Stonehenge


Stonehenge
   Always this must have seemed a place of mystery. Whatever tales Britons and Romans told about it are lost, but the name itself is a clue to Anglo-Saxon storytelling, for it means 'The Stone Gallows'. Early antiquaries tried to explain the name as 'The Hanging Stones', with reference to the way the lintels balance on the uprights, but this is grammatically impossible, since in Old English adjectives normally come before, not after, their noun; 'stone' is an adjective here, qualifying hengen, 'gibbet, gallows'. Clearly, the trilithons reminded the Saxons of the kind of gallows where several men at once are hanged from a crossbar held on two uprights; there must have been some story explaining who hanged whom there, and why - but it is forgotten.
   The earliest surviving origin legend is the Norman one given by *Geoffrey of Monmouth (c.1136): the stones were brought by sea from 'Killaraus, a mountain in Ireland', on the advice of Merlin, to mark the graves of 460 British noblemen murdered by Saxons. In Ireland, the circle had been known as 'the Giants' Dance', having been brought from Africa by giants; its stones had healing powers, as water poured over them cured anyone who bathed in it. This may be one of the few occasions when a legend enshrines an ancient fact, since Stonehenge does contain some stones which are not local, though they come from Wales, not Ireland. Even so, the story need not have been passed on orally for millennia; the difference between the local sarcen stones and the intrusive 'bluestones' is obvious, so an observer at any period could have deduced that the latter were brought from elsewhere. Geoffrey, however, is unaware of the distinction and makes Merlin responsible for the transport and erection of the whole monument.
   The name 'Giant's Dance', which he does not explain, implies an alternative legend according to which the stones would themselves have been the giants, turned to stone while dancing (cf. Stanton Drew), which matches the appearance of Stonehenge very neatly. The belief that the stones could heal persisted; Aubrey (in his unpublished Monu-menta Britannica, c.1690) said local people dropped pieces or powder into their wells to drive toads away, while in the 18th century water in which scrapings had been steeped was used on wounds and sores.
   Another folk belief was that the stones could not be counted, since some magic power ensured that the total was never twice the same, and that anyone who happened upon the right total would be sure to die. Daniel Defoe, in his A Tour through England and Wales (1724), says he was told how 'a baker carry'd a basket of bread, and laid a loaf upon every stone, and yet could never make out the same number twice'. In 1651, while fleeing to France, Charles II found himself forced to spend a day near Stonehenge, and passed the time by counting and recounting the stones, to his own satisfaction.
   The theory that Druids built Stonehenge was launched by Aubrey (c.1690) and elaborated by Stukeley in 1740; at that time the Celts were the only society known to have preceded the Romans in England, so the conjecture was reasonable. Although most people are now aware that Stonehenge is far too old for this to be literally true, it has become a sacred site of prime importance to most groups of Neo-Pagans, including the various modern Druidic Orders dating from the late 18th and 19th centuries, who have worshipped there at the summer solstice (21 June) throughout most of the 20th century. A larger Pagan gathering, the Stonehenge Festival, was held from 1974 until banned in 1985; access to the monument for Midsummer worship was also forbidden in 1985, but was allowed again in 1998 for selected groups.
   ■ L. V. Grinsell, Folklore 87 (1976), 3-20; Christopher Chip-pindale, Paul Devereux, et al., Who Owns Stonehenge? (1990).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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