The Mysterious Stones of Carnac

The age of megalithic-building lasted anywhere from the 9th millennium BC to 1500 BC, and as far back as records go there has been speculation as to the origins and meanings of these strange prehistoric structures.

In Medieval times, the colossal megaliths of Western Europe were regarded as the work of demons, of sorcerers or of giants who walked the earth before the Flood. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they were associated with Druids – the priests of the Celts. Then, as science progressed and investigations became more focused, it became clear that the megaliths had been built centuries before the Celts reached Western Europe. The prehistoric monuments instead belonged to an ancient and unknown civilization. Far from being the caricature of bands of howling half-naked savages who painted their bodies and ate their cousins, those who constructed the gargantuan megaliths of Western Europe possessed powers of construction and organisation far greater than previously thought possible.

When discussing megaliths, the impressive ring of standing stones of Stonehenge in England comes to mind. However, there are other stone structures in Western Europe which are far older, far more extensive, and far more dramatic. Built some 2000 years before the pyramids of Egypt are the Stones of Carnac.1.

The Carnac Alignments

Comprised in its current form of over 3000 colossal granite stone blocks, the alignments at Carnac stretch along the French North Atlantic coast in the historic region of Brittany, France.

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Arranged in a seemingly deliberate and precise fashion, the megaliths form dense alleys, circles and tombs. From the town of Carnac westwardly, the lines of granite blocks may be traced, with some intervals, a great length of eight miles.2 The arrangement’s scale cannot be understated and is hard to appreciate. Not only that, with the passage of time, stones have been lost: the victims of nature and humanity. It is thought that there were once as many as 10,000 stones within this megalithic complex.

The stones are known as menhirs, which means “long stone” in the Breton language, and range in size: in some places they are of a towering height – up to 13 feet (4 m) tall – and in other places they are small. 3 Brittany is well-known for its abundant prehistoric menhirs, but nowhere in Europe do they appear in such scale as they do at Carnac.

Stones of Carnac legends and origin stories

It has been said that there are as many legends about the Stones of Carnac as there are stones themselves.

One of the most popular stories associated with the structure’s origin has to do with Saint Cornelius, who was Pope in the 3rd century. Although far later than the alignments’ known age, in popular history for many centuries it was said that the menhirs at Carnac were Roman legionnaires sent after Cornelius by the emperor after he fled Rome. With his back to the sea, trapped between the waters and the army, Cornelius appealed to God, praying for help. It is said that God aided the successor of Peter by turning the soldiers into stone. 4

In another variant of the story it is Merlin, the wizard of the legendary King Arthur, who turned the Roman legion into stone.

In the early twentieth century, a Carnac-born archaeologist, Zacharie Le Rouzic, set himself the task of gathering the various legends associated with the monoliths. Several of the stories presented them as either living beings or stones guarding a great secret, the disclosure of which would result in death. 5

In the Ménec arrangement, located to the west of Carnac, a particularly tall menhir is known in local legend as Minour Krifol. It is said to be a young man changed into stone. A moralistic story of sorts, the tale tells of a very rich only son, who spent all of his inheritance on frivolity. As punishment for his foolishness, God changed him into a menhir, condemning his soul to remain trapped within the granite. The young man’s pitiful groans were long said to have been heard emanating from the stone. 6

There are also stories of korrigans, which means “small-dwarf” in Breton. These goblin-like creatures are said to haunt the megaliths, living in the hollows of rocks and dolmens, which are stone chambers covered by heavy tablets.7

In Breton folklore, a Korrigan is a fairy or dwarf-like spirit. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Who built the Stones of Carnac?

For all their folkloric charm, none of these stories help to illuminate who actually constructed the Stones of Carnac.

There has long been speculation as to the age of the arrangements. In the nineteenth century, it was fashionable to associate Carnac, and other similar megalithic structures such as Stonehenge, with the Celts – in particular, their priests, the Druids. Described as “Celtic monuments” in 1871 by The Illustrated London News, the Stones of Carnac were thought of as serving ceremonial and religious functions for the Celts. Contemporary scholars saw links between the name “Carnac” and the Celtic words for a heap of stone (“carn” or “cairn”) and serpent (“ak”), suggesting that the serpentine alignments served as a temple to the god Bel, under the symbolic form of the serpent. 8

These controversial “cult of the serpent” theories were put to bed once and for all in the latter half of the twentieth century. With the development of absolute dating methods in the 1950s, artefacts found at the base of menhirs and within dolmen structures at Carnac were able to be radiocarbon dated. Pieces of charcoal and potsherds uncovered by archeologists revealed that the alignments date back further than had previously been believed. It can now be stated with certainty that the Stones of Carnac are from 4000 BC. 9

Stones of Carnac artefcts axe heads
Polished axe heads discovered in 1861 at Ploemeur, to the west of Carnac. They date between 4500 and 4000 B.C.. (Image credit: Moreau.henri/Wikimedia Commons underCC BY-SA 4.0 )

As such, we can be certain that neither the Romans, nor the Gauls, nor the Celts set up these stones. The megaliths at Carnac are related to an unknown people who expended unimaginable effort to erect these monuments.

One of the more curious aspects related to the Carnac alignments was advocated by the Scottish engineer, Alexander Thom, who surveyed Carnac and over 600 other Neolithic sites across Europe. He theorised that there was a standardised unit of measurement, which he dubbed the “megalithic yard”, which was used in the construction of several megalithic structures in different locations.10 Thom received heavy criticism at the time, but his theories have gained integrity, with investigations into sites like Mnajdra in Malta seeming to parallel the units of measurements used in the Carnac alignments. 11 In fact, similar measurements and architectural styles have been found in Neolithic sites in Sweden, Denmark, Britain, Ireland, France, Spain and Italy. Some investigators continuing Thom’s legacy have gone even further, theorising that this homogeneous Neolithic culture even reached Japan, with a site discovered in the 1990s displaying stone circles with an estimated date of around 2500 BC – placing it within the range of when Stonehenge was built. 12

Does this mean that the builders of Carnac were part of a distinct and highly developed culture active in different places across the globe?

It has been speculated that these architectural masterpieces found all over the world, including the Stones of Carnac, are related to a lost Atlantean civilisation and their descendants. Indeed, recent aquatic surveys off the coast of Carnac have shown that the menhirs near the coast are but a small piece of the puzzle.

In 2002, a stone axe discovered on the Breton coast near Carnac was found to have originated from mines in the highest mountain of Italy. This peculiar chance discovery led to divers and surveyors uncovering a large number of granite menhirs arranged along the seafloor. The scale of the megalithic stones is thought to be similar to those on the land. The now sunken alignment dates back to 4500 BC, and gives fuel to the theory that the alignments were constructed by members of a widespread culture. 13

Why were the Stones of Carnac built?

“Cognitive barrier”

The team of French scientist who discovered the underwater stones at Carnac have also suggested that the immense megalithic complex was constructed to serve as a cognitive barrier for the Neolithic inhabitants.14 Given the proximity of the sea and the prevalence of sunken islands in Breton legend, the Stones of Carnac may very well have served as some sort of magical protection from the wrath of the sea – a visible line of division between home and danger. This becomes a all the more interesting when one considers the proposed Atlantean link.

The Stones of Carnac, ceremonies and funerals

However, one of the more popular theories as to the purpose of the stones of Carnac is that they served a funerary function.

During the 1950s and 1960s local children still chanted the legend of the menhirs to visitors to Carnac, as follows: “All these stones were once upon a time an ancient Gaulish cemetery. For each dead person a stone was raised; if it was someone rich it was a large stone, if someone poor, a small one.” 15

The manner in which the stones are aligned into alleys, it has been suggested, was to create ceremonial pathways for funeral processions. Bordered by menhirs, these pathways would lead to a place of worship marked by an enclosure. As the system is oriented in such a way that the rays of the rising sun bathe the proposed place of worship in the last of its light, an atmosphere of divinity does seem to have been created on purpose.16

Another ceremony associated with the Stones of Carnac are fertility rites.

Until very recent times, it was still custom for young married couples to visit a menhir called La Vaisseau at Carnac by moonlight. There, under the watchful eyes of their parents, the newlyweds ran naked around the stone to assure themselves of offspring. Similar fertility rites are known across Brittany, suggesting a deep-rooted association between the megalithic stones and fertility. 17

Stones of Carnac postcard
An old postcard depicting two women in traditional Breton dress at Carnac, under the light of the moon.

Astronomy and the Carnac alignments

The Stones of Carnac are also proposed to have an astronomical significance.

Whilst surveying the stones in the 1970s, Alexander Thom stated that the precise orientation of one of the alignments could correspond with the summer and winter solstices. According to this theory, the megalithic structure at Carnac may have been constructed to serve as a seasonal calendar of ceremonies related to rural activities, which traced the rising and setting of the sun throughout the year. 18

Diagram of the Kerlescan site, with its alignments and enclosure. Thom proposed that the menhirs are arranged in orientation with the course of the Sun. (Image credit: Centre des Monuments Nationaux)

These diverse theories, for all their differences, do tend to agree on something. Whoever built the Stones of Carnac had an advanced knowledge of engineering, construction, organisation and quite possibly astronomy. This stands in contrast with what we currently accept as being true of cultures and civilisations active some six thousand years ago.

Ultimately, the Stones of a Carnac are a pure enigma. Thousands upon thousands of colossal stones erected upon a piece of coastline for no discernible reason. As technology advances and new discoveries are made, the mystery of the menhirs only deepens. It may be that as time progresses we will discover that the site we are presently aware of is but a fragment of a much bigger secret, that will reveal a lost chapter of the history of humanity.

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