The folklore of megaliths

Ancient monuments all over Europe are often surrounded by folktales and sometimes associated with bizarre customs (Tschumi 1934/35; Saintyves 1934–36; Ohlhaver 1937; Grinsell 1976). Such folklore is the result of the local population making sense over a long time of the landscape and the remains of the past it contains. The folklore of ancient monuments can thus be seen as an expression of the history culture of what are often rural communities (Ohlhaver 1937: 193; Gazin-Schwartz and Holtorf 1999). A lot of folklore has also got a strong entertainment value.

Themes of the folklore of megaliths

The folktales told in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern about ancient monuments such as megaliths can be divided into several main groups, by their themes. It is interesting that the very same themes occur not only at megaliths in other regions (see e.g. Saintyves 1934–36; Grinsell 1976; Liebers 1986; Eriksen 1990: 51–63), but also in connection with various other natural and cultural phenomena which are not megaliths (see e.g. Ellis 1943).

Numerous tales describe megaliths and single large erratics as stones which giants had thrown or lost, while megaliths in particular are also described as their graves, or houses, or ovens (e.g. Temme 1840: 213; Bartsch 1879: 26–39; Haas 1925: 53–60). The association of giants with megaliths goes back to at least the 13th century, when the oldest references to 'tumuli gigantis' are found in written documents. Interestingly, such stories replaced almost completely for several centuries the references to ancient mounds as graves of earlier people (e.g. 'antiquorum sepulcra', 'tumuli paganorum') which were more frequent in the earlier sources (Lisch 1937: 11–15; Sippel 1980; Thäte 1993: chapter 5.1). Today in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, megaliths are still generally known as Hünengräber (giants' graves), for example in Forst Everstorf (Lisch 1837: 72).
hidden treasures
Folktales about ancient burials and mounds containing treasures probably have been common in many ages and are still numerous and manifold (e.g. Temme 1840: 213; Bartsch 1879: 243f., 263–268; Haas 1925: 67–73; Kiekebusch 1928). The oldest references to treasures in ancient monuments in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern are from the late 16th century (Giesebrecht 1850/2: 157). Often tales of treasure include some fairy or other entity which will punish anyone attempting to recover the treasure. It is therefore possible that in the past superstition stopped (some) people from desecrating or destroying monuments linked to such folktales, thus contributing to their preservation (Ohlhaver 1937: 204f., 211–214; Leube 1969: 18; cf. Liebers 1986: 79). But the same stories have also motivated numerous looting treasure-hunters.
Often, fairies are said to live inside the mounds and guard the treasure. These fairies are frequently called 'dwarfs' (Haas 1925: 60–66) or simply 'Unterirdische' (subterraneans) (Bartsch 1879: 41–52). As Haas noted, dwarfs are usually associated with burials from the Bronze and Iron Ages, which have nevertheless often been referred to as Hünengräber, while Neolithic burials in megaliths are the realm of the giants. This reflects a folk belief that the land was first inhabited by giants, followed by dwarfs, followed by human beings (Haas 1925: 51, 60).

Other re-occurring themes of folktales associated with ancient monuments include

Many of these themes are reflected in old place and field names (see e.g. Haas 1925: 50) and such names may be the only remaining evidence for a prehistoric site which has now completely disappeared. There are also various popular traditions and customs, which make reference to similar themes as those of the folktales, connected with megaliths, cup-marked stones, and ancient stone artefacts—whether or not this reflects a continuity from prehistoric times (Haas 1913: 245; Carelli 1997). In Medieval times, magical practices of various kinds took place at prehistoric monuments, which were often connected with fertility and health (Wood-Martin 1902: chapter VI; Kirchner 1955: 653–672; Eliade 1958: chapter 6; Johnson 1992; cf. Flint 1991). In Putgarten, Kreis Rügen, wedding parties used to walk three times around the Teufelsstein (Devil's Stone; probably not a megalith though) after they left the church (source: Ortsakte). Partly, such practices may have been connected with pagan beliefs, and hence were combated by the Christian church and Medieval law (Uslar 1972). Generally speaking, magic and religion are two quite different spheres, although at times they may overlap. While religions involve the worshipping of gods, magic is restricted to attempts to enforce control over nature by spiritual forces (see Hutton 1991: 289–292). The Christian Church tried to blur this distinction and declared all magic as 'pagan', but magic and religion may well have been practised on different occasions by the same Christian people (Barb 1963).

Megaliths were in earlier centuries frequently considered to have been sacrificial altars, a view which was probably influenced by the discovery of cup-marks on some of them (e.g. Haas 1913: 244f.; Ohlhaver 1937: 222–234). This is reflected in associated folktales and place names according to which some megaliths, as well as several cup-marked stones or large erratics, were Opfertische or Opfersteine. Among them are the cup-marked stones in Quoltitz, Kreis Rügen, and in Bollewick (1020), Kreis Röbel; the megalith with cup-marks in Klein Görnow (707), Kreis Sternberg; and the megaliths without cup-marks in Cammin (94) and Liepen, Kreis Rostock, and in Krakow (294?) and Silvitz, Kreis Rügen.

Some of these elements of folklore about megaliths are also contained in early documents by antiquarians and archaeologists working at megaliths.

Dating folklore

Some scholars have claimed that the folklore of ancient monuments goes back to the distant past and in fact reflects their meaning in prehistory (e.g. Gennep 1917: 164-5; Ohlhaver 1937: 193f., 254; Deppe 1983/4: 28f.). References to megaliths as graves of former people may indicate a continuous tradition until at least the 13th century (Sippel 1980: 145f.). But there are also surprising correlations between folktales and recent excavation results which seem to suggest a much longer continuity of folklore. One famous case is the Königsgrab (King's Grave) of Seddin, where a folktale said that the buried King Hinz with his sword was surrounded by a threefold 'coffin'. Excavations then revealed his ashes in a Bronze pot which was contained in a clay pot which was contained in a grave chamber, together with a sword (Kiekebusch 1928; Ohlhaver 1937: 210f.; Wüstemann 1966: 2). Similar cases are the Bollenberg near Falkenwalde, Kreis Prenzlau in Brandenburg, the Dronninghoj near Schuby in Schleswig-Holstein, and three tumuli in Peckatel near Schwerin, where in each case excavations appeared to confirm details of old folktales (Lehmkuhl and Nagel 1991; Ohlhaver 1937: 206f., see also 194f.; Haas 1925: 51f.). In Mönchgut on Rügen, the locally used field name 'Kirchhof' (graveyard) was surprisingly confirmed in its meaning when several prehistoric urn-burials were discovered right there (Haas 1913: 240). In all these cases, it is possible that the memory of the significance of these ancient sites was kept alive for long time periods.

However, it is clear that folklore can also be manipulated, and some tales are in fact of very recent origin. During the 17th century, for instance, the Hertha-legend in Tacitus was mistakenly linked by the antiquarian Philipp Clüver to the Stubbenkammer on Rügen (Giesebrecht 1850/2: 165f.). Once established, however, the legend remained attached to the site and is still today often referred to in the local tourist industry. Similarly, an old grindstone found in Forst Werder (near no. 245) became an Opferstein in c.1856 when a man was keen to be able to show his friends a local sight (Baier 1886: 67f., note 2). Moreover, the great similarity in the themes of many folktales over large areas seems to suggest that such tales are influenced more by each other than by the places they are about. The folklore of ancient sites may thus be due to a widespread social phenomenon rather than to a continuity of oral tradition from prehistory.

The folklore of archaeology

During the excavations of the megalith in Lütow in 1826, Pastor Wilhelm Meinhold wrote the following poem (cited after Baenz 1996: 47; links added):

Wir steigen hinab in die hochumwaldete Talschlucht
Zu dem Hünenstein und dem singenden Echo von Lütow.
Prächtig türmt sich hier dies Mal der grauen Vorzeit.
Sechs Steine deckt ein ungeheuer Granitblock,
Welchen nicht hundert Männer jetzt regten; mächtige Stufen
Führen empor, und du glaubst zu seh'n die gräßliche Rinne,
Daraus das rauchende Blut abfloß geschachteter Menschen.
Über ihm braust empor ein hoher riesiger Weißdorn,
Dessen struppige Kinder umher auf den Mälern der Helden
Wuchern, und aus dem Weiher daneben tönet der Unke
Melancholisches Lied, wie ein unterirdischer Wehruf,
Währen dem schrecklichen Stein, ein seltsam fügender Zufall,
Blutiger Mohn den Fuß umbebt und die rötliche Trespe.

Nichts doch mahnt uns so sehr an dies vergängliche Leben
Als solch' ernste Zeugen der Zeit und des fernsten Jahrtausends.
Wo sind jetzt diese Männer, die diese Felsen getürmt,
Wo die Völker, die hier im Widerhalle der Berghöh
Ihre Götter befragt?...

Horch da klirren alsbald die Spaten, und es entdeckt sich
Ein seltsamer Kreis von flachgesprengten Steinen,
Die, nach der Regel gepackt, umlaufen den mächtigen Quarzblock.
Sieh, da platzed die Erde umher, da regt der Block sich,
Und mit dumpfem Getöse versinkt er bald in der Grube,
Die sie klüglich zuvor ihm tief gegraben zu Seiten.
Laut jubelt nun alles; denn gülden blitzt es im Kessel.
Nur ein kupferner Speer entdeckt sich unseren Händen,
Lang und zierlich gereift, und zwo keilförmige Steine,
Die manch Haut vielleicht getrennt unglücklicher Menschen.


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© Cornelius Holtorf