Bawdy monks and the Cerne Abbas giant | Letters

Alice Raw of the University of Oxford and Richard North of University College London respond to research suggesting that the chalk hill figure in Dorset dates from Anglo-Saxon times

Why the surprise at a late 10th-century date for the Cerne Abbas giant (Cerne Giant in Dorset dates from Anglo-Saxon times, analysis suggests, 12 May)? If we find it hard to believe that the inmates of the monastery at Cerne Abbas could have sponsored the making of the giant, that says more about us than it does about them. Early English churchmen and churchwomen had no problem with playful talk about the penis. Witness this riddle from the Exeter Book, a verse collection produced in monastic circles at exactly this time:

“I am a marvellous creature, a joy to women, / a service to the neighbours! I harm no / village-dweller except for my slayer. / I grow very tall, I stand on a bed, / I’m hairy underneath. From time to time / a good-looking girl, the bold daughter, / of some churl, dares to hold me, / rushes me to redness, ravages my head, / fixes me in a fastness. At once that girl / with plaited hair who has confined me, / soon feels the meeting – that eye is wet.”

“Onion” is the riddle’s witty answer – but if we were to draw what we’re all thinking, we might well end up with the giant, his erection matched by his rustic club (“I harm no village-dweller”). While there’s no evidence of a direct link between the Cerne Abbas monastery and the Exeter Book, we should welcome the restoration of the giant to his early English habitat, rethinking our assumptions about medieval religious culture as we do so.
Alice Raw
Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford

• With reference to your piece on the Cerne giant, the name “Heilith” looks like the Old English word hæleð, ie haeleth, which means “man” or “hero”. Oddly enough, “Heil” seems to have the same relation to hæle with the same meaning. If this rude giant isn’t a lark from the 17th century, perhaps it is an Anglo-Saxon version of the Norse god Freyr, who is known for his size and also goes into battle with a stag’s horn as his weapon. The club there – might it represent antlers?
Prof Richard North
University College London

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