Legends say mysterious women built the megaliths of Portugal
Prehistoric Europeans told legends about powerful, mysterious female makers of European stone tombs called dolmens and cromlechs. On the one hand, they were said to bestow riches and fertility on individuals, and fantastic gifts like brewing beer and farming; all they wanted in return was a little milk. On the other hand, they were described as angry snakes guarded by bulls, cursing people and hoarding the very gold of the sun. They were imagined as beautiful cloven-hoofed snake- or bull-women, who guarded the dolmens and could speak with the dead, spin the rays of the sun, and even create the world.
In her master's thesis of 2014, archaeologist Henna Lindström of the University of Helsinki in Finland writes of the folktales and legends of years gone by that grew up around the supposed supernatural makers and guardians of Portuguese dolmens. Ms. Lindström's fascinating paper details stories from other parts of Europe about the Mouras Encantadas, as the mysterious women are called in Portugal.
The Church destroyed many dolmens but declared others sacred sites, like this one in Pavia, Portugal. Note the ‘Cafe Dolmen’ in the background. (Photo courtesy of Henna Lindström)
Carbon dating shows the people of Europe began building megalithic tombs between 4800 and 3800 BC, corresponding to about the beginning of the New Stone Age or Neolithic. At first the megaliths were menhirs, or single standing stones; then people made cromlechs, or stone circles. People in Portugal were among the first to build megaliths, around 4800 BC. There are thousands of known megaliths in Iberia alone.
The distribution of standing stones and stone circles from the Neolithic era in Europe. (Map by Cromwell)
As for the women who built them, “Folklore makes it clear that these women are about omnipotent—they have everlasting life, youth, beauty and riches, wisdom and skills, which they [taught] to people. Big part of these skills connects the mouras … to the Neolithic revolution—mouras taught people spinning, weaving, cheesemaking, brewing and plowing and gave sheep, pig and cow as a gift for people,” Lindström wrote.
She said linguistics connects the Portuguese mouras to many other European goddesses, including the Greek Moirae, or Fates, who held everyone's destiny in their minds and to whom even Zeus had to answer. The Fates, like the Mouras Encantadas, wove mankind's fate on their looms and then cut it at death.
“Linguistics gives also a hint about the tasks of these moura-mari-marion goddesses by connecting them to the themes of death and spirits, and folkloristics connect them to life, fertility, health and old wisdom,” Lindström wrote.
The Three Fates as depicted by Francisco de Goya ( Wikimedia Commons )
The legends changed as time went on. More recent tales speak of mouras as Moorish women put under the spell of an eternally unchanging state by their fathers to guard treasures hidden underground or in the dolmens. They may be transformed into snakes and be under guard by angry bulls.
Other stories say they live in palaces of gold and silver and await the day of their freedom, which will come when a man kisses the moura, who is in the form of a huge snake. Or, the man must submit to being eaten, after which he will be defecated in human form again.
“These attempts never work, and the mouras remain sad and spellbound and cry so much that their tears have given birth to certain rivers and lakes,” Lindström wrote.
Earlier legends, however, don't mention a Moorish connection or being spellbound and instead say they live in the underground world of the caves or dolmens and want nothing from people except milk, to which they're addicted. They may possess treasures and exist in the form of goats, bulls or snakes but are transformed of their own accord. They may test people morally, and if people are worthy they may receive a reward. Mouras were said to be harsh with cruel people. “Breaking a promise to a moura can also lead to death,” Lindström wrote.
Casa da Moura (‘House of the Moura’), a dolmen in Portugal ( Wikimedia Commons )
In other legends, which Lindström recorded from Portuguese sources that were written down in the late 19 th century, people seek out mouras in midday, at midnight or in midsummer to help them with illnesses, infertility or with hard luck in love. The mouras may require a moral test before giving help. In these stories mouras are surrounded by rabbits, chickens and piglets, which they may give to people as gifts.