Who built the megaliths on the Iberian Peninsula?

The Jentil is a giant from Basque mythology

On the night of August 14 to 15, during the festivities of the patron saints of Elvillar (Basque Country) in honor of Our Lady of the Assumption and San Roque, the event “Akelarre” is celebrated. It was originally held in the dolmen ”Chabola de la Hechicera” (the witch’s hut), but for logistical reasons it was moved to the village square.

The name “Akelarre” is based on the legend of some witches who lived in the dolmen who were condemned by the Holy Inquisition and executed at the stake, known as the Logroño trial. Akelarre is a Basque term and means Witches’ Sabbath (the place where witches hold their gatherings). Akerra means male goat in the Basque language, Akelarre can be translated as “meadow of the goat”. Witches’ Sabbaths were represented as presided over by a goat.

According to Barandiaran, the dolmen was given the name “Chabola de los Encantos” or “Chabola de la Hechicera” because on the morning of San Juan the inhabitants of Elvillar heard songs coming from the place without seeing anyone who could sing the songs. The people in the area said it was a sorceress who sang the songs. And it was said that those who went or looked at it turned into stones and became part of the megalithic monument.

Chabola de la Hechicera, the witch’s hut

Dolmens and other megalithic structures are associated with witches and other supernatural beings. In this article, we take a look at the stories being told in the Iberian Peninsula. We will see that with the coming and going of cultures, the stories change. Gods change into, for example, fairies, giants or saints. Yet the core of the story remains the same, that’s just how myths work. They move with the times.

The Catholic Church, which is predominant in Portugal, has assimilated some dolmens and attributed apparitions of saints and miraculous events to the structures. In these cases, the dolmen were not inhabited by witches, but were blessed and converted into chapels. In Portuguese, these dolmen are called anta-capella. A very famous anta capella is located in Pavia, in the municipality of Mora.

Of course, the megalithic structures were not all incorporated into the Christian tradition and many were destroyed, as is documented. This happened especially in the northern region (including part of Galicia) where many nightly pagan rituals were celebrated in the megaliths, related to lunar cults, without ecclesiastical approval.

Pavia; the chapel of San Dionysius is an anta capella. A chapel has been made from the pre-Christian megalithic structure.

The Iberian Peninsula includes the current countries of Spain, Andorra, Portugal, the British enclave of Gibraltar and some mountain valleys belonging to France. This part of Europe is also called Iberia; Iberia comes from Greek. The Romans called it Hispania from which España (Spain) is ultimately derived. Among the Muslims, the Iberian Peninsula is known as Al-Andalus, from which Andalusia was later derived.

In the Iberian Peninsula, dolmens can be found all over Portugal, from simple to more complex megalithic architecture, such as the Crómlech de los Almendros or Gran Dolmen de Zambujeiro. In Spain, dolmens can be found in Galicia (such as Axeitos), the Basque Country and Navarre (such as the aforementioned Sorgin Etxea or Chabola de la Hechicera), La Rioja (such as the Dolmen de la Cascaja), Aragon (such as Aguas Tuertas, Tella, Villanúa), Catalonia (like Cova d’en Daina or Creu d’en Cobertella), Andalusia (like the Dolmen de Menga) and Extremadura (like Dolmen de Lácara).

Very old mines have been found in southern Spain that were in production as early as the early Copper Age (before 3000 BC) and which are rich enough even today to sustain production. There is also evidence that the inhabitants of the region were the first traders to sail to the fabled Tin Isles, which probably refers to Great Britain and more specifically Cornwall and the adjacent Isles of Scilly, where prehistoric tin mines can still be seen.

Model of a domed tomb (tholos) with corbel vault from the Los Millares culture

In southern Spain, there existed between 2200 and 1550 BC. the El-Argar culture: a Bronze Age culture under Central European influence that originated from the local Los Millares culture. West of the Strait of Gibraltar were also a number of Bronze Age settlements, loosely grouped as Southwest Iberian Bronze Age cultures. With similar cultures from Portugal to the British Isles, these formed the basis of the Atlantic Bronze Age. Some say they were also influenced by traders from Minoan Crete, who lived between 2500 and 1500 BC. dominated trade in and around the Mediterranean.

According to the myth, King Minos was an early ruler of Crete and the Minotaur was in the labyrinth below his palace at Knossos. The name Minoan civilization (“Civilization of Minos”) was proposed on this basis by Arthur John Evans, the archaeologist who contributed significantly to the rediscovery of this civilization.

Dolmen were often built in places where a ritual meaning already existed. In Portugal it was customary to build the dolmen on a spot where a menhir already stood. The cover mound also swallowed the menhir in some cases. And in some cases the menhirs were reused when building a dolmen.

Burials were also made in natural caves and later artificial caves were also built. There was also burial in tholoi. Tholos is a technical term for a round building with a domed roof, which may or may not be surrounded by columns. A tholos tomb is understood to mean the type of domed tomb in which the vault of the stone burial chamber is formed by horizontal, gradually corbelled concentric stone layers. The stones are held in place by the pressure of the earth covering the grave. Such tholos tombs were adopted from the Minoan burial culture where they were widely used in the eastern Mediterranean basin in the 2nd millennium BC. The best known are in Mycenae (including the 13 meter high “Treasury of Atreus”) and in Orchomenus (“Treasury of King Minyas”).

The presence of dolmen is not directly related to the Celts, as has been claimed in Western Europe since Romanticism. The Celtic peoples were able to reuse the megaliths, just like the shepherds of the Middle Ages.

From the 9th century BC. Celtic tribes invade northern, western and central Spain. From that time on there was a gradual mixing of Celts and Iberians into Celtiberians. This mixing took place much less with the original inhabitants of the northern mountain areas: the Basques, the Cantabrians and the Asturians.

De verdeling van megalithische graven in Iberia

The dolmens were not only reused on the Iberian Peninsula: studies conducted in northern France and the United Kingdom indicate continuous reuse of megalithic cemeteries in the Bronze Age, Middle Iron Age and in the Medieval period. Studies in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern area of ​​Germany have shown that of the 144 megalithic tombs in the area, a third have been reused (internal use of the burial chamber) and 50 percent have been shown to persist external ritual activity.

Statue of Breogán in A Coruña (Galicia) near the Tower of Hercules, this is a lighthouse built by the Romans (and still in use)

Breogán, the son of Brath, is a mythical Celtic king of Galicia. According to Celtic legends, collected in the 11th century Lebor Gabála Érenn, Breogán was the one who built an immense tower at Brigantium. From this tower, Ith and Bile, the sons of Breogán, could see on the horizon a land of green shores.

This means Ireland. They decided to sail there, but were met here by the Tuatha Dé Danann, a people who inhabited Ireland before the arrival of the Celts. It was killed.

Decades later, Breogán’s grandson Míl Espáine undertook the journey again. He avenged Ith’s death and eventually defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann, after which the Celts settled in Ireland.

Galicia is one of the seventeen autonomous regions of Spain and is located in the extreme northwest of the Iberian Peninsula. It borders Portugal. The Romans arrived in the second century BC. In the fifth century, invasions by Sueben and Vandals followed, and from the ninth to the eleventh century, the Normans attacked the northwest coast of Spain.

Local people meet Mouras as they spin with a spindle and a rock. Mouras are fantastic fairy creatures from Galician mythology associated with megalithic constructions. The Mouras built the castros and the mámoas (burial mounds; artificial accumulations of earth and/or stones). Mámoas are dolmen with the cover mound; the name refers to the female breast, as it resembles the shape of the mound. Diminutives such as mamoíña or mamoela are also used. It is common for them to present a depression in the upper part known as a cono de violación: the remains of an illegal excavation in search of precious materials or more generally to mine the stones.

The oldest dated mámoa in Galicia is A Chousa Nova, in Silleda. The structure was erected 6,350 years ago. There are legends surrounding the mámoas; for example, that a hen with chicks appears under a dolmen on the night of San Juan, they turn into gold. The Sint Jansfeest starts after the sunset of 23 June, Sint Jansavond: the eve of the Christian holiday Sint Jansdag. There are also stories that there are pots hidden in it that may contain gold or poison.

Pedra Formosa Castro das Eiras 
Pedra Formosa Briteiros

The castrexa sauna is a megalithic construction typical of the castrexa culture (found on the territory of ancient Gallaecia: Galicia, western Asturias and northern Portugal). It is a sauna for ritual use (steam bath rituals) in the castros.

At first it was thought that the origin of these Galician saunas was Roman, but today it is known that they existed in the castros several centuries earlier. They were built at the end of the 5th century BC or the beginning of the 4th century BC. A beautiful stone (pedro formosa), a large monolith, was located in the spas and gave access to the compartment of the baths and hot steam through a small opening.

Some researchers believe they were rites of passage practiced by Proto-Celtic warrior communities, while others believe it was a way of praising native gods such as Nabia and other water gods. Nabia was the goddess of rivers and water in Gallaecian and Lusitanian mythology in the territory of modern Galicia (Spain), Asturias (Spain) and Portugal.

Some saunas were still used in Roman times, so they underwent renovations and additions to their structure to adapt to new thermal applications. Not only myths, buildings also adapt to the times.

In September 2011, archaeologist Antón Malde and journalist Manuel Gago led a public archaeological project with a team of volunteers dedicated to cleaning and excavating a site in Pena Furada. These excavations revealed several walled structures believed to be part of a shrine containing the figure of Moura.

Petroglief van een Moura in Pena Furada

Mairu (plural: mairuak) are creatures from Basque mythology. The Basque Country is located in Spain and France on the western foothills of the Pyrenees and on the Bay of Biscay. The origin of the Basques is shrouded in mystery. Their language is so different and not or hardly related to existing languages, that the Basques are not counted among the well-known European peoples, such as the Celts or Germans.

Mairu stands for Moor and the term is used in the sense of “non-Christian” to refer to past civilizations or megalithic monuments. In some parts of Spain, any ancient construction has been popularly attributed to the period of Arab rule (even if the structures are much older than that period).

In other parts of Atlantic Europe it was also believed that “people from the south” came with the science to build megalithic monuments. For example, the blue stones of Stonehenge are said to have originally stood in Ireland; they were indeed in Wales (which at the time belonged to Ireland) has recently been shown. The stones are said to have been erected there by giants from Africa, I already described this in the article King Arthur and Stonehenge. The presence of genetic chromosomes in male DNA (haplogroup E1b1b1 in isolated minorities of the European population, including the Basque population, along the European Atlantic coast to Scotland) and in female DNA to Scandinavia seems to confirm this. And Basque and Gaelic languages ​​contain Berber loanwords.

Mairuak are also called Maideak, Saindi Maidi (in Lower Navarre) and Intxisu (in Bidasoa Valley). Mairuak were giants who built dolmen or harrespil. Like the dolmen, harrespil are only found in the mountains. It is said that the Mairu carried the stones on their heads or under their arms.

Jentil are also giants belonging to Basque mythology. The name “jentil” comes from the Latin gentilis, meaning “infidels”. The name is used for the pre-Christian civilizations and especially for the builders of megalithic buildings.

Jentil; gestileerde weergave

Dolmens are called jentilarri or jentiletxe and caves are called jentilzulo or jentilkoba. Jentilarri also denotes some rocks which, according to certain legends, occupy the present places because they were thrown by the pagans from faraway places. “Jentiletxe” is the name of the dolmen located on Mount Ataun-Burunda and in Alzania. Likewise “Jentiletxeeta” in Motrico, “Jentilzubi” at the Baltzola Cave (in Dima), “Jentilzulo” in Leiza and Orozco.

Jentileio is the name of a hole almost two meters high and one and a half meters wide. It is the opening of an artificial tunnel almost five meters long, which crosses Mount Laiene from south to north and leads to an enclosure called Jentillan-sukalde (“the kitchen of the pagans”).

Cromlech de Almendres

A cromlech is a collection of several menhirs, usually in one or more circles or ellipses, but also in rectangles, semicircles or even more complex structures such as Almendres’ cromlech. They were built between 3300 and 1800 BC. They were used as a temple for the worship of the sun and moon and other stars. They are also known as ‘Moorish orchards’.

Stadia van de evolutie van de Cromlech van Almendres gedurende het Neolithicum (en de huidige staat van het bouwwerk).
De bouw begon in 4800 v.Chr.

The vast majority of extant cromlechs in Portugal are found on slopes that face east-south. The orientation of the monument (to the point of sunrise at the summer solstice) and the arrangement of the stones (according to the phases of the moon) lead to the possibility that it was some kind of astronomical observatory.

The term cromlech comes from the English cromlech, which in turn is derived from the Old Welsh ‘crwm’, ‘crooked’ and ‘lech’, ‘slab’. So the literal meaning would be “plate (placed on) curve.”

Ten of the cromlech monoliths of the Cromlech of Almendres are decorated in the form of reliefs or engravings, four of which have only “dimples” (also called naps; a series of small holes carved into the stone). The others are:

Menhir 48: has a small anthropomorphic figure associated with a staff;

Menhir 57: on a deliberately flattened piece, it shows a series of 13 reliefs in the form of Crosiers. These figures also appear in other menhirs and are likely representations of objects of social prestige built in slate and perishable materials. In the megalithic monuments of Alentejo, even schist bars are found;

Menhir 56: on a flattened piece a stylized representation of a large human face, with nose, eyes and mouth. It can be considered as a menhir statue;

Menhir 76: it also has an anthropomorphic figure, like the menhir 56. The decoration of both is similar to the menhirs of the Cromlech of Portela de Mogos;

Menhir 64: located near the center of the larger space, it has reliefs in the form of rackets and circles;

Menhir 58: It has three images of solar disks, associated with wavy lines representing rays.

Kuiltjes (of napjes) op monoliet 8
Menhir 64, met reliëfs van cirkels en rackets

The Pyrenean cromlechs are distributed in an area stretching from Andorra to the Bay of Biscay, on both sides of the Pyrenees, in fact in the area where the Aquitanian language is used in both French and Spanish territory. They are not found in the rest of the Iberian Peninsula.

The Pyrenean cromlech is a stone box within a stone circle (no more communal burials as in the dolmens). They are called harrespil (plural harrespilak), baratz or jentilbaratz (more woman: baratzak). They are relatively modest megalithic monuments. Harrespil is a term in Basque which means “stone circle”. Baratz means “orchard” and is traditionally used to denote prehistoric necropolises. They have a diameter of between 2 and just under 10 meters, and menhirs that, in exceptional cases, are 3 meters high. In general, there are groups of two to twenty circles of different diameters whose origins date back to 1200 to 600 BC.

Also known as Jentilbaratza is a peak in the port of Arrateta (Ataun). It is believed that the pagans were buried on this top.

Jentilak threw stones according to the stories

The Jentilak played games, such as pilota, throwing huge rocks through the air that still lie at the foot of some mountains. According to legend, the Saltarri menhir was thrown down by a Jentil from Mount Murumendi.

According to the Basque tradition, these peaceful creatures have lived in contact with the local population since the time of the pre-Christian civilization. They are described as furry creatures, big enough to walk in the sea and strong enough to throw rocks from one mountain to another. The stories also say that the Jentilak helped the people in the Battle of Roncesvalles, as is related in the “Chanson de Roland” (the Rolandsong), where the Basques defeated the Franks by throwing stones as they passed.

Jentilak had immense power and were responsible for the construction of many massive stone structures, including churches, castles, bridges and dolmen. They were said to be more Christian than the Christians. Their end came when a very bright star appeared, revealing the birth of Christ. In other stories it is about a dark cloud. They disappeared into the earth under a dolmen in the Arratzaren valley (in Navarre).

The children of Sunbilla carry the jentil Olentzero on their backs at Christmas

Olentzero was a jentil who, almost blindly, could look at the cloud and understand its meaning. Only he remained.

Olentzero converted to Christianity and comes down from the mountains every year on the night of Christmas Eve to announce the birth of Jesus and bring gifts to the people, making him a sort of “Basque Santa”.

Mairuak are often associated with Laminak, the female companion of the Mairuak. Laminak is said to have built the megaliths in Mendive (Lower Navarre). The Laminak is said to have disappeared from the area because of the processions of the Days of the Cross, the sound of church bells, the construction of a hermitage or a chapel. Food offerings were made to the Laminak: corn cakes, pieces of ham, glasses of cider left in the kitchen at night, terrine of milk or curd that the shepherds placed in certain caves, food that the farmers placed on the borders of their fields as atonement. .

According to a legend collected by Cerquand, the Mairuak are beautiful, tall and wealthy men who would meet with Laminak every week to liberate Mendikolanda (between Zuberoa, Mendi and Mendikota). Roland drove the Moors from the area. The Roelantslied (a translation of the Chanson de Roland) is part of the group of Frankish or Charlemagne novels, which tell of events attributed to Charlemagne and his knights. The exploits, added together, are so numerous that they cannot possibly be attributed to a single monarch and his retinue. In fact, the stories are based on folk literature about Charlemagne and the Merovingian dynasty. Older stories were reused. The same happened with the stories about King Arthur and his knights, examples of which were already mentioned in the article King Arthur and megaliths.

Marietxe/Gaztenia trikuharria

In other parts of the Basque Country, the megaliths are attributed to Mairi, Maru, Mooru, Moro, Maide and Soorgin. Where the Mairi are builders of dolmens, the Maide are mountain spirits and (male) builders of cromlechs. Both the Marietxe or Gaxteenia (or Gaztenia in Mendibe) dolmen and the great stones of Armiaga (Behorlegi, meaning “place of mares”) were carried there by a Moor.

Mairu is still a term to denote someone who has not been baptized and therefore is not a Christian. Unbaptized babies, Mairu, were (and are even today) buried near their own home or in the yard next door. There are legends that Mairu’s parched arm or arm bone contains supernatural powers.

The Mairu are credited with building certain dolmens and cromlechs such as that of Ibañeta in Zugarramurdi (Navarre). This village is known for its caves where “witches” would meet during ceremonies called “akelarre”. The Mairu are also said to have built the dolmens and cromlechs in Oiartzun (also called Oyarzun in Guipuscoa; Kauso I and II, Arritxurrieta, Munere, Errenga, Arritxulangaña, Egiar and Oianleku) and Buluntza (Aincille in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques).

Casa de Moura; Anta da Cerqueira in Couto de Esteves (Portugal)

The origin of the Mairu is believed to be as old as the “mouros encantados” in Portuguese (enchanted Moors, Spanish: moros encantados), which are thought to be the remnant of ancient pre-Roman gods. The Mouras Encantadas (the feminine form) are found in Portuguese and Galician folklore. However, in Alentejo, a region of southern Portugal with the greatest concentration of megaliths on the entire peninsula, the guardians of those structures are not exactly friendly elves emerging from their caves at sunset.

Archaeologist Henna Lindström of the University of Helsinki in Finland writes about the folktales of the builders of European megaliths: the Mouras Encantadas, as these almost forgotten and influential women in Portugal are called. In legends, which Lindström recorded from Portuguese sources written down in the late 1800s, people seek out mouras at midday, midnight, or mid-summer to help them through illness, infertility, or love misfortunes. They are most common during midsummer sunrises. Not only at caves or dolmen, but also at fountains and other water sources.

There is another category of stories where mouras appear to people as a sign of impending death or to women in difficult labor (and where they can then even determine the outcome of the birth: whether mother and baby survive).

The mouras are said to be shape-shifters; they could change their appearance. There are menhirs and other stones with serpent imprints. Sometimes footsteps can be seen. According to the stories, this is the change of the moura from human form to serpent. The mouras could also turn into a bull and in this way they protected the dolmen (and the treasures hidden within). The crescent moon is a symbol for the bull’s horns.

Nossa Senhora de Conceição, the Lady of the Immaculate Conception, is also depicted with a serpent and a crescent moon. In the earliest images Nossa Senhora Conceição is depicted side by side with the snake, in later images she steps on the snake’s head.

Nossa Senhora de Conceição (ze staat op de slang, er is ook een maan afgebeeld), Museu de Arte Sacra de São Paulo

The Immaculate Conception of Mary is a dogma of the Catholic Church that states that Mary was conceived and came into the world without being defiled with original sin. This special status of Mary is celebrated with a Solemnity on December 8, nine months before the feast of the Nativity of Mary on September 8.

Catholics built churches and chapels, mostly dedicated to the Virgin Mary, precisely where pagan gods and natural beings were worshiped. And they told the populace that all Moors, mouras, were heathens. Despite these and other efforts by priests and monks to turn superstitions into what they see as the only true faith, many people continue to believe that rocks, wells and caves are the habitats of mysterious beings in human or invisible form.

The fairy tales with Mouras Encantadas are said to be of pre-Roman, Indo-European Celtic origin. According to José Leite de Vasconcelos, they are “beings compelled by an occult power to live in a certain state of siege as if they were stunned or asleep, provided that some circumstance does not break their spell”.

Masseira, hier kneedden de Mouras het brood

Mouras Encantadas were believed to be the builders of the Paleolithic hill forts, the dolmens, and the megaliths. In some regions, dolmen are popularly called Mouras or Casa da Moura  (home of the Moura). Rock-cut tombs are often called Cova da Moura or Masseira, the latter term meaning the place where the “mouras kneaded the bread”. They are also called Cama da Moura (bed of the moura).

Almost every Portuguese or Galician city has a story about a Moura Encantada. The tradition of the mouros encantados is used to find prehistoric monuments and was used in the 19th century as the main method of locating Lusitanian archaeological “monuments”, as Martins Sarmento regarded these traditions as a kind of folk memory that was not completely erased through the Christianization. Hispania Lusitania or simply Lusitania was a Roman province on the Iberian Peninsula. It roughly corresponded to present-day Portugal and part of Spain (Extremadura).

Later civilizations sought to interpret these remains and have spawned countless legends and speculations about their purpose. In the case of Lusitanian folklore, megaliths have been described since ancient times as places where creatures from the underworld live, meeting places for witches on Friday evenings or caves inhabited by snakes guarding treasures (the mouras are sometimes described as snakes).

Dolmen de Carapito I (above, in Aguiar da Beira) en Casa da Moura of Dolmen de Cabaleiros (dolmen of the rider; knight; gentlemanr, in Tordoia)

In Portuguese lore it is said that you can walk in or out of certain rocks, possibly related to the moura legends. The moura is also described as traveling to Mourama (an enchanted place) sitting on a stone that can float in the air or in the water. It was believed that whoever sat on one of these stones would be enchanted. And if an enchanted stone were brought to a house, all the animals in the house could die.

According to folklore in Portugal, Spain, France, the British Isles, the Basque Country, and in some parts of Germany and Italy, the dolmen were erected by women, who carried huge boulders over their heads (or in their
aprons or on the tips of their little finger) while also spinning, weaving, nursing a child, or churning butter. This is also told in Malta, as I already indicated in the place of the giants; megalithic temples in Malta.

What is also attributed to the Mouras Encantadas is the construction of large buildings in one night. For example the cathedral of Viseu. This is also reminiscent of the stories that occur in other parts of Europe; a hero, giant or devil helped build a building, sometimes it was a saint (like Mary). Examples are given in the article about sacrificial stones.

Legend has it that the Mouras appear during the solstices and on full moon nights.

To mortal beings, they are only visible on the night of San Juan (the aforementioned St. John’s Eve, the eve of the Christian holiday St. John’s Day). This is the most magical night of the year. They may then be busy combing their hair with golden combs. Or weaving and spinning with a golden thread.

Moura met spindel en steen

In some legends it is on the day of St. John that the Moura Encantada spreads a skein of yarn on a large rock in the moonlight. Moonlight megaliths also mention the importance of moonlight.

Golden combs, scissors and spindles are their attributes, which they sometimes promise to people as a payment of a
employ. In Galicia the mouras spun the thread of life. This links them to the Moirai of Greek mythology, the Fates in whose hands lay the life and death of men and gods. A common thread (of Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos) also determined life and death in the myth about the Minosaurus, it was the only way out of the labyrinth. The Minotaur was a fierce creature; half man and half bull.

Norns from Germanic mythology are also connected with the Moirai and Iberian mouras. They sat, turning, at the base of the world tree Yggdrasil and watered it every day with water they drew from the Well of Fate, thus maintaining life and world order. Norns also visited the newborns and decided their fate. There are also similarities with the Germanic Berchta; she is a celestial sun goddess who carries unborn souls in her cow-drawn sun chariot. As Holda (Woman Holle), she rules over the dead and the underworld.

An old Moorish legend tells how on the dawn of Saint John the Mouras Encantadas spread their treasures on the dewy fields. Their riches were in the form of figs. Someone who passed by and picked up the figs and did not eat them at home noticed that the figs turned into real treasures. But someone who wanted to eat the figs immediately, to his horror, suddenly held pieces of charcoal in his hand. This is also reminiscent of Mrs. Holle, who gives gifts… but it is not always gold, but sometimes pitch what you have left.

The mouras also have similarities with the Irish Banshee and Cailleach. In the Celtic British Isles, Cailleach was a goddess of probably pre-Celtic origin. Her name means ‘veiled’. A Banshee is a fairy who announces the death of a human. It is the English phonetic spelling of the Irish bean sí (plural mná sí, old spelling bean sídhe) meaning fairy woman, the feminine form of dune sí (fairy person). In the Celtic folklore of Scotland they write baobhan sith. She has long white hair that she combs with a silver comb.

Mouras Encantadas take various forms such as a snake, bull or Moorish princess. Yet the core of the story remains the same.

The archaeologist Henna-Riikka Lindström described the megalith-building women of Portuguese legends as supernatural; they can change shape and often take the form of a snake or a bull. They are young and old at the same time and have eternal lives. They are said to have taught people many herbal skills, including the manufacture of iron. They can move in different elements: on Earth and in the subterranean world, as well as in the water-rich realm. They guard the boundaries between the worlds, control the weather and the seasons, and appear to people at times when the boundaries between the worlds have become blurred: at times of impending death, childbirth, equinoxes and solstices, or at midnight and noon.

Mouras have a clear linguistic connection to another type of supernatural beings: mourinhos/maruxinhos, which are tiny hominid beings that live in their own subterranean dimension. They are roughly equivalent to the gnomes or elves.

In some stories she is called Moura-mae or mother-moura and takes the form of a charming young lady who is pregnant, and the story centers on the search for a midwife to assist in the birth and the reward given to the person who wants to help.

There are known customs in which couples go to sleep on the dolmen in order to have a child. By going around the dolmen three times, one was married (and children from this union were not considered bastards). Names show this usage, for example Pedra dos Casamentos, Anta dos Casamentos and Peninhos dos Casamentos (stone, dolmen or small stone of marriage). There are also stories of women who lie on the dolmen to become pregnant. And there are stories of women licking a rock for better breastfeeding. The Pedra Leital, milk stone, is a remnant of a dolmen. It is again reminiscent of the examples given in the article on child stones.

The stories of Jentil, Mouros, Maura, Moira, Velha, Mora, Mari, Vieha, Mairi, Moros, Mairu, Moors and similar creatures are deeply rooted in the collective memory for thousands of years.

The word Moura shares common roots with the Celtic word mrvos (death) and with the Latin word mortuus, from which Portuguese is derived and Galician morto (death). The Greek word moira (fate) also has to do with the origin of moura as does the Celtic word mahra or mahr (spirit). The three Norns have the same properties, these are the Fates or Destinies from Norse mythology.

De drie nornen bij een pasgeboren baby

Moura-lavadeira is a laundress, she is seen alone drying white clothes in the sun. She resembles the Lavandières (Midnight Washerwomen) who wash bloodstained clothes; the Banshee do this too. The Lavandières are three ancient washerwomen in Celtic mythology. The three old women go to the water’s edge at midnight to wash shrouds for those about to die, according to Brittany myth and folklore; or to wash the bloodstained clothes of those who are about to die, according to Celtic mythology.

Les Lavandières de la nuit

Mouras can also be associated with the great Basque goddess Mari. She manifests as a rainbow and as dew on mountain tops, a woman whose head reaches to the clouds, or whose head is surrounded by the moon, or in various animal forms. Mari is the guardian of the morals of people, like the Germanic Holda, and hates lying, bragging, selfishness, breaking promises and disrespect for others.

Henna-Rikka Lindström found the Portuguese megaliths and stories well suited to research; many of the tombs have been used in one way or another in religious, magical or communal practices…from Neolithic times to the present day. The meanings change, but the Portuguese megaliths never lost their meaning, they did not become meaningless.

Akellare door Fransico de Goyacirca, 1797-1798

As with all myths, to this day the stories are shrouded in new guises, according to the succession of times, without losing that primitive hard core. Under the influence of the church, it is now sometimes about Mary. In some cases, Mary was seen with a huge rock on her head and at the same time knitting a sock, or feeding baby Jesus.

In other cases it just became the devil or a pagan Moor (and sometimes the Moor was the devil). The Moors (or giants) easily threw huge stones at the Christians, sometimes even helping to build a cathedral.

In other cases, the story changed in another way and dealt with forbidden love between a Christian hero and a Moorish princess, but often this princess retained supernatural gifts and the other story elements were also preserved. The Moorish princess was cursed by her father and was banished, sometimes imprisoned underground. The old beliefs haven’t disappeared, they’ve just been reshaped a bit to fit in better with the new society…and: this has been happening for thousands of years.

The term “Sabbath” in Judaism means Saturday, which is their holy day. It is believed that this term was associated with witchcraft (witches’ Sabbath) in the time of the Middle Ages, when the rulers wanted to discredit the Jews and negatively associated Judaism with the worship of the devil.

The boundaries imposed on Jews and Moors went beyond the ideological, as they were given a space to live within the municipalities: the Jewish quarters and Mourarias, streets with doors that were opened at dawn and closed at sunset. In Portugal, there was a favorable climate for the survival of beliefs, rites and superstitious elements in Christian populations where pagan traditions persisted. The church tried to suppress this in various ways.

De “Anderen”: Joden, Moren, Tovenaars en Bijgelovigen

Martinón-Torres, who researched the 17th-century records of the dolmens in Galicia, noted that the processions frequented the dolmen and many annual celebrations were held around them. In the Alentejo area, it is still a living tradition to gather next to certain dolmen to celebrate the Magusto and Maia festivals, which have to do with reminiscing about the dead and the arrival of spring – death and birth .

Dolmens have been and still are central to the secular, everyday geography of the community, having served as landmarks or as boundary markers. They have often also been the meeting places for annual village festivals.

Toponyms associated with legends, and legends or traditions associated with particular sites, still serve as a geographic starting point for archaeologists when planning archaeological inventories. “Moura walked on the ridge”, “Witches used to spin in the cave” or “Our Lady appeared in the mouth of the cave” – these kinds of legends have revealed many prehistoric burial sites that are no longer visible.

The megaliths were worshiped at certain times, or avoided, destroyed or assimilated (such as during the Christianization). They were loved in Romanticism (stories and places were researched as best as possible) and during the dictatorship on the Iberian Peninsula, the study of the megaliths was discredited. Scientific research is currently being carried out, but unfortunately the study of customs and stories has now been split from the study of sites (archaeology). In my view you miss a large part of the information that is available for the taking.

Marinda Ruiter

Jentil-Zubi, natural bridge at Dima (Bizkaia)

This is a translation of a Dutch article, sources can be found in Wie bouwden de megalieten op het Iberisch schiereiland?


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