Not far from the village of St Columb Major in the parish of St Issey you can find the Nine Maidens Stone Row in a field a short distance from the busy road. This type of ancient monument is something of a rarity. In fact, when the Nine Maidens was first scheduled in November 1928 it was thought to be the only stone row in the whole of Cornwall. Since then several other rows, perhaps as many as eleven, have been identified on Bodmin Moor but the Nine Maidens still remains one of the most impressive.
The row is constructed of carefully selected local grey slate, heavily streaked with white quartz, which makes them stand out against the landscape both by day and by night. The stones are set on a south-west alignment with an associated menhir, now recumbent, about 600m away to the north-east. This large individual stone is also made of the same high quartz-content material. The Nine Maidens row, which stretches from just over 100m, has nine evenly spaced stones still standing, the largest is around 2m high, although it is thought that the line was once much longer.
Stone rows such as this are notoriously hard to date as so few have been properly excavated and dateable finds are sparse. However they are considered to have been in use around 4000 years ago, between 2500BC and 1000BC. Their function is a mystery but some are thought to have celestial alignments and they are generally believed to have had some kind of ceremonial purpose.
“Wadebridge delivereth you into waste ground, where nine long and great stones called The Sisters stand in rank together . . .”Richard Carew, 1605
Until relatively recently this monument was known as The Sisters as it’s Cornish name was ‘Naw Voz‘ meaning ‘nine sisters’. In addition the term maiden may also come from a Cornish term – ‘Maidn Nun‘ meaning ‘moorland stone’.
Like so many other prehistoric remains the row also has a legend attached to it. The stones are said to be the petrified remains of nine young girls who were turned to stone for dancing on a Sunday. The standing stone to the north is known as the Fiddler, although it has also been called the Old Man and the Whitehorse, and is presumably a musician who met the same fate.
The theme of young women being turned to stone for dancing on a Sunday is a common one in Cornwall. From the Merry Maidens with their pipers, the Nine Maidens Circle at Boskednan and Tregeseal Circle to the Hurlers on Bodmin Moor, all supposedly suffered petrification as a punishment. The church advertised this as a form of eternal damnation.
“These stones are everlasting marks of the Divine displeasure, being maidens or men, who were changed into stone for some wicked profanation of the Sabbath-day. These monuments of impiety are scattered over the county . . .”Robert hunt, Popular Romances of the west, 1881
Myths of petrification were almost certainly the early Christian Church’s way of asserting authority over these ancient monuments and undermining the power and respect they still evoked within the Cornish community.
“The Hurlers, in the parish of St Clare, Cornwall; the Stones of which, by the vulgar, are supposed to have been once men, and thus transformed, as a punishment for their hurling upon the Lord’s Day.”William Borlase, Antiquities Historical & Monumental of Cornwall, 1754
Petrification myths are not confined to Cornwall however, there are a few up country and many others worldwide. The Greeks had Medusa, the stones at Carnac in Brittany are meant to be petrified soldiers, both Poland and the Czech Republic have prehistoric menhirs which are said to be stone men and an Icelandic legend from the island of Drangey has giants turning to stone. Similar myths can be found in China, Japan, Colombia, India and New Zealand.
But perhaps what interests me most about these petrification legends is not the recent notion of Christian damnation but the thought that in order to be turned into stone the monuments must have been seen to be living first. At one time there must have been a belief that they had life, an energy, in them, and I can’t help but wonder where that idea stems from.
“the ‘rude stone monuments’, the widely acknowledged relics of an unimagined age, are repositories still of ancient power, are the living stones.”Ithell colquhoun, The living stones, 1957
Of course, it follows that if these stones have been ‘alive’ once, then perhaps they can be alive again! This notion too has filtered into recent popular fiction, such as the children’s book The Whispering Knights by Penelope Lively, which I loved. And there is also a rather beautifully bizarre 1978 Doctor Who episode called The Stones of Blood, supposedly set in Cornwall but actually filmed at the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire. In it the Doctor must face the ancient stones coming to life, turning fairly violent and basically running amuck.
Closer to home again the Nine Maidens Circle at Boskednan was also the inspiration for the Celtic Opera ‘Lernin’ written by George Lloyd. The opera, which was performed in Penzance in 1934, tells the story of one of the stone maidens coming back to life as a fairy. In an interview George Lloyd explains:
“You see for me, I half believe that a stone [laughter] can become a woman! This whole magic business – I know I don’t believe it, but I still think it is in the realms of possibility. I always felt that. As because as the tenors said ‘these stones they seem to have life to me,’ and all that country, that whole thing, whole atmosphere of the place of West Penwith, it seemed to alive to me, and then when I looked and thought about Lernin, I said, yes, I half believe all that, and half believing is better than not believing at all.”
When visiting these sites it is important, I believe, to consider not only what the stones meant to the people that constructed them but what they have come to mean to the generations of people that have lived in and around them since.
The myths and legends that we scoff at now may hide some more interesting and thought-provoking ideas than first glance would suggest. Our relationship to these wonderful monuments 4000 years ago, 400 years ago and today is all part of the same continuous story.