Cerne Abbas Giant’s Penis the Work of 17th Century Prankster, Scientists Suggest | History Hit

Cerne Abbas Giant’s Penis the Work of 17th Century Prankster, Scientists Suggest

Aerial photograph of the Cerne Abbas Giant, Dorset
Image Credit: Loop Images Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The Cerne Abbas Giant has hit headlines recently following the surprising revelation that he was actually created in the Medieval period, rather than being ancient or 17th century, as previously theorised. But where did the interest surrounding the giant come from? Why is it so famous? And what is the controversy surrounding it?

It's not often a discovery shocks archaeologists, but the revelation that the Cerne Abbas Giant could've been created in the late Saxon period has surprised many. In this episode Cat Jarman speaks with the person who was in charge of dating the 180 ft giant with the 30 ft erect penis, Martin Papworth from the National Trust. Find out how they went about testing the Dorset landmark, why so many people assumed it was created in the 17th century, and what challenges popped up during the project.
Listen Now

1. The first reference to the giant is from the 17th century

The first written reference to the giant comes from 1694, when the accounts of the local churchwarden from St Mary, Cerne Abbas, record a payment of 3 shillings towards the repair and upkeep of the giant. The early 18th century saw several more references, this time from antiquarians to the Bishop of Bristol.

2. The giant required regular re-chalking

Many have deemed it strange that there are no references to the giant prior to this, despite there being detailed land surveys of the area dating back to the Medieval period. Whilst this gave rise to legends that it was created as an insult to Oliver Cromwell, it’s more likely that for much of the 17th century, it was simply overgrown. Today, re-chalking happens roughly every 25 years.

3. His huge penis probably dates to this time too

Scans of the site suggest that originally, the giant was wearing a belt. Local wealthy elites in the 17th century are thought to have added the giant’s enlarged member for amusement, although there’s no definitive record of who or when it was added.

4. His penis was omitted from 19th century drawings and descriptions

The Victorians’ reputation for prudishness is infamous, and they certainly found themselves red-faced when it came to surveying and drawing the Cerne Abbas Giant, believing him to be ‘immodest’. This didn’t stop legends surrounding the giant’s reputation as a fertility symbol springing up: couples used to go and sit on the giant’s penis in order to aid conception.

In 1921, Walter Long, from the nearby town of Gillingham, started a protest to alter or cover the giant’s nudity, claiming it was indecent. The protest did reach the Home Office after gaining some local support but was quickly turned down.

cerne abbas giant drawin

A drawing of the Cerne Abbas Giant in John Sydenham’s Baal Durotrigensis, 1842. Note the missing penis.

Image Credit: Public Domain

5. The giant eventually became a Scheduled Monument

In 1920, the land surrounding the Cerne Abbas Giant was given to the National Trust, who continue to look after the land to this day. They rely on sheep to graze much of the surrounding land.

During the Second World War, the giant had to be covered up so that it couldn’t be used as a landmark for German aircrafts flying overhead.

6. His origins have long baffled historians

Theories about who created the giant and when have existed for hundreds of years. Major theories include that he was of Celtic origin, based on the god Nodens; he was linked to Roman attempts to revive the cult of Hercules in the 2nd century AD; he was a 17th century parody of either Oliver Cromwell or the local landowner, Lord Holles.

7. But it looks as though there may be some resolution

In 2021, the results of sediment analysis by the National Trust was released: this suggested that the giant was created sometime in the late Anglo-Saxon / early Medieval period, between 700 and 1100AD. This came as a surprise to historian and archaeologists, who had previously believed the giant was either pre or post Medieval.

Exactly who created the Cerne Abbas Giant or why remains unclear – a historical mystery we will perhaps never solve. But this revelation has certainly put some rumours to bed.

Sarah Roller