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The Cult of Rock and Stone

In Brittany, it seems almost impossible to travel more than a few miles without seeing some form of ancient megalith. While many are older than the written word, their real meanings today remain clouded in mystery, shrouded in superstition and folklore.

Erected between approximately 3,500 to 6,500 years ago, Brittany’s megaliths range from single standing stones known as menhirs (Breton for long stone) to lengthy alignments of stones; from a simple dolmen (Breton for stone table) to more complex passage tombs. In its most basic form, a dolmen consists of just three stone slabs; two set upright supporting a flatter slab that formed the roof of a burial chamber. The whole structure would originally have been covered by stones and earth to form a small but significant mound in the landscape and where such mantles survive, they are called tumuli.  

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It is widely believed that prehistoric man worshiped celestial bodies as well as trees, springs, mountains and rocks and that all remained objects of veneration among the Celtic pagans of Brittany.  While there is general agreement that dolmens were initially built to house burials and to honour the dead, there is much debate regarding the role of standing stones and stone circles in primitive culture here. Were they boundary markers, centres of sacrifice, astronomical observation posts or sites for communal gatherings and worship? Perhaps, over time, they were a combination of all these or possible none; we will never know for certain.

The worship of stones into the common era is not so easily explained as the worship directed toward objects possessing movement and vitality. Perhaps the mysterious nature of these massive blocks of stone retained ancient associations with death and the afterlife or possibly the stones held a ritual significance in the religion of the Celts. Whatever the reason, the worship of stones endured in Brittany and elsewhere in northern Europe.

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In 452, the Council of Arles expressly forbade the worship of stones; in 567 the Council of Tours ordered that ‘all those who worship stones or ruins and on which they make vows and oblations’ be excommunicated; in 658 the Council of Nantes ordered bishops to dig-up the stones and the Council of Rouen in 692 denounced all who offered vows to stones. Yet it seems that many of the old beliefs refused to die under the onslaught of Christianity, as a capitulary of Charlemagne in 743 again explicitly forbids the worship of stones and oblations made on them. 

There appears to have been no systematic programme of destroying megalithic monuments in Brittany so as to purge the landscape of its pagan past. Perhaps the local priests charged with carrying out any removal orders feared alienating their parishioners? However, hundreds, if not thousands, of menhirs were toppled or else dug-out, moved and re-worked as building stone, even into the last century.

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In many cases, chapel or shrines were erected near megaliths in an attempt to transfer the devotion attached to the stones to a Christian site, such as at the Tumulus of Saint Michael in Carnac. Not only were ancient stones thus transferred by re-dedication from pagan gods to Christian saints but dolmens and menhirs too. Sometimes this was done by topping the menhir with a wooden crucifix as at the Menhir de Champ-Dolent or by carving a Christian cross onto the face of the stone.  An early 18th century chapel in Le Vieux-Marché was even built incorporating an ancient dolmen into its very structure. This is a most curious building and the only chapel in France dedicated to the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. Local legend says that this structure dates from the very beginning of time, having been shaped by God on the sixth day of creation.

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The traditional folk beliefs associated with the megaliths of Brittany are, as you might expect, numerous. Many believe that the ancient Bretons venerated the stones as the abodes of gods or as seats of divine power and that such sacred sites were places where the pagan priests once invoked the spirits of their ancestors. Perhaps this helps explain why the megaliths are so closely associated with supernatural beings such as the magical korrigans and fairies; entities who are often said to be spirits from a time before the arrival of Christianity.

In Breton legends, fairies are often said to live in dolmens or in the springs near menhirs, while dolmens were held to contain an entrance to the subterranean world of the korrigans and their hidden treasure. This association has long since seeped into the region’s toponymy with many monuments long popularly known as the rock or grotto of the fairies and the house or castle of the korrigans.

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The belief that only such supernatural creatures could have erected the massive stone monuments was widely found across Brittany, albeit sometimes with small refinements such as the stone blocks being carried in aprons, balanced on the heads of fairies or carried under each arm. The hours of darkness belonged to the fairies and one night was thought all that was needed to raise a dolmen. If the stone had to be brought from afar, the work was arduous and sometimes incomplete before dawn’s first light; as attested by the presence of many solitary menhirs and roofless dolmens in the landscape.

The world’s largest dolmen is known as La Roche-aux-Fées (the Rock of the Fairies) and stands near Essé in eastern Brittany. Built from 32 upright stones with nine roof slabs, this structure is about 20 metres long by five metres wide and four metres high. Local folklore ascribed its construction to the fairies who, according to some accounts, completed the work in a single night. One legend tells that the structure was built by the fairies to protect the souls of the just but these fairies disappeared with the demise of the forest. Since then, the whistling of the wind between the stones was held to be the lamentations of souls no longer visited by the fairies.

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It was also said that the fairies had placed a spell of confoundment upon their building so that no count of the number of stones would consistently tally. This legend seems to provide the background reasoning behind a once popular local custom whereby couples wishing to marry visited the stones on the night of a new moon to walk around them in different directions; the women going clockwise and the men counter-clockwise, counting the stones as they did so. If the lovers agreed on the number of stones, not necessarily the correct one, it was said that their marriage would be a happy one.

On the south coast, the world’s largest concentration of megaliths features over 3,000 menhirs arranged in about a dozen rows over 4km (2.5 miles) long, known as the Carnac Alignments. There are many legends surrounding these stones, some say that they were erected by the korrigans, others tell of the wizard Merlin cursing an invading Roman army or that Saint Corneli, patron saint of horned animals, having been pursued to the edge of the sea by a pagan mob resentful of his evangelising, changed his pursuers to stone.

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Other popular legends relate that menhirs go once a year or once every hundred years, usually while the bells of the Christmas midnight mass are being rung, to wash themselves in a river or the sea, returning to their ancient seats after their ablutions and before the sound of the twelfth bell has died. Although the stones of La Roche-aux-Fées dolmen were said to change their places continually.

Some Breton folktales tell that menhirs were once men who had the effrontery to insult a fairy and were turned to stone for their insolence. Others say that they are monuments raised by the fairies to honour those mortal men and women who had made good use of their lives, while another legend tells us that the menhirs are powerful enchantments containing fairies who have been locked away by the power of magic. The presence of such a fairy shrine was seen as a guarantee of good fortune, spreading a subtle charm across the immediate neighbourhood.

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This belief in the benevolent charm of the stones can also be glimpsed in the old Breton practice of placing chipped pieces of megaliths or Neolithic worked flint, popularly known as Thunder Stones, in the foundations and roofs of buildings as a protection against lightning strikes. Some small Thunder Stones were carried about the person in hopes of the same protection, while others were fashioned into necklaces that were hung around the necks of children to protect them from childhood illnesses such as skin disorders and eye pain.

Many other superstitious rituals connected with sacred stones were noted as still extant in Brittany at the end of the 19th century. For instance, young people would rub their loins against the stele set in the churchyard of Saint Samson in Pleumeur-Bodou in the hope of improving their strength while men would rub their shoulders against the menhir in Landunvez for the same purpose. To ward off rheumatism, people would rub their backs against the leading stone of the dolmen at Guimaëc and on the menhir stood in the churchyard at Saint-Guyomard.

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Given the obvious phallic significance of the menhir, we should not be surprised that a number of superstitious rituals surrounding fertility were once closely attached to some stones. For instance, a menhir near Carnac was renowned in the 19th century for being visited by childless couples; the ritual reported here seems to have involved a naked chase around the menhir during the nights of a full moon. Likewise, the Menhir de Kerloas, the tallest in Brittany at 9.5 metres, was visited by newly married couples who would rub their naked ‘bellies’ against the stone in order to only have male children; the ceremony was also believed to ensure the woman became the absolute mistress of her household but only if she convinced her husband to willingly kiss the stone.

Similarly, young couples would visit the menhir at Moëlan-sur-Mer and rub their bodies against it in the hope of children. Childless couples and barren women would, under cover of darkness, also visit the broken menhir near Locronan and rub their ‘abdomens’ against the stone in the hope of having a child. Accounts vary as to which part of the anatomy featured in these fertility rituals but many 19th century authors are clear that they are conforming to the social conventions of the time and hiding behind euphemisms!

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At Monthault in eastern Brittany, unmarried women would slide down a massive ashlar, leaving behind a ribbon, in the expectation that they would be married within the year. It was important that no one witnessed this as it was thought only the stone could keep the secrets of a maiden’s heart. Similar practices were known to have long taken place on other stones, such as those at Saint-Georges-de-Reintembault, Mellé and on the inclined Menhir de la Thiemblaye near Saint-Samson-sur-Rance; long-regarded here as one of the three gateways to Hell. At this latter site it was necessary for the woman to slide all the way down the edifice with bare buttocks, the skin being in constant contact with the stone.

The symbolic importance of flesh against stone is quite ancient and was often noted in archaic societies who practiced an element of stone worship; bodily contact with that to which they attributed power was crucial. A bared bottom was also a requirement for sliding down the broken blocks of the Great Menhir at Locmariaquer on Brittany’s southern coast but to succeed, the ritual had to be completed on the night of May Day. Here, gaining a scratch deep enough to bleed augured a future marriage.

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Near the north east coast, in Plouër-sur-Rance, young women would climb to the top of the rocky outcrop known as La Roche de Lesmont to take position on the highest block of quartz. This abuts a large pyramid shaped boulder which, over the years, has been rubbed quite smooth by the elements and human action. It was on this angled face of rock that girls would slide down in the expectation of gaining a marriage within the year.

For the ritual to be effective, it was necessary that, before commencing her slide, the young lady rolled up her skirt so that her bare flesh was in constant contact with the stone (underwear not being commonly worn until the turn of the 20th century). If the girl reached the bottom without scratching herself, she was said to be sure of securing a husband within the year. Some reports claimed that the slider also needed to urinate in a certain cavity in the stone for the rite to have power.

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In the eastern village of Maen-Roch, the large quartz-rich boulder known as Le Rocher Cutesson was climbed on the morning of May Day by unmarried people, of both sexes, each carrying a bowl full of water. Holding their bowl, the young folk allowed themselves to slide down the rock face; those who managed to reach the ground with their bowl intact were said to be married within a year. A little over 3km away in Saint-Étienne-en-Coglès, a similar result was said to be achieved if a young woman climbed the large boulder in the churchyard of Saint Eustache’s chapel on Good Friday and, having clandestinely rubbed herself against the rock, remained upright on its summit in front of the congregation without blushing.

On the south coast, the dolmen of Cruz-Menquen in Carnac was popularly known as La Pierre Chaude (the hot stone). During the nights of a full moon, young women seeking marriage would sit atop the capstone with their skirt lifted above their waist. It was, no doubt, to counter such pagan practices that the local clergy decided to Christianize the megalith in the early 19th century. Accounts from the same time relate how young women seeking husbands, undressed completely and rubbed their ‘navels’ against another menhir near Carnac that was especially devoted to this usage. Similar practices were also recorded, in the 1850s, at the megalith known as La Roche-Marie near Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier.

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Further along the southern coast, near Guérande, the French diplomat Charles Coquebert de Montbret noted the presence of many pieces of red cloth pushed into the clefts and cracks of the dolmens of Kerbourg during a visit in the early 19th century. He was assured that these were offerings entrusted to the stone by young girls in the hope of being married within the year.

Many superstitious practices were once widely thought to pronounce on the sincerity of a lover. For instance, near the south coast town of Concarneau, the massive boulder at Trégunc known as Men Dogan (the cuckolds stone) was visited by men to verify the fidelity of their partners; tradition held that a deceived partner could not make the 50-tonne stone move but those whose partners were faithful could move it with just one finger. The behaviour of another balancing rock nearby was said able to answer any question put to it; the rock could only be moved if the answer was in the affirmative.

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Several menhirs that faced the sea off Brittany’s southern coast were once visited by young couples who placed flax flowers on the stones on Saint John’s Day; if the flowers were still fresh when visited eight days later, it was taken as a sign of faithfulness. However, those men who feared betrayal by their wives visited the rock at Combourtillé, circling it, some accounts say the men hopped, during the hours of moonlight in an attempt to retain marital faithfulness. On a smaller scale, a piece of magnetite or magnet stone placed under the bed was thought to have the power to repel unfaithful lovers from the marital bed.

Unrequited love was traditionally said to be returned if the lovelorn sat on a rock near Fougère known as La chaise du diable (the Devil’s Chair) for a certain period at a particular time of the year. Sadly, the most opportune moments are no longer known and only the ritual itself remembered today.

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Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

212 thoughts on “The Cult of Rock and Stone

  1. Hi Colin,

    I love all your posts, but I think this one is my favorite. Hah, I never knew about all these stones! The only ones I was familiar with were Stonehenge.

    I also think it is so fascinating how Christianity incorporated a lot of the pagan symbols and customs into Christian beliefs.

    Nancy

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Nancy, I am very happy that you enjoyed it! 🙏😊
      When you think on it, it does make perfect sense for the early Church to try and absorb some of the old religious feelings associated with places. Far easier to establish an evangelising foothold from a relatively familiar base for the pagans rather than destroy everything they once held dear.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Once again Colin, a fantastic post that fills in the blanks for me, about stone worship and how widespread and pervasive it really was. I had no idea. The Catholic Church went to great ends to eradicate it and yet… the beliefs were hard to upend. Fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

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