Stories In the Stones

Imagine standing on a wide plain, barren but for a series of strategically placed stone slabs stretching slender fingers vertically into the heavens. These monoliths and circles are plentiful in the lands of the ancient Celts, and still hold the power of mystery and magic over those who see them today. We stare at them in amazement, speculating what their purpose was to those who built them. Did they marvel at the size of them and question how the stones came to be there? Did the Celts move them to these places themselves? Did the stones and their placement have any significance or are these ideas merely fantasies of modern minds seeking the magic of the past? For as many people as have stared at the circles, monoliths, megaliths, and standing stones of the Celtic nations, there are as many stories of how the monuments came to be and of the magic contained in them.

In Wales, the standing stones are known as menhirs. To the east of Cefn Bugail, an ancient monolith rests adjacent to the Roman road from Gelligaer. A treasure is rumored to have been buried beneath the solitary column, and a legend is oft told of a farmer who tried to unearth it. As he did this, a storm arose, causing the man to flee. The stone was bent slightly thereafter. Another Welsh monument is Maen Llila, on the road from Heol Senni to Ystradfellte. A legend imparts that at the first crow of a rooster, the stone wanders to the River Nedd to quench its thirst; another story asserts that the stone travels to the River Mellte on the morning of the summer solstice. In Norfolk, two little boulders supposedly get up and run to the other side of the road at sunrise, and a rock at Caldecote hies away at precisely midnight, which is the same time that the Plague Stone roams the land around Brome Hall and two stone orbs rotate atop a 17th century gateway at Parham.

In the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, an interesting rite developed around three stone monuments: the Temple of the Moon, the Temple of the Sun, and Woden's Stone. On the vernal equinox, groups of eligible men and women would gather around these temples in an attempt to find a suitable spouse. When a couple decided that they were meant to be together as husband and wife, they would leave the rest of the group behind and go to the Temple of the Moon. There, the woman would kneel and pray to Woden that she would be a dutiful and faithful wife. Her vows completed, the couple would hasten to the Temple of the Sun, where the man would pray in the same fashion that he would be a good provider and faithful husband. Finally, the newly wedded couple would go to Woden's stone, and, while standing on opposite sides of the stone, would hold of each other's hand through the hole in the center, and reaffirm their vows to one another.

How many times have you wished that someone who had angered you would turn into stone? According to many legends, that is exactly what happened to certain individuals who were irreverent on sacred ground. The tale of the Merry Maidens in Cornwall is a well-known legend that tells of around twenty maidens who were dancing to the happy strains of some tune played by a pair of bagpipers. As this frolicking happened to occur on a Sunday, the punishment for their disrespect was to be turned to stone. The Merry Maidens were frozen in place in the shape of a circle. The pipers stand apart from the Maidens not far away. In England, the stones at Rollright, Oxfordshire are said to have been a commander and his troops who angered a sorcerer.

Several legends, including one of the few relating to Stonehenge, attach significance to monoliths by invoking the icon of King Arthur. In Cornwall, on the boundary of the Gossmoor, rests "King Arthur's Stone." According to myth, Arthur's horse created the horseshoe-shaped marks on the stone. Another legend credits Arthur with the construction of Stonehenge. In this story, it was Merlin who brought the stones from Ireland to Salisbury Plain. After some 500 British noblemen were massacred, Merlin suggested to King Aurelius Ambrosius that the Giant's Ring in Ireland be moved to England. Using Merlin's magic, the Giant's Ring was dismantled, sent to England, and reconstructed in the previous pattern of a great circle, enclosing the graves of the noblemen. In the "Heelstone" legend, the devil built Stonehenge, using stones from Ireland, and used his magic to transport them to their current spot on the Salisbury Plain. He then challenged the villagers to count all the stones. A local friar took up the gauntlet and replied, "more than can be told." The devil became angry upon hearing the correct response and hurled a stone at the friar. The friar kicked at the missile, bouncing it off of his heel and denting the stone.

The numerous tales involving the origins of the Celtic monoliths and circles only prove that the ancient Celtic people were as enthralled with the stones as we are today. While we tend to think that the ancient peoples of the Celtic Nations were building astronomical calendars and clocks with the stones-and they very well may have been-the fact remains that the Celts had as many theories as we do about the mysterious megaliths… nearly as many stories as there are Celtic ghosts.