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IN the mind of the general reader Brittany is unalterably associated with the prehistoric stone monuments which are so closely identified with its folk-lore and national life. In other parts of the world similar monuments are encountered in Great Britain and Ireland, Scandinavia, the Crimea, Algeria, and India, but nowhere are they found in such abundance as in Brittany, nor are these rivalled in other lands, either as regards their character or the space they occupy.

To speculate as to the race which built the primitive stone monuments of Brittany is almost as futile as it would be to theorize upon the date of their erection. 1 A generation ago it was usual to refer all European megalithic monuments to a 'Celtic' origin, but European ethnological problems have become too complicated of late years to permit such a theory to pass unchallenged, especially now that the term 'Celt' is itself matter for fierce controversy. In the immediate neighbourhood of certain of these monuments objects of the Iron Age are recovered from the soil, while near others the finds are of Bronze Age character, so that it is probably correct to surmise that their construction continued throughout a prolonged period.

What Menhirs and Dolmens are

Regarding the nomenclature of the several species of megalithic monuments met with in Brittany some

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definitions are necessary. A menhir is a rude monolith set up on end, a great single stone, the base of which is buried deep in the soil. A dolmen is a large, table-shaped stone, supported by three, four, or even five other stones, the bases of which are sunk in the earth. In Britain the term 'cromlech' is synonymous with that of 'dolmen,' but in France and on the Continent generally it is exclusively applied to that class of monument for which British scientists have no other name than 'stone circles.' The derivation of the words from Celtic and their precise meaning in that tongue may assist the reader to arrive at their exact significance. Thus 'menhir' seems to be derived from the Welsh or Brythonic maen, 'a stone,' and hir, 'long,' and 'dolmen' from Breton taol, 'table,' and men, 'a stone.' 1 'Cromlech' is also of Welsh or Brythonic origin, and is derived from crom, 'bending' or 'bowed' (hence 'laid across'), and llech, 'a flat stone.' The allée couverte is a dolmen on a large scale.

The Nature of the Monuments

The nature of these monuments and the purpose for which they were erected were questions which powerfully exercised the minds of the antiquaries of a century ago, who fiercely contended for their use as altars, open-air temples, and places of rendezvous for the discussion of tribal affairs. The cooler archæologists of a later day have discarded the majority of such theories as untenable in the light of hard facts. The dolmens, they say, are highly unsuitable for the purpose of altars, and as it has been proved that this class of monument

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was invariably covered in prehistoric times by an earthen tumulus its ritualistic use is thereby rendered improbable. Moreover, if we chance upon any rude carving or incised work on dolmens we observe that it is invariably executed on the lower surface of the table stone, the upper surface being nearly always rough, unhewn, often naturally rounded, and as unlike the surface of an altar as possible.

Recent research has established the much more reasonable theory that these monuments are sepulchral in character, and that they mark the last resting-places of persons of tribal importance, chiefs, priests, or celebrated warriors. Occasionally legend assists us to prove the mortuary character of menhir and dolmen. But, without insisting any further for the present upon the purpose of these monuments, let us glance at the more widely known of Brittany's prehistoric structures, not so much in the manner of the archæologist as in that of the observant traveller who is satisfied to view them as interesting relics of human handiwork bequeathed from a darker age, rather than as objects to satisfy the archæological taste for discussion.

For this purpose we shall select the best known groups of Breton prehistoric structures, and shall begin our excursion at the north-eastern extremity of Brittany, following the coast-line, on which most of the principal prehistoric centres are situated, and, as occasion offers, journeying into the interior in search of famous or interesting examples.


Dol is situated in the north of the department of Ille-et-Vilaine, not far from the sea-coast. Near it, in a

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field called the Champ Dolent ('Field of Woe'), stands a gigantic menhir, about thirty feet high and said to measure fifteen more underground. It is composed of grey granite, and is surmounted by a cross. The early Christian missionaries, finding it impossible to wean the people from frequenting pagan neighbourhoods, surmounted the standing stones with the symbol of their faith, and this in time brought about the result desired. 1

The Legend of Dol

A strange legend is connected with this rude menhir. On a day in the dark, uncharted past of Brittany a fierce battle was fought in the Champ Dolent. Blood ran in streams, sufficient, says the tale, to turn a millwheel in the neighbourhood of the battle-field. When the combat was at its height two brothers met and grappled in fratricidal strife. But ere they could harm one another the great granite shaft which now looms above the field rose up between them and separated them.

There appears to be some historical basis for the tale. Here, or in the neighbourhood, A.D. 560, met Clotaire, King of the Franks, and his son, the rebel Chramne. The rebellious son was signally defeated. He had placed his wife and two little daughters in a dwelling hard by, and as he made his way thence to convey them from the field he was captured. He was instantly strangled, by order of his brutal father, in the sight of his wife and little ones, who were then burned alive in the house where they had taken refuge. The Champ Dolent does not belie its name, and even thirteen

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centuries and a half have failed to obliterate the memory of a savage and unnatural crime, which, its remoteness notwithstanding, fills the soul with loathing against its perpetrators and with deep pity for the hapless and innocent victims.

A Subterranean Dolmen Chapel

At Plouaret, in the department of Côtes-du-Nord, is a curious subterranean chapel incorporating a dolmen. The dolmen was formerly partially embedded in a tumulus, and the chapel, erected in 1702, was so constructed that the great table-stone of the dolmen has become the chapel roof, and the supporting stones form two of its sides. The crypt is reached by a flight of steps, and here may be seen an altar to the Seven Sleepers, represented by seven dolls of varying size. The Bretons have a legend that this structure dates from the creation of the world, and they have embodied this belief in a ballad, in which it is piously affirmed that the shrine was built by the hand of the Almighty at the time when the world was in process of formation.


Camaret, on the coast of Finistère, is the site of no less than forty-one standing stones of quartz, which outline a rectangular space 600 yards in length at its base. Many stones have been removed, so that the remaining sides are incomplete. None of these monoliths is of any considerable size, however, and the site is not considered to be of much importance, save as regards its isolated character. At Penmarch, in the southern extremity of Finistère, there is an 'alignment' of some two hundred small stones, and a dolmen

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of some importance is situated at Trégunc, but it is at Carnac, on the coast of Morbihan, that we arrive at,' the most important archæological district in Brittany.


The Carnac district teems with prehistoric monuments, the most celebrated of which are those of Plouharnel, Concarneau, Concurrus, Locmariaquer, Kermario, Kerlescant, Erdeven, and Sainte-Barbe. All these places are situated within a few miles of one another, and a good centre from which excursions can be made to each is the little town of Auray, with its quaint medieval market-house and shrine of St Roch. Archæologists, both Breton and foreign, appear to be agreed that the groups of stones at Ménéac, Kermario, and Kerlescant are portions of one original and continuous series of alignments which extended for nearly two miles in one direction from south-west to north-east. The monolithic avenue commences quite near the village of Ménéac, stretching away in eleven rows, and here the large stones are situated, these at first rising to a height of from 10 to 13 feet, and becoming gradually smaller, until they attain only 3 or 4 feet. In all there are 116 menhirs at Ménéac. For more than three hundred yards there is a gap in the series, which passed, we come to the Kermario avenue, which consists of ten rows of monoliths of much the same size as those of Ménéac, and 1120 in number.

Passing on to Kerlescant, with its thirteen rows of menhirs made up of 570 individual stones, we come to the end of the avenue and gaze backward upon the plain covered with these indestructible symbols of a forgotten past.

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Carnac! There is something vast, Egyptian, in the name! There is, indeed, a Karnak in Egypt, celebrated for its Avenue of Sphinxes and its pillared temple raised to the goddess Mut by King Amenophis III. Here, in the Breton Carnac, are no evidences of architectural skill. These sombre stones, unworked, rude as they came from cliff or seashore, are not embellished by man's handiwork like the rich temples of the Nile. But there is about this stone-littered moor a mystery, an atmosphere no less intense than that surrounding the most solemn ruins of antiquity. Deeper even than the depths of Egypt must we sound if we are to discover the secret of Carnac. What mean these stones? What means faith? What signifies belief? What is the answer to the Riddle of Man? In the words of Cayot Délandre, a Breton poet:

Tout cela eut un sens, et traduisit
Une pensée; mais clé de ce mystère,
Où est elle? et qui pourrait dire aujourd'hui
Si jamais elle se retrouvera?

A Vision

Over this wild, heathy track, covered with the blue flowers of the dwarf gentian, steals a subtle change. Nor air nor heath has altered. The lichen-covered grey stones are the same. Suddenly there arises the burden of a low, fierce chant. A swarm of skin-clad figures appears, clustering around a gigantic object

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which they are painfully dragging toward a deep pit situated at the end of one of the enormous alleys of monoliths. On rudely shaped rollers rests a huge stone some twenty feet in length, and this they drag across the rough moor by ropes of hide, lightening their labours by the chant, which relates the exploits of the warrior-chief who has lately been entombed in this vast pantheon of Carnac. The menhir shall serve for his headstone. It has been vowed to him by the warriors of his tribe, his henchmen, who have fought and hunted beside him, and who revere his memory. This stone shall render his fame immortal.

And now the task of placing the huge monolith in position begins. Ropes are attached to one extremity, and while a line of brawny savages strains to raise this, others guide that end of the monolith destined for enclosure in the earth toward the pit which has been dug for its reception. Higher and higher rises the stone, until at last it sinks slowly into its earthy bed. It is held in an upright position while the soil is packed around it and it is made secure. Then the barbarians stand back a space and gaze at it from beneath their low brows, well pleased with their handiwork. He whom they honoured in life rests not unrecognized in death.

The Legend of Carnac

The legend of Carnac which explains these avenues of monoliths bears a resemblance to the Cornish story of 'the Hurlers,' who were turned into stone for playing at hurling on the Lord's Day, or to that other English example from Cumberland of 'Long Meg' and her daughters. St Cornely, we are told, pursued by an


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army of pagans, fled toward the sea. Finding no boat at hand, and on the point of being taken, he transformed his pursuers into stones, the present monoliths. The Saint had made his flight to the coast in a bullock-cart, and perhaps for this reason he is now regarded as the patron of cattle. Should a bullock fall sick, his owner purchases an image of St Cornely and hangs it up in the stable until the animal recovers. The church at Carnac contains a  series of fresco paintings which outline events in the life of the Saint, and in the churchyard there is a representation of the holy man between two bullocks. The head of St Cornely is said to be preserved within the edifice as a relic. On the 13th of September is held at Carnac the festival of the 'Benediction of the Beasts,' which is celebrated in honour of St Cornely. The cattle of the district are brought to the vicinity of the church and blessed by the priests-should sufficient monetary encouragement be forthcoming.


In the neighbourhood is Mont-Saint-Michel, 1 a great tumulus with a sepulchral dolmen, first excavated in 1862, when late Stone Age implements, jade celts, and burnt bones were unearthed. Later M. Zacharie Le Rouzic, the well-known Breton archæologist, tunnelled into the tumulus, and discovered a mortuary chamber, in which were the incinerated remains of two oxen. To this tumulus each pilgrim added a stone or small quantity of earth, as has been the custom in Celtic countries from time immemorial, and so the funerary mound in the course of countless generations grew into

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quite a respectable hill, on which a chapel was built, dedicated to St Michael, from the doorway of which a splendid prospect of the great stone alignments can be had, with, for background, the Morbihan and the long, dreary peninsula of Quiberon, bleak, treeless, and deserted.


Near Carnac is the great dolmen of Rocenaud, the 'cup-and-ring' markings on which are thought by the surrounding peasantry to have been made by the knees and elbows of St Roch, who fell upon this stone when he landed from Ireland. When the natives desire a wind they knock upon the depressions with their knuckles, murmuring spells the while, just as in Scotland in the seventeenth century a tempest was raised by dipping a rag in water and beating it on a stone thrice in the name of Satan.

Cup-and-Ring Markings

What do these cup-and-ring markings so commonly discovered upon the monuments, of Brittany portend? The question is one well worth examining at some length, as it appears to be almost at the foundations of Neolithic religion. Recent discoveries in New Caledonia have proved the existence in these far-off islands, as in Brittany, Scotland, and Ireland, of these strange symbols, coupled with the concentric and spiral designs which are usually associated with the genius of Celtic art. In the neighbourhood of Glasgow, and in the south-west of Scotland generally, stones inscribed with designs closely resembling those on the New Caledonian rocks have been found in abundance, as at Auchentorlie

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and Cockno, Shewalton Sands, and in the Milton of Colquhoun district, where the famous 'cup-and-ring altar' was discovered. At Shewalton Sands in particular, in 1904, a number of stones were found bearing crosses like those discovered in Portugal by Father José Brenha and Father Rodriguez. These symbols have a strong resemblance to certain markings on the Breton rocks, and are thought to possess an alphabetic or magical significance. In Scotland spirals are commonly found on stones marked with ogham inscriptions, and it is remarkable that they should occur in New Caledonia in connexion with a dot 'alphabet.' The New Caledonian crosses, however, approximate more to the later crosses of Celtic art, while the spirals resemble those met with in the earlier examples of Celtic work. But the closest parallel to the New Caledonian stone-markings to be found in Scotland is supplied by the examples at Cockno, in Dumbartonshire, where the wheel symbol is associated with the cup-and-ring markings.

The cup-and-ring stones used to be considered the peculiar product of a race of 'Brythonic' or British origin, and it is likely that the stones so carved were utilized in the ritual of rain-worship or rain-making by sympathetic magic. The grooves in the stone were probably filled with water to typify a country partially covered with rain-water. 1

From these analogies, then, we can glean the purpose of the cup-and-ring markings upon the dolmens of Brittany, and may conclude, if our considerations are

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well founded, that they were magical in purpose and origin. Do the cup-shaped depressions represent water, or are they receptacles for rain, and do the spiral symbols typify the whirling winds?

The Gallery of Gavr’inis

Nowhere are these mysterious markings so well exemplified as in the wonderful tumulus of Gavr’inis. This ancient place of sepulture, the name of which means 'Goat Island,' lies in the Morbihan, or 'Little Sea,' an inland sea which gives its name to a department in the south of Brittany. The tumulus is 25 feet high, and covers a fine gallery 40 feet long, the stones of which bear the markings alluded to. Whorls and circles abound in the ornamentation, serpent-like figures, and the representation of an axe, similar to those to be seen in some of the Grottes aux Fées, or on the Dol des Marchands. The sculptures appear to have been executed with metal tools. The passage ends in a square sepulchral chamber, the supports of which are eight menhirs of grained granite, a stone not found on the island. Such of the menhirs as are carved were obviously so treated before they were placed in situ, as the design passes round the edges.

The Ile aux Moines

The Ile aux Moines ('Monks' Island') is also situated in the Morbihan, and has many prehistoric monuments, the most extensive of which are the circle of stones at Kergonan and the dolmen of Penhapp. On the Ile d'Arz, too, are megalithic monuments, perhaps the best example of which is the cromlech or circle at Penraz.

The folk-beliefs attached to the megalithic monuments

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of Brittany are numerous, but nearly all of them bear a strong resemblance to each other. Many of the monuments are called Grottes aux Fées or Roches aux Fées, in the belief that the fairies either built them or used them as dwelling-places, and variants of these names are to be found in the Maison des Follets ('House of the Goblins') at Cancoet, in Morbihan, and the Château des Paulpiquets, in Questembert, in the same district. Ty en Corygannt ('The House of the Korrigans') is situated in the same department, while near Penmarch, in Finistère, at the other end of the province, we find Ty C’harriquet ('The House of the Gorics' or 'Nains'). Other mythical personages are also credited with their erection, most frequently either the devil or Gargantua being held responsible for their miraculous creation. The phenomenon, well known to students of folk-lore, that an unlettered people speedily forgets the origin of monuments that its predecessors may have raised in times past is well exemplified in Brittany, whose peasant-folk are usually surprised, if not amused, at the question "Who built the dolmens?" Close familiarity with and contiguity to uncommon objects not infrequently dulls the sense of wonder they should otherwise naturally excite. But lest we feel tempted to sneer at these poor folk for their incurious attitude toward the visible antiquities of their land, let us ask ourselves how many of us take that interest in the antiquities of our own country or our own especial locality that they demand. 1

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Fairy Builders

For the most part, then, the megaliths, in the opinion of the Breton peasant, are not the handiwork of man. He would rather refer their origin to spirits, giants, or, fiends. If he makes any exception to this supernatural attribution, it is in favour of the saints he reverences so profoundly. The fairies, he says, harnessed their oxen to the mighty stones, selected a site, and dragged them thither to form a dwelling, or perhaps a cradle for the infant fays they were so fond of exchanging,, for human children. Thus the Roches aux Fées near Saint-Didier, in Ille-et-Vilaine, were raised by fairy hands, the elves collecting "all the big stones in the country" and carrying them thither in their aprons. These architectural sprites then mounted on each other's shoulders in order that they might reach high, enough to place the mighty monoliths securely in position. This practice they also followed in building the dolmen near the wood of Rocher, on the road from Dinan to Dol, say the people of that country-side. But the actual purpose of the megaliths has not been neglected by tradition, for a venerable farmer at Rouvray stated that the fairies were wont to honour after their death those who had made good use of their lives and built the dolmens to contain their ashes. The presence of such a shrine in a country-side was a guarantee of abundance and prosperity therein, as a subtle and indefinable charm spread from the saintly remnants and communicated itself to everything in the neighbourhood. 1 The fairy builders, says tradition, went about their work in no haphazard manner. Those

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among them who possessed a talent for design drew the plans of the proposed structure, the less gifted acting as carriers, labourers, and masons. Apron-carrying was not their only method of porterage, for some bore the stones on their heads, or one under each arm, as when they raised the Roche aux Fées in Retiers, or the dolmen in La Lande Marie. 1 The space of a night was usually sufficient in which to raise a dolmen. But though 'run up' with more than Transatlantic dispatch, in view of the time these structures have endured for, any charge of jerry-building against their elfin architects must fall to the ground. Daylight, too, frequently surprised the fairy builders, so that they could not finish their task, as many a 'roofless' dolmen shows.

There are many Celtic parallels to this belief. For example, it is said that the Picts, or perhaps the fairies, built the original church of Corstorphine, near Edinburgh, and stood in a row handing the stones on, one to another, from Ravelston Quarry, on the adjacent hill of Corstorphine. Such is the local folktale; and it has its congeners in Celtic and even in Hindu myth. Thus in the Highland tale of Kennedy and the claistig, or fairy, whom he captured, and whom he compelled to build him a house in one night, we read that she set her people to work speedily:

And they brought flags and stones
From the shores of Cliamig waterfall,
Reaching them from hand to hand.

Again, the Round Tower of Ardmore, in Ireland, was

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built with stones brought from Slieve Grian, a mountain some four or five miles distant, "without horse or wheel," the blocks being passed from hand to hand from the quarry to the site of the building. The same tradition applied to the Round Tower of Abernethy, in Perthshire, only it is in this case demonstrated that the stone of which the tower is composed was actually taken from the traditional quarry, even the very spot being geologically identified. 1 In like manner, too, was Rama's bridge built by the monkey host in Hindu myth, as recounted in the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyana.

Tales, as apart from beliefs, are not often encountered, in connexion with the monuments. Indeed, Sébillot, in the course of his researches, found only some dozen of these all told. 2 They are very brief, and appear for the most part to deal with fairies who have been shut up by the power of magic in a dolmen. Tales of spirits enclosed in trees, and even in pillars, are not uncommon, and lately I have heard a peculiarly fearsome ghost story which comes from Belgium, in which it is related how certain spirits had become enclosed in a pillar in an ancient abbey, for the saintly occupants of which they made it particularly uncomfortable. Mr George Henderson, in one of the most masterly and suggestive studies of Celtic survivals ever published, states that stones in the Highlands of Scotland were formerly believed to have souls, and that those too large to be moved "were held to be in intimate connexion with spirits." Pillared stones are not employed in building dwellings in the Highlands, ill luck, it is believed, being

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sure to follow their use in this manner, while to 'meddle' with stones which tradition connects with Druidism is to court fatality. 1

Stones that Travel

M. Salomon Reinach tells us of the Breton belief that certain sacred stones go once a year or once a century to, 'wash' themselves in the sea or in a river, returning to their ancient seats after their ablutions. 2 The stones in the dolmen of Essé are thought to change their places continually, like those of Callernish and Lewis, and, like the Roman Penates, to have the gift of coming and going if removed from their habitual site.

The megalithic monuments of Brittany are undoubtedly the most remarkable relics of that epoch of prehistoric activity which is now regarded as the immediate forerunner of civilization. Can it be that they were miraculously preserved by isolation from the remote beginnings of that epoch, or is it more probable that they were constructed at a relatively late period? These are questions of profound difficulty, and it is likely that both theories contain a certain amount of truth. Whatever may have been the origin of her megaliths, Brittany must ever be regarded as a great prehistoric museum, a unique link with a past of hoary antiquity.


37:1 That it was Neolithic seems undoubted, and in all probability Alpine--i.e. the same race as presently inhabits Brittany. See Dottin, Anciens Peuples de l'Europe (Paris, 1916).

38:1 But tolmen in Cornish meant 'pole of stone.'

20:1 Ostensibly, at least; but see the remarks upon modern pagan survivals in Chapter IX, p. 246.

43:1 Which might be rendered:

All here is symbol; these grey stones translate
A thought ineffable, but where the key?
Say, shall it be recovered soon or late,
To ope the temple of this mystery?

45:1 Not to be confused, of course, with the well-known island mount of the same name.

47:1 A Scottish sixteenth-century magical verse was chanted over such a stone:

I knock this rag wpone this stone,
And ask the divell for rain thereon."


49:1 The writer's experience is that unlettered British folk often possess much better information concerning the antiquities of a district than its 'educated' inhabitants. If this information is not scientific it is full and displays deep personal interest.

50:1 Collectionneur breton, t. iii, p. 55.

51:1 See Comptes rendus de la Société des Antiquaries de France, pp. 95 ff. 1836).

51:2 J. G. Campbell, Superstitions of the Scottish Highlands.

52:1 Small, Antiquities of Fife.

52:2 Traditions de la Haute-Bretagne, t. ii p. 26.

53:1 Henderson, Survivals in Belief among the Celts (1911).

53:2 Cultes, Mythes, et Religiones, t. iii, pp. 365-433.

Next: Chapter III: The Fairies of Brittany