ABOVE Based on a sketch created on location after cycling to the site in 2015, this lino-cut by Katherine Anteney (https://katherineanteney.co.uk) depicts the immediately recognisable Cerne Abbas Giant.

The Giant’s story revisited: identifying the Cerne Abbas hill figure as ‘The Choice of Hercules’

Following our feature exploring the Cerne Abbas Giant’s date, Brian Edwards offers some thought-provoking insights into the Dorset hill figure’s historical context.

Start

One of Britain’s more familiar heritage assets, the chalk outline of the Giant of Cerne Abbas hardly requires further introduction. The date of his creation has been a subject of much speculation and – as discussed in the article preceding this one – recent archaeological investigations have shed some preliminary light on this matter, suggesting that the Giant is no ancient artwork and is, in fact, no earlier than medieval in origin. Historical sources have much to add to this picture, suggesting that the figure may be more recent still.

In 1996, Bournemouth University took the innovative step of putting the chalk hill figure on trial in the village hall at Cerne Abbas. This investigation was subsequently broadcast in part on the BBC’s Inside Out West, during which Professor Ronald Hutton made the important point that there are numerous medieval and early modern sources that describe the local landscape but make no mention of the Giant. He said:

ABOVE Based on a sketch created on location after cycling to the site in 2015, this lino-cut by Katherine Anteney (https://katherineanteney.co.uk) depicts the immediately recognisable Cerne Abbas Giant.
Based on a sketch created on location after cycling to the site in 2015, this lino-cut by Katherine Anteney (https://katherineanteney.co.uk) depicts the immediately recognisable Cerne Abbas Giant.

Most stunning of all is the survey of Cerne by the two John Nordens, father and son, 1617. It’s remarkably detailed, describing everything around where the Giant now is, but not the Giant himself. And the Nordens go out of their way to mention prehistoric monuments in their other surveys. It seems inconceivable they should mention the well, mention the Trendle earthwork on the top, but not mention the figure right in front of their eyes which later gives its name to the entire hill.

Hutton was presenting the researches of his University of Bristol colleague, Joseph Bettey. Before going on to suggest the hill figure was a cartoon of Oliver Cromwell, Bettey had argued the Giant did not exist before 1617, but was certainly in evidence by the end of the century, as its first recorded repair took place in 1694. With this the case, the 17th century offers an interesting cultural context for the figure, and potentially illuminating insights into its subject. Let’s begin by examining a theme that was of popular interest at the time: that of virtue and vice, and its Classical roots.

A heroic history

In 1616, Richard Niccols published his poem ‘Sir Thomas Ouerburies Vision’. Punctuated with images, it describes the plight of Sir Thomas Overbury (1581-1613), who was unjustly sent to the tower in 1611 after being betrayed by his close friend, the king’s favourite Robert Carr. Overbury was ultimately murdered in his cell, and in Niccols’ text Overbury’s ghost returns to confront his persecutors, lecturing them with the following words:

O hadst thou kept to the path by me begunne,
That other impious race thou hadst not runne:
In ways of vice thy steps I did not guide,
Only for vertue Overburie died.

The idea of a life-changing choice between two routes signposted ‘vice’ and ‘virtue’ is a familiar one, and it ultimately descends from a moral fable about the Classical hero Hercules, which is preserved in the Memorabilia of Xenophon (a student of Socrates, born c.430 BC), where it is attributed to another Greek philosopher, Prodicus of Ceos. The main theme of the narrative – known as ‘Hercules at the Crossroads’ or ‘The Choice of Hercules’ – appears in many subsequent ancient Greek and Roman works, and it became popular once more as an artistic motif in the 16th and 17th centuries.

LEFT Annibale Carracci’s famous 1596 painting of ‘The Choice of Hercules’. This image proved hugely influential to later artists, and inspired the Earl of Shaftesbury to write a treatise discussing his ideal interpretation of the theme.
Annibale Carracci’s famous 1596 painting of ‘The Choice of Hercules’. This image proved hugely influential to later artists, and inspired the Earl of Shaftesbury to write a treatise discussing his ideal interpretation of the theme.

The story features Hercules at the point of transition from callow youth to a virtuous manhood. Approaching this crucial formative period, the hero seeks out a secluded spot to consider his future course in life, and at a fork in the road he meets two Goddesses, Pleasure and Virtue. Each in turn attempts to persuade the impressionable Hercules to adopt her particular approach to life.

Hercules is initially drawn to the alluring charms of Pleasure. Her name, she says, is Happiness, but those who hate her call her Vice. Seductively encouraging indulgence, Pleasure motions Hercules towards a smooth, much-travelled path leading to the vale, urging him to take the easier route. By contrast, Virtue reasons that there is no worthwhile or satisfying reward without an uphill struggle, promoting an active life of labour and conscientious piety travelled by few. Although torn by the decision, after inwardly wrestling with his conscience, Hercules decides to put duty first and chooses the virtuous uphill path – a metaphor for his subsequent heroic life.

That ‘The Choice of Hercules’ was a familiar moral touchstone in the 17th century, understood in the abstract as well as spoken, written, and illustrative forms, is endorsed by a masque presented at the court of James I in 1618. ‘Pleasure reconciled to Virtue’ was written by Ben Jonson (1572-1637), with a set designed by Inigo Jones, and its themes assert that a person’s conduct, not rank or favouritism, define an individual as virtuous. It has been suggested that Jonson’s masque influenced a contemporary fashion in interior decoration: branding one’s property with heroic illustrations of Hercules meant that laudable virtue could be outwardly proclaimed without going to the effort of ceaseless pious acts. Reinvigorated by the influx of Dutch painters accompanying the Restoration in 1660, Hercules increasingly featured on 17th-century walls, ceilings, and in gardens. By 1694 – the time of the first recorded repair of the Cerne Abbas Giant – Hercules was also taking a starring role in the newly introduced allegorical designs at Hampton Court. Might the Giant himself have been inspired by the popularity of this theme?

Our Giant at Cerne is on his own

‘The Choice of Hercules’ had a long tradition in art as a moral example, and Annibale Carracci’s painting of 1596 was particularly influential. This image was taken as a template by Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), who published its principles as a treatise, A Notion of the Historical Draught or Tablature of the Judgment of Hercules, According to Prodicus, to instruct artists, indeed commissioning Paolo de Matteis (1662-1728) to produce a painting on the same subject.

BELOW The Giant’s anatomy explained: this chart maps key details of the hill figure against the Earl of Shaftesbury’s 1713 description of his ideal depiction of ‘The Choice of Hercules’.
The Giant’s anatomy explained: this chart maps key details of the hill figure against the Earl of Shaftesbury’s 1713 description of his ideal depiction of ‘The Choice of Hercules’.

In his essay, Shaftesbury sets out his ideal interpretation of a ‘Choice of Hercules’, capturing a single moment from the story and describing the effect that Hercules’ exchanges with the Goddesses would have had on the hero. It can be argued that this template also lies behind the Giant’s design – a suggestion that Martin Papworth, the National Trust’s Senior Archaeologist, referred to in March in his blog detailing recent archaeological work on the hill figure:

The problem with this idea is that our Giant at Cerne is on his own. He should have a woman on either side of him to help him decide. He may well have decided already.

Martin raises an obvious issue, but not an insurmountable one: it is the moral outcome of the tale that is the essential element in identifying Hercules as a hero, and the Giant, facing as he does towards the steep path to his right, has made the same heroic choice. With the Giant having already made his decision, the Goddesses do not feature in person – the process of choosing between them is a memory, although their influence remains evident in the imagery of the hill figure. If we interpret the Giant as being shown in the active motion of climbing, we see Virtue’s influence – triumphantly flourishing the club above his head, the Giant salutes her victory as he begins his uphill journey. The impression made by Pleasure also remains very much in evidence, though, both in his outstretched left arm, signalling his leaving the vale empty-handed, and in the largest illustration of an erect penis in the history of British art. This vivid illustration of arousal highlights that the difficulty of the Giant’s choice is not yet forgotten – the effects of Pleasure’s advances indicates the decision in favour of Virtue’s uphill struggle was as painful and difficult as the route ahead.

Is it, then, possible to map Shaftesbury’s description of the ideal Hercules against the outline of the Giant? In the anatomy chart pictured on p.43, some of the Earl’s explanations are plotted alongside details of the Giant’s body. His raised eyebrows and widely opened eyes above the small mouth tally well with Shaftesbury’s observation that Hercules ‘must of necessity seem surprised’. What he is surprised about is the ‘Transition, which seems at first so mysterious a Performance’. ‘Moving in an instant’, the mind reacting faster, registers in the ‘Eyes and Muscles about the Mouth and Forehead’, while the remainder of the body is yet to adjust to the change. We have discussed some of the other persuasive details of his body in the section above, but we should note too that the Giant’s lack of hair, and small head and face, indicates a youthful figure, as Hercules is in the parable.

Depictions of William III as Hercules: a Dutch etching from 1689 in the collection of the British Museum (LEFT), showing William trampling on a hydra (for more information, see www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1885-1114-250), and a Dutch pewter medal (BELOW) commemorating the Peace of Ryswick in 1697, from the National Maritime Museum (see https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/37798.html), that again shows William with a monster underfoot, clad in Hercules’ famous lion skin and carrying a club.
Depictions of William III as Hercules: a Dutch etching from 1689 in the collection of the British Museum, showing William trampling on a hydra (for more information, see www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1885-1114-250), and a Dutch pewter medal commemorating the Peace of Ryswick in 1697, from the National Maritime Museum (see https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/37798.html), that again shows William with a monster underfoot, clad in Hercules’ famous lion skin and carrying a club.

The very nature of a turf monument makes it appear rustic, but the serpentine arms and physiologically functional contrapposto announces the sophistication of the Giant’s unique design. Highly imaginative and extremely large, even among other hill figures, the Giant’s complexities blend seamlessly with the natural and built contours of the hillside. Every line, highlighted by chalk, ingeniously contributes to the Giant’s identity and meaning. But who was responsible for its creation?

The great Freke

Thomas Freke (c.1638-1701) was MP for Dorset, but when not in London he lived around eight miles from the former monastic estate at Cerne Abbas, which he had seized on the death of his mother in 1666. He had a curious, if unkind, nickname: of all the numerous members of his family living in and owning property in the county, he alone was dubbed ‘the great Freke in Dorsetshire’. This is clearly a reference to the Giant, which lay on his land and, of course, Thomas Freke is the only 17th-century landowner contemporaries definitely associated with the Giant. The unflattering moniker was surely instigated at a time when knowledge of the Giant’s existence first spread, in turn suggesting the hill figure was created during Freke’s ownership of the estate at Cerne Abbas.

If this is the case, the Giant’s apparent parallels with Shaftesbury’s template can be explained. The beginning of Thomas Freke’s political life is entwined with his close friendship with the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, who was the guardian of his grandson, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the future 3rd Earl. Could the younger Shaftesbury have been the architect of the hill figure? His personal connection with Freke, the estate’s landowner, makes him a tempting candidate. Especially when combined with the fact that the Giant could be interpreted as depicting the very moment in the Hercules legend favoured by Shaftesbury in his later treatise.

Aside from perhaps being established as a virtuous role model for the youthful residents of Cerne Abbas, might the Giant be a self-portrait by Shaftesbury, created on returning to England from his Grand Tour of Europe in 1689 aged just 18? Hill figures can readily be altered, and incarnations of Hercules had landed on these shores before Shaftesbury returned from his tour, but it is an intriguing possibility.

William III as Hercules

Whoever created the Giant, it soon appears to have taken on more regal associations. While entering details of expenditure associated with the Giant’s first known repair in his accounts of 1694, Thomas Coombs, churchwarden of St Mary’s, leaves us a tantalising clue. Coombs notes that the work took place over 4 and 5 November – a period that, in the later 17th century, was a two-day annual celebration, marking William III’s birthday (a national celebration unknown before 1689), and the anniversary of the king’s arrival in Torbay on 5 November 1688.

BELOW If the Giant was inspired by a long artistic tradition, it has inspired a wealth of creative output in its turn. This sketch by Richard Osgood depicts an episode when the hill figure was modified with a mask during the coronavirus pandemic (the change was unauthorised but caused no lasting damage).
If the Giant was inspired by a long artistic tradition, it has inspired a wealth of creative output in its turn. This sketch by Richard Osgood depicts an episode when the hill figure was modified with a mask during the coronavirus pandemic (the change was unauthorised but caused no lasting damage).

The fact that the Giant was repaired to coincide with these dates seems significant, as widespread propaganda coupled William III’s image as a providential saviour figure with that of Hercules. The legendary hero had also been linked with James I, Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, and Charles II on occasion, but after 1688 William III became more closely and intensely associated with the Herculean metaphor than any other leader in British history. From broadsides and etchings, through coins and medals (such as the example from the National Maritime Museum shown opposite), tapestries and wall paintings, statues, and architectural and garden features, William III’s Herculean alter ego was omnipresent in the 1690s. It would therefore be inconsistent if, by the time of its renewal in 1694, the chalk outline at Cerne Abbas was not connected to the king. And yet, in his administrative accounts in 1694, the churchwarden did not refer to ‘His Majesty’ or directly to the king’s birthday, only to the ‘Giant’.

Hailing Virtue’s victory over Pleasure, the Giant was a visual reminder that choosing wisely required conscious effort from within. What was being maintained on that hillside in 1694 was the personification of a moral code leaders could only aspire to. By the 1920s, though, any 17th-century link to the Giant had long been overlooked. Indeed, the belief the Giant was of an ancient origin was fundamental to the hill figure’s adoption by the National Trust, and to its being scheduled as a monument four years later (as well as helping to resist calls to censor this unique hill figure’s internal details). Interwar artists generated an ever deepening wonder at the mystery in chalk, and the post-war decision to replenish the Giant with chalk on an industrial scale encouraged ever increasing artistic responses. Looking back, if given the choice, we surely wouldn’t have it any other way.

Further reading
Christopher Braider (2004) Baroque Self-Invention and Historical Truth: Hercules at the crossroads, Routledge.
Tony Claydon (1996) William III and the Godly Revolution, Cambridge University Press.
James Hall (2008) The Sinister Side: how left-right symbolism shaped Western art, Oxford University Press.

Source
Brian Edwards is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Regional History Centre, UWE Bristol.