Cerne Abbas Giant is the most famous British geoglyph and a century-old mystery. What is certain is that it has been standing on the hillside in Dorset for many centuries. What is not is when it was placed there, by whom, and for what reason. Most early scholars believed that an image of a naked man with a club must be thousands of years old, coming from the Bronze Age, or at least the early Iron Age. Some opted for the Roman Age Britain. However, a recent study claims that the geoglyph is “only” a thousand years old – making it one of the last echoes of the beliefs of pre-Christian Britain.
But more intriguing than the dating was, of course, the symbolism. And once again, there’s never been a shortage of ideas. It has been said that this naked giant represents a Celtic or Saxon fertility deity, Greek Hercules (made by Romans), and a plethora of other famous lords and kings from British history. Evidentlly, the fertility notion comes from the giant’s phallus. According to the local folklore, sitting next to this phallus, or even better, copulating upon it, was an effective cure for infertility.
Cerne Abbas Giant as Orion constellation
My theory was already clear from the title of this article. Many years ago, when I first saw the Cerne Abbas Giant, I knew that what I see is just another example of Orion imagery. However, seeing that nobody else is proposing this theory, I’ve now decided to write this short article. So here is my take on it.
The constellation Orion was also known as the “Giant” to the ancients as it is one of the most prominent constellations of the night sky. It is also one of only a few human images amongst the stars. Because of its size and easily identifiable triplet of bright stars on his “belt”, the ancients used Orion for navigation, as well as the seasonal marker.
Nowadays, we know it as “Orion – the Hunter”, and this is precisely how the most ancient and the most widespread starlore saw this constellation. Orion was an archetype of a warrior-hunter, and his weapon had been constantly upgraded as civilisation advanced. The oldest weapon known to man was probably the club. Of course, this is the same club that Hercules holds, as the Greeks inherited the image from an even earlier culture. Later, the club was replaced by a mace, and finally, somewhere between the Bronze and the Iron age, Orion became an archer.
But the role of the hunter was not Orion’s only role. To many ancient cultures, Orion represented a fertility god. This was because the Orion constellation appears during the rainy months of autumn. It advances up on the horizon, reaching its peak around the solstice in the “underworld” of the winter months. From there, it slowly descends, disappearing behind the horizon during the rainy season of spring. Orion stays completely invisible during the summer months, when life on Earth blooms, fertilised by the spring rain or the saviour’s blood – his ultimate sacrifice. For this reason, the Egyptians saw Orion as Osiris, the Thracians and the Greeks as Dionysus, and these are just some of his names.
Another reason for the association with fertility was Orion’s phallus. The ancients saw it in the cluster of stars known as Orion nebula, positioned right under Orion’s belt. Later, the image of a sword replaced the phallus. But this was not a significant change as the “sword” has often been just a code word for the phallus in the language of the ancient myths.
And finally, if we compare the image of the Cerne Abbas Giant with the typical image of Orion, we can immediately see that they are very similar, especially when it comes to the position of the arms. One arm is raised in the air, holding a club – typical Orion imagery. The other one is extended in the same direction in both cases. And, of course, the idea of fertility, represented by the phallus, is also present in both images.
In conclusion, I can’t say who and when drew this 180 feet giant on the hills of Dorset, but I am pretty confident that whoever did it wanted to depict the Orion constellation. And while the geoglyph might indeed be only one thousand years old, the image that it shows is an archetype that goes back thousands, if not tens of thousands of years. If this is a geoglyph from the Middle ages, as the latest study claims, it would be fascinating to discover where the artistic inspiration came from, as the stone age club was already outdated at this time. And perhaps that is the biggest mystery here. How could we, the modern people, so quickly forget these traditions of our ancestors, preserved for countless generations before us.
On a side note, Orion’s phallus, represented by the Orion nebula, is a place modern science calls “the cradle of stars”. It is believed that most of the stars of our solar system were formed (born) in this white cloud. Indeed, the ancients could hardly find a place more suitable to represent the phallus of the fertility god.