London
It seems that around the time of the Norman Conquest, the people of Cerne saw this as an image of their very own saint. I bet both monks & villagers processed from monastery to giant & spring & back…Dr. Helen Gittos,
Assoc Prof of Medieval History, University of Oxford