Facts and Myth about Dolmens, how old they are, where they are and what the Irish say about them.
Facts about Dolmens, how and why they were formed, vary depending on whether you are Irish or not. The Irish version is wonderful, light and fascinating, but with no answers, the other version is scientific with facts and experiments, but with no answers.
The Scientific Version
The word "dolmen" is of Celtic origin, and translates roughly as "stone table" due to its appearance. They were also called portal tomb or portal graves as the entrances led into underground burial chambers. A dolmen is a top stone held up by one or more stones on either side.
The dolmen were often covered with mounds of earth to hide them and several have appeared where no one expected them, due to the covering earth being worn away. The number of dolmen found in France has increased by roughly 1,800 since 1864.
A dolmen, according to British archaeology terms, is “A Neolithic stone formation, consisting of a horizontal stone supported by several vertical stones, and thought to be a tomb”. There is little or no evidence to support the theory that these were a tomb as little or no remains have been found. Some experts say this is because most Dolmens are on low land and the bodies have decomposed, others state that the bodies were cremated before being interred here. The remains of pottery vases have been found under the top stones and it is supposed these were the eating vessels left to help the dead on their journey.
There is another theory, that these were entrances to tombs, and there is a little more evidence to support this. Burial chambers have been found under or near some of these megalithic structures and carbon dating has shown these were used as burial places, not once but continuously for hundreds of years.
Dolmens are megalithic monuments, the most famous megalithic monument being Stonehenge in England. Here fifty stones, weighing up to fifty tons each, are placed in a circle. Experts think that Stonehenge was a temple, tied to the movements of the sun, moon, and stars. (The structure of this differs greatly from Dolmens which have only three stones.)
This type of structure dates from the Neolithic period, roughly from 5/4000BC to 2500BC.
As to who was buried here, again scientists can not agree, some say it was a sort of mass grave, while others say it was for elders or clan chiefs.
Dolmens exist all over the world, from Japan, India, (these two around the iron age, much later than the others), Korea, which has about 50 % of the world’s Dolmen, to Europe, Russia and North Africa. Why they were built, as opposed to just burying people in the normal way, how the large stones were lifted on top, and just about everything else surrounding Dolmen, remains a mystery, still.
Some of the most important and famous dolmens are in Ireland, and interestingly most of the dolmens here are on the west coast with a few in Northern Ireland.
The Irish version
Once upon a time, long ago there was a young boy and a young girl who were very much in love. They wished to marry but had made the unfortunate mistake of angering a powerful god, Fionn. This god put an evil spell on them. They spoke to all the gods and goddesses they could find to see if anyone could overturn the spell, but without success. Finally one goddess said that while she could not help them, she did know of a way to break the spell, but it must be followed to the letter otherwise things would get worse.
The young couple agreed and eagerly awaited their orders.
They were to travel around the country for one year, never spending more than one night in the same place. Each night they had to construct a shelter that had a stone at their head and another at their feet. This was to protect them, as this particular evil spirit could only from those directions. There was to be another stone above them so the evil god could not look down and see them.
They did this, moving along the coast, (so they could fish for food), from Southern Ireland towards the north, and every evening they painfully constructed the protection for that night. The goddess helped them lift the heavy stones, otherwise they would not have managed, but she could do nothing else for them. They would then crawl under the structure and sleep peacefully. People around the country had heard of their plight and wanted to help. They offered food, which was welcomed. They offered shelter, which was not. The couple could not afford to spend the night in a bed, or even sleep on a load of soft straw. They wanted the spell lifted, not doubled.
So night after night, after night, after night they built and slept, built and slept, and this is why there are 364 Dolmens in Ireland.
As to what happened to the couple, and to the last Dolmen, either no one knows or no one is telling.
Choose whichever version you prefer, both are said to be true. Maybe the real truth lies in a third, as yet un-thought of explanation.
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