Home Archeology History Cerne Abbas Giant was Muster Station for West Saxon Armies, Archaeologists Say

Cerne Abbas Giant was Muster Station for West Saxon Armies, Archaeologists Say

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Cerne Abbas Giant was Muster Station for West Saxon Armies, Archaeologists Say

A huge, naked figure called Cerne Giant was cut into a Dorset hillside not, as many have supposed, in prehistory, nor in the early modern period, but in the early Middle Ages, specifically in the 9th or early 10th century when there was much interest in the Classical hero Hercules, according to a new paper in the journal Speculum. It is likely that he was made to mark a muster station for West Saxon armies meeting on an estate belonging to the ealdorman of the Western Provinces. By the mid-11th century, he had been repurposed by the monastery founded, or refounded, at his feet as an image of Saint Eadwold, a convenient way of erasing Hercules and proclaiming the monastery’s rights to the saints’ relics.

The Cerne Abbas Giant, Cerne Abbas, Dorset, England. Image credit: Ray Gaffney.

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, England.

He stands approximately 55 m (180 feet) high, brandishing a club in his right hand, with his left arm outstretched.

His feet are turned towards his right, as if walking. His bald head is tear-drop shaped, with eyes, eyebrows, nose, and mouth.

On his naked torso are depicted an erect penis, nipples, ribs, a belt, and a belly button; the latter appears to have been incorporated into his phallus in 1908, making it more prominent now than it was originally.

There have been discussions for centuries about when the Cerne Giant was first carved.

“It’s become clear that the Cerne Giant is just the most visible of a whole cluster of early medieval features in the landscape,” said Dr. Helen Gittos, a researcher at the University of Oxford.

“Hercules was well-known in the Middle Ages, a flawed hero both revered and reviled, and there was a particular spike of interest in him during the 9th century.”

“By at least the 10th century, Cerne was in the hands of the ealdormen of the Western Provinces, the kings’ leading thegns in the south-west.”

“The topographical location of the Cerne 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 attacks by Vikings nearby, the access to copious fresh water and the supplies of the local estate, make this an ideal place for mustering West Saxon armies with Hercules as a back-drop.”

In the 11th century, the monks worshipping in the monastery at the bottom of Giant Hill, re-imagined the Cerne Giant as an image of their saint, Eadwold, implicitly referring to the figure in the lessons they read on his feast-day.

This is one of the many ways the Cerne Giant has been reinterpreted through the centuries: from Hercules to hermit.

“The Cerne Giant’s identity was already open to reinterpretation,” said Dr. Tom Morcom, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oslo.

“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.”

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Thomas Morcom & Helen Gittos. 2024. The Cerne Giant in Its Early Medieval Context. Speculum 99 (1): 1-38; doi: 10.1086/727992

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