Large stone structures and groups of standing
stones erected in places around the world and
believed to have religious or sacred significance or be
associated with pagan rites. The term megaliths means
“great stones” and is derived from the Greek megas
(“great”) and lithos (“stone”). Megaliths include any
structure made up of large stones, but the term generally
refers to those tombs and circular standing structures
built in certain parts of North and South America, Asia,
Africa, Australia, and Europe.
Who built these structures, how they were built, and
for what purposes are questions that have few certain answers.
The most widely accepted view is that they were
built by Neolithic and early Bronze Age peoples who used
them for religious purposes and burial sites and as astronomical
observatories for the Sun and other celestial bodies.
Special powers have been attributed to megaliths.
Classifications. Megaliths fall into two broad classifications:
dolmens and menhirs. Dolmens, also called chambered
tombs, usually contained one or more stone-built
chambers or rooms where the dead were laid out. Some
tombs were long while others were passage-graves, or
round tombs with stone passages leading to one or more
central rooms. Long tombs are common in parts of Wales,
Scotland and England. Passage-graves are most commonly
found in Ireland and western parts of Britain. Some tombs
are covered with earth, forming mounds or tumuli.
Dolmens apparently served as either tombs of collective
graves, in which some remains have been found, or
as temples for the dead, in which no human remains have
been found. The uncovering of bone shards at some sites
has led to the theory that sacrificial rites, even cannibalism,
might have taken place. Scholars hold that prehistoric
man probably believed that the body’s spirit lived in
the head; therefore, breaking the head might have been
an attempt to free the spirits of the dead. Some investigators
believe that the tombs were more than burial sites
and were used for religious, social and community gatherings
Menhirs consist of single standing stones and groups
of standing stones, sometimes arranged in circles, called
cromlechs and henges. The menhirs at Avebury, England,
form long avenues. Henges are circular arrangements distinguished
by a bank or ditch surrounding them, and
have one or more entrances. The most famous henge is
Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England.
The greatest and oldest of all megalithic remains
are the 3,000 menhirs and dolmens at Carnac, Brittany,
France. It is believed that the stones originally numbered
at least 11,000. One dolmen, covered by a tumulus, has
been dated at 4700 b.c.e. The largest single stone is the
350-ton Fairy Stone, originally 20 feet high but now lying
in pieces on its side at the end of a Neolithic burial site. It
may have been felled by lightning or an earthquake. Astronomical
calculations show the Carnac megaliths may
have been designed for astronomical observations.
Supernatural powers of megaliths. Standing stones were
believed to have the power to heal or hurt. Holed stones
required that the ill person climb through the hole to be
restored to health. Women hugged stones to stimulate
fertility or make a wish come true. The famous Men-anTol
group of standing stones in Cornwall, England, includes
a five-foot-high holed stone that has been reputed
for centuries to have healing properties. The stone is
nicknamed “The Devil’s Eye” and stands between two
phallic-shaped boulders. In earlier times, sick children
were passed through the hole nine times against the Sun
to cure them of their illnesses. Women desiring children
passed themselves through the hole, as did the sick who
wished to be cured.
fairies were said to inhabit some stones and people
left gifts to curry favor with them. Many large, solitary
black menhirs have Devil legends associated with them.
stones reputed to have supernatural forces are associated
with witches, who were said to practice the occult
arts as they gathered around them. In the 1596 trial of
the Aberdeen witches of Scotland, the accused confessed
to dancing around a gray stone at the foot of Craigleauch
hill. The Hoar Stones in Britain’s Pendle Forest were said
to be the gathering site of the Lancashire witches in the
17th century. Another such site is the Bambury Stone of
Bredon Hill. The Rollright Stones of the Cotswolds,
England, continued to be used as a nocturnal meeting
place of witches into modern times.
Other stones were thought to have Earth forces emanating
from them. Some psychics fear being near stones
after dark because their strange powers disturb them.
Psychic researchers have felt sensations like electric
shocks when placing their hands on them, powerful
enough to knock them over. Others report feeling tingling
and giddiness. Photographs show light radiations
emanating from the stones. In dowsing, these forces indicate
the source of hidden underground water.
Some stones were believed to move in search of water
and even dance. Legends are associated with some stones
that brought harm to people who had uprooted them, and
the stones themselves are said to be the petrified remains
of people who were punished for dancing or playing on
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