I was looking through my pics in iphoto earlier this week, and came across this one, taken on the island of Gozo a couple of summers ago. It’s rather a forlorn pic, I think! A once-sacred standing stone hemmed in by modern buildings.
Actually no one is sure whether this is a standing stone. It could have been part of a megalithic temple that has been ransacked over time. Fragments of lamps and weapons were found in the area, suggesting that those houses have been built over the site of a sacred complex, or at least a commercial and/or cultural meeting point for the island’s first inhabitants.
Standing stones, sometimes called monoliths or menhir, from the French for men+long, can be found in Europe, Asia and parts of Africa. But the biggest cluster is in Western Europe, where some 50,000 stones are believed to have stood, 10,000 of which remain. Many of them were carved with symbols, probably representing tools and talismans. Nearly all have weathered so severely it is almost impossible to decipher the artwork. What the function of standing stones was has perplexed experts for centuries.
One theory has it that they were altars for human sacrifice used by druids. Of course, that does not explain the reason for standing stones outside areas associated with Celtic culture and religion. Others insist they were parts of calendars, or even as land markers or prehistorical earthquake detectors. Whatever their original use was, by the middle ages, they had gone down in folklore as the work of giants who inhabited the world until Noah’s flood.
|The baptism of Cornelius|
The largest collection of standing stones in the world can be found outside the village of Carnac in Brittany. It boasts around 3000 menhirs. They stand in almost perfect lines and have been there at least 3000 years, possibly 4500. A local legend about them disregards the date. It is said the stones were originally a Roman legion pursuing Saint Cornelius. He was a centurion of the Cohors II Italica Civium Romanorum who converted to Christianity. Pursued by soldiers intent on harming him for refusing to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods, he turned them into stones. A similar French legend has Merlin casting a petrifying curse on the hapless soldiers. The idea of men being turned into stone is, of course, common to many strands of storytelling. The Medusa of of Greek mythology springs to mind, as does Kaschei the Deathless, who’s the supreme baddie in Stravinsky’s Firebird.
Possibly the largest standing stone in the world is the Dol de Breton, which stands on the border between Normandy and Brittany. Standing at around 9.5 metres it is certainly the largest in France. It too inspired a French legend. Local storytellers had it that two brothers started a war between them. So much blood was shed, the sky dopped a stone amidst the carnage. To this very day, the menhir sinks a little lower into the ground every time someone dies. When it is completely buried, the world will come to an end. Not the cheeriest of tales, but then these mysterious boulders, often covered in lichen and scarred by the elements, must have filled anyone who approached them with a sense of dread and foreboding.
|Kaschei the Deathless|
The hemmed-in menhir in Gozo too has its own story. Legend has it that a giant’s daughter used to grow beans in a field nearby. They were the source of her immense strength, and she wanted to make sure no one pinched any. So she dragged an enormous boulder out of the sea, hoisted it to her shoulder and set it down in her field, to be used as a stool from where she could keep a lookout for thieves. One summer, though, there was a drought and the bean harvest failed. The giantess began to shrink. Visibly! The locals, eager to pay her back for insinuating they were thieves, made fun of her. ‘Try and lift the stone now, you wretch,’ they taunted.
One night, the giant’s daughter simply upped and disappeared. No one had any idea where she went. Some say that she crawled into a cave to die in peace. Others maintained that she was just sleeping somewhere, waiting for a good bean harvest when she wake and return to sit on her enormous stone again. If she ever does, I’m sure she’d tear down those horrible new buildings. They are sitting on top of what might turn out to be important archeological remains….