This Mysterious Hillside Carving Is Actually Hercules, Researchers Say

England’s 180-foot-tall Cerne Abbas Giant may have served as a landmark for gathering troops

Cerne Abbas Giant
Volunteers repairing and refreshing the 180-foot-tall giant in 2019 Ben Birchall / PA Images via Getty Images

For centuries, a giant has reigned over the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, England: Historians have long debated the identity of the mysterious figure whose 180-foot-tall chalky outline is carved into a grassy hillside.

In a paper published this month in the journal Speculum, researchers argue that the giant is Hercules, the formidable warrior of classical mythology—and it may have served as a gathering point for troops fending off Viking warriors.

The report builds on research from 2021, when geological testing dated the Cerne Abbas Giant to between 700 and 1100 C.E.; previously, some historians had assumed it dated to prehistoric times. With the new timeline in mind, researchers analyzed the figure’s characteristics and potential mentions in historical records.

“We’ve tried to put together the most convincing and coherent narrative,” co-author Thomas Morcom, a researcher at the University of Oslo, tells the London Times’ Jack Blackburn. The new report analyzes “how it all fits together and how the giant could have been most likely understood.”

Hercules and the Hydra
Hercules and the Hydra (circa 1475) by Antonio del Pollaiuolo Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The large-scale work is drawn in thick, simple lines filled with white chalk. A teardrop-shaped head containing eyes, eyebrows and a flat mouth sits atop a large body complete with ribs, nipples and an erect penis. With two feet turned to the right, the giant stretches one arm sideways, while the other raises a hulking club.

“The club is the clue,” according to the new study. “Hercules was one of the most frequently depicted figures in the classical world, and his distinctively knotted club acted as an identificatory label, like the keys of Saint Peter or the wheel of Saint Catherine.”

Hercules’ signature mantle—his cloak—may have also been included in the original Cerne Abbas outline, draped over the giant’s free hand, the researchers hypothesize.

“The position of his arm is such that it fits so well,” co-author Helen Gittos, a historian at the University of Oxford, tells the London Times. “It seems quite likely.”

Why, though, was the figure created? The researchers note that it’s easy to find and situated near major roadways; based on its prominent location, they think it may have been “an inspiring muster station for West Saxon armies at a time when the area was being attacked by Viking warriors,” as the Guardian’s Steven Morris puts it. “[Hercules’] looming presence may have provided the backdrop for troops who gathered there.”

Over the years, different groups in the area have assigned their own meanings to the figure, building it into their belief systems. In the 11th century, local monks rebranded it in a way that aligned with their Christian faith, write the researchers.

“Having a large, very obviously naked, pagan figure on your doorstep was an inconvenient fact for the monks,” Morcom tells BBC News’ Ros Tappenden and Steve Humphrey. “They engaged in a piece of intellectual interpretation, associating him with their patron saint, Eadwold.”

Despite its mysterious origins and through changing interpretations, the giant has long been “loved and looked after,” says Morcom in a statement.

In the past decade alone, several new traditions and celebrations connected to it have emerged, as the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead reported in 2021. Jonathan Still, the vicar of St. Mary’s Church in Cerne Abbas, told the publication that the figure is an “​​active personality” in the community that often prompts an emotional response in viewers.

Now, the researchers say their analysis places the hillside resident’s legacy in the appropriate historical context for the first time.

As Morcom tells the Guardian, “I think we’ve found a compelling narrative that fits the giant into the local landscape and history better than ever before, changing him from an isolated mystery to an active participant in the local community and culture.”

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