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Large menhir located between Millstreet and Ballinagree, Co Cork, Ireland.
A menhir is a large upright standing stone. Menhirs may be found singly as monoliths, or as part of a group of similar stones. Their size can vary considerably; but their shape is generally uneven and squared, often tapering towards the top. Menhirs are widely distributed across Europe, Africa, and Asia, but are most numerous in Western Europe; in particular in Irelandmarker, Great Britainmarker and Brittany. In northwest France there are 1,200 menhirs. They originate from many different periods across pre-history, and were erected as part of a larger Megalithic culture that flourished in Europe and beyond.

The function of Menhirs has provoked more debate than practically any other issue in European pre-history. Over the centuries they have variously been thought to have been used by Druids for human sacrifice, used as territorial markers or elements of a complex ideological system, or functioned as early calendars. Until the nineteenth century, antiquarians did not have substantial knowledge of prehistory; and their only reference points were provided by Classical literature. The developments of radiocarbon dating and tree-ring calibration have done much to further human knowledge in this area.

The word menhir was adopted from French by 19th century archaeologists. It is a combination of two words found in the Breton language; men (stone), and hir (long). In Modern Welsh they are described as maen hir, or "long stone." In modern Breton, the word peulvan is used.

History



Practically nothing is known of the social organization or religious beliefs of the people who erected the menhirs. We have no trace even of these peoples' language; however we do know that they buried their dead, and had the skills to grow cereal, farm, and make pottery, stone tools, and jewelry. Identifying their uses remains speculation. However, it is likely that many uses involved fertility rites and seasonal cycles. Until recently, menhirs were associated with the Beaker people, who inhabited Europe during the later third millennium BC; the European late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. However, recent research into the age of megaliths in Brittany strongly suggests a far older origin, perhaps back to six to seven thousand years ago.

Many menhirs are carved with megalithic art. This often turned them into anthropomorphic stelae, although images of objects such as stone axes, ploughs, shepherd crooks and yokes were common. With the exception of the stone axe, none of these motifs are definite, and the name used to describe them is largely for convenience. Some menhirs were broken up and incorporated into later passage graves where they had new megalithic art carved with little regard for the previous pictures. It is not known if this re-use was deliberate or if the passage grave builders just saw menhirs as a convenient source of stone (Le Roux 1992).

In Scandinavia, menhirs are called bautasten or bautastenar and continued to be erected during the Pre-Roman Iron Age and later, usually over the ashes of the dead. They were raised both as solitary stones and in formations, such as the stone ships and few stone circles.

Sometimes, they were raised only as commemoration to great people, a tradition which was continued as the runestones.

The tradition was strongest in Bornholmmarker, Gotlandmarker and Götaland and appears to have followed the Goths, during the 1st century, to the southern shore of the Baltic Seamarker, (now Northern Poland) where they are a characteristic of the Wielbark culturemarker.

In many areas, standing stones were systematically toppled by Christians; of the many former standing menhirs of northern Germany, scarcely one stands today.
Swedish runestone with menhir in Tynäs


Menhirs in Sweden

In Sweden by the 13th century menhirs were erected as markers for the graves of warriors. The following lines are taken from the introduction of the Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson;

As to funeral rites, the earliest age is called the Age of Burning; because all the dead were consumed by fire, and over their ashes were raised standing stones.


For men of consequence a mound should be raised to their memory, and for all other warriors who had been distinguished for manhood a standing stone; which custom remained long after Odin's time.


In the same work, Sturluson wrote that the Swedes burnt their dead king Vanlade and raised a stone over his ashes by the River Skyt (one of the tributaries of the River Fyris):

The Swedes took his body and burnt it at a river called Skytaa, where a standing stone was raised over him.


The tradition is also mentioned in Hávamál.

Menhirs in France

The Kerloas menhir, at 9.5 metres, the tallest standing menhir in Brittany (estimated weight 150 tons )
Brittany stands out in the distribution of menhirs by virtue of both the density of monuments and the diversity of types. The largest surviving menhir in the world is located in Locmariaquer, Brittany, and is known as the Grand Menhir Brisé (Great Broken Menhir). Once nearly 20 meters high, today, it lies fractured into four pieces, but would have weighed near 330 tons when intact. It is placed third after the Thunder Stone in St. Petersburgmarker and the Western Stone in the Western Wallmarker as the heaviest object moved by humans without powered machinery.

Alignments of menhirs are common, the most famous being the Carnac stones in Brittany, where more than 3000 individual menhirs are arranged in four groups, and arrayed in rows stretching across four kilometres. Each set is organised with the tallest stones at the western end, and shorter ones at the eastern end. Some end with a semicircular cromlech, but many have since fallen or been destroyed.

The second largest concentration of menhirs in France is at the Cham des Bondons, located on high open limestone plain in the granitic Cévennes. The site is today protected by the Parc National des Cévennesmarker. From the time pastoralism was established, the site was kept open by controlled burning and grazing.

Menhirs in South America

It is possible to find menhirs in some indigenous tribes of South America. The U'wa people of Colombiamarker have erected some of them in their ancestral territory. They affirm that those menhirs are the ancients of all the U'wa clans, who were turn into the stone piers of the world. They can be found in Chitamarker and Chiscas, in Boyacá.There are 114 menhirs in the Provincial Park Los Menhires, in Argentinamarker. The stones have an approximate height of 4 and 5 meters and 1 meter of width. They belonged to the Tafí people, an indigenous culture of the Tucumánmarker province, and were used in fertility rites.

Menhirs in Serbia

The graves of the “Latins” and the “Jidovs” near the village Balwan (Bovan), north of Alexinati in Serbiamarker.

Popular culture

Asterix's sidekick, Obelix is a menhir manufacturer and delivery man, often seen carrying his trademark megalith on his back. In the comic, it is assumed by the Gauls that everyone needs a menhir, although the reason why is purposefully obscure. Obelix's menhir business is a conscious anachronism on the part of the writers; the menhir builders were long gone by the time the Celtic Gauls arrived.

Sources



  • Le Roux, C.T. 1992. “The Art of Gavrinis Presented in its Armorican Context and in Comparison with Ireland.” in Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland vol. 122, pp79-108
  • Mohen, Jean-Pierre. 2000. Standing Stones. Stonehenge, Carnac and the World of Megaliths. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-30090-9


Notes

  1. Oliphant, Margaret "The Atlas Of The Ancient World" 1992 p. 81
  2. Patton, Mark. "Statements in Stone: Monuments and Society in Neolithic Brittany". (New York), Routledge, 1993. p.4
  3. Aviva, Elyn; White, Gary. "Mysterious Megaliths: The Standing Stones of Carnac, Brittany, France". World and I, Vol. 13, October 1998.
  4. The Goths in Greater Poland Retrieved on 2008-03-24
  5. Poznan Archeological Museum: Jewellry of the Goths Retrieved on 2008-03-24
  6. The Ynglinga Saga Retrieved on 2008-03-24
  7. http://sophie-g.net/photo/bret/brest/kerloas01.htm
  8. " Sentier du Pradal" (French language). Parc National des Cévennes. Retrieved on April 27, 2007.
  9. http://www.pelasgians.bigpondhosting.com/website1/09_01.htm


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