Megaliths are impressive remnants of a vanished culture. A lot of effort was put into erecting them, which indicates that they were important places. In some cases, megaliths were the only visible remnants of a culture that had already disappeared in the Bronze Age already. The existing megaliths were reused in the Bronze Age in many cases.
This also happened in Malta, the megaliths were used by the newcomers to bury their dead. This does not mean that the megaliths were originally intended as a burial ground. In the Bronze Age, the new arrivals also built new megalithic sites on top of the ancient temples in Malta, which has long caused confusion among archaeologists (see Place of the Giants; Megalithic Temples in Malta).
Reuse also occurred in other places; the dead were interred in the megalithic burial chamber or they were interred in the burial mound that was raised over the megalith. It also happened that burial grounds were built around ancient megaliths. The reuse of the megaliths continued for a long time, even in the Middle Ages (see also The (re)use of menhirs). Many stories are known about heroes or other notable persons who were buried in a megalith. Sometimes this is dismissed as nonsense, since the megaliths are much older than the time when these people lived. But being buried in a megalith does not mean that the structure was newly erected at that time.
A huge number of megaliths have since been demolished and in many cases they have completely disappeared. In other cases you can still see a hill, or some loose stones. Only with a lot of imagination, or through serious archaeological investigations, a megalith can still be recognized in those cases. Yet there are still an impressive amount of (still clearly recognizable remains of) megaliths to be found in Europe.
There are several reasons why megaliths were demolished. The megaliths stood in the way or building material was needed for a farm or other construction. It is known that the stones were used for the construction of churches and roads and when the shipworm came to Europe, they were used as dike reinforcement to protect against the sea. But the destruction of megaliths has not only had practical reasons.
Sometimes the megaliths were demolished – or knocked over and/or hidden underground – to obliterate the site that had been so important for generations. In this way, new rulers tried to break down the old power structures and to convert the population to the new faith. Not infrequently the megalith was a place where the assembly of the people took place, examples can be found in Megaliths in the moonlight. Feasts were celebrated and rituals performed at the megaliths. Destroying the cult places certainly did not always go without a fight. And sometimes it didn’t work out at all and (remnants of) the megaliths remained.
In some cases destruction proved simply impossible, the resistance of the population was simply too great. In many cases, the structures were then Christianised; they were absorbed into Christianity. Saints were attached to the stones, or a cross was erected near the megalith and the old rituals were (partially) replaced by Christian ones.
In many cases, however, traces of elements that are much older and have nothing to do with Christianity can still be recognized. Sometimes the pre-Christian symbols can still be seen, such as petrosomatoglyphs (an image of a part of the body of a human or animal in a stone, such as hands or feet), cupmarks or other petroglyphs.
It is known that the population certainly did not forget the old places in all cases as soon as they adopted the new faith. In many cases, before or after worship in the church, the group passed the megalithic site where covenants had been made for a long time (see Marriages and megaliths).
A cross was placed on or near megaliths to Christianize the pre-Christian cult site.
Le Landes de Cojoux is home to a remarkable prehistoric heritage. It consists of many megaliths. A notable one, of a great variety, is called the alignments de Cojoux (alignments of Cojoux). The alignments consist of 3 non-parallel rows that intersect at one point. They can be found near Saint-Just in the French department of Ille-et-Vilaine.
The megalithic constructions of the Croix Saint-Pierre are also located in Saint-Just. One of the stones is decorated with small round cavities carved into the stone (cups) and signs resembling the shapes of feet. The megaliths of the Croix Saint-Pierre take their name from the wooden cross that once stood near the complex, at the intersection of the path of Grée de Cojoux and that of the village of Poubreuil. A clear sign that it is a cult place that has been Christianized in the past.
Several megalithic structures can be found within the Croix Saint-Pierre. One of them is Le Tribunal (the tribunal). This name comes from the popular belief of an accused standing before his judges.
In reality, this monument seems intended to observe the sunsets during the solstices. According to J. Desmars, in 1869 there were at least six additional stones that disappeared during the construction of a road.
As early as 1864, A. Ramé described the Croix Saint-Pierre as a mound 16 meters long and 5.60 meters wide, decorated with a flat stone at the eastern end and a menhir at the western end. In a sketch by Pitre de Lisle (a Nantes scholar, archaeologist and first curator of the Dobrée Museum), published in 1864, the cross of Saint-Pierre stands against this menhir. Notes taken at the end of the 19th century indicate that the bearing stones were still present at that time, but they were later found in houses in the neighboring hamlet of Poubreuil.
There are more megaliths in Saint-Just. Legend has it that the Demoiselles de Cojoux, also known as the Roches Piqués, are two young girls who preferred to dance among the menhirs of the Landes de Cojoux rather than go to vespers (or evening prayers). They were turned to stone forever. The third stone, elongated, is said to be a young girl who has given birth to a baby. The fourth, smaller stone, would be the baby. Many stories are known about megaliths in which people who did not want to submit to the Christian faith (and in many cases continued to dance) were turned into stone as punishment, see also Petrification.
Another impressive megalith in Saint-Just is Château-Bû. This megalith was founded around 3500 BC. It was a dolmen that was only later (1700 BC) completely covered by a tumulus, in which individual graves were added. According to legend, a young girl was sacrificed every year, others say it was an ox. Bû would mean “beef”.
Sometimes people went further than placing a cross at a megalithic site. It also happens that a chapel or church was built on the site. Sometimes the megaliths were smashed and these stones were used to build the walls, such as the tower of the Pancratius Church in Emmen (the Netherlands). The bottom of this tower is built with hunebed chunks. According to the Nieuwe Drentsche Volksalmanak, a church was founded on the current site as early as the year 780. It was a wooden chapel “founded on the separation of forest and marsh, where the Germanic fathers had their sacrificial altar”.
There is also said to have been a hunebed on the site of the Jacobuskerk van Rolde, two hunebeds can still be found nearby. They are on the other side of the cemetery which can be found at this church. In other cases, the megalith was not crushed, but the stones formed the foundation of the house of worship.
The megalith did not always disappear when Christian structures were erected on the site. For example, La Hougue Bie is still under the burial mound on which the chapel was built and megaliths are known that have been transformed into a chapel or church. Not only dolmens were Christianized by placing a cross. Menhirs have also been decorated with Christian symbols in the past, sometimes they were transformed into crucifixes.
Not only Saints were associated with the megaliths, sometimes it was the devil. There is a legend about the Maiden Stone; a stone with both Pictish and Christian symbols (such as a Celtic cross) in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Legend says that the daughter of the Laird of Balquhain made a bet with a stranger. She thought she could bake a bannock (bread or cake, often baked on a stone) faster than he could build a road to the top of Bennachie. If the stranger won, the girl’s hand would be given to him.
However, the stranger was the devil and he finished the road in time and claimed the forfeit. The girl ran away from the devil and prayed to be saved. Legend has it that God turned her to stone, the notch in the stone is where the devil grabbed her shoulder as she ran away.
Petrification also plays a role in le jardin aux Moines, also known as jardin des Tombes. Although this dolmen is located in the forest of Paimpont, the site has not been associated with Arthurian legend like many other megalithic sites in the area (see King Arthur and megaliths and King Arthur and Stonehenge). The legend about these dolmen in France says that in the past the lords and monks of the region used to spend their time partying. One day Saint Méen surprised them on the moor and called them to confession and to stop their orgies, but they did not heed his warning. The divine punishment did not last long, they were immediately turned into stones at the place of their sin.
Saint Méen was born about 540 AD east of the Kingdom of Morgannwg, now County of Gwent in Wales. There are more megaliths associated with this saint, such as the menhir of Grès Saint-Méen. It is located in Talensac (Ille-et-Vilaine): according to legend, Saint Méen built the town of Talensac. Two stories exist about this legend.
The first version tells that Saint Méen was traveling with his disciples and that he saw a hill, covered with vegetation, near the banks of the Meu. He liked the landscape and he decided to stay at this place for a few days. After crossing a ford, he (throwing the ax he held in his hand) said to his monks: “Where this ax will fall, Meen will build”. And the ax fell where the current church of Talensac stands. Saint Méen then kept his word and, with the help of his companions, cleared a space large enough to build a chapel and some shelters for him and his apostles. He then preached the good word to the Gentiles around. A certain number of people listened to his voice and settled around the chapel. According to this first version, Talensac has been developed that way.
The second version reports that the “Grès Saint-Méen” was a kind of inverted menhir with traces of cup-markings on the top. In the 6th century, after sharpening his ax on this stone, Saint Méen is said to have said to these pupils: “Where this ax will fall, Méen will build. He then built the church of Talensac, 1200 meters away, where the ax fell. According to this version, the stone served as an altar table for the sacrifice of human victims. Saint-Méen is said to have been attacked there by one of these former disciples. He manages to avoid the blows of his unfaithful apostle. But the latter in his violence struck the stone that fell on him and he was crushed. It is even said that his body is still under the stone.
In Portugal, a dolmen converted into a chapel is called an ‘anta capella’ (dolmen chapel). In many cases, this dolmen forms the center of the village. Dolmen, which nowadays serve as a Christian chapel (chapelle), are also known in France. In the dolmen chapel ‘Dolmen Chapelle des Sept-Saints’ are the Dormouse of Ephesus. These are martyrs from a Christian legend and they are also mentioned in the Qur’an. In Islam they are known as the Companions of the Cave.
It is said that the seven statues that stand on the altar today were found during the excavation of the dolmen. The legend originated probably around 500 AD. as a literary legend. Stories with the same motif are very widespread and pre-Christian origins are suspected. Nothing of the dolmen can be seen on the outside of the church at ‘Dolmen Chapelle des Sept-Saints’, but the large stones around the Dormouse are still clearly recognizable.
The Dolmen de la Madeleine (also called the Dolmen de Sainte-Madeleine) is a Christianized megalithic monument converted into a chapel on the island of Saint-Germain. The original dolmen (probably an Anjou dolmen) stood in a now unknown location and was converted into a cemetery chapel in the Middle Ages (a medieval burial was found in 1878). The dolmen was called Tombeau de la Dame, Pierre-Madeleine, Pierre Couvreau and Chapelle-dolmen du petit Lessac.
A striking story about a dolmen can be found in France: a dolmen was found in Aizier and demolished shortly afterwards. For a long time this dolmen was hidden next to the church ‘l’église Saint-Pierre’ in the department of Eure in France. When they wanted to build a street, they encountered the large stones at a depth of 2 meters. After the discovery, the construction of the street continued as usual. The stone with Seelenloch (Soul Hole, 47 cm.) is the only remnant of the allée couverte d’Aizier. This stone was also removed and only much later found in a ditch, after which the stone was placed back near its original location. The perforated plate, which would have served as a partition wall in the corridor, is 1.8 meters wide and 1.5 meters high, which gives us the dimensions of the corridor.
Around 1878, when digging the foundations of a house nearby, skulls were discovered under large stones. In the absence of thorough research, no one knows whether these came from the missing Neolithic tomb or from the graveyard of the nearby church.
Is the allée couverte d’Aizier an example of a successful attempt to obliterate the pre-Christian structure? The dolmen was right next to a church with a graveyard. One can imagine that the church was not built here by chance, but precisely to Christianize the pre-Christian place. Centuries later, the memory of the dolmen has disappeared and it was an ‘ordinary hill’ next to the church, where a new street should be built. The dolmen was discovered by chance when people wanted to build this street.
Sometimes the very name points to a pre-Christian place. Like at les tertres tumulaires de la Gaudinais or also called Pillons Garougneaux. The origin of the word garougnaux is said to be derived from the word “wolf ware”. According to Yves Cariou, the location was where “the members of this marauding and magical sect of werewolves, the robbers of lonely travelers returning from carnivals, met to perform their secret rites”. Here too there is a story related to petrification. The megalith consists of 29 standing stones which, according to legend, are petrified maidens. They were turned to stone as punishment for dancing on a Sunday instead of going to vespers.
Megaliths were destroyed all over Europe and if this failed, in some cases an attempt was made to Christianize and/or hide the pre-Christian sites. The pre-Christian stones are still venerated in Christianity.
Stories about devils were linked to megalithic sites during Christianization. The gods that were worshiped before Christianity arrived were demonized by the church.
In this way people tried to keep the population away from the pre-Christian sanctuaries, sometimes this succeeded but this also had the opposite effect. Although people stayed away from the location where disaster awaited for a long time, the megalithic sites remained in many cases. And in several cases, the location was passed on through folk tales. A mysterious place where underground bells can be heard, places where hidden treasures can be found, places where mysterious apparitions occur. Fairies, gnomes or other mythical creatures can be found here. Often they protect the treasure and punish the people who are not worthy of the treasure. Archaeologists not infrequently find a megalithic (or other ancient) site at these kinds of locations that are mentioned in folk tales.
Nowadays people are no longer afraid of these places. Stories about mysterious apparitions are often dismissed as nonsense or children’s stories. Yet there are people who still pay homage, offerings are still made. In modern times, interest in the megalithic sites seems to be on the rise. More and more megalithic routes are emerging that are specially designed for tourists and scientific research is revealing more and more about the structures that were Christianized, demonized, hidden and demolished.
This is a translation of a Dutch article, sources can be found in that article: Gekerstende stenen