On the trail of the secret of the naked giant

On the trail of the secret of the naked giant

Aerial view of the Cerne-Abbas giant. Wirestock/iStock

He measures around 60 meters and “excitedly” swings a club: a study now sheds light on what the mysterious giant from Cerne Abbas in southwest England is all about. Accordingly, the scratching image on the side of a hill, which dates back to the early Middle Ages, depicts the ancient hero Hercules. The symbol, which can be seen from afar, probably marked a gathering point for Anglo-Saxon soldiers who were supposed to prepare for the defense of the region against invading Vikings, the scientists explain.

The famous geoglyph near the small town of Cerne Abbas in the southwestern English county of Dorset has long puzzled archaeologists and historians. The image in “Giant Hill” is a so-called scratch image: the lines that form the outline of the figure were embossed into the subsoil of the mountain side by removing the turf, which revealed the light subsurface. In addition, the furrows were filled with whitish limestone material. They form the image of a man depicted with a club and a phallus.

It was long suspected that the Cerne Abbas Giant, like the famous scratching image of the Uffington White Horse, came from prehistoric times. But about three years ago, an age determination using luminescence dating provided a surprising result: The scratching image was therefore only created in the early Middle Ages – between 700 and 1110 AD with an average time of around 900 AD. The depiction therefore falls into the Era of Anglo-Saxon rule in the region. However, it remained unclear who the giant was supposed to represent and what purpose it might have served. Helen Gittos from the University of Oxford and Tom Morcom from the University of Oslo have now addressed this question in their study.

Early medieval depiction of Hercules

With various evidence, historians support the previously expressed assumption that it is a representation of Hercules. At first, the association with the hero of pagan mythology may seem surprising. “But interest in Hercules did not end in antiquity. He remained a well-known cultural figure throughout the Middle Ages,” the historians write. As they demonstrate with examples, this was particularly true in the early Middle Ages in the Anglo-Saxon region. They show that the Cerne-Abbas giant has the characteristic trademarks of Hercules.

Above all, this is the depiction of the typically knotty club in the right hand and also the outstretched position of the left arm. As they explain, the contours of the fur that, according to legend, the hero had captured from the Nemean Lion were once probably depicted there. They also provide examples of Hercules being depicted with a phallus in other cases.

Military landmark

“We can now be fairly certain that a gigantic, instantly recognizable image of Hercules was drawn into this hill in Dorset sometime in the early Middle Ages. This leaves the question: Why?” writes the historian duo. They now also provide a plausible explanation: They present evidence that the depiction of Hercules marked a gathering point for Anglo-Saxon soldiers under a regional leader.

According to them, this is supported by the outstanding topographical location of the image and the proximity to important transport routes. Historical sources also indicate that there were royal estates nearby, which made it possible to supply military units at the foot of Giant Hill. In the early Middle Ages, there were clear reasons for a call to arms, the researchers explain: there are reports of Viking raids in the region, who landed on the nearby south coast of England.

Finally, Gittos and Morcom also shed light on another part of the history of the Cerne-Abbas giant. Accordingly, a monastery was built at the foot of Giant Hill in the further course of the Middle Ages. As the two report, the monks there eventually identified the giant with Saint Eadwold, whom they revered. This led them to maintain the structures of the scratching image, which means they remain visible to this day. Hercules was apparently reinterpreted as a Christian saint. But the monks did not create the scratching image, emphasizes Morcom: “The monks of Cerne would not have depicted their patron saint naked, but they were nevertheless happy to use the giant as an image of Eadwold for their own purposes,” says the historian.

Source: University of Oxford, specialist article: Speculum, doi: 10.1086/727992

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