This chap might seem an unlikely introduction to an article about Hera. He strides across the landscape of Dorset, in South West England, and is known colloquially as “the Rude Man of Cerne Abbas”, although the tourist guides call him “the Cerne Abbas Giant”.
What is his relationship to Goddess? Come to that, why is he there – in that particular place? There’s no agreement as to when he first appeared – although many argue for an Iron Age dating (and there is an Iron Age earthworks just above his head, where maypole dances take place, still led by the local Morris Men). So far, however, no written record can trace him to any earlier than the 17th century and it has been theorized that he was created as an insult to Oliver Cromwell, who ruled England during the brief period of the English Revolution - but what Western man was ever insulted by being caricatured with “wedding tackle” which I’m assured would measure almost eleven inches if the 180 foot figure were downsized to around six feet? Interestingly, given that Hera's main attribute was that of protector, Cromwell's title was ""Lord Protector".
Ancient or not, right up to this day he is put to good use by women who wish for children, in the belief that sleeping on the appropriate part of his anatomy – with or without a partner – will do the trick. And given his priapic state, it occurred to me a few years ago to turn around and check what he's looking at ... and it is a truly lovely wooded valley with folds that are slightly suggestive. But there are hundreds, if not thousands of such valleys in this part of Britain.
Again, many agree that he represents Hercules, but I think there’s a good case for seeing him as a British hero. Hercules was, of course, Heracles to the Greeks – and according to Robert Graves the name means “Glory of Hera”.
Not that she is so glorified today, nor was she in classical times. She is presented to us as a shrew and a nag, scheming to prevent Zeus’s infidelities. Bachofen calls her the “patroness (sic) of marriage” but if her own marriage is anything to go by I’m with Athena – at least as far as marriage is concerned. Hera, once the glorious queen, Protector and Great Goddess of much of Crete and Mycenae, does indeed spend most of her time fending off the insults of Zeus, who is both her twin and the husband imposed on her by the patriarchal Greeks. The marriage begins with a rape – the story goes that Zeus disguised himself as a bedraggled cuckoo and when his tender-hearted sister took up the bird to warm it in her bosom, ravished her. A cuckoo indeed!
Moreover, Hera’s sceptre of sovereignty was surmounted with a cuckoo, just as a cuckoo is perched on a double axe in the Cretan sarcophagus from Hagia Triada, adds Graves, and the forced marriage of the great Goddess to Zeus represents the overthrow of Hera’s supremacy in the region and the conquest by Hellenic patriarchs of the territory. She retained little of her former glory – only the power to bestow on mortals the gift of prophecy. According to Graves, the marriage and Hera’s subsequent loss of power reflected the politics of the time - women had been deprived of all their magical powers except for prophecy and were regarded as little more than chattels.
Even now, it isn’t easy to find evidence of Hera’s former status, although she was certainly the Great Goddess in these parts – her throne was of gold and ivory and the seasons were her nurses (which means, notes Graves, that she was Goddess of the sacred year). Thus the cuckoo of spring on her sceptre and the ripe pomegranate carried in her left hand to symbolise the death of the year; her renewable virginity which was accomplished by bathing each year in a particular spring. Her name, adds Graves, may possibly derive from an original “Herwa” – Protector.
Although details vary, there are many themes in common between stories of Hera and of Arianrhod and the son she refused to acknowledge - Llew Llaw Gyffes in the Mabinogion story “Math, son of Mathonwy”. Could the “rude man” be our own British hero? The word, of course, derives from Hera’s name – for without her there could be no hero, no sacrificed king, no sacred year.
So just as Zeus was forbidden to marry by his mother, Rhea, so Llew Llaw Gyffes had the geis – the destiny - laid on him by Arianrhod that he would never have a wife of the race currently living on earth. And as Llew Llaw Gyffes eventually tricked his mother into arming him (for who could be a hero without arms?) Athena gave Heracles his – this was a matriarch’s privilege.
There are similarities between many of the great hero stories – that of Gilgamesh, like Heracles’ own tale of heroic labours, reflects the progress of the sacred year, with motifs also familiar in British tales – stag or bull, wind, hawk, flower, spear and salmon. Heracles and Llew Llaw Gyffes were also both born at midwinter, like so many heroes - just as the year appears to be about to die, the sun is reborn and continuing life is assured.
There is also a connection with a lion in the tales of both Heracles and Gilgamesh. Hesiod writes that “the stout strength of Heracles” overcame the lion which had been plaguing the hills of Nemea. According to Graves Heracles despatched it with a club cut from an olive tree and dressed himself in its pelt. Interestingly, archaeologists have found traces of a cloak formerly carried in the left hand of the Cerne Abbas Giant, which could certainly be a lion’s pelt – and the club he carries, although more likely oak than olive, closely matches the story.
Noteworthy in this context is the story of the naming of Llew Llaw Gyffes:
“What is the name of the boy?” asks Arianrhod. "Verily," came the reply, "he has not yet a name." "Well," she said, "I lay this destiny upon him, that he shall never have a name until he receives one from me."
The tale continues: “Thereupon behold a wren stood upon the deck of the boat, and the boy shot at it, and hit it in the leg between the sinew and the bone. Then she smiled. "Verily," said she, "with a steady hand did the lion aim at it." "Heaven reward thee not, but now has he got a name. And a good enough name it is. Llew Llaw Gyffes be he called henceforth.” In fact, an approximate translation of the name would be "lion with a steady hand".
Hera, in her anger against Zeus for bearing Athena (among many other things, an owl goddess) from his forehead, resolved to bear a child without any help from Zeus – or indeed, any other man and in due course she gave birth to Hephaestus.
“Hear from me, all gods and goddesses, how cloud-gathering Zeus begins to dishonour me wantonly …. see now, apart from me he has given birth to bright-eyed Athena …”
But just as Llew Llaw Gyffes displeased Arianrhod, Hephaestus did not please Hera and she flung him from heaven, where he sustained the injury which forced him to limp for the rest of his life. Graves points out the similarity between the hurt suffered by Hephaestus and the only way in which Llew Llaw Gyffes can be killed, as he himself tells his wife Blodeuwedd (also an owl goddess):
"By making a bath for me by the side of a river, and by putting a roof over the cauldron, and thatching it well and tightly, and bringing a buck, and putting it beside the cauldron. Then if I place one foot on the buck's back, and the other on the edge of the cauldron, whosoever strikes me thus will cause my death."
And indeed, had he not been killed by Blodeuwedd’s lover, the thigh or hip dislocation caused by the buck's undoubted hasty exit from the scene would have caused Llew Llaw Gyffes a lifelong limp.
Another interesting parallel between Hera and Arianrhod is that the former is described by Homer as “…..queenly Hera of Argos who walks on golden sandals”, while in the Mabinogion, after Llew Llaw Gyffes poses as a maker of sandals and obtains his arms from his mother, he was known as the "third gold shoemaker".
And of course, as in so many stories, the Goddess loses her sovereignty and the land is stalked by heroes. Hera’s cuckoo sceptre is stolen by Zeus, while after defeating his enemies and dealing with the Goddess (Arianrhod/Blodeuwedd):
“A second time did Llew Llaw Gyffes take possession of the land …”
And so he strides across it still – and whether Hercules or Llew Llaw Gyffes, owes his very name to the Great Goddess who gave him birth.
©October 2006, Geraldine Charles