Menhirs, Silent Witnesses Of Our Human History
Standing Stone. Aka menhir. A word that evokes moors, moss, lichen and mottled rock. Alone, in a line or in a circle. Standing in a clearing, hidden in a forest, or lying by a road, menhirs are everywhere in the world. Since centuries? No, for millennia. They are history, timelessness. Still, we walk or drive by, often without a second glance. That is, unless some signage instructs us to take notice. Then we sometimes comply, stop and stare at… a rock. But mostly, we take them for granted. There are so many around. They look often just so unremarkable. Menhirs are another landscape fixture, like Roman viaducts, medieval churches or other monuments. But without the grandeur and significance we have been hammered with at school or in documentaries.
Many other monuments are more obviously self-advertising, some easier on the eye, most more Insta-worthy. Menhirs are basically oddly-shaped rocks. No effort done on visual homogeneity. Poor branding, really. Some are big, some small. Some majestic, some lumpen. Just standing there, slowly eroding… But they are everywhere, anywhere, on every continent. We even find new ones continuously.
Menhirs are lurking just on the edge of our cities, on a border between landscape, history and legend. We basically know they are over there, and that’s about it. We have hardly any clues about the who, the why, the what,… But that does not really matter.
It is their existence, their presence since millennia in our landscapes that makes them unbelievable witnesses of human history.
We don’t know who raised them
We think we know roughly when menhirs were raised, but we totally lost who actually built them.
Legends tell us that, due to their size, the copyright for the standing stones is with the local giant ancestors. The basic equation is obvious: big heavy stone = big heavy man.
And so you have for example in Ireland the Fomorians/Fomóire. A logical, mechanical explanation. As good as any other, yet you can’t entirely discard alien or magical people, such as fairies in Brittany.
If you are looking for a more scientifically charged explanation, we know roughly their time period. We have some scraps of collateral historical material. But, for all the deductions, suppositions and theories, are we even sure of how the builders looked like? How did they dress like? We speak millennia ago. Just over the past 50 years, fashion has … changed. Since 500 years? So, millennia gone, pelts and leather seem an ever popular assumption – we did find some examples in co-dated tombs. Add capes, which are usually a good go. And beards, of course. But then again, the builders could have been wearing one of these strange conical hats found in Germany (where else), or have shaved heads and eyeliner like Pharaohs.
We deduce, we posit, and we stress-test the theories from historical shreds. Yet, until we find some type of contemporary recording, it is mostly an educated best guess.
We don’t know for sure what they are
We don’t know either what was the menhirs intended function. Whenever we have stone circles, or alignments, we have some more anchors for theories, but lone standing stones… really?
Their role should be a much easier proposition. Yet, we still have no certainty.
What we have is a plethora of theories. Some of these are more scientific than others, some are peer-reviewed and some more inspired by the multiverse machine elves.
Starting with the first trial at a coherent scientific history, in the XIXth century, menhirs were supposed to be the sacrificial stones of druids, part of the dolmens, etc… Without carbon dating, we relied on the “eye-witness” memoirs of none other than Julius Caesar, someone who can be trusted not to quite like Celts in general, and druids in particular.
With the benefit of centuries of research, menhirs are now disconnected from druids, and have become once again more of a mystery. What we are certain is that they were not quarried by the Gauls, especially Obelix. The druids, if anything, used them, repurposed them. The menhirs were already old when the druids were young.
So, if not sacrificial or druidic stones, what?
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Religious inclinations give us the ever popular fertility cult(s). After all, the raised stones are “obviously” phallic? Again, many shapes, random locations, … but why not. Just no way to definitely pin their role. Actually, if we today think up any of this, it is quasi certain that some among our ancestor had the very same idea at one point! So, over millennia, menhirs have probably had any usage we may conceive at some point or other.
So, moving from religious to scientific purposes, we have then star maps, calendars, solar clocks, reminders and assorted evergreen astronomical functions. Then into new age, old and new, menhirs could be ley lines anchors. Stone needles to guide, probe or purge the world’s mystical energy grid.
They could just be the vestiges of some mammoth trophy racks, rotten or dissolved away. Or maybe just landmarks, ancient roads or boundary markers.
Or pedestrian highway directions.
Practically anything could be true, until we find an absolute answer.
We don’t even know how they were initially supposed to look like
What was their shape at their unveiling, assuming that it was the done thing, also back then?
What we see today – especially the more majestic stones – has to drive how we imagine their intended aesthetics. But do we, actually? Some menhirs are just a stunted rock, eroded to oblivion. Many lie at the edge of our modern cities, forgotten boulders by the road.
What did they initially look like when the stone masons took a step back and admired their work? Were they carved? Painted? Garlanded? Maybe dressed up like a Manneken Pis? Or was “sheer stone” the expected look? Like a medieval cathedral, they may have looked very different to what we are used to today. And how we have seen them for many centuries. Take carvings. We know for sure that some were recarved later. Embellished if you will. Some, we think, were made to look like humans (anthropomorphs). But what was even their basic shape, pre-erosion? No certainty. Weathering 10 thousand years old is a pretty sure way to erase all traces.
Even when we dig them fresh out (as in Switzerland), they are just blank slates of stones. So, maybe, they were just smooth columns, their blankness evoking eternity. Anyone’s guess!
The best we can do is look, sit back and dream.
Actually, it is not about the who, the what, the why, the how, not even what they should or could look like. Their existence is sufficient, in and by itself.
They have been exactly in that area for a very long time
The only certainty we have is that menhirs are old. Seriously old. And many, if not most of them, are still in their original location. Or at least in the same rough area.
They have been there for around at least 5000 years, or even 7 to 9 millennia according to the latest research. That is 90 centuries ago. So far. At or around the same place. Regardless of function, repurposed or not. Beat that.
It is this seemingly ageless presence that makes them unique.
Menhirs are familiar, ubiquitous and accessible witnesses of human history
All of the standing stones are just neighbourly, familiar witnesses of our history. They are around the corner, within arm’s length, at our fingertips.
Our legends have turned them into silent guardians, petrified enemies, damned dancers or sleeping wizards… Menhirs are mystical or mythical figures of dread or respect. They once had an exalted, formal or mundane function. Actually, menhirs have probably had many roles over the centuries.
One role has never changed in human memory: monoliths, megaliths, menhirs are timelessness. They have been there, in that particular place, for millennia, for some impenetrable reason.
This is what they have been for us, for millennia now.
They are human history.
This article is the capping stone for the “times series”, I wrote so far:
Listen to the PODCAST on Spotify. Follow the link here