Legends say mysterious women built the megaliths of Portugal
There is another category of story where mouras appear to people as a sign of approaching death or appear to women in difficult childbirth and may even decide the outcome of the birth—whether mother and baby survive.
Mouras were also said to have lived in the world before people were made. When people appeared, the mouras acted as culture heroes, teaching people farming and animal husbandry, navigation of the sea and iron-smithing.
Rock-cut graves in Fornos de Algodres, Portugal , said to be the place where the Mouras knead bread ( Wikimedia Commons )
An example of a dolmen-builder and spinner of fates, this one from the British Isles, was Cailleach Bheara. Lindström wrote of her:
Like mouras, she is said to have been simultaneously young and old. She was often shifting her shape into a cow or a bull. Like Ishtar of Babylon and Germanic Holda she was reviving her youth by bathing every hundredth year in a certain lake. Cailleach had many lovers, and in some stories horned sons. She dominated the weather–she caused the snowfall by shaking her duvet filled with down, and raised a storm and brought on the lightnings with her hammer. Besides the weather Cailleach dominated also the seasons. The winter started and the landscape turned white when she washed her grey hood in the maelstrom of a certain fiord, and she started the spring by throwing her hammer under a holly bush. Cailleach was older than any living thing–she had created the landscape in which she lived, and could remember the time when it was different. She had also built the dolmens, and many of them are named after her. She moved also in underworld and discussed with the dead.
The megalithic tombs at Loughcrew in County Meath are situated atop Slieve na Calliagh (meaning "the hag's mountain", referring to Cailleach) and include a kerbstone known as "the hag's chair".Cairn T on Slieve na Calliagh is a classic passage tomb, in which the rays of the equinox sunrise shine down the passageway and illuminate an inner chamber filled with megalithic stone carvings. ( Wikimedia Commons )
Lindström wrote about one more category of legend, in which mouras or The Moura “came to the area in the beginning of time and shaped it—its hills and valley and rivers, dolmens and menhir and red paintings on the rocks, and gave birth to children, who possibly became the ancestors of the community telling the legend. What was there before this? A feminine deity who was also the landscape itself, from whom the living things and to whom they returned in a cycle of life? Possibly.”
Some of the megalithic tombs were decorated with paintings and plaques. These two anthropomorphic stone plaques are now in Portuguese museums. (Photo by Henna Lindström)
Writing of the dolmens themselves, Lindström said:
The art and symbols in Portuguese dolmens, and their orientation towards the rising sun or equinoctical full moon can be seen as telling about their faith in rebirth. The art itself can be seen as made to guide people—living, dead and unborn—to travel between worlds of living and dead. Megalithic graves were burial sites and places for ritual burials, but it is very plausible it wasn't their only and maybe not even their main function. It is likely that they were, like the churches in Christian times, spiritual centers around which the community got together celebrate important dates and happenings, to negotiate and agree about matters concerning the whole community and to strengthen their communality.
She said Christian bishops in later years banned annual celebrations around dolmens. The Church also destroyed some dolmens and declared others sacred Christian sites. Nevertheless, the legend of the Mouras have withstood the passage of time.
Featured image: Almendres Cromlech, Guadalupe, Evora, Portugal. ( Wikimedia Commons )
By Mark Miller