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.