West Penwith's Menhirs
This second page on menhirs gives more details about specific kinds of menhirs and stones in West Penwith. We look at terrestrial and astronomical alignments, double menhirs, the Kemyel stones and holed stones. For a full study of West Penwith's menhirs by Ian McNeil Cooke, click here.
On this page: Terrestrial Alignments - Stone Circle Complexes - Astronomical Alignments - Menhir Geomantics - Double Menhirs - Kemyel-Swingate - Holed Stones
Menhirs seem to exist for a variety of reasons. They are all variously plugged in to the alignment system of West Penwith - that is, they are all located in aligned relationship to other menhirs and sites.
Red = placed stones, green = natural carns, pink = holed stones, circles = stone circles
It is difficult to tell, however, whether the natural energy systems they plug into existed before the menhirs came along, and were amplified and entrained by the erection of menhirs, or whether energy systems were at least partially created or relocated as a result of menhirs being located where they were built.
This is one of the big questions in geomancy and dowsing.
It is safe to say that the major sites in the system, identified in the neolithic in the 3000s or the neolithic/bronze age transition from 2500-2200 BCE, are based on pre-existing energy-centres.
What's in question is whether and how much the menhirs and cairns of the bronze age were inserted to create energy centres that were not previously there.
This is probably the most common way that the location of menhirs was determined - alignments with other sites, based on terrestrial locational factors. (Here's an introduction to alignments.)
The main terrestrial factors affecting location are:
- landscape setting (visible hills, landscape vistas and the visibility of other sites);
- underground water (blind springs and water line crossing points);
- overground energy-lines (straight and sinuous, detectable by dowsers);
- overground alignments with other sites (not energy-lines - sites are aligned with other sites for reasons outlined here).
Menhir at Carn Eanes, above Pendeen
There are different levels of alignments big and small, and this influences the function of menhirs, mounds and other sites that lie on them. With some exceptions, such as the Boswens, Carfury or Ennis Farm menhirs, menhirs are generally not involved in the top level of alignments, called backbone alignments, linking tor enclosures, cliff sanctuaries and stone circles. But they are very much involved in other alignments, longer and shorter - particularly those marked in red on the alignments map.
Menhirs are generally located in between other sites, acting as nodes in the wider geomantic system of Penwith. They are usually not central or critical sites in the way that some others can be, such as St Michael's Mount, Trencrom Hill, Lanyon Quoit, Boscawen-ûn, Botrea Hill, Lesingey Round or Carn Galva. Some are definitely focal though, with four or more alignments intersecting at them (click to see any on a popup map): Carfury (SW 4400 3399), Boswens (SW 4001 3290), Boskednan, immediately NW of the Nine Maidens (SW 4338 3518), Ennis Farm (SW 4475 2821), Tresvennack Pillar (SW 4418 2787), Drift (double menhirs, SW 4371 2831), Redhouse (double menhirs, SW 4480 2663) and The NE Piper (Merry Maidens complex, also one of two double menhirs, SW 4355 2482).
One interesting collection of menhirs has never been fathomed by anyone, on the plateau above Lamorna at Kemyel and Swingate (more about these lower down). At a guess this was an experimental or educational gaggle of menhirs - it is indeed a unique collection that definitely hangs together. Perhaps there is a geometric or astronomical significance to them, but no one has deciphered it.
Terrestrial alignments are based on landscape topography and the positioning of other sites. What's difficult to figure out (logically, at least) is the way that menhirs can be located in straight alignments while also being planted in places where there are intersections of underground water lines, which themselves act as nodes for overground energy-lines. How these three seemingly independent factors fit together is one of the big mysteries in this area of study - but they do.
Menhir near the summit of Watch Croft (with trig point behind)
Water and subtle energy are related to each other but they are not exactly the same. Underground water acts as a conductor of subtle energy, being more conductive than rock. They have various qualities and strengths and are also impacted by what humans do - quarrying, digging, building, laying down wires and pipes, and so on.
Different dowsers pick up different patterns and aspects of energy. But one thing they agree on: energy concentrates at ancient sites, and there are no ancient sites lacking clear, dowsable signs of such an energy-concentration.
Without understanding alignments and underground and overground energy-lines, it is not really possible to understand why the ancients went to so much trouble to heave around stones and earth and to do what they did. Since archaeologists generally do not recognise megalithic energy systems to be valid or possible, they generally downplay the importance of menhirs and stone circles. It's a bit like denying the role of petrol in powering car engines.
Yet the vital ingredient that gives menhirs and stone circles their significance is earth energy.
Stone circle complexes
The stone circle complex around Boscawen-ûn
The stone circles of Penwith have complexes of menhirs and cairns around them. The complexes surrounding the two southern circles of Boscawen-ûn and the Merry Maidens have more menhirs, while those of the northern circles of Tregeseal, the Nine Maidens and Mên an Tol have more cairns. These stone circle complexes stretch a mile or two out from the stone circle, which acts as an axle or gravity-centre in a complex, or like a sun in a solar system. Some elements of these complexes are astronomically aligned though most are terrestrial.
On the map above of Boscawen-ûn, the blue alignments are radial alignments involved with the stone circle itself. The red alignments are wider alignments that criss-cross the landscape, sometimes acting as radials but serving other, broader purposes too. The yellow alignments are backbone alignments, which have a determining influence on the location and raison d'etre of the circle itself - Boscawen-ûn lies at the intersection of six of them, stretching out toward neolithic sites such as cliff castles, neolithic tors and other significant sites, as well as to Scilly and further afield upcountry.
The Pipers, a pair of big menhirs close to the Merry Maidens stone circle, seem to act as proxy alignment-intersections or feeders and distributors for the stone circle itself, as does Boswens menhir for the Tregeseal stone circle - these were both named above as focal menhirs in themselves. So, looking at a stone circle in isolation misses important clues as to why it is there: the radial alignments emanating from it and the complexes are just as important.
Trelew menhir (St Buryan church behind)
Some menhirs mark out astronomical alignments lining up with the rising or the setting point of the sun, the stations of the moon or perhaps with some stars. This is yet to be comprehensively studied in Penwith, but progress is being made in researches conducted by archaeoastronomer Carolyn Kennett.
A century ago the antiquarian Sir Norman Lockyer found a classic case when he was examining the Boscawen-ûn stone circle.
Alignment 30, the Toldavas alignment, goes from Boscawen-ûn stone circle (top left on the map below), passing through three menhirs at Chyangwens, Trelew and Toldavas, before proceeding onwards to Castallack menhir above Lamorna.
An astronomical alignment from Boscawen-ûn
Castallack seems to act as an energy-relay for the Kemyel-Swingate group of menhirs (you can see them on the right of the map above). The alignment, as seen from Boscawen-ûn, marks the sun's rising point at Samhain in early November and at Imbolc/Candlemas in early February. These two cross-quarter festivals on either side of the winter solstice mark the end and beginning, respectively, of the year's growth cycle.
According to Carolyn, when looking from Boscawen-ûn, the winter solstice sun rises over Kemyel Point, just south of Castallack - the left-hand side of the Lamorna Gap, as seen from Boscawen-ûn. The yellow backbone alignment from Boscawen-ûn to Kemyel Point stretches back in the other direction to Cape Cornwall and in the direction of the summer solstice sunset.
There are a number of known and suspected astronomical orientations in Penwith, involving quoits, chambered cairns, menhirs, stone circles and landscape features, but they have thus far been only patchily and inconsistently studied. Some of these orientations go back to the neolithic 3000s BCE: the winter solstice sun sets in a noticeable notch in Carn Kenidjack, as seen from Chûn Quoit, implying that the quoit was located there partially to catch that alignment, and that astronomical orientation was important to neolithic people.
There are two distinct groupings of menhirs in Penwith. One is in the southern half of the peninsula surrounding Boscawen-ûn and the Merry Maidens, and the other is in the upland area of the north, around the Nine Maidens. See the menhir map at the top of the page. There are exceptions though, with odd menhirs scattered around, such as those at Kelynack near St Just (SW 3727 3033), Beersheba near Trencrom Hill (SW 5252 3713) and a few menhirs around Sennen.
Trevorgans menhir, near St Buryan
The menhirs were erected during a time-period between 2500 and 2000, and this was when much of the southern system of ancient sites was developed, with menhirs as the dominant component. But in the north, many sites had been established before the bronze age, so menhirs are more thinly distributed and quoits and cairns predominate.
A menhir is a very definite, precise type of ancient site, specifically pinpointing a location like an arrow straight from heaven. Other sites take up more space. Vertically, around one third of the total length of a longstone is buried in the earth, and most of them are very stable. Though the buried part of the longstone is invisible, it is an important part, penetrating the earth to exert what the ancients must have thought to be a therapeutic effect on the wider locality and further, just as an acupuncture needle is inserted at a specific point to clear and energise a meridian passing through the body.
For astronomical purposes, menhirs are more likely to act as foresights than backsights - that is, as locations to look toward rather than to take a sighting from. Mounds, hills and stone circles are generally better as backsights - places to stand when taking a sighting.
The Pipers - part of the Merry Maidens complex
Some menhirs in the southern half of Penwith are double menhirs - paired stones, usually only 10 to 150 metres apart. Their mutual orientation must have some significance - their orientations are shown on the alignments map with green lines and, if you zoom in and click on the green orientation-line, its azimuth is given in the popup.
With alignments that head for double menhirs, it is sometimes the case that one of the menhirs takes longer-distance alignments and the other takes very localised ones. They seem to act therefore as a polarity.
In some cases alignments pass between the menhirs without touching either. But if double menhirs are construed as a way of setting up a polarised energy-field encompassing both of them, then that alignment will pass through that field, presumably treating the polarity of the two menhirs as one field.
Double menhirs are unique in Cornwall to West Penwith - otherwise, they are only found in Wales. (Welsh and Cornish met up more easily then, travelling by boat.) Clearly there was an innovative megalith-builder in Penwith or Wales who set off a double menhir trend. There are seven double menhirs, at Redhouse, Drift, the Faughan Stones and Chyenhal (originally triple), The Pipers and Boscawen Rôs (both part of the Merry Maidens complex), and Bunker's Hill (both now destroyed). Carfury menhir was possibly a double menhir too.
Then there is the Kemyel-Swingate complex (SW 457 252). No one knows what this is. It is a pattern of menhirs on a plateau at Kemyel on the northeastern side of the Lamorna valley - again, robbed of context by more recent field boundaries.
This is clearly a subsystem built for a specific purpose, made up of menhirs only. They are aligned to each other in three-point alignments, of which two pairs are near-parallel - though clearly not intended to be precisely parallel.
What was this complex? Perhaps it was experimental or educational, or it had a specialised function we might never guess. The orientations of pairs of stones (green lines) could be astronomical, but the three-point alignments (violet lines) don't look astronomical. This complex needs a mathematician's attention. It is suggestive of being a stellar constellation.
Castallack menhir offers a tantalising clue: it seems to act as a junction box for the whole complex, with an astronomical alignment coming in from Boscawen-ûn and a long alignment coming from Gurnard's Head in the north of the peninsula, passing on the way through the eastern stone of the Chyenhal double menhir. There are clear hints of a geomantic system here.
Merry Maidens holed stone
There are two collections of holed stones in Penwith, one in the Merry Maidens stone circle complex and the other in the Tregeseal complex - and nowhere else.
Four of the Merry Maidens holed stones are located in a straight line (alignment 50, oriented to an azimuth of 50°). According to Cheryll Straffon in her Ancient Sites in West Penwith, they are oriented toward midwinter moonrise at the lunar maximum, which happens every 18.6 years.
Tregeseal holed stones - Carn Kenidjack summit behind
The Tregeseal holed stones, which apparently had fallen and then been badly re-erected, might have pointed toward the tip of Boswens menhir - possibly an astronomical alignment (this has been estimated, not checked). There's also a possibility they were aligned toward the Isle of Scilly, visible on clear days from where they stand.
Possibly these stones were precisely aligned so that the holes, only inches in diameter, let light through to give a very precise reading for calendrical purposes. Or perhaps making a hole in a stone was seen to charge it with energy or modify its energy-effect. These holes are too low to be useful for sightings through them (the holes would more likely be at the tops of the stones). Unfortunately, the rigours of time have taken their toll on these stones.
Mên an Tol
Then we have that famous holed stone at Mên an Tol, which is utterly unique and rather difficult to interpret, not least because the stone formation of two stones on either side was created in Victorian times only, having no megalithic significance at all.
The site was originally a stone circle (some of its stones are still there if you look around), but where or how the holed stone fitted into this, no one knows - there is a chance that it might have been located off-centre in the stone circle, like the leaning menhir in Boscawen-ûn. There is also a chance that Boscawen-ûn (male) and Mên an Tol (female) were somehow paired as a polarity of stone circles.
There are no other holed stones of this kind anywhere to compare it with. So, little definite can be said about this stone, even though it is so well-known and iconic. Tradition has it that climbing through it heals various diseases such as rickets. It's a really nice stone, well crafted and well worth a pilgrimage!
Next: the crown jewels of megalithic Belerion, the stone circles and their complexes.