In the course of doing some research on giants today, I started looking into what’s known about the Wilmington Long Man, a 235-foot figure on the side of a hill in the South Downs. (A good discussion, from which many of the following facts and figures are taken, is here.) This mysterious figure, pictured at left, has long been associated with the similar Cerne Abbas Giant (famed for his remarkably prominent, uh, manhood), and they’ve both been the center of some post-modern Druidic what-nottery despite continuing uncertainty about their date of origin. (The Cerne Abbas Giant — that’s him on the left –, for instance, is thought by some to have originally been a comment about Oliver Cromwell, not an ancient Celtic icon.
At any rate, what piqued my interest about the Long Man is a 1776 drawing of it found in the Burrel Collection that represents it quite differently than it is now. It’s fairly unassailable fact that what’s now on the hill side is not as it always was — something one can see with modern ground-penetrating equipment — but this drawing is specific about the differences. As you can see at left, this 18th-century Long Man has a rake and a sickle, not the modern simple staves. This change of implements fits with a description of the figure by Richard Gough in 1806. Aside from this change, and some minor differences in the orientation of its feet, the other significant thing to notice in that 1776 drawing is its facial features, which look, well, slightly feminine. Curious.
Just to make it more interesting, though, there’s an earlier drawing, from 1710, the earliest record of the Long Man. In this drawing, the Long Man again has what look to be simple staves or spears, though unlike today it has torso features that just might be breasts. In addition, there are odd protrusions on the sides of its head: perhaps Princess Leia hair buns, or perhaps — and I’m likely crazy to make this connection — buboes at the neck.
This is entirely whimsical speculation, mind you. But what if the original figure dated to sometime after the middle of the 14th-century and was intended as comment on one of the plagues? In particular, of course, I’m thinking of the 1348-50 Black Death, which marked its victims with buboes at the neck. Better still, there are folklore reports that the Plague was often personified as an old woman carrying a rake and a broom or scythe.
Coincidence? Almost assuredly.
Interesting? Perhaps only to me.
Useful? Well, maybe. One of my students has written a terrific term paper in which she proposes that one particular giant in medieval literature directly represents the Black Death. I’m currently looking for anything — anything at all — to help support her position.
Entirely unrelated to even my meandering thoughts:
And, just for kicks, a scene from Spaceballs, at the end of which the princess of Druidia’s hair buns turn out to be headphones: