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Stone-Raising Spinners

This article is an excerpt from the multi-volume Secret History of the Witches, a forthcoming sourcebook on European women's spiritual traditions: the goddesses, sanctuaries, and priestesses, and later, the folk religion that persisted under state Christianity. These books attempt to reweave the torn fabric of lost culture, and to recover the spiritual riches of a cosmovision which Europe once held in common with the rest of the world.

The Secret History also probes the political underpinnings of religion in Europe: how women were barred from the priesthood, how Goddess reverence was attacked as heresy and devil-worship, and how witch persecutions became a means of repressing women's speech, power, and self-determination. Read the Table of Contents for an overview of the scope of this work.

Excerpted from The Witches' Goddess, unpublished MS; © 2006 Max Dashu.

The megalithic sanctuaries built by the elder kindreds of Europe remained an enduring presence on the landscape in the wake of invasions and migrations, long after the peoples who built them were submerged in the ethnic tide. The ancient lore surrounding the great stone monuments became mixed with new religions and stories, but retained its emphasis on powerful women and goddesses. In medieval Europe these sacred stories survived as the fairy faith, where female deities and land spirits mix with the ancestral dead. What follows is excerpted from a chapter on the Old Goddess in European folk religion. This section looks at widespread tales of spinning women who created the ancient sanctuaries or molded the landscape.

International folk tradition credits the faeries with raising dolmens and other megalithic monuments. These accounts laid great emphasis on the builders' power as spinners, typically saying that a fata or goddess or lady carried the giant stones on her head while walking and spinning.

Dolmen of Losa Mora, Rodellar, Aragon

Dolmen of Losa Mora, Rodellar, Aragon

An old Aragonese legend of the Dalle Morisca said that "a woman appeared who spun with her distaff and carried the great horizontal stone of the dolmen on her head. As she reached the place where the Losa Mora dolmen of Rodellar now stands, she set the stone in the position in which she had carried it." [GARI LACRUZ, 287] In Portugal, a spinning moura carried the wonderfully carved Pedra Formosa of Citania de Briteiros. [GALLOP, 77]

The Basques named a dolmen at Mendive after the lamiñas. One of them brought the capstone from faraway Armiague balanced on her head, spinning as she went. In some versions she carried the boulder on her little finger. [SEBILLOT, IV 21] The goddess Holle also carried off a boulder on her thumb, according to Germans of the Meisner district. [GRIMM] Another Basque tradition says that the witches built dolmens in a single night, carrying stones from the mountains on the tips of their distaffs. [BARANDIARAN, 173] This theme of "one night's work" recurs in Irish traditions of megaliths built by the Cailleach (crone).

The Maltese also tell it of their ancient temples. A woman with a baby at her breast is said to have created the oldest of them, the Ggantija. "Strengthened by a meal of magic beans, she is said to have taken the huge blocks of stone to the site in a single day, and then to have built the walls by night." [VON CLES-REDEN, 78] The Ggantija is on Gozo island, which Greek tradition called the island of Calypso, daughter of Oceanus. The Maltese still point out her cave below Ggantija, which an 18th century writer describes as a labyrinth. [BIAGGI, 13-14]

Ggantija temple, Gozo Island, near Malta

Ggantija temple, Gozo Island, near Malta

A dolmen in Devon was called The Spinners' Rock. English tradition says that three spinning women erected the megalith one morning before breakfast, amusing themselves on the way to deliver wool they had spun. [STONE PAGES] Dous Fadas, a dolmen on the road from Clermont to Puy in Auvergne, was named after fées who spun as they carried its stones. In the Dordogne valley three young women elevated the standing stones of Brantôme with their distaffs. In the upper Loire valley three spinning fées carried stones on their heads to build the dolmens at Langeac. [SEBILLOT, IV 21]

The French folklorist Sebillot noted that many menhirs are shaped like distaffs or loaded spindles. They were said to have been put in place by supernatural spinners. [SEBILLOT, 5] In 1820 peasants near Simandre in Ain told a researcher that the Spindle of the Faery Woman, a great standing stone, had been placed there by la Fau who carried it in her arms. It was the only one left of three menhirs planted in the ground by three fées on their way to a gathering. [Tardy, Le Menhir de Simandre, 1892, cited in SEBILLOT, IV, 6]

At Rocquaine on the island of Guernsey, a woman of very small stature was seen climbing the cliff beyond the beach, knitting and carrying something in her apron as carefully as if it were a dozen eggs or a newborn. She suddenly stopped and, with great ease, hurled a fifteen-foot stone into the plain above. [SEBILLOT, 7]

The Woman Stone at St Georges-sur-Moulon fell when a giant woman from the Haut-Brune forest was descending the hillside. The strings of her apron broke, releasing the stone she was carrying in it. In Scotland, it is a basket-strap that broke as the Cailleach carried earth and stones on her back. They spilled out to form Mount Vaichaird, or the rock piles called Carn na Caillich. The Cailleach shaped the hills of Ross-shire and much of the Scottish highlands by carrying loads in her basket. [MACKENZIE, 164]

In southwest Ireland, the Cailleach Bhéara had two sister-hags who were guardians of Kerry peninsulas. Once, when the hag of Beare fell on hard times, the hag of Dingle decided to help her by giving her another island. She roped one of her own and dragged it southward, but it split into two before reaching its destination. [O HOGAIN, 67] This tale is a little reminiscent of the story of Gefjon, who made king Gylfi laugh and was granted the boon of as much land as four oxen could plough in a day and a night. She yoked her giant-sons as oxen to a plow and pulled a huge chunk of land into the sea, leaving a huge lake in Sweden. Gefjon named the new island Zeeland.

These tales reach as far as Finland, where giants' daughters carried huge rocks in their aprons and tossed them up near Päjände in Hattulasocken. The Scandanavian merwoman Zechiel and her sister wished to visit each other, and set about building a bridge of stones across the sea. But they never finished; Zechiel was startled by Thor's thunder, and the enormous stones scattered out of her apron. In Pomerania, a giant's daughter wanted to make a bridge across the sea to the island of Rügen. She brought an apronful of sand, but dropped it when her mother threatened to punish her. The sand she spilled became the hills near Litzow. [GRIMM 536-7] A Scottish variant has the devil threatening to take an old Donside witch unless she made him a rope of sand before nightfall. She grinned and did it easily. Later it broke, and its remnants are the low sandhills called the Kembs of Kemnay in Aberdeenshire. [BUCHAN, 268-9]

In some stories the menhir-carrying woman metamorphosed into the Catholic goddess.

In some stories the menhir-carrying woman metamorphosed into the Catholic goddess. In Pléchatel the Holy Virgin was walking along spinning with the Long Stone on her head and the White Stones in her apron. She dropped her spindle and when she bent to pick it up, the stone on her head slid off and plunged into the ground just where the spindle had fallen. Meanwhile the stones in her apron rolled out and landed in a pattern like thread coming from the Long-Stone spindle. [SEBILLOT, IV, 7]

Sometimes the only trace of the legend is a place-name. In the 1700s, the people of Elbersweiller in Alsace called a local menhir the Distaff, and other stones were called Kunkel (distaff) in Germany. The names of some stones show cultural drift away from the original pagan goddess: St Barbe's Spindle, Kriemhild's Spindle, the Distaff of la Madeleine (this would be Mary Magdalene) or Gargantua's Wife's Spindle. [SEBILLOT IV, 5] Saint Lufthildis was said to have marked out her lands with her spindle from her hilltop dwelling, the Lufteberg. [ECKENSTEIN, 25]

Assimilation of saints' names is unsurprising given the long campaign to christianize pagan culture, and the peasantry's refusal to give it up.

Assimilation of saints' names is unsurprising given the long campaign to christianize pagan culture, and the peasantry's refusal to give it up. Under these circumstances a synthesis was inevitable. Strange associations arose when biblical characters were projected into the old faery lore: the strongman Samson was said to have carried the standing stones in the Gaillac region — but while spinning!

St Radegonde carried the Standing Stone of Poitiers — with the capstone on her head and the five pillars in her apron — and set it in the ground. In the same way, St Madeleine carried boulders to build a dolmen in an island in the Vienne river. [SEBILLOT IV, 22-23] In Aveyron the Virgin carried the boulders of the Peyrignagols dolmen, one on her head and one on each arm, spinning as she walked. During the trip she filled seven spindles with thread each day. This ancient monument was known as the Holy Rocks. People said that the dolmens of Valderies and Peyrolevado were raised the same way, and they too were eventually credited to the Catholic goddess. [SEBILLOT, IV 22]

Other megaliths of the same type fell under the church's ban, and came to be called Devil's Stone.

Other megaliths of the same type fell under the church's ban, and came to be called Devil's Stone, or were otherwise demonized. Yet popular memory kept on connecting the archaic stone temples with the faeries and witches. The Aragonese described megalithic sanctuaries as places where witch assemblies took place. They called the dolmen at Ibirque, Aragón, the Witches' Hut; others retained goddess associations. Spanish and Portuguese traditions of supernatural moras at these monuments may allude to their ancient north African origins. [GARI LACRUZ, 287-8]

Basques said that the lamiñas (faeries) or sorguiñes (witches) built the dolmens of Mendive, as well as the country's oldest bridges, houses, castles, palaces, and even churches. [BARANDIARAN, 85-6, note] The western Basques often say that devils built the bridges, though they also name the pagans or Moors. Several dolmens are known as Sorguinexte, "witch's house."

In Sardinia the ancient nuraghe were sometimes called Nuraghe Istria, "witch's tower." The witch-goddess Lughia Rajosa lived in one of these neolithic towers. Her enchanted distaff (Rocca fatata) guarded great wealth: herds of animals and thousands of jars of grain and oil. The distaff moved around in the day, while Lughia slept, and whistled to warn her when intruders came. It was told that youths often tried to rob her animals or firewood. She defeated many of them, but one managed to push her magical distaff into the oven. Not knowing how to cry, Lughia turned into innumerable insects who cried for her. Now she flies as a cicada amidst the nuraghe towers. [ENNA, 44, 78-81]

A Sardinian nuraga (neolithic tower)

A Sardinian nuraga (neolithic tower)

A Breton dolmen called the Spinner's Bed was inhabited by a supernatural sorcière. Standing on the stones, if she threw her spindle to the right it reached to mount Roc'h goz in Plestin; when she hurled it to the left it fell at Beg an Inkinerez in Plougasnou, three miles away. Another powerful fée was said to live in a dolmen at Tregastel, called Gouele an Inkinerez, "Bed of the Spinner." This fée was able to hurl her spindle enormous distances, like a shaman projecting her power. [SEBILLOT IV 28] In the 13th century, an account of an old woman tried as a heretic at Reims described her as throwing a ball of thread in this way, and flying after it like a witch.

Sometimes the legend of the building faery was assimilated to historical figures. Maud of Hay, a noblewoman whose husband feuded with king John of Robin Hood fame, was captured, ransomed, captured again, and finally walled up for life in the king's tower, along with her children. Folklore remembers her by her maiden name, as Mol Walbee. Posthumously she acquired a reputation as a powerful witch. The Welsh said that Mol Walbee singlehandedly built the castle of Hay in Breconshire in one night. As she carried stones in her apron, a nine-foot "pebble" dropped into her shoe. She kept going, but the stone irritated her, so she threw it across the Wye river. It landed three miles away in Llowes churchyard, Radnorshire. The church does not seem to have been an accidental target. In another tale, a monk interrupted Moll's midnight incantations, exhorting her to give them up. She grabbed him, carried him to the Wye and dumped him in the river, where he drowned. [TREVELYAN, 129]

Roche-aux-Fées, Essé, Bretagne

Roche-aux-Fées at Essé, Bretagne

The Mascos built themselves a home at the Cabano de los Mascos near Ceyrac. (The name of these faeries comes from mascae, an ancient word for witches that shows up in some of the earliest witchcraft laws.) They too carried enormous blocks atop their distaffs. At the Tioule des Fadas, a fada gathered chunks of granite so large that ten bulls would have been unable to budge them, and built a shelter for herself and her sheep. She carried the largest stone on the tip of her distaff, spinning as she walked. [SEBILLOT, IV 21]

In French accounts the fées bringing stones for their megalithic temples often throw them down haphazardly when they find out that the building was already finished. [SEBILLOT, IV 7] So it happened with fées carrying stones to the Roche-aux-Fées at Essé. When they heard that no more stones were needed, they stuck one boulder upright and scattered the rest alongside it. Another group of fées, hearing their sister call to them not to bring more stones, let them fall and be buried deep in the earth. [GRIMM 413]

One legend has Margot-la-Fée walking along with a stone on her head, knitting, when she spotted a motionless bird on the ground. "So you die in this country?" The answer was yes. "And here I am carrying this stone for a monument-it's not worth the trouble to build." And she threw the rock where it stands today, at Poterie near Lamballe. [SEBILLOT, IV 22]

Bibliography

  • [BARANDIARAN] Barandiaran, Jose M. de, MitologĂ­a Vasca, Editorial Txertoa, San Sebastian, 1979.
  • [BIAGGI] Biaggi, Cristina, Habitations of the Great Goddess, Knowledge, Ideas and Trends, 1994.
  • [BUCHAN] Buchan, David, ed., Folk Tradition and Folk Medicine in Scotland: Edinburgh, 1994.
  • [ECKENSTEIN] Eckenstein, Lina, Woman under monasticism; chapters on saint-lore and convent life between A.D. 500 and A.D. Cambridge: University Press, 1896.
  • [ENNA] Enna, Francesco, Fiabe sarde. Milano : A. Mondadori, 1991.
  • [GALLOP] Gallop, Rodney, Portugal: A Book of Folkways, Cambridge University Press, 1936.
  • [GARI LACRUZ] Gari Lacruz, Angel, "Les Sabbats en Aragon d'Apres les Documents et la Tradition Orale," in Sabbat des Sorciers en Europe: XVe-XVIIIe Siecles, ed. Nicole Jacques Chaquin and Maxime Préaud, Paris: Jerome Millon, 1993
  • [GRIMM] Grimm, Jacob, Teutonic Mythology, Vols I-IV, translated from 4th edition by James S. Stallybrass, George Bell & Sons, London, 1883.
  • [MACKENZIE] MacKenzie, Donald, Scottish Folk Lore and Folk Life, Blackie, London, 1935.
  • [O HOGAIN] Daithi, Myth, Legend, and Romance: An Encyclopedia of the Irish Tradition, Prentice Hall, New York, 1991.
  • [SEBILLOT] Sebillot, Paul, La Folklore de la France, Vols I-IV, Librairie Orientale et Americaine, Paris, 1904.
  • [STONE PAGES] Stone Pages, joshua.micronet.it/untesti/dmeozzi/homeng.html, 6-97.
  • [TREVELYAN] Trevelyan, Marie, Folk-lore and folk-stories of Wales, London: E. Stock, 1909.
  • [VON CLES-REDEN] von Cles-Reden, Sibylle, The Realm of the Great Goddess: The Story of the Megalith Builders, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs NJ, 1962.

Graphics Credits

  • All images from the author's private collection. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
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