Drive north from Dorchester on Britain’s A352. Six miles along, glance to your right…I’m pretty sure the first thought that comes to mind will be, “Shit! That dude’s hung!” With his 26-foot-long erect penis, you’d be right; the Cerne Abbas Giant, who is “only” 180 feet tall (think two city blocks), sports perhaps the largest phallus in the world. He’s certainly the main claim to fame for the nearby village of Cerne Abbas, although a microbrewery there is said to offer a couple of decent ales worth going out of your way for. Their labels apparently take full advantage of the well-endowed chalk giant who watches over the local scene.
Last time I was there, I heard two theories about when the giant was created. One is that it dates back to Roman times, the naked figure supposedly reminiscent of Hercules, as suggested in the mid-1700s by antiquarian William Stukeley (the guy who put Stonehenge on the map). Trouble is, Hercules is traditionally shown with a club in his right hand and the skin of the Nemean lion (his first labor) draped over his left. Where’s that pelt? Sure enough, a resistivity survey about 30 years ago found evidence of what could once have been an animal skin hanging from his left arm.
The other main theory is that it’s much more recent, i.e. 17th century, created on the orders of a local landowner who objected to the politics of Oliver Cromwell, “Lord Protector” (i.e. dictator) who ran the country following the execution of Charles I. Apparently Cromwell was sometimes lampooned as a latter-day Hercules (for reasons I haven’t been able to track down). So which was it — 2000 years old or 400 years old?
Neither. Just this year, the results of “optically stimulated luminescence” tests on samples of undisturbed chalk showed that it was originally dug into the chalk hill sometime between AD 700 and 1100. These tests, the best to date, are pretty cool. They measure the amount of nuclear radiation absorbed by soil samples since they last saw daylight. It’s not super-accurate (200 years each side of AD 900 doesn’t sound too precise), but it ruled out the two main contenders. Putting it around the 10th century, at the end of the “dark ages,” has historians arguing about who created it — and why.
About that erection. Turns out, it his penis wasn’t that long a hundred or so years ago. A drawing of the giant from 1784 shows him with a navel — which at some point got integrated into the head of the guy’s penis, which (according to one scholar with too much time on his hands) brought it down in length from the equivalent of nine inches to six inches. Which makes me feel better.
In case you’re wondering what this has to do with anyone living on the west side of the Atlantic, you have to appreciate this photo, showing a Y-fronted,be-donutted Homer outlined in water-based biodegradable paint as a publicity stunt for the opening of The Simpsons Movie, July 2007.