Fellow’s research explains mystery of Cerne Abbas Giant

Wednesday 03 January 2024

The Cerne Giant is a massive image of a naked man carved into the chalk bedrock of a hillside above the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset. He stands almost 60m high, brandishing a club in his right hand, with his left arm outstretched.

Many had supposed that the image was carved either in prehistory or in the early modern period, but recently it was dated to the early Middle Ages. This revised dating means that for the first time it has been possible to place the Cerne Giant within a cultural context, and Helen Gittos (Colyer-Fergusson Fellow and Tutor in Early Medieval History at Balliol) and her colleague Tom Morcom have worked to uncover the early medieval history and archaeology of the area to understand why the figure was carved.

Cerne Abbas Giant carved on chalky hillside.
The Cerne Abbas Giant (photo by Mark Wray/Creative Commons).

Their research shows that the giant was originally carved as an image of the Classical hero Hercules as a rallying point for mustering West Saxon armies at a time when Dorset was being attacked by Viking armies. ‘It’s become clear that the Cerne Giant is just the most visible of a whole cluster of early medieval features in the landscape,’ says Helen Gittos.

By at least the tenth century, Cerne was in the hands of the ealdormen of the Western Provinces, the king’s leading thegns in the south-west. The topographical location of the giant, on a spur jutting out from a ridge with impressive views and proximity to major routeways, is characteristic of a special type of Anglo-Saxon meeting place. The proximity to nearby attacks by Vikings, the access to copious fresh water and the supplies of the local estate make it an ideal place for mustering West Saxon armies. Such a place would also have needed to be marked in a visible way. Hercules was well known in the Middle Ages and there was a particular spike of interest in him during the ninth century. Given his longstanding presentation as a ‘model of masculinity, especially among warriors’, a giant image of him ‘would have served as a fine rallying point, a backdrop for a call to arms’, the researchers say.

Additionally, they have discovered that in the 11th century the figure was reinterpreted by the monks of Cerne Abbas as their local saint, Eadwold. Worshipping in the monastery at the bottom of Giant Hill, they re-imagined him as St Eadwold, implicitly referring to the giant in the lessons they read on his feast day. ‘The monks of Cerne wouldn’t have portrayed their patron saint as naked if they were carving him from scratch, but they were happy to co-opt him as an image of Eadwold for their own purposes. The giant has long been loved and looked after and such reidentifications continue into the present day,’ says Tom Morcom.

The Cerne Giant in Its Early Medieval Context’ by T. Morcom and H. Gittos is published in Speculum, the journal of the Medieval Academy of America.