The Cerne Giant is a chalk hill figure: a huge line drawing made by cutting out a turf outline and filling the trench back up to ground level with white chalk rubble. He is 180 feet (55m) high from head to toe and in his right hand he waves a knobbly club 120 feet (37m) long. He is famously naked and even more famously displays an erect phallus 23 feet (7m) long. He looks vaguely menacing and warlike.
The current fashion is to present the Cerne Giant as a seventeenth-century cartoon. This idea hinges on some rather weak arguments; the main one is the fact that the Giant was not mentioned before 1694. But too much is made of the absence of evidence: we know that documents perish with the passage of time and in any case a lot of things happened in the past that were never written down. There are many arguments in favor of an ancient, Iron Age, origin. One is that it would be an extraordinary coincidence for a seventeenth-century cartoon to imitate so perfectly and in so many details a work of art from the Iron Age. There is no other image that looks exactly like the Cerne Giant, but all of his features can be found—in different combinations—in British and European artwork from 500 BC to AD 100.
The Giant is a naked warrior; the way some Celtic tribesmen took their clothes off before going into battle was an oddity that was commented on by the Romans (see Symbols: Nudity). Even more telling is the erection. Genital display is common in Iron Age art, where it may have one of two meanings: to ward off evil (and frighten enemies) and to bring good luck.
A virtually unnoticed feature of the Giant is that he is wearing a girdle. Diodorus Siculus described the Celts as “descending to do battle unclothed except for a girdle'" This belt was for holding a knife, for dispatching enemies and decapitating them.
The club suggests a common man who could not afford a sword. The cloak-shield also suggests poverty. First-century BC bronze figurines show naked warriors with cloaks wound around their left arms as primitive shields—the routine equipment of non-professional soldiers.
The resistivity surveys that I undertook in the 1990s showed that there was originally a cloak draped over the left arm.
A close contour survey of the low knoll below the left hand (undertaken by the National Trust) revealed the delicately modeled features of a human head in low-relief on the hillside. The Giant was swinging a severed human head from his left hand. The cult of the severed head is well documented. Headhunting was an integral part of warfare. The Giant was returning home from battle with the head of an important enemy—the service an Iron Age tribe would expect of its protector
The fact there may be no early documents that mentioned the Cerne Giant is not a problem. Values change through time, and before the time of John Aubrey antiquities were rarely mentioned in Britain. In 1649 Aubrey visited Avebury by chance while hunting, and described “the vast stones of which I had not heard before,” but we know from radiocarbon dates that they were there by 2500 BC.
The Early Modern hypothesis leans heavily on there being no documentation earlier than 1694. But there are some earlier documented mentions, in the Middle Ages. Accounts by William of Malmesbury and Walter of Coventry are well known, but an even earlier account by Goscelin in the eleventh century is rarely mentioned. In that, St. Augustine comes into conflict with a pagan community worshipping a low-relief pagan image at Cerne; he takes control by taking the site over and colonizing it.
Goscelin was a Norman monk who was in Dorset from 1055 to 1078 and later went to Canterbury, where he wrote various saints’ lives. His final work was a Life of St. Augustine. He was able to incorporate what he had picked up in Dorset about Augustine’s humiliating encounter with pagans at Cerne.
The importance of Goscelin’s text has been overlooked because a passage describes Augustine as “throwing over the idol to Helia,” and this could not refer to the Cerne Giant because it seems to describe toppling a statue, just as in more recent times people have pulled over statues of Lenin, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein. But the passage has been mistranslated for the last 400 years. It should read “Augustine took possession of the bas-relief of Hellia” and that certainly could be the Cerne Giant.
Taking possession of the hill-figure might well involve setting up a permanent mission close beside it, conforming to the tradition of an early Christian settlement on the abbey site. The Life of St. Augustine reports that he saw offensive images that he felt should be destroyed. We know he sought advice from his superior, the Pope, because Pope Gregory’s reply has survived: “Upon mature deliberation the temples of the idols ought not to be destroyed.” Gregory explained that he wanted the missionaries to take them over gradually, occupying the pagan sanctuaries and converting them to Christian worship. The Christian missionaries in time did that at Cerne Abbas, eventually building an abbey church between the Giant and a Celtic pagan sacred spring.
Taking over and Christianizing existing sanctuaries and temples was an officially
Approved and recommended practice. In AD 601 Gregory the Great sent an explicit letter of advice to the missionaries in England, specifically to Mellitus:
When (by God’s help) you come to our most reverend brother, Bishop Augustine, I want you to tell him how earnestly I have been pondering over the affairs of the English; I have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols in England should not on any account be destroyed. The temples should be sprinkled with holy water and altars set up in them in which relics are to be enclosed. If these temples in Britain are well-built, then it is better to convert them from the worship of devils to the service of the true God: that the people, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts and adoring the true God may the more freely resort to places to which they have been accustomed.
This is exactly what St. Augustine did at Cerne Abbas, turning a pagan site into a Christian site.
So, a careful look at the medieval texts reveals that there are after all references to the Giant traceable right back to the eleventh century. There was even continuity in his name. Goscelin called him Helia and later writers called him Hele, Helis, and Helith.
When the great pioneering antiquarian William Stukeley visited Cerne Abbas in 1761, the locals told him who the Giant was, but they were uneducated country folk and he was dismissive. “The inhabitants pretend to know nothing more of it than a traditionary account of its being a deity of the ancient Britons,” Stukeley laughed up his sleeve, but the thrust of the evidence is that the villagers were right. The Cerne Giant was, and still is, Helis, a tribal guardian god of the ancient Britons.
He was drawn on the hillside perhaps in 100 BC and the Celtic Sanctuary of Helis-Toutatis stood on the site later occupied by Cerne Abbey. The earthworks that were landscaped into formal gardens for the abbey were originally made in the Iron Age: Roman coins have been found in the earthworks, showing that they were there long before the medieval abbey.
Cerne Abbas is a site that has been much misunderstood, like the Celts themselves. The evidence does point to it being a major Celtic rural sanctuary. It was more or less in the geometric center of the territory of the Durotriges tribe, which corresponds closely with modern Dorset. Cerne Abbas is more or less exactly midway between the three major hillforts of the Durotriges: Hod Hill, South Cadbury Castle, and Maiden Castle. The Durotriges were a loose confederation of tribes and may well have met from time to time at their shared sanctuary, close to the spot where their boundaries met.
The Mars gods of the English West Country were war leaders, protectors of their tribes, but they also were spirits of well-being and prosperity. Even if the warlike attributes were to the fore, there were peaceful and benign attributes as well, including healing. Close to the foot of the hill at Cerne Abbas was a healing spring, St. Augustine’s Well, which is likely to have been involved in the Giant’s cult ( see Symbols: Water).
In the Cotswolds, the Mars god appears as a benign god of rustic well-being. At King’s Stanley in Gloucestershire, he is shown in the lioll armor of a Roman soldier, for the benefit of Roman legionaries no doubt, but it is very unlikely that the local Celtic tribespeople, the Dobunni, would have seen him like this. For a start, they would have seen him naked; in fact more like the Cerne Giant.
There is a striking similarity between the Cerne Giant image and a depiction of Ogmios, the Celtic Hercules, carved in stone at High Rochester in Northumberland. This Romano-Celtic image shows a powerfully muscled naked man with a knobbed club in his right hand and a cloak wrapped round his left arm as an improvised shield.