What is the Cerne Abbas Giant?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Cerne Abbas Giant is a famous hill figure located in the village of Cerne Abbas in the British county of Dorset. This towering hill figure measures 180 feet (55 meters) from the bottom of his feet to the tip of the club he brandishes with his right arm, and he is a popular stop for tourists and some locals, as well. The Cerne Abbas Giant is also known as the Cerne Giant or Abbas Giant, and some people refer to him as the “Rude Man,” referencing his nudity and prominent genitalia.

Man holding a globe
Man holding a globe

A hill figure is a work of art created by carving through the turf and topsoil to expose the underlying rock strata. In the case of the Cerne Abbas Giant, the underlying rock is chalk, which causes the giant to stand out vividly against the green hill he is carved into. Hill figures can be found all over Britain, and the Cerne Abbas Giant is one of the largest; so large, in fact, that he is best viewed from a significant distance.

There is some dispute as to the origins of the Cerne Abbas Giant. Some people claim that this hill figure is ancient, suggesting that he represents a Celtic or Pagan God. However, no written evidence supports this; the earliest reported references to the giant date to the 1600s, which seems to indicate that he was carved around this period. Certainly such a distinctive figure would have been noticed before, and it seems unlikely that a Bronze Age hill figure would go unmentioned for hundreds of years.

This hill figure may represent Hercules, or it may have been carved by pranksters who wished to parody Oliver Cromwell. Whoever the Cerne Abbas Giant is supposed to be, he is depicted with his right arm raised with a club, and his left arm projecting out to the side. It is possible that something may have been draped on his left arm at some point, given the angle of the arm. The giant's head is somewhat out of proportion to the rest of his body, being much smaller than it should be, while his genitalia are a tad exaggerated.

The British National Trust has designated the Cerne Abbas Giant a historical site, and the giant is periodically recut and cleaned to make sure that he will stay in good shape. The giant has also been used in an assortment of product promotions, since he is such a distinctive sight, and historically he has been the site of fertility festivals and parties. At one time, for example, a maypole was erected in his vicinity to celebrate the coming of Spring and hopes for fecundity.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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