The Cerne Abbas Giant

How do you look after a 180-foot-tall giant? Every ten or so years, you gather up a herd of humans and you feed him. Not the humans but chalk. You feed him lots of chalk.                       

The Cerne Abbas giant is cut into a chalky hillside in Dorset. It’s a bit of a thing in the British chalk country, carving figures into the hillsides: horses (16, plus one in paint), giants,  one lone kiwi. The Uffington white horse dates back to the bronze age.  

The giant and the (steep) hill on which he lies now belong to the National Trust, which gathered 60 volunteers to dig out the old chalk, re-edge the lines, fill them with 20 tons of fresh chalk, and hammer it into place. It took nine days. 

So much for upkeep. Let’s talk about who the giant is: He dates back at least to the seventeenth century. The earliest mention anyone’s found is from 1694, in a churchwarden’s accounts, when three shillings were paid out for “repaireing the giant.”  

Irrelevant photo: Hydrangeas. But if you follow any of the links concerning the giant you’ll find photos of him instead. No news outlet can resist.

According one theory, he (and he’s most definitely a he; I don’t use the male pronoun generically) was created to make fun of Oliver Cromwell. The dates do make that possible. A detailed 1617 survey of the manor where the giant now lives doesn’t mention him, which makes it likely that he was created sometime between pre-Cromwell and post-Cromwell. 

The manor was owned by Denzil Holles, one of the MPs Charles I tried to arrest–an act that kicked off the Civil War. Holles raised a regiment (that was how it worked then) that fought for Parliament against the king. It was wiped out–a third were killed and most of the rest taken prisoner–and he withdrew from military life.

He later tried to negotiate a peace with the king and came into conflict with Cromwell, who (or whom, if you like) he hated. When the First Civil War ended, he hoped to pay off the Scottish army and send them home (that worked), then disband Parliament’s New Model Army and make peace with the king. That didn’t work. The New Model Army wasn’t going anywhere until it got its back pay, and by then common soldiers had started to look at what they were actually fighting for and to make demands of their own. 

The army petitioned Parliament and Holles called them enemies of the state. The army gave that some thought and decided that being enemies of the state might be a good idea, so it became far more political, aligning itself with the Levellers. (I’ve messed around with the cause and effect there. I don’t know that Holles’s accusation had any impact on the army becoming politicized. An awful lot of things were going on at once. Apologies.)

The Levellers–well, we could argue about whether they were enemies of the state or not. They wanted a more equal, society, one in which all men, at least, could vote. They would have changed the state of the state dramatically if they’d won that.  

So Parliament and its army were no longer good friends. It was an interesting time. You can read a bit about it hereand more about the Levellers here

Holles called up the London militia to oppose the New Model Army. That didn’t  work and he ended up fleeing to France. 

The next year, when it was safe (Cromwell was in control; the army had been purged of its most radical elements), Holles returned to England and again tried to negotiate a peace between Parliament and the king. Among other things, this involved throwing himself at the king’s feet, which isn’t the recommended negotiating position.

Then Cromwell purged Parliament and Holles fled back to France. 

Like I said, an interesting time.

Holles was later reconciled with Cromwell and returned to England, where he stayed out of politics until Cromwell died and Charles II was be-monarched. Holles joined Charles’s privy council. He became known as the most vindictive of the commissioners appointed to try some of the parliamentarians who’d killed the king. And, just incidentally, he became a baron.

Then he backed the wrong party and was kicked off the privy council. But never mind most of that. The theory goes that he had the giant carved either when he was still in exile or after he returned. 

But all the detail in that story doesn’t stop other theories from circulating. The giant is Hercules. He’s the last abbot of Cerne Abbey, cut into the hillside by pissed-off monks after the abbey was dissolved. He’s a thousand-year-old fertility symbol and childless women who sleep on the penis will get pregnant.

Depending in part, I’m sure, on who sleeps with them, either there or elsewhere. But there is fine. At thirty-six feet long, it offers more than enough room. And, yeah, even in the context of a 180-foot figure, it’s out of proportion. And there’s a story there too: When Victoria was queen, in the interests of general prudishness, the local people who tended to the giant let grass grow over anything they thought might offend anyone. In other words, he became as sexy as a plastic doll. 

After she died, they reinstated it but, hey, they were just coming out of an era of massive prudishness and nobody’d seen a penis for all the many years Victoria was on the throne. They mistook his bellybutton for the tip and ended up adding 2.5 meters–something more than 8 feet. When the Trust used new equipment to survey the ground, they sorted out what had happened and debated whether to tone him down but left him as he was and fixed his nose instead.

I’m relying on an article for that. In the photos, as far as I can see he has no nose. Maybe that’s what they fixed. I doubt anyone noticed the change.

Many people, both visitors and locals, are convinced he’s been there for thousands of years in one form or another. And as the volunteers pounded the chalk into place, they made sure he’d stay there, clean and glowing and wildly out of proportion, for another ten or so years.

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A reader contacted me outside of the blog to let me know she can’t leave comments without going through a massive rigamarole involving passwords and secret handshakes and bad temper. The comments are set–to the extent that I have any control over them–not to ask people to sign in (what is this? an exclusive club?), but the WordPress help crew tells me the problem has something to do with the reader’s settings, the cookies she’s been collecting (give up those cookies, Mardi), and assorted other things I can’t control and have no reason to think she can.

The reason I’m telling you this tale is to ask if anyone else is having trouble leaving comments. If you are–right, you won’t necessarily be able to leave me a comment. Email me, would you? ellenhawley@yahoo.com. Ditto if you’re being asked to sign in. I can’t promise to fix the problem, but if I get enough data to WordPress, it’s just vaguely possible that they’ll be able to. Their help crew actually does help. And more to the point, it exists.

Thanks.