Cerne Abbas giant is Hercules and was army meeting point, say historians

Cerne Abbas giant is Hercules and was army meeting point, say historians

For centuries, historians and archaeologists have puzzled over the origins of the Cerne Abbas giant, the huge, naked, club-wielding figure cut into a chalky hillside in the English West Country. Was he a Celtic god, some sort of ancient fertility symbol, or, perhaps, a more recent lampoon of Oliver Cromwell?

Research from the University of Oxford has now concluded that the 60m tall figure in Dorset could have marked an inspiring muster station for West Saxon armies at a time when the area was being attacked by Viking warriors.

A report published on Monday concludes that the giant is Hercules, a symbol of might and courage, and his looming presence may have provided the backdrop for troops who gathered there before attempting to fend off the Vikings.

Until 2021 it had been thought the giant was created in pre-history or the early modern period, not the early middle ages. Then research led by the National Trust that examined sediment and snail shells came to the surprising conclusion that the giant was late Saxon, possibly 10th century.

Helen Gittos and Tom Morcom, academics from the University of Oxford, began researching what was happening in the middle ages in the area and looking afresh at the local topography to try to establish why the figure was created.

Gittos, an associate professor in early medieval history, said: “It’s become clear that the Cerne giant is just the most visible of a whole cluster of early medieval features in the landscape.”

They wrote in their paper, published in Speculum, the journal of the Medieval Academy of America, that it “seems clear” that the Cerne giant was cut as an image of Hercules, standing alone, carrying his club above his head, his left hand held out, probably once with a mantle draped over it.

The West Saxon royal family owned a lot of land in the area in the 10th century, they wrote. The manor of Cerne itself was owned by Æthelmær, a descendant of King Æthelred I and one of the most powerful men in the English court.

From the giant’s hill, there are impressive views over Dorset and it is close to, but not on, major medieval routeways. It is on a spur jutting out from a ridge but is slightly lower than the ridge.

These characteristics are typical of a special type of meeting place known as “a hanging promontory” site thought to be places for meetings of large groups.

Gittos and Marcom wrote: “One reason why people might assemble in such a place is for the purpose of mustering an army, usually under the leadership of the local ealdorman [leader].

“Places suitable for mustering required significant logistical support such as would be available at a major aristocratic estate: water, shelter, and provisions for horses as well as men. They were located so as to make use of major routeways and places where there were lookouts.

“They also needed to be marked in some visible way. Given the long-standing characterization of Hercules as a model of masculinity, especially among warriors and his currency in the 9th and 10th centuries, a giant image of him would have made an ideal backdrop with which to monumentalize a muster site in the landscape. This place, on major routeways, with access to copious fresh water and the supplies of an ealdorman’s estate, would have suited well.”

They added that it was worth remembering that the first recorded encounter between an Anglo-Saxon and a Viking raiding party was at Portland, just 16 miles south.

They conclude: “Cutting a chalk figure of Hercules as fighting warrior, with club poised to strike, would have served as a fine rallying point, a backdrop for a call to arms, a sermon in chalk – and, perhaps, as something with which to keep a gathering army busy.”

Morcom said: “I think we’ve found a compelling narrative that fits the giant into the local landscape and history better than ever before, changing him from an isolated mystery to an active participant in the local community and culture.”

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