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Britain's Landscape Symbols and Mysteries: The Standing Stones of Mên-an-Tol

The Lands End peninsula is home to one of the most extraordinary standing stones in Europe: the "Mên-an-Tol" (also Men an Toll), a small formation of standing stones near the Madron-Morvah road in Penwith, Cornwall, United Kingdom (grid reference SW426349). It is about 3 miles north west of Madron. It is also known locally as the "Crick Stone" (reputation for curing back problems), "Stone with the Hole"or 'The Devil's Eye' .

The name Mên-an-Tol is Cornish Language, literally mea
ning "the hole stone". It consists of three upright granite stones: a round stone with its middle holed out with two small standing stones to each side, in front of and behind the hole. When seen at an angle from one side, the stones form a three-dimensional "101" (see picture).

Holed stones are very rare in prehistoric Cornwall; there is only one other comparable site, the Tolvan Stone near Gweek. All other ‘holed stones’ are much smaller with holes less than 15 cm in diameter; certainly too small to pass an infant through. These stones may have originated as horizontally bedded stones on granite tors, the hole produced by natural weathering processes. They may have been brought to the site to fulfil a specific ritual purpose and perhaps to provide a physical link with the sacred hill.

The Men-an-Tol is undoubtedly one of the more famous yet least understood of Cornish ancient monuments, for the original arrangement of this mysterious grouping of stones is unknown, having almost certainly been re-arranged in the distant past. It is thought by many that the stones were originally part of either a lost tomb or stone circle that once occupied the site.

Antiquarian representations of the site differ in significant details and it is possible that the elements of the site have been rearranged on several occasions. William Borlase described the monument in the 18th Century as having a triangular layout, and it has been suggested that the holed stone was moved from its earlier position to stand in a direct alignment between the two standing stones. In the mid 19th Century, a local antiquarian JT Blight proposed that the site was in fact the remains of a stone circle. This idea was given additional support when a recent site survey identified a number of recumbent stones lying just beneath the modern turf which were arranged along the circumference of a circle 18 metres in diameter. The recumbent stones are somewhat irregularly spaced but the three extant upright stones have smooth inward facing surfaces and are of a similar height to other stone circles in Penwith.

If this is indeed the origin of the site, the holed stone would probably have been aligned along the circumference of the circle and would have had a special ritual significance possibly by providing a lens through which to view other sites or features in the landscape, or as a window onto other worlds. There have also been suggestions that it may have been a component of a burial chamber or cist.
There are instances of burial chambers close to stone circles, as at nearby Boskednan, and a barrow mound with stone cist has been identified to the north-east of the Men-an-Tol, so it seems likely that the site was part of a more extensive ritual or ceremonial complex.

Although the Men-an-Tol is considered to be Bronze Age in date no extensive excavations have taken place. The discovery of a single flaked flint by WC Borlase in 1885 is hardly compelling evidence for an early date whilst the recent works to reset the holed stone revealed only evidence for modern activity.

Folklore and Traditions

Mên-an-Tol is supposed to have a fairy or piskie guardian who can make miraculous cures. In one case a Changeling baby was put through the stone in order for the mother to get the real child back. Evil piskies had changed her child and the ancient stones were able to reverse their evil spell.

Local legend claims that if at full moon a woman passes through the holed stone seven times backwards, she will soon become pregnant.

Another legend is that passage through the stone will cure a child of rickets (osteomalacia). For centuries, children with rickets were passed naked through the hole in the middle stone nine times. Its curative powers actually are reflected in its name.

It was also said to provide an alternative cure “scrofulous taint”, also known as the “Kings Evil” which was otherwise only curable by the touch of the reigning monarch.

One can only wonder how many people have passed trough this iconic granite portal over the centuries.

Divinations were made by the use of brass pins placed upon the central stone. Their movement would indicate the answers to queries put to the spirit of the stone. Local Witches and magical folk make use of the portal to birth charms and spirit items.

The circular stone aligns exactly with the centre stone at Boscawen-Un and the church at nearby St Buryan. While this may conceivably be coincidental, the precision of the alignment suggests an intentional positioning of the structures in relation to each other.

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