14 July 2020

The Cerne Abbas Giant

All tourists to this Sceptred Isle, as soon as we let them out of quarantine, flock to Dorsetshire to admire the Cerne Abbas Giant. On a chalkland hillside, cut into the grass turf, is the gigantic outline of  a naked man waggling a large club. He is endowed with a massive phallus which, come summer, come winter, is permanently at the ready. He is clearly one of the evidences of the pre-Christian Fertility Cult which was the religion of these islands before Swinburne's "Pale Galilaean" triumphed and the world grew grey from His breath; an age when men and women entertained happier, more wholesome, much more cheerful, notions of the divine. Admire the gracious rhythms of Nature's fertility! Three cheers for Gaia and for great Greta her priestess! A round of applause for the gallivanting girls of Wicca!

Except that this is all pretty certainly rubbish. Recently published provisional research suggests that the figure may have been carved as late as the middle of the seventeenth century (it is first recorded in 1694); and is pretty certainly of the second Christian millennium (dating of snail shells comes into this!). We may know more when soil samples have been analysed.

One theory is that this is an anti-Cromwellian mega-graffito: apparently the great Mr Genocide was sometimes shown with Herculean attributes, and this club-waggling figure would be a subversion of such tropes.

These investigations appear to have been encouraged by the admirable Ronald Hutton, who 'has form' in such studies. His work has undercut the old Thirties, anti-Christian, conviction that (despite the persecution of the Church) pre-Christian fertility cults survived among Europe's common folk. His 1996 Stations of the Sun disproves a great deal of this sort of stuff; and includes the following rather jolly story.

In 1929, some woman called Banks, later President of the Folk-Lore Society, visited the May Day revels at Padstow in Cornwall. One of the officiants was dressed as a woman. This fitted Banks's idea that the rite was a relic of a pagan 'Sacred Marriage' between earth and sky; the presence of a man-woman was essential to her theory. She was delighted!

Two years later, she returned. And that character was no longer in drag! She gave him a a fine public telling-off for "spoiling the rite". He as angrily told her that there was no one traditional costume for the part. "For once", comments Hutton, "the bonds of social deference snapped"!

Other examples of mythical survivals of mythical paganism: The 'Green Man' often found in medieval art used to be seen as a fertility symbol; that idea has disappeared in academe although it still does the rounds in popular 'guide books'. Another alleged 'fertility symbol' was the Shenanigan, a female figure with her legs wide apart and her hands holding her vagina open. Despite Victorian ideas of propriety, she survives in many English and Irish medieval churches. Current thinking is that the topos may be a dissuasio Libidinis rather than a pre-Christian celebration of the sacrality of female generative processes. (Medieval men, silly fellows, seem to have shared the inexplicable conviction of their Greeks and Roman counterparts that women are sexually insatiable.)

And, looking briefly at a broader canvas, the notion that much Minoan iconography expressed the pre-Patriarchal 'Matriarchal Religion' of Europe in the second millennium ante Christum (an idea which so excited Robert Graves) has had a bit of a hard time since the deciphering of the Linear B tablets revealed the prominence in Bronze Age Cretan cult of the familiar male Gods we know from Classical Greek Literature.


Tom said...

Father, I had never heard of a connection between 'shenanigan' and 'Síle na gig' (Síle na gcíoch). According to one of my brethren although they usually appear on the outside there is one on the inside of an abbey here in Ireland directly over where the choir stalls would have been. It does seem that they were medieval warnings on the insatiable nature of female sexuality or of human flesh in general.

motuproprio said...

I always heard the figure referred to as Sheelanagig.

Stephen said...

Cromwell was most certainly a tyrant, aka a strongman or giant, as per here, fyi:

Any validity to the rumour that the graffiti artist was an itinerant Irishman??

Marc in Eugene said...

I went to look at Wikipedia because I don't recall ever reading about the Cerne Abbas fellow. "Regardless of its age, the Cerne Abbas Giant has become an important part of local culture and folklore, which often associates it with fertility"-- i.e. even though we know it's modern, we are preoccupied with 'fertility' so that's that.

Grant Milburn said...

After reading this post, I started reading up on Wikipedia about the Cerne giant and other hillside figures in England. I was relieved to find that the Uffington White Horse celebrated by Chesterton is indeed ancient (Celtic Bronze Age or Iron Age) and was already centuries old when Alfred was king.

Note that in the third book of Chesterton's ballad, the Danish harper Harold reiterates Swinburne's taunt and is magnificently answered by Alfred, disguised as a harper.


"For Rome was given to rule the world,
And gat of it little joy—
But we, but we shall enjoy the world,
The whole huge world a toy.

"Great wine like blood from Burgundy,
Cloaks like the clouds from Tyre,
And marble like solid moonlight,
And gold like frozen fire.
He sang the song of the thief of the world,
And the gods that love the thief;
And he yelled aloud at the cloister-yards,
Where men go gathering grief.
"Doubtless your sires were sword-swingers
When they waded fresh from foam,
Before they were turned to women
By the god of the nails from Rome;

"But since you bent to the shaven men,
Who neither lust nor smite,
Thunder of Thor, we hunt you
A hare on the mountain height."


"But though I lie on the floor of the world,
With the seven sins for rods,
I would rather fall with Adam
Than rise with all your gods.

"What have the strong gods given?
Where have the glad gods led?
When Guthrum sits on a hero's throne
And asks if he is dead?

"Sirs, I am but a nameless man,
A rhymester without home,
Yet since I come of the Wessex clay
And carry the cross of Rome,

"I will even answer the mighty earl
That asked of Wessex men
Why they be meek and monkish folk,
And bow to the White Lord's broken yoke...

"Our monks go robed in rain and snow,
But the heart of flame therein,
But you go clothed in feasts and flames,
When all is ice within;

"Ere the sad gods that made your gods
Saw their sad sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale,
That you have left to darken and fail,
Was cut out of the grass.

"Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.