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 19th 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.
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