The (re)use of menhirs

Er Grah (the great menhir of Brisé) stood in a row of 19 huge menhirs were founded in Brittany, dating back to 4500 BC.

Menhirs are standing stones. They are the subject of various folktales. The name menhir comes from Breton: men means ‘stone’ and hir means ‘high’. In Germany and Scandinavia the term Bauta or Bautastein is used for these standing stones. In Sweden, the term rest sten is known, which means ‘erected stone’.

Some menhirs are only a meter high, but much larger ones can also be found. They are widely distributed across Europe, Africa and Asia, but are most numerous in Western Europe; especially in Ireland, Great Britain and Brittany. There are no known menhirs in the Netherlands, but that does not necessarily mean that menhirs have never been here.

Sometimes menhirs stand on their own and then they are also called ‘monolith’. Where menhirs appear in groups – often in a circular, oval, henge or horseshoe formation – they are referred to as megalithic monuments. These are places of ancient religious ceremonies, sometimes with burial chambers in the formation. The exact function of menhirs has generated more debate than any other issue in European prehistory. Often they are seen as memorials to the dead, with symbolic significance as a means of worshiping ancestral spirits.

Menhirs and dakon stones, Ciaruteun, West Java. In Java, the term “dakon stone” refers to cupmarked stones from the Bronze-Iron Age period of Indonesia. These dakon stones have rows of 4 or 5 cup-shaped holes (called “cups” in archaeology) and two holes at each end, a formation much in common with that of congklak (game). These prehistoric dakon stones are not related to the game and were probably used in ceremonies to propitiate ancestors.

Recent research into the age of megaliths in Brittany suggests a very ancient origin, perhaps six to seven thousand years ago. But there are also many younger menhirs to be found. There are also nations where menhirs are still erected and rituals are performed at the standing stones, such as in Indonesia. In Indonesia menhirs were already erected in the Neolithic age. For thousands of years, the practice of erecting stones has persisted, but it is unknown whether the significance attributed to erecting the stones has remained the same over the years. Nowadays, among the Toraja on Celebes, a stone is added to the place of sacrifice at every feast of the dead and the water buffaloes to be sacrificed are tied to it.

In addition to memorial stones and ancestor worship, menhirs are associated with astronomy, among other things. Stone circles are said to be used to observe the sky, the collection of standing stones is a kind of sun temple and the megaliths have a calendar function. But other celestial objects can also be tracked, such as the moon. Some menhirs are set up next to buildings that often have early or current religious significance.

Menhirs are still being erected in Indonesia. The rante is the area where the feast of the dead is held. On the rante, a menhir, called a simbuang, is erected for every dead person. Collection of the National Museum of World Cultures Foundation, 1983
Reclining statue menhirs from the Neolithic era of Gunungkidul found near a tombstone believed to symbolize the deceased. Location: Bleberan Site, Playen, Southeast Yogyakarta.

Around 1230 AD, the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson wrote in the Heimskringla about a famous person: “…and he was buried, and a Bauta was erected to him.” It is described as the custom “to burn all the dead and to erect memorial stones after them” and that this custom was long maintained in Norway and Sweden. In Bald’rs Stone more is told about the Balderstein. This particular Bauta stone is 7.8 meters high and 1.25 meters wide and is said to be Norway’s tallest monumental stone. The stone has no inscriptions, but probably originates from the Iron Age as it stands on the remains of a burial mound from the period 500-800. The accounts of Baldr’s death are found fragmentarily in the Poetic Edda and at length in the Prose Edda and in the Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus.

In 2022, a total of 1,509 monumental stones were registered in Norway. They mostly date from the late Iron Age, Viking Age and early Middle Ages. In Denmark, the Bautasteinen are usually associated with graves, but also with places of worship. The word bauta is derived from Norse bautaðr or bautuðr and may be associated with the verb to hit or kill. Bauta stones are precursors of rune stones, usually with at least one flat side. During the Iron Age, around the 4th century AD, memorial stones were engraved with runes. According to the first reading, a Bautastein initially symbolized fertility and later became a memorial stone for a deceased person. Some phallic carved stones have been found, for example those from Steinkjer in Norway.

Johann Daniel Major writes in 1692 that the Bauta stones used to be erected around all burial mounds. Pastor Troels Arnkiel writes in 1703 “At these pagan burial mounds and mountains, the great stones stood as pillars, which was done in memory of the dead. It is a pity that these tombstones have been removed in many places and turned into the walls of churches, castles, farms, stone fences and graveyard walls. Hence many barrows and mountains in the field stand naked and bare, and are devoid of their accompanying stone circles and wreaths.”

Johann Friedrich Camerer also describes the “pagan old stones” in 1756. Camerer saw a Bauta stone and drew it on Sylt. He also saw several stones in the areas around Pöschendorf. Camerer mentions that Johannes Schefferus (1621-1679) translated the word “Bauta” with “blood”, “because these bloodstones are erected in honor of those who shed their blood in war”.

Bauta stones are also seen as border separations. However, the Hávamál refers to the Bauta stones:

shaldan bautarsteinar
standa brautu naer,
nema reisi niðr at nið.

Bauta stones are rare
near the road
unless a kinsman sets them up for the kinsmen.

This means that the stones have probably changed their function. They lost their original meaning, and the text suggests that they no longer had any (in our sense) religious significance. This change is believed to date back to Christian influence, where tombstones with inscriptions were already common.

A “Steinsetting” is a collective term for prehistoric monuments consisting of raised stones that form round, square or oval circles. Round stone formations are the most common type and occur from the Bronze Age to the Viking Age. In Norway, the round shapes are also called tingsteiner (thing stones, a thing is a people’s assembly) and in Swedish, round structures are known as domarringer. A variant, usually called “fried egg”, with a pebble filling similar to an egg yolk in the center of the stone setting, usually belongs to the older Iron Age.

Square shapes are most common during the older Iron Age. Rectangular shapes are common in the late Viking Age – mostly skeletal tombs and Christian burials are found here. A Treudd or Treuddar is a more unusual shape, an equilateral triangle with curved sides, which mainly occurs during the Roman Iron Age in Småland, for example, and during the Vendel and Viking Ages in Mälardalen.

Map of the treudd in Lyngsta, Svealand (Zweden)
Cemetery with 110 ancient structures, which consist of various stone settings, stone ships, treudds, rows of stones and standing stones. Illustration from Nils Henrik Sjöborg’s (1767-1838) Samlingar för Nordens fornälskare
Cemetery in Sweden, consisting of 169 old structures: rösen, treudds and stone settings in various forms. In the background is the Lenhovda homestead.

Some Steinsettingen are built in the shape of a ship, this is called a stone ship. About 2000 stone ships are known, mainly in the Baltic Sea area. There are some in Estonia and Latvia (called Velna laiva, “devil’s boat” there), in Germany, Finland (on the Åland Islands), in Iceland (Mosfellsbær), in Norway and in Russia. They are most common in Denmark and Sweden. The largest is 354 meters long and is located near Jelling (once the Viking capital of Denmark). The stone ship is no longer visible in the landscape and it is possible that many stones have been reused for other purposes over the years.

Burial mounds have been raised over parts of the stone ship, the stone ship was probably erected by King Gorm the Elder. Gorm united all of Denmark under his authority and ruled in Jelling. He died ca. 950 and was buried in a burial mound in Jelling. His son Harald I of Denmark converted to Christianity a short time later. He built a church in Jelling and had his parents reburied there. The wood of Gorm’s coffin in that church is dated to 958, but that probably gives the date of the reburial, not Gorm’s death.

Stoneships symbolize the ship that has to take the deceased to the realm of the dead. They not only form the boundaries of the graves, but were also part of the grave cult at the time. Stone ships are often found in connection with burial mounds and rune stones, also called the “combination of three”. Swedish researcher Joakim Wehlin has suggested that at least some of the shipwrecks would have been marketplaces rather than graves, and bronze in particular would have been traded through these sites.

Klebæk Høje seen from the eastern hill. This site contains two Bronze Age burial mounds and a Viking Age ship with a six-foot runestone in the bow. Of the original 60 stones that once formed the magnificent 150-foot stone ship, only nine remain. The missing stones are marked with steel plates to show the original shape of the ship.

The structures in different forms regularly occur at a short distance from each other, for example at Istrehågan in Norway. This is a cemetery from the Roman Iron Age (400-500 AD, around 500 was the migration period in which mass migrations took place within Europe) and was used until about 600. Istrehågan is located at Jåberg in Vestfold. It contains three stone circles and two stone ships.

Ship 1 at Istrehågan consists of seven (about a meter high, unusually placed next to each other) stone slabs that form a ship shape about 10 meters long and 2 meters wide. Ship 2 consists of 18 (up to four meters high) stones standing on a two meter wide lower stone packing, forming a stone ship about 25 meters long and nine meters wide. The stones on the middle part of the long sides consist of round monoliths of low height. A pit was found in the middle of the ship where the cremation took place. The circles are 5, 9 and 11 meters in diameter. Istrehågan is considered one of Norway’s finest cultural monuments of its kind. What the name means is uncertain, but Istra is a stream in the area.

Istrehågan, aerial photo 1973, Vestfold Museums

Right: Istrehågan; ship 1 in the foreground with ship 2 behind it

There are countless folk tales associated with places with menhirs. According to many people, the Bautasteen at Strangelshøj turns when it smells like freshly baked bread. This folk belief is widespread in Denmark. The same story is told, for example, about the Spejdersten boulder, the largest stone on the island of Falster. Bread is more often associated with megaliths, examples can be found in Dolmen and fairies in France, The devil and dolmens at Vehrte, Who built the megaliths on the Iberian peninsula?, Stories about sacrificial stones – 2 and Petrification. The self-turning of a stone also occurs in various stories about megaliths, see Moving stones and spinsters.

West of the village of Wolfshagen, near the picturesque Stepenitzv in Germany, lies a place full of old legends. An important bronze age cult and cemetery is located on the Teufelsberg. A double stone circle, about seven meters in diameter, was discovered during excavations in the 1930s on the same site as an older Ustrine (cremation ground). In the immediate vicinity are shallow cremation graves of various shapes, often framed with stones. Considered unique to the Prignitz district, they are an intermediate form of the burial mounds richly filled with funerary objects, such as the king’s tomb in neighboring Seddin, and flat graves of simple farmers.

Long before the excavations, folk tales were associated with the Teufelsberg. A farmer from Wolfshagen met a stranger who asked him to carry him to Seddin for a rich reward. Although the load became heavier and heavier, the farmer performed this task. When the farmer dropped the stranger with Seddin, the latter told him to go back to the place where he picked him up. If he were to dig there, he would find a great treasure that he would have to bring home without saying a word. The farmer went digging on the Teufelsberg (devil’s mountain) and let out a cry of surprise when he found the treasure, after which it immediately disappeared. A mound arose on the spot where the farmer had dug.

Farmers in the area say they have often noticed a mysterious, terrifying glow of fire on the Teufelsberg between 12 and 1 am. There is also a story in which a farmer transported a stranger by horse and cart, later discovering that they had flown. He had dropped his whip because it got stuck on a branch during the ride. The farmer found his whip at the highest point of an old large oak tree, which stood on a hill. The box he received as compensation for the journey seemed to be full of manure. But gold pieces rolled out and then the farmer understood that he had transported the devil with his chariot. The hill with the oak was then called Teufelsberg. It often happens that important places were associated with the devil during Christianization.

It also happens that these pre-Christian places were associated with biblical stories or saints. For example, there is a story in Norway about a place called De fem dårlige jomfruer (the five bad virgins): Saint Olav once traveled from the north to the royal estate in Avaldsnes. As he passed Salhusstraumen, he saw five young girls standing on the beach. They called out to him and wanted him to come ashore with them. But the king yelled back that they could just wait there in all their shamelessness. Then the girls turned to stone and ever since they have stood and watched Avaldsnes and waited for the king. The story refers to the account in the Gospel of Matthew: the parable of the five good and five bad virgins.

Today only the stones are still visible at De fem dårlige jomfruer, but in 1825 it became clear that they were in a cemetery. It was a treudd; the aforementioned triangular burial mound with curved sides. There was a stone placed in each corner of the hill, and two in the middle. The mound itself has disappeared through cultivation, but the stones have been left alone. In 1901, a rock formation was found just west of, and below, the two center stones. It turned out to contain a grave; in an open space between the stones lay a bronze vessel imported from the Rhineland. The deceased was wrapped in a bearskin and cremated. The ashes were then wrapped in cloth and placed in the vessel.

The five bad virgins
Menhirs at Villa de Leyva, Colombia

An astronomical connection with menhirs is often suspected, it also occurs in America. Near Villa de Leyva, 25 large cylindrical menhirs can still be found, placed in an east-west direction. These stones were used in astronomical observations and religious ceremonies, and probably acted as a large sundial. This place, called “the little hell” by the Spanish colonizing power, consists of rows of erected menhirs that cast a direct shadow during the June and December solstices. El Infiernito, just outside Villa de Leyva, is one of the few tangible remnants of the astronomical knowledge of the Muisca culture.

In Europe, too, various menhirs are associated with astronomical observations and astronomical events. Well-known is the Heelstone at Stonehenge, for example. The orientation of this menhir is such that on the morning of Midsummer’s Day, the day when the sun rises furthest to the northeast, the sun is directly overhead of the Heelstone. The meaning of the long shadow that the Heelstone casts on this occasion, among other things, on the altar stone, the foot of the blue stones and the sarsen horseshoe during sunrise is not known.

The Heel Stone is a large block of sarsen stone located in the Avenue outside the entrance to Stonehenge. In cross-section, the stone has a minimum thickness of 2.4 meters. The stone is about 4.7 meters high and has a tapered top. Excavations have shown that another 1.2 meters is buried in the ground. The Heelstone stands 77.4 meters from the center of the Stonehenge circle. The stone leans to the southwest, almost 27 degrees from the vertical.

Overview of Stonehenge, with Avenue and Heelstone

Myths and legends about the devil hitting a “Friar’s Heel” (heel of a brother) with a stone led to the name; Heel Stone. It is also claimed that “Friar’s Heel” is a corruption of “Freyja’s He-ol” or “Freyja Sul”, which refers to the Norse goddess Freyja and the Welsh words for “road” and “Sunday” respectively. More information about the construction of Stonehenge can be found in King Arthur and Stonehenge.

The Erdmanlistein is part of a complex with various megaliths, including several menhirs

East of the Erdmannlistein in Switzerland, a free-standing, 2-meter-wide tooth-shaped stone can be found. To the south is a flat stone that probably once stood upright. Near the northern base stone is a menhir-like stone. 21 meters away, in a northwesterly direction, is another stone, 3 meters long, believed to be a menhir. Also on the other side, 28 meters southeast, is a low stone. There is a relationship with regard to the position of the sun. The Erdmannli and Bettlerstein in Aargau, with a variety of other stones in the area, may have formed an ancient calendar system. The name of the Bettlerstein is said to derive from the fact that beggars, outcasts and travelers used to camp and seek shelter under the protruding stone roof.

Folktales are also connected with this place. Many years ago goblins made their home among the Erdmannlistein. The little men were very reliable and did all kinds of dances and jumps. They gratefully accepted herbs, cabbage and turnips as rewards. They got along well with people until two young boys came up with the idea of ​​playing a trick on the little ones. She threw stones into their cave. Then you heard a whimper and groan. Since then, they have disappeared without a trace. There is a legend that the Erdmannli would reappear if someone ran around the Erdmannlistein seven times with bated breath.

This Erdmannlistein is a Chindlistein, Kindlistein, Poppelistein or Tittistein. Here the midwife gets the newborns. Certain Chindlistesteine ​​(for example, those from Heiden and Hüttikon) are associated with female fertility rituals. Women are supposed to “slide bare-bottomed over the Chindlistein to increase their fertility and fulfill their desire to have children”. It is also said that “during famines and times of war, children were hidden by the stone”. Similar stones can be found in many places, see the article about Child stones for examples.

In recent centuries, menhirs have been deliberately destroyed. The standing stones were knocked down and in several cases buried, so that they disappeared from memory. Menhirs were also reused. In recent centuries, for example, the stones were used as building material for buildings and bridges, but reuse also happened in Antiquity. Some menhirs were broken and incorporated into later dolmen. This happened, for example, on the Iberian Peninsula. It is not known whether this reuse was intentional or whether the tomb builders of the dolmens simply saw the menhirs as a convenient source of stone.

The menhir de la Fuente de Abajo in Valencia del Ventoso-Badajoz is no longer a standing stone. The stone is nowadays reused as a drinking trough for horses. The (now hollowed-out stone) is filled with water from the adjacent fountain.

Menhir de la Fuente de Abajo
Part of the Grand Menhir Brisé forms the capstone of the Table des Marchand
The capstone of the Table des Marchands with megalithic art comes from the Grand Menhir Brisé, the keystone is also decorated

The capstone of the Table des Marchands with megalithic art comes from the Grand Menhir Brisé, the keystone is also decorated
The first image in this article is the Grand Menhir Brisé (the great broken menhir) in the alignment of 19 menhirs (of which this standing stone was once the largest). It is the largest known menhir in the world, it was built around 4500 BC. set up. The stone was worked (the surface was smoothed, as evidenced by quartz impact marks). Processing was done after the stone was erected: the plinth, which was embedded in the ground, shows no traces of processing.

According to Professor Alexander Thom, the site may have served as a lunar marker, which allowed people of the era to calculate the 18.6-year lunar cycle by looking at the stones from surrounding positions. In addition, Thom predicted the location of several archaeological sites from his hypothesis.

Grand Menhir Brisé

The Grand Menhir Brisé is also called Er Grah or Men ar hroëc’h (which means “Stone of the Fairy” in Breton). There are countless megaliths associated with fairies, see Dolmen and fairies in France. About 200-300 years after the stone was erected, the menhir toppled. Whether this was done by human hands or by an earthquake is still unclear. When the stone fell, it broke into four parts. Part of this menhir later became the capstone of the Table des Marchand. This dolmen in its reconstructed state is undoubtedly one of the most imposing megaliths in Europe. The reuse of destroyed older menhirs points to a – possibly drastic – cultural-religious change in the period around 4000 BC.

In Prussia, southern Russia, Ukraine, southern Siberia, Central Asia and Mongolia, the kurgan stele or balbal occurs. These statues are placed on or around kurgans (a type of burial mound), sometimes in a double row leading up to a kurgan. The oldest Kurgan stelae found, from the 4th millennium BC, are associated with the Jamna culture and Kemi-Oba culture. These early stones show clear similarities with the statue menhirs of southern France and the western Mediterranean. Many kurgans have been destroyed or used as building material.

Standing stones are found all over the world. They sometimes have different names. Much is known about it, but many questions remain unanswered. In many cases they have been moved, destroyed or reused. But many stones are still standing. I enjoy reading the folk tales associated with these megaliths. And I follow with interest the scientific studies that are still being carried out. Who knows what else will be discovered about these places. Will people dig like in the folk tales? Would the treasure disappear if one speaks of this? Would one remain silent to preserve the treasure? Maybe the earth will turn into something as valuable as gold, if you really see what’s out there.

Marinda Ruiter

Scythian Salbyk kurgan, 5th to 4th century BC, surrounded by balbals with kurgan obelisk on top. Photographed before the excavation of the kurgan, early 20th century, Siberia

This is a translation of a Dutch article, sources can be found in that article: Het (her)gebruik van menhirs


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