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Sunday 19 April 2015

The Cerne Giant

The Cerne Giant is one of the best known features of the Dorset landscape. In fact it’s such a familiar image that it’s easy to forget just how bizarre and unique it is. As I pointed out 18 months ago in my post about Phallic Symbols (mostly small ones), “gigantic erections are something you almost never see in mainstream European art”. Although they went to the trouble of inventing a word, ithyphallic, to refer to the artistic depiction of a sexually aroused male, it’s usually limited to ancient cultures and/or other continents. In this part of the world, ithyphallic images disappeared almost completely with the departure of the Romans in the fifth century. Nudity of any kind never really returned to British art, even during the Renaissance period when it was quite common in the rest of Europe (albeit with tiny little dicks).

Also from around 18 months ago is Paul Jackson’s “Armchair Tour of Britain’s Hill Figures”, the first part covering White Horses and the second everything else. In the latter category, there is only one other human figure besides the Cerne Giant – the Long Man of Wilmington. There’s a similarity between the two, in that both are simplistically drawn outline figures, but also an obvious difference – the Long Man of Wilmington hasn’t got his dick out.

A fact about hill figures that isn’t always appreciated is that they require constant maintenance – decade after decade, century after century. Paul gave a first-hand account of what needs to be done in his post Maintaining the Broad Town White Horse last year. The first step is weeding and trimming to prevent the outline from becoming overgrown, followed by re-liming (in the case of Paul’s White Horse, using over a ton of powdered lime) to restore the figure’s whiteness. Without this sort of attention, generation after generation, a hill figure would eventually be lost to sight and forgotten.

This brings us to the most contentious question about the Cerne Giant: How old is it? Only one of the figures in Paul’s survey – the Uffington White Horse – has been accurately dated to prehistoric times, with most of the others being a few centuries old at most (the Broad Town White Horse, for example, was created in the 19th century).

The oldest surviving records of the Cerne Giant date from the second half of the 17th century. As a result, many skeptical websites (Wikipedia among them) assume it must have originated around that time. One theory is that it’s a caricature of Oliver Cromwell – England’s puritanical leader following the Civil War of the 1640s. This makes sense up to a point. The obscene image would certainly have offended Cromwell and his followers (who took the Biblical injunction against graven images very seriously), and it’s placed in clear view of what would have been a busy road between Dorchester and Sherborne. But on closer inspection the theory is ludicrous.

It’s all very well for people in the 21st century to sit at their computer screens and say “maybe it was a 17th century political cartoon”... but does it look like a 17th century political cartoon? As I said at the start, nude figures – let alone rampant erections – were conspicuously absent from British representational art in those days. It’s true that the people who opposed the Puritans (and came back to power with the Restoration of Charles II) sometimes went to the opposite extreme – a notorious example being the satirical entertainment Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery (which includes some great character names like Fuckadilla and Clytoris)... but that was only in discrete private circles, not on public display for everyone to see!

Also, why depict Cromwell bald-headed and whiskerless, when he wasn’t? Why depict him holding a club and not a pistol or musket? Real caricatures of Cromwell are quite different in style, leaving the viewer in no doubt as to his identity. Here is one of him dressed as a king and here he is consorting with the devil. Even crudely drawn cartoons of that period are quite different in style from the Cerne Giant, as you can see from this example or this one. All the adult male figures are shown with long hair and beards, and dressed in the fashion of the times.

The theory that the Cerne Giant is a 17th century caricature seems to be an internet-era thing. I looked in various history books, guidebooks etc that I’ve got (mostly dating from the 20th century) and couldn’t find a single mention of it. Out of 11 books I consulted, one says that nothing is known about the giant’s history, seven suggest it’s a depiction of Hercules from the Romano-British period, and three that it represents a pre-Roman deity.

The association with Hercules is based on similarities of iconography. The ancient Greek hero, who was also popular with the Romans, was often depicted holding a club in one hand and a lion skin in the other – and archaeological evidence does indeed suggest that the Cerne Giant might once have held a lion skin (or something similar) which has since been erased. But Hercules isn’t usually ithyphallic. I said earlier that the Romans often depicted enormous erections, but that was almost always in the context of one specific deity, Priapus. Hercules, on the other hand, usually had a tiny little one (see the second picture in my earlier blog post for a particularly amusing example).

Personally I think it’s more likely that the Cerne Giant originated in pre-Roman times. The artistic style looks pre-Roman, for one thing, and the Uffington White Horse proves that chalk hill figures were not unknown in Iron Age Britain. Maybe it was subsequently adapted by the Romans into a depiction of Hercules, which would explain how it survived into the fifth or sixth century AD. But what happened then?

The full name of the village where the giant is located is Cerne Abbas – the “Abbas” suffix indicating that the village was attached to a mediaeval Christian abbey. At a time when anything pagan was automatically assumed to be the work of the devil, it’s difficult to believe the monks did any proactive maintenance work on the giant (and may even have deliberately tried to obliterate it). So perhaps it was lost to sight and forgotten until the 17th century, when it was rediscovered and restored – hence the misconception that it was actually created at that time.


Anonymous said...

I've read that the reason for a tiny penis on statues or paintings was so it wasn't a distraction - they wanted the figure to be nude for artistic purposes but they didn't want people ogling at the figure's genitals so they were made as small and unobtrusive as possible. It's always amazed me that the Cerne giant survived at all - in the 19th century the sight of a woman's ankle was considered deeply shocking and yet this image with a huge erection was allowed to be seen for miles around. I'm glad it has survived but how it wasn't destroyed on the grounds of obscenity baffles me.

Andrew May said...

Yes, it baffles me too. As I said in the post, for the Giant to survive, even it was only rediscovered in the 17th century, it must have been constantly maintained throughout the 18th century (when many people would have seen it as pagan and therefore evil) and the 19th (when as you say it would have been viewed as obscene and offensive). So all in all it's quite amazing that it's still there.

Interesting theory about the reason for small willies on statues, by the way - I hadn't heard that one before, but it does make sense!