standing stones

standing stones
   Erected in prehistoric times, whether solitary or in groups, these frequently attract legends to explain either how they came to be there or what strange powers they have; the same is true of natural boulders and rock formations, if they are sufficiently dramatic. A single stone is often said to have been thrown or dropped by the *Devil, by *giants, or by some mighty hero such as Robin Hood; occasionally, if the stone is near a church, it is said the Devil was trying to knock it down, but missed. Alternatively, the giant (or Devil) was carrying stones to build something himself, but stupidly dropped one. The very size of the stones inspired some storytellers to claim they were set up with astounding speed and ease. Rudston Stone (Humberside), the tallest standing stone in England, grew up in the churchyard in a single night, by its own power; a group of three large uprights and a capstone at Drewsteignton (Devon) is called the Spinsters' Rock because three old maids set it up one morning before breakfast.
   Such stories are clearly frivolous, but there are about a dozen others (*Long Meg and Stanton Drew are good examples) which tell how evil-doers were turned to stone for dancing, playing sports, or working, instead of respecting the Sabbath, or for witchcraft. The medieval name 'The Giants' Dance' for Stonehenge hints intriguingly that a tale of this type was once told there.
   Another recurrent motif is that megaliths cannot be counted correctly; both at Stone-henge and at Stanton Drew anyone who gets the number right will meet misfortune, even death. Nor can they be shifted from their place, or if they are, they return at once by their own power - though they do move voluntarily, at certain times. L. V. Grinsell (1976: 58-60) listed 23 prehistoric megaliths in England which walk, turn round, or go to a river to drink, when they hear the clock strike twelve, or hear the church bells, or hear the cock crow, and then return to their places; there is a further list in Janet and Colin Bord, The Secret Country (1978), 144-51, which includes natural boulders such as the impressive Cheesewring on Bodmin Moor (Cornwall). The crucial phrase is 'when they hear', for no stone hears anything; several of the tales contain additional improbabilities, such as a cock crowing in the middle of Bodmin Moor, or a church clock striking thirteen. It is possible that the belief was once seriously held, but it is now merely the basis for a catch to tease children.
   ■ Grinsell, 1976; S. P. Menefee, Folklore 85 (1974), 23-42; Folklore 86 (1975), 146-66.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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