DOLMEN AS A SYMBOLIC STRUCTURE

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Carreg Samson (also known as Longhouse Cromlech), a Neolithic burial chamber built 5,000 years ago.


Ancient Ireland, indeed! I was reared by her bedside


The rune and the chant, evil eye and averted head


Fomorian fierceness of family and local feud.


Gaunt figures of fear and of friendliness,


For years they trespassed on my dreams,


Until once, in a standing circle of stones,


I felt their shadows pass


Into that dark permanence of ancient forms.


John Montague,

‘Like dolmens round my childhood…’


Doorways of stone leading nowhere stand in fields and pastures, on rocky hills and in verdant valleys, throughout Celtic lands. The Breton word for these structures is dolmen, meaning “table of stone,” although one would have to be a GIANT to eat off most dolmens; contemporary archaeologists prefer the term portal tomb, while in Wales the same structures are called cromlechs (from words meaning “bent” and “flat stone”). These distinctive and memorable structures are also called DRUID altars, but they were built thousands of years before the Celts and their priests arrived in the land.


Perhaps as many as 6,000 years have passed since the stone uprights were capped with their huge crossbeams, yet the engineering of these mysterious prehistoric people was so exact that hundreds of these structures are still standing today. Indications of burials have been found in recesses under dolmens, leading archaeologists to call them tombs, but burials were few in comparison to the population. Those whose remains (sometimes cremated elsewhere) rest beneath the dolmens may have been victims of HUMAN SACRIFICE, or they may have been people of high status who were considered worthy of a distinguished burial. But this does not mean that the placement and building of dolmens may not have had purposes other than the funereal; similar structures found in the Canadian arctic serve both as geographical markers and as shamanic doorways to another world.


The Celts, arriving long after the dolmens were built, created many tales about them. In Ireland the stone structures are called “beds of DIARMAIT and GRÁINNE,” for the eloping couple were said to have slept together on a different one each night, as they fled her furious intended husband, FIONN MAC CUMHAILL. This legend connects the dolmens to FERTILITY and sexuality, as does the frequent folklore that claims the stones either cause sterility and barrenness, or that they increase the likelihood of conception. Such lore may encode pre-Celtic understandings of these pre-Celtic monuments, may be Celtic in origin, or may represent Christian interpolations into Celtic legend.

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