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, placed and propped stones, holed and aligned 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 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 subterranean and overground energy systems they plug into existed before the menhirs came along (and were perhaps amplified and entrained by the erection of menhirs) or whether energy systems were at least partially created as a result of menhirs being located where they were put.
This is one of the big questions in geomancy.
However, 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 around 2500 BCE, are based on pre-existing energy-centres. What's in question is whether, or how many of, the bronze age menhirs 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 (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 a few exceptions, such as the Boswens, Carfury or Ennis Farm menhirs, menhirs are generally not involved in the top level of alignments, called backbone alignments, which link neolithic 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 in-between sites, acting as nodes in the wider geomantic system of Penwith, but they are not central or critical sites in the way that some others are - sites such as St Michael's Mount, Trencrom Hill, Lanyon Quoit, Boscawen-ûn stone circle, Botrea Hill, Lesingey Round or Carn Galva.
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 quite a unique collection. 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. In the south of the peninsula, there are a number of alignments passing through two, three or more menhirs, as well as other sites - you'll see these on the map of ancient Penwith (available asan imageor onGoogle Maps).
What's difficult to figure out (logically, at least) is the way that menhirs are located in straight alignments, yet they also are planted in places where there are intersections of underground water lines, which themselves act as nodes for overground energy-lines. How these 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 does act as a conductor of subtle energy though, being more conductive than the surrounding 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 underground and overground energy-lines, it is not really possible to understand the reason 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 reason for being is earth energy.
Stone circle complexes
Most stone circles have complexes of menhirs and cairns around them. The two southern circles of Boscawen-ûn and the Merry Maidens have more menhirs and the northern circles of Tregeseal, the Nine Maidens and Men 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 wider system of whole complexes. Some elements of these complexes are astronomically aligned and most are terrestrial.
On the map above, the blue alignments are distinctly radial alignments involved with the stone circle itself. The red alignments are wider alignments that criss-cross the landscape, partially acting as radials but serving other purposes too. The yellow alignments are backbone alignments which have a determining wider influence on the location and raison d'etre of the circle itself - Boscawen-ûn in particular lies at the intersection of many of them, stretching out toward neolithic sites such as cliff castles, neolithic tors and other significant sites.
The Pipers, a pair of big menhirs near the Merry Maidens, seem to act as proxy alignment-intersections or feeders-distributors for the stone circle itself, as does Boswens menhir for the Tregeseal stone circle. So, looking at a stone circle in isolation misses important clues as to why it is there - the alignments emanating from it 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 the researches conducted by 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, marked blue on the map below, 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.
Castallack seems to act as the energy-relay for the Kemyel-Swingate group of menhirs (see below). The alignment, as seen from Boscawen-ûn, marks the sun's rising point at Samhain in early November and Imbolc/Candlemas in early February. These are the two cross-quarter festivals on either side of the winter solstice, marking the end and beginning of the year's growth cycle.
According to archaeoastronomer Carolyn Kennett, 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, quite prominent from Boscawen-ûn. The yellow backbone alignment to Kemyel Point stretches back in the other direction to Cape Cornwall.
There are many astronomical orientations in Penwith, involving quoits, chambered cairns, menhirs, stone circles and landscape features, but they have thus far been patchily studied. Some of these orientations go back to neolithic times in the 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.
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. There are exceptions to this, with odd menhirs scattered around, such as at Kelynack near St Just, Beersheba near Trencrom Hill and a few menhirs around Sennen.
Trevorgans menhir, near St Buryan
Partially this is an indicator of the timing of the building of the southern and the northern systems. The menhirs were erected during a specific time-period between 2500 and 1800, and this was the period when much of the southern system was developed. But in the north, many ancient sites alreadyexisted during that period.
A menhir is a very definite, precise type of ancient site, specifically pinpointing a location with no equivocation, like an arrow straight from heaven. Around one third of the total length of a longstone is buried in the earth, and most of them are very stable. Although the buried part of the longstone is invisible to us, it is a very 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.
The Pipers - part of the Merry Maidens complex
Some menhirs in the southern half of Penwith are double menhirs - paired stones, usually between 10 and 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 major, longer-distance alignments and the other takes very localised ones. They seem to act 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.
These double menhirs are unique in Cornwall to West Penwith - otherwise, they are also found in Wales. Clearly there was an innovative megalith-builder in Penwith who set off a double menhir trend. There are seven double menhirs, at Redhouse, Chyenhal, Drift, the Faughan Stones, the Pipers, Bunker's Hill and Boscawen Ros, and Carfury menhir was possibly a double menhir too.
Then there is the Kemyel-Swingate complex. 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 purpose, made up of menhirs only. They are aligned 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!
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 every 18.6 years.
The Tregeseal stones, which 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.
Presumably, these stones were very precisely aligned so that the holes, only inches in diameter, let light through to give a very precise reading for calendrical purposes. Unfortunately, the rigours of time have taken their toll on these stones. The heavenly bodies have also slightly moved since megalithic times, making such accurate astronomical sightlines inaccurate.
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 of the holed stone 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 - and 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. It's a really nice stone and well worth a pilgrimage!