Storyhenge: Legends and Folk-tales of Stonehenge.

15 10 2020

Stonehenge could be called ‘Storyhenge’, for this Neolithic monument – ancient, mysterious and yet world-famous and one of the most photographed landmarks on the planet – attracts stories like a magnet does iron filings. In the absence of written records left by the original builders a plethora of narratives have accreted around the striking circle of megaliths, which stand taciturn and proud on Salisbury like so many cousins of the Easter Island moai. Long after the original architects had become part of the landscape themselves – cremated remains cooling within grooven earthenware beakers buried in post-holes, or entombed in long barrows – and long after living memory and oral tradition had faded, the stories moved in, claiming the stones for their own, like the resident population of jackdaws who nest in the nook and crannies of the trilithons: each story raucously claiming attention above the rest – Listen to me! I’m the best! Believe in me!

By Blaeu, J (Atlas van Loon) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Here are three of the finest plumage:

Our first story begins with a storyteller – that consummate fabulist of the Middle Ages, Geoffrey of Monmouth, who tells that the stones of Stonehenge were healing stones, which were taken from Africa to Ireland by kleptomaniac giants, who, perhaps realising their stash wasn’t the most convenient of treasures, decided to deposit them on the summit of Mount Killaraus. Aurelius Ambrosius, the 5th Century King of Britain, got wind of this hoard. Three thousand of his men had been slain in a calamitous battle, and buried at Salisbury – but he wished to raise a fitting memorial to their memory on the nearby plain, and so he tasked his resident magician, Merlin; Uther Pendragon (his dux bellorum and soon-to-be father of fate-mantled Arthur), and 15,000 men to go to wild Ireland and ‘relocate’ the hallowed stones. The Irish did not want to give up their treasure easily, and 7,000 of their men were slain in the process. Well, Merlin and Uther claimed possession of the stones – but how to move them back to Salisbury Plain? They tried every engineering trick they knew of, but in the end Merlin’s great magic came to the rescue. The magician raised his arms, uttered his cantrips, and the mighty stones danced in the air above the astonished Uther and their men. Laughing, Merlin transported the gambolling stones all the way to England, where he brought them to rest on Salisbury Plain in an impressive interlocking configuration. Thus Aurelius had his memorial for his men, and when he passed on, he was buried there too. Not to miss out, Uther bagged a spot as well. And there the sorcerous sarsens remain – give or take one or two – to this day, and for many years they were known as the Giant’s Dance after Merlin’s amazing feat.

In a second tale – less magic, more tragic – the invader King Hengist decided to hold a feast. Since invading the damp isle of Logres he had had very little peace – the troublesome natives were always grumbling (or rebelling) against this or that. And so he invited 420 of the Britons to a feast on Salisbury Plain. ‘It is time to make a truce – so let us eat and drink together and raise the meadhorn of peace and fellowship!’ So, the Britons gathered in a circle around the feast fire – which took the bite out of the wind — and partook of Hengist’s hospitality. He was not a niggardly host, and soon all were merry with mead and meat. Just as they were praising the Saxon king, Hengist gave the signal and his warriors slew all the Britons present! The blood of the guests stained the chalky soil dark. The wind howled across the empty plain. Hengist, apparently stricken with remorse, ordered a great monument to be raised in memory of his doomed guests. And so, in the Year 472 AD, Stonehenge was born out of blood and treachery!

“The Grand Conventional Festival of the Britons,” from The Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Islands, by Samuel Meyrick and Charles Smith, 1814

Well! To cheer us all up after that, here is my third tale, which is far lighter in tone!

The Devil, or Old Scrat as he’s known in Wiltshire, went to Ireland, where he bought some unusual stones from an old, old woman. Wrapping them up carefully, like so many loaves, he carried them all the way back to England, to Salisbury Plain – only dropping one in the River Avon. Finding a suitable spot, he dumped them all in a big pile – some landing in interesting configurations. Twirling his splendid moustache, he declaimed: ‘No one will ever guess how these stones got here!’ Well, it just so happened at that precise moment a monk, or Friar rather, was walking by. Overhearing Old Scrat, the Friar called out: ‘That’s what you think!’ The Devil was so enraged he cast one of the large grey stones at the holy man – it struck the Friar on the Heel, and then stuck in the ground – where it remains to this day, an outlier of the stone circle of Stonehenge, known as the ‘Hele Stone’ (although clearly it should be ‘Heel Stone’ but they couldn’t spell back then!). And that is the God’s honest truth!

Written by Guest Blogger: Dr Kevan Manwaring
Dr Kevan Manwaring is an author, lecturer, and specialist tour-guide. His books include The Long Woman (a novel which features Stonehenge and Avebury), Lost Islands, Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels, Desiring Dragons, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, and more. He is a keen walker and loves exploring the ancient landscape of Wiltshire, where he lives with his archaeologist partner.

While these legends are most likely far from the truth, they are an entertaining supplement to academic theories about Stonehenge. Many historical monuments are accompanied by folktales about their origin and purpose, and Stonehenge is no different. These myths are part of the mystique and appeal surrounding great monuments.

Relevant Stonehenge Links:
Where so Myths, Legends and Folktales come from? ENGLISH HERITAGE
Myths and Legends of Stonehenge. ANTHROPLOGY WEBSITE
Solving the Riddle of Stonehenge’s Construction. HISTORY.COM
Megalithic Specialist Tour Operator. STONEHENGE GUIDED TOURS
Stone Monument Legends. Univerity of Pittsburgh

The Stonehenge News Blog
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One response

15 10 2020

Reblogged this on Stonehenge Guided Trips and commented:

Join us on a Stonehenge guided tour and hear all the myths and legends

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