Cosmologies put cultural traditions into mythical or religious contexts which are eternally fixed and do not allow people any possibility for change and progress. They can explain why things exist or happen the way they do, where people come from, and where they go after death. Megaliths are places associated at the same time with the ancestors in the distant past, the realm of the dead, and the stones as creations of nature. They may also have become directly connected with religious deities such as gods, and with spirits of the dead (Tuan 1979: chapter 10). On Rügen alone, four ancient mounds are known as "Himmelsberge" (sky mounds), which may well reflect a perceived cosmological significance (Haas 1925: 50-1). Megaliths are certainly given cosmological and religious meanings in paintings by Caspar David Friedrich as well as by some neo-pagan groups in the present. By the same token, ruins from a glorious past evoked the gods in ancient Mesopotamia, much as the eternal pyramids of Egypt were always seen in connection with the sky, the cosmos, and the sphere of the gods (Assmann 1996: 71, 74-5, 86-90, 93).

Arguably, already in the Neolithic, megalithic tombs linked places in the landscape with the dead and with the wider cosmos. Megaliths transcended the landscape of the everyday and profane life-world; they were built for eternity. The astronomical significance of (some) megaliths is, then, hardly coincidental (cf. Adams 1990: 135-6). In ancient Greece, the remote sanctuary at Delphi was build around the sacred 'navel of the world'. Essentially a site of cosmological significance, Delphi remained for very long time one of the key places where the Greeks dealt with their gods and with each other (cf. Bradley 1993: 111-2). Ancient monuments in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern could at different times during their life-histories have been of a similar significance, although—to judge from the finds made—certainly on a much smaller scale. Julian Thomas argued that they can be seen as examples of 'cosmological engineering': locally-occurring substances were transformed into structures which manipulated the relationship between people, the(ir) land and the spiritual world (Thomas 1996; see also Richards 1996 and papers by Jane Downes, Andrew Jones and Colin Richards presented at the conference "Megaliths and Social Geography", Falköping, Sweden, 1994). Megaliths were perhaps deliberately built as places where the realms of the divine Gods and the innermost spirit of Nature could become evident (cf. Teichmann 1983: 179-205). Moreover, if cup-marks and other elements of megalithic art are 'entoptic' images which had been experienced in states of altered consciousness, megaliths may have been places where (certain) people could actually move from one world to another (Bradley 1997: 52-5, 153-4).

Megalith in a forest landscape in Forst Everstorf (34), Kreis Grevesmühlen (1995)

Stone-settings surrounding prehistoric burial mounds could have signified the border between the world of the living and that of the dead, or indeed the gods. Various scholars suggested that their aim was not merely to slow down earth erosion from the mound, but that they mainly marked the consecrated site in the manner of a Bannkreis (e.g. Wackenroder 1730: 8; Beltz 1899: 82; Kiekebusch 1931: 46; Goeßler 1938: 34-5; cf. Röder 1948: 102-5, 115). John Meier argued that it was this protected character of the area inside the Bannkreis which made many ancient burial sites also become court sites (Meier 1950: 19, 49, 150-1 and passim; cf. Goeßler 1938: 35-7; Müller-Bergström 1987). Horst Keiling and Günter Rennebach, however, rejected the interpretation of such stone circles as Bannkreise. Both point in a curiously identical argument to two barrows in Granzin, Kreis Hagenow, where only a short time after they had been built in the late Bronze Age, the barrows and their stone circles were partly destroyed and replaced by larger barrows which were again surrounded by stone circles. For Keiling and Rennebach, this proved that the stone circles cannot have functioned as Bannkreise, as in that case people would not have dared to destroy them in the process of building new, larger barrows—and neither would they have placed secondary burials into such mounds (Keiling 1979: 50-1; Rennebach 1979: 96-7).

It is recorded in several Irish stories that sitting on a mound can be a means of entering into communication with the supernatural world (Ellis 1943: 109). Activities like this could explain some later finds on megaliths. Moreover, to bury your own dead in such sites, to build, in later prehistory, burial mounds with similar stone-settings to those known from much older monuments, and to imitate ancient grave architecture in your own may have been equivalent to making a religious as well as a political statement about an eternal world-order and cosmology, according to which the dead always had been, and always would be buried at a certain place and in a certain way (cf. van de Noort 1993; Williams 1998: 96, 103). Similarly, cup-marks on monuments may be seen as later prehistoric appreciations of sacred places in the landscape which had a special cosmological significance (cf. Teichmann 1983: 201-5). In folklore too, reference is often made to supernatural creatures and powers which are associated with megaliths and indeed other sacred stones (Eliade 1958: chapter 6).


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© Cornelius Holtorf