Monday, 28 September 2015

Negotiating with the Unexplained - Megaliths in the Popular Imagination

All around Europe, from Spain to Sweden and from Greece to Portugal, are conspicuous stone monuments for which, until the mid-19th Century, there could be no informed explanation. These monuments date to a period before literacy emerged in Europe, hence there can be no record as to who built them, or why.

"Everything that has come down to us from heathendom," wrote the Danish antiquarian, Rasmus Nyerup, in 1802, "is wrapped in a thick fog; it belongs to a space of time we cannot measure. We know that it is older than Christendom, but whether by a couple of years, or a couple of centuries, or even by more than a millennium, we can do no more than guess." His British contemporary, Sir Richard Colt-Hoare, writing a few years later, concurred: "Speculation may wander over its wide and spacious domain, but it will never bring home with it either truth or understanding."

The monuments themselves, however, were too obvious and too beguiling to ignore. Taking his lead from Roman writers, such as Julius Caesar and Tacitus, the 18th Century historian, Philip Falle, was certain that the megalithic site of Le Couperon, on the island of Jersey, had been a Druidic altar that had once been "besmeared and seen smoking with human blood," and offered thanks to God for "extinguishing so Hellish a superstition through the Gospel of his Son."

The dolmen of Le Couperon, Jersey. Photo: Pawel "pbm" Szubert (licensed under CCA). It is the "grave of a Danish pirate" that sits beneath an apple tree in "The Path of Stars," the Medieval story in my novel, Omphalos.

With the insights of modern archaeology, we now understand that most of these monuments were built several millennia before the birth of Christ (most date to the Neolithic era, between 4500 and 2500 BC), but such distant periods were not even imaginable to most of our Medieval or Early Modern ancestors. Long before Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland in the 5th Century AD, the Iron Age people of Ireland had re-imagined the monuments built by their distant ancestors as the abodes of their own Pagan gods. The passage grave of Newgrange, for example, was the home of the god of love, Aengus Og.

The passage grave of Newgrange, Ireland. Photo: Jimmy Harris *licensed under CCA).

Oengus Og, the pre-Christian Love God of Ireland, his head encircled by white singing birds. From Heroes of the Dawn, by Violet Russell & Beatrice Elvery, 1914 (image is in the Public Domain).

In the 6th Century, Pope Gregory the Great, determined to claim all of Europe for the Catholic Church, ordered that Pagan sites be "purified from the worship of the demons," a process that continued over centuries. In some cases, this was interpreted to mean physical destruction, but in other cases the monuments themselves were Christianised - a Medieval church built within the stone circle of Avebury, a menhir (standing stone) at Saint Uzec in Brittany carved with symbols of the Crucifixion.

The Menhhir de Saint-Uzec, Pleumeur-Bodou, Brittany. Photo: Ash_Crow (licensed under CCA).

Long-held traditions and customs, however, did not surrender easily to the decrees of pontiffs or priests. It was widely believed, in the 17th Century, that witches gathered at certain of these monuments (Le Trepied, on the island of Guernsey, for example) to have intercourse with the Devil.

In the late 1980s, as I travelled around Normandy, Brittany and the Channel Islands researching for my PhD, I heard tales, told by elderly farming people, of the "little people" who emerged from the megaliths at night (they are called "faitiaux" in the Channel Islands, "korrigans" in Brittany). These fairy-folk might be helpful to humans - one old man told me that the faitiaux would mend a pair of shoes left in a certain dolmen (megalithic tomb), provided that one also left a cup of milk for them - but they could also be malicious if disturbed. What they gave, they might also take away - a barren cow, tethered overnight to a menhir, would be found within a few weeks to be in calf, but her milk would soon dry up if the farmer did anything to offend the korrigans.

The Dolmen of Grantez, Jersey, known locally as Le Trou des Faitiaux. When the site was discovered in the early years of the 20th Century, a local farmer tried to drive the archaeologists from the land, concerned that they would offend the faitiaux.

It is difficult to know whether these customs are still practised today, but most villages in Brittany have an annual Pardon, a church service in honour of its patron saint. The service is followed by a Fest-Noz, a party with traditional music and dancing, helped along by the consumption of large amounts of local cider, and the spirit distilled from it - Calvados. Sometimes in French, and sometimes in Breton (a language close to Welsh), stories are still told of Grandpere's and Grandmere's encounters with the korrigans.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

New Release!

Castles, Customs and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, Volume 2, edited by Debra Brown and Sue Millard.

An anthology of essays from the second year of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, this book transports the reader across the centuries from the prehistoric era to the Twentieth Century, with more than forty different authors sharing the stories, incidents and insights arising from their research for their own novels. It can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

To mark the publication, we are holding a blog-hop, with each author posting something on the broad topic of customs from history. To see the postings from other authors, click on the link below, or look out for the hash-tags #EHFA and #Customs on Twitter.


  1. Very interesting, Mark! When I first saw your word "menhir", I thought of the Hawaiian menehune. As I read on, the connection seemed stronger, as menehune were supposedly small people, like dwarves, that turned into stone if the sun's rays hit them (we saw a stone piece sticking off a mountain that they claim is a menehune in Kauai). So the word, the small persons, and the stone all seem like a connection. There is a lot of distance between the areas, but it is strange to me that I thought of them at first sight of your word, before I read of the small people and stone.