Devil and angel, megaliths in the Netherlands

One of the two dolmens of Rolde, with the church a short distance away (where, according to stories, another dolmen was located)

A young couple was not allowed to marry each other by their parents. A sorceress advised the boy to go to the dolmen at midnight. By reciting a spell he could summon the devil there, who could offer him help. The desperate boy did, with horrific results. He was missing, and later found completely black – as charred – near the dolmen.

According to Antoon van Schoonhove, the inhabitants of the area around this dolmen would have chased travelers through its narrow opening and pelt them with excrement. Then they were murdered and sacrificed on the altar stone. Boniface would have put an end to the latter use.

This story would be about Duvel’s Kut (Devil’s Kunt), a dolmen near Rolde. In 1547 Antoon van Schoonhove, who was a canon in Bruges at the time, mentions the Duvel’s Kut as a cairn that Tacitus would describe as the Pillars of Hercules. On top is a flat stone that, in Van Schoonhove’s idea, should have served as an altar stone. He writes that the stones are so large that they cannot have been brought in by chariots or ships. Quarries are lacking in the area. His explanation is that it must have been built by the demons.

The two dolmens near Rolde in the Netherlands, own photo, March 2022

There are stories that there was another dolmen near Rolde. It would have been located where the church is now. In 1961, under the direction of a pastor, the heart of the ship was marked with a dowsing rod as the place where this megalith would have been located, it would have been 7 by 2 meters in size. An overview drawing of the excavation in and around the church from 1961 shows large stones. Under the choir one found a packing of heather sods, it still had a thickness of 40 centimeters. Existing post holes and a pit gave the excavators an old impression of a prehistoric burial mound. Unfortunately, no publication of this excavation has appeared.

In addition to Rolde, the first churches in Drenthe were in Vries, Anloo, Emmen, Beilen and Diever. These six ‘primal parishes’ formed the basis of the administrative system of Drenthe for centuries. Initially, these were the places where the bishop of Utrecht, as lord of Drenthe, came to personally administer justice once every four years. There is a good chance that the locations were already important before the Christianization. Later, those old parishes became the six jurisdictions of Drenthe. They were called Dingspelen (jurisdiction of the Thing) in Drenthe. It is amazing that the two dolmens of Rolde have been preserved so close to the church. For Charlemagne issued an edict ordering the destruction of pre-Christian buildings.

Of the three times a year that the Etstoel (the highest court in the province of Drenthe) met, they met twice in the church of Rolde, which thus became the most important church in Drenthe. Meetings were held there on the second Monday after Easter (‘Zworen Monday’) and on the Tuesday after Pentecost. The third meeting was on August 19 in the church of Anloo. That day was the feast day of Saint Magnus, the saint to whom the Anlooër church was dedicated. Every year a sitting of the Etstoel is re-enacted with great interest on Sint Magnus.

According to tradition, the Ballerkuil is the place where the Etstoel held the Easter draw and people gathered here already in pre-Christian times. Drenthe’s first historian Picardt describes the site in 1660 as a pit, formerly located in the forest, once used as a meeting place, surrounded by seats made of earth. In 1895, on the occasion of the visit of Princess Wilhelmina and Queen Regent Emma to Drenthe, an ‘Old Germanic administration of justice’ was reenacted in the Ballerkuil. Partly because of this, the Ballerkuil became the symbol of old Drenthe and a tourist attraction. Today, science is convinced that the Ballerkuil, now designated as such, was not a medieval meeting place. Much more plausible is a pit south of Balloo, which has become invisible due to the Assen-Stadskanaal railway.

Remains of dolmen D10

The name Duvel’s Kut has fallen into disuse and has virtually been forgotten. According to Herman Clerinx it is not one of the dolmens near Rolde, but dolmen D10 (on the edge of the Gasterse Duinen). This hunebed was still called Duyffelskutte, ’s Duyvels Kut or De Kut van de Duivel during the Renaissance. Archaeologist Wijnand van der Sanden also argued that D10 corresponds better with the description.

Incidentally, Tacitus described the Pillars of Hercules as standing on either side of the Vlie, the then narrow watercourse from the Flevomeer (Lake Flevo) to the sea. Today, the Vlie describes the tidal inlet in the Wadden Sea, but in the early Middle Ages the sea area looked very different. The Vlie was therefore not in the same place as it is now when Tacitus wrote about it. And his description was not about his own perception of the columns, but that of Drusus Germanicus.

Map of Drusus’ campaign against the ‘Teutons’, 12-9 BC.

Drusus was appointed governor of Gaul by Emperor Augustus in 13 BC. He was given a double assignment, firstly to carry out a census with an assessment of the income of the population, and secondly to carry out an attack from the west on Germania from the Rhine. His brother Tiberius would cross the Danube from the south, and they would meet at the Elbe. At the end of the summer, Drusus sailed via Lake Flevo to the North Sea to the mouth of the Weser. He was helped in this by the Frisians, who, among other things, provided land cover. Drusus defeated the Bructeri at Burchana Island.

Burchana (Borkum) used to be the most important of the North Sea islands. It is mentioned in the 4th century as an amber island, under the name Abalus. However, it was too late in the season to make a landing, so Drusus decided to return to the winter camps on the Rhine. On this retreat his fleet ran into difficulties due to storms, but with the help of the Frisians he got his fleet back on track.

Tacitus also describes that Drusus Germanicus did not undertake further exploration for lack of courage. The ocean prevented him, and earlier Hercules who gave his name to the columns. Incidentally, the Romans more often gave names from their own mythology to the Gods that were revered in other cultures. In this way the readers could imagine what kind of gods were involved, but specific details of the gods were lost in this way. Tacitus compared Donar with Hercules, it is possible that the columns were connected to this deity by the Frisians. Also Jacob Grimm saw similarities between Donar and Hercules (and Thor, Jupiter or Diespiter). According to Grimm, Donar was later equated with the devil, which fits in with the demonization of pre-Christian deities.

With this description in mind, lying on either side of the Vlie, both the dolmens at Rolde and D10 would not be located where the Pillars of Hercules were according to Tacitus.

Although the dolmens at Rolde are impressive, I cannot imagine that they would have been described as Pillars of Hercules. The Romans had certainly seen larger megaliths. It seems more logical to me that this name only later became associated with the dolmens in Drenthe.

Het Vlie is the passage to the sea from the Flevomeer

Nowadays, the identification of the Pillars of Hercules with the dolmens in Drenthe is therefore rejected, people prefer to think of two rocks in the North Sea or the Atlantic Ocean, for example Helgoland. You can see ‘columns’ there, such as Lange Anna. The Pillars of Hercules are also located in the Mediterranean Sea, connecting this sea with the Atlantic Ocean. And there, too, these are natural formations, not man-made columns.

Lange Anna on Helgoland
The Rock of Gibraltar on the left in the background and the Monte Hacho on the right, the Pillars of Hercules connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean.

I prefer to stay on Dutch territory for this article. Can imposing stones be found near the North Sea in the Netherlands? I have to think about the story about the Engelse steen (English stone). The head of this stone could have been seen on the Hooge Berg or Hogeberg (High Mountain) on the island Texel. They had tried to find the lower part of this stone by digging deep around the stone, but they had found no end. The stone had sunk so far into the earth that it connected Texel, under the North Sea, with England, hence the name. It was a stone without end. Next to this place is a sand quarry, the Zandkuil (Sand pit).

An older name for this stone is Engelsteen (Angels Stone). Was the English Stone or Angels Stone, which today would lie under the Seven Pancakes, a pagan sacrificial stone? Mythical, magical or pagan powers are attributed to the Doolhof (Maze) on the Hogeberg. The Seven Pancakes is the name of a hill, this hill is also called Engelse Steen or Engelsteen. It has recently been restored. In the past, a stone would have stood here, later there was a ‘needle’ or ‘pyramid’ on the hill. The Seven Pancakes refers to the seven steps that lead to the top.

‘Bosch called Engelsteen on the island of Texel belonging to Mr G.W. Reinbach’, unsigned, undated. Drawing after 1794, after a construction before 1785

In 1764 Cornelis Roepel bought the area and turned it into a beautiful estate with a star forest and a pedestrian avenue. It had no previous owner, so it may have previously been uncultivated moorland. In 1784 it was sold to Mr Kikkert. He built a tavern and a small maze there. This maze disappeared over time and it became a forest. Pieter van Cuyck described the English Stone:

On the slope of that height which is called the High Mountain, towards the south, where there is a small plantation, lays a round, smooth, and brownish-reddish elongated boulder, which is called by the people the English stone; she protruded a little from the ground with her top, and thought the stupid vile that the foot of that boulder went as far as England; but when it was dug up and exposed, it was found to be a loose boulder, estimated to have weighed about twenty-five thousand pounds. At the bottom of that hill is a dug cove, which is called the Sand Pit, from which anyone can get sand for a little money. This hill, which we now come upon, bears the name of the English stone, of which stone or boulder was found on that hill, as also of the reason of its name, which I have already spoken of before.

Zeven Pannenkoeken, around 1900
Excavated field boulders in the Burghtkerk in Den Burg – municipality of Texel

At Pentecost it is Bossies Day. Then the Texel youth go to the site of the Doolhof. Every year on Third Whitsun, many Texel families, provided with the necessary delicacies, went to the forest. The adults made fun and the children played on the slopes of the Zandkuil. It was quite rough, with clumps of grass often flying through the air and parts of the slopes collapsing. An entrepreneur built a pavilion on the top edge of the pit. When the weather was good, the wealthy people of Texel drank a cup of tea there and let their children play in the pit. Bossiesdag was picked up again by the churches of Den Burg at the end of the twentieth century, now it takes place on Whit Sunday.

Nothing can be seen of the English Stone itself, but it used to protrude for a small part from the ground. The stone would still be (obliquely) under the hill. There are more boulders on Texel. The tower of the large church in Den Burg seems to stand on a foundation of boulders. Den Burg originated as a ring walburg in the early Middle Ages. This fortification was probably the basis of a Frisian king or warlord. The huge boulders found in 2020 during excavations in the Sixtus or Burghtkerk in Den Burg may have been used as foundations for a belfry in the period 900-1200. This is shown by research by the municipality of Texel.

The discovery of the five field boulders prompted an extensive archaeological investigation into the function of the boulders and the history of the church. The large boulders are immediately north of the current brick tower in the church, near the portal. In 1952, archaeologist Dr. Herre Halbertsma already excavated around the church. Based on his excavation work and the discovery of the field boulders, it appears that the current Burghkerk was built on a medieval mound, on an elevation of about 2.5 meters. The first wooden church was probably built on that mound. This place may have been a ‘fanum’: a ‘Frisian’ sanctuary before that time. It happened more often that a new shrine was placed on an old shrine. The stones found may therefore have been part of a pre-Christian sanctuary. Not many sources have survived from this time, but it seems that Christianity was not received very enthusiastically on the ‘Frisian’ Texel.

The ring wall with the church

In both Rolde and Den Burg, the church could have been built on a site that was already important in pre-Christian times. And in the Ballerkuil and Zandkuil people gathered for the people’s assembly. At the Ballerkuil this would have been on the second Monday after Easter (‘Zworenmaandag’ or ‘ Zworen Monday’), later this was moved to the church in Rolde (and later Assen became the place for the Etstoel). At the Zandkuil this was Third Whitsun Day, which has now been moved to Whitsun Day and still takes place in a different form.

In Europe, megaliths are often associated with the devil or other supernatural beings, such as fairies or Christianized variants (angels, saints). One explanation is that (part of) the local population continued to cling to the pre-Christian rituals at the megaliths during Christianization. The people who adhered to the “new” faith would have heard stories about devil worship. It was better to stay far away from these places, it was dangerous there. Sometimes the spots were destroyed or hidden from view. The places were deliberately demonized by ecclesiastical authorities, adherents of the old faith were persecuted. But sometimes it was not possible to keep the people away from the pre-Christian important places. The places and customs were in some cases assimilated, they got a Christian touch and are often still seen as important.

Women would become pregnant if they crawl back and forth through the devil’s eye in Mên-an-Tol seven times on a full moon, as can be read in the article about child stones. It is reminiscent of crawling through the small hole at the ‘Duvel’s Kut’. And at this hunebed advice was also asked about love. Was this advice sought from the devil? And were people really put to death here? Or is it about demonizing a pre-Christian custom?

Also, sitting on (or sliding on) megaliths could make a woman fertile, according to folklore. And women had to stand or sit on a stone if they (wanted to) get married, examples are given in the article marriages and megaliths. Would one have known this during the recent restoration of the Seven Pancakes, because a huge chair has been placed on the English Stone or Angel Stone…

Zeven Pannenkoeken, 2020

The devil is not only associated with megaliths in the Netherlands. In the devil and the dolmens at Vehrte, examples have already been given of devil stories that are linked to the megaliths in the area around Vehrte, in Germany. Megaliths are also linked to the devil in France, as some examples can already be read in dolmen and fairies in France. Also on the Iberian Peninsula it is sometimes the devil or a pagan Moor who built the megaliths. The Moors (or giants) easily threw huge stones at the Christians, but sometimes they helped to build a cathedral. And there are countless examples of the devil’s claws appearing in sacrificial stones. These were pressed into the stones when the devil threw them, examples can be found in stories about sacrificial stones and it sequel. Hercules also left its mark in the imposing columns. Although the exact location of these columns is unknown, this impression was recorded by Tacitus and they are still noticed some 2,000 years later.

Marinda Ruiter

Hercules walking with a large column over each shoulder, Albrecht Altdorfer, c. 1506 – 1538 (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam)

This is a translation of a Dutch article, sources can be found in that article: Duivel en engel, megalieten in Nederland


Vul alstublieft uw commentaar in!
Vul hier uw naam in

Deze site gebruikt Akismet om spam te verminderen. Bekijk hoe je reactie-gegevens worden verwerkt.