Over the centuries, much folklore has attached itself to megalithic sites in Britain. There is considerable evidence indicating that a stone cult existed in the prehistoric past which Christianity was only partially successful in suppressing. The very necessity of the numerous edicts issued by the church Councils in 5th, 6th, and 8th centuries C.E. against all pagan cults connected with springs and wells, trees, and stones (which no doubt included megalithic standing stones) is indicative of their persistence. According to Leslie Grinsell in his book "Folklore of Prehistoric Britain" (1976), in the late 9th century C.E., the Council of Nantes in France condemned the veneration of stones. Various decrees not only prohibited the worship of stones but also declared guilty of sacrilege anyone who neglected to destroy them.
It is clear, however, that standing stones continued to be venerated throughout the medieval period and even later. In 1410, according to the Hereford Cathedral Registers, the Bishop of Hereford issued a proclamation forbidding the worship of the stone and well at Turnastone in Herefordshire. It would appear that one of the most popular reasons for venerating standing stones was the belief in their ability to cure illnesses and other ailments. Anglo-Saxon laws were sometimes directed specifically against people who sought cures at stones. In his account of Stonehenge, written in the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth notes that "in these stones is a mystery, and a healing virtue against many ailments." At Stonehenge, the stones were washed and the water poured into baths in which the sick then bathed. Healing properties continued to be attributed to the stones at Stonehenge in the 17th and 18th centuries.
It has been suggested that the association of these stones with healing may have come about through the confusion of "heal" and "heel", with both words possibly a corruption of the name Helios, the Greek name for "sun" and the sun god. That numerous megalithic sites, standing stones, and stone circles have astronomical associations has been convincingly demonstrated by Alexander Thom and, in the case of Stonehenge in particular, by Norman Lockyer, Gerald Hawkins, and Fred Hoyle. The so-called "Heel Stone" at Stonehenge should properly be called the Helios Stone, or sun-stone, over which the sun rose at the summer solstice.
Healing properties were especially associated with stones with holes in them. The most famous example is Men-an-Tol (see photo at left), also known as the Crick Stone, near Madron in Cornwall. According to an 18th-century source, sufferers from pains in the back and limbs were cured after crawling through the hole. Also, children suffering from rickets (a disease of infancy and childhood characterized by defective bone growth caused by a lack of vitamin D in the body) or a 'crick in the neck' would be cured after being passed three or nine times through the hole, usually against the sun (widdershins). For the cure to work, it was important that boys were passed from a woman to a man, and girls from a man to a woman.
A similar practice was performed at the Tolvan Stone, also in Cornwall. Here the ceremony involved passing the child nine times through the hole alternately from one side to the other. In the 19th-century engraving illustrated here can be seen a woman about to pass a baby through the hole to a person on the other side. It was essential to the cure that the child should emerge on the ninth passing through the hole on the side of the stone where there was a little grassy mound on which the child should be set to sleep with a sixpence under his or her head.
The Tolvan Stone, Constantine, Cornwall (engraving, 1870)
Folklore has attributed similar healing properties to the Long Stone in the Parish of Minchinhampton in Gloucestershire. Known locally as the "holey stone", this slab of limestone stands nearly 8 feet high with a thickness of about 18 inches. Believed to be the last surviving fragment of a long barrow chamber, the stone has two holes in it through the larger of which mothers would pass their children to cure them of whooping cough or rickets. Folklore also tells that the Long Stone runs around the field it is in when it hears the town clock in nearby Minchinhampton strike midnight.
(left)The Long Stone, Parish of Minchinhampton, Gloucestershire
(right a drawing from 1913).