Place, Archaeology, and Petrification Myths (a #FolkloreThursday magpie request)

A couple of months ago I presented my finding relating to folklore mapping to a couple of conferences (‘Masculinities in the landscape’ in absentia, and ‘archaeology and the map – critique and practice’ in slightly shambling person).

One of the key findings relates to petrification myths; where individuals have been turned to stone (by the devil or similar, depending on the age of the story), and used as creation stories for megaliths and other prehistoric landscapes.

The mapping of such folkloric motifs in the South West of England (Cornwall to Wiltshire), has enabled concentrations of story types to be identified, allowing further investigation into why such myths occur in specific places.

I’m really interested in collecting other folklore relating to people being turned to stone, the monuments the stories relate to, and the people referred to in the tale, in order to test and expand on my ideas (which I’m happy to share in a separate post, if anyone is at all interested).

Please get in touch with me if you know of any such stories. My folklore magpie tendencies is really interested in finding new things!


10 thoughts on “Place, Archaeology, and Petrification Myths (a #FolkloreThursday magpie request)

  1. You may be interested in this one: The legend of Carlin Maggie, a witch turned to stone by Satan on West Lomond Hill #Fife #FolkloreThursday

  2. Dr H says:

    Grinsell’s Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain has lots of examples. You can read my version of the Rollright Stones story here:

  3. calmgrove says:

    You’ll know all the Stanton Drew lore of course, and — possibly related, though about a natural feature — the Witch of Wookey turned to stone. In fiction I remember Penelope Lively’s 70s kids story ‘The Whispering Knights’ about the Rollright Stones, though that’s not really West Country. And of course Tolkien, drawing on Scandinavian tradition, memorably included stone trolls in ‘The Hobbit’.

    Grinsell I agree is a good place to start (somewhere I’ve got his booklet on Stanton Drew traditions published in the 70s by Toucan Press). Much of the folklore has a Christian veneer attached to it — the petrification occurring on a Sunday, for example.

    My memories of all this is rather dated, you’ll have gathered! I was with a group in Cornwall then, traipsing around the Penwith peninsula with John Michell when he was rearching ‘The Old Stones of Land’s End’ and I seem to remember hints of petrification lore from the Land of Giants, though sadly can’t remember any detail.

    One thing from more recently: when I was living in the Preseli Hills there was a line of natural bluestones clearly visible on the skyline from just to the south. Cerrig Marchogion, the Stones of the Knights, are now irretrievably associated with the Mabinogion story of Arthur hunting the giant boar Twrch Trwyth across the landscape, though the stones are never explicitly identified as his men, nor is any tale extant about why the warriors were turned to stone. Seeing them regularly silhouetted on the skyline made me wish some lore at least had survived.

    • lucyry says:

      Thanks for all of this, it’s fantastic!
      Really interesting regarding Cerrig Marchogion, it would be worth tracing back that story to untangle the Arthurian myths from the legend (so to speak!)

      • calmgrove says:

        I never got round to researching the earliest references to place names on the Preselis, Lucy — Cerrig Marchogion, Bedd Arthur (Arthur’s Grave), Cerrig Meibion Arthur (the Stones of the Sons of Arthur) — but the earliest Arthurian references to the area are in Culhwch ac Olwen (late 11th century?) which refers to running battles with the boar and of the deaths of warriors. Whether the writing of the Welsh tale came first or the association of prehistoric stones and natural outcrops with folktales of a larger than life Arthur is therefore going to be a moot point.

        Fiction, especially in the fantasy genre, is always going to borrow from folktale motifs and make them its own, an inter-relationship I always find fascinating.

      • lucyry says:

        I’ve had a similar conversation on another blog about Arthurian connections. Without looking at the stories etc I’d guess Arthur came last, and replaced a Welsh king or similar. Which came first the story independently or the association with the place that’s the big question!

  4. calmgrove says:

    I have to say that I’m agnostic regarding the existence of a Dark Age warrior called Arthur — the first ‘historical’ but rather dubious references coming more than three centuries later (see my reviews of Tom Green’s ‘Concepts of Arthur’ and Nick Higham’s study).

    I’m more inclined to see Arthur as a semi-mythological figure, a giant who flings dolmens around like pebbles and quoits and who is associated with high places (the Preselis, Pen-y-fan, Snowdon) where he hunts giant boars, sits on a mountain throne and sleeps in a cave till the end of time.

  5. lucyry says:

    Thanks for the ref. to your review.
    I’m inclined to think the same, Arthur becomes the short-hand recognisable name in stories, replacing earlier figures now unpopular, or ‘politically incorrect’ due to religious or social changes

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