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The Nine Maidens on Belstone. Source: Ethan Doyle White / CC BY-SA 4.0.

Dancing Maidens or Cursed Brothers? The Nine Maidens Stone Circle

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The Nine Maidens Stone Circle lies near the village of Belstone in Devon, England. In spite of its name, the site actually has a total of 17 stones. Based on our understanding today, the stone circle was probably part of a Bronze Age burial site. In the past, however, before the function of the monument was understood, folktales were attached to it as a means of explaining their origin. 

The Nine Maidens  Stone Circle  is known also as the Seventeen Brothers, the latter reflecting the actual number of stones at the site. This number is provided in a description of the stone circle by Samuel Rowe’s 1848  A Perambulation of the Ancient and Royal Forest of  Dartmoor and the Venville Precincts , which is as follows:

“… we shall mount the steep ascent towards Belstone  Tor, and within a quarter of a mile (400m), on its western slope, we shall observe the  circle called in the neighbourhood Nine Stones, but which in reality consists of seventeen stones,”

Belstone Tor, high and wild in Dartmoor, is steeped in local legends (Guy Wareham /  CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The Stones Today

At present, only 16 stones can be seen, as one of the stones was probably toppled since Rowe’s time. This, however, would not have been the first time that the stone circle lost one of its standing stones. According to Chris and Marion Walpole’s  The Book of Belstone , published in 2002, the Nine Maidens Stone Circle may in fact have originally included up to 20 stones, if the smaller stones and toppled ones are counted.

In a way, these different accounts about the number of stones in the stone circle lend support to the  legend that when the stones are counted, the same total can never be reached. Although the different numbers can be explained by the fact that some stones may have fallen over time, the legend provides a more colourful explanation. The legend states that the stones, which were once dancers, would not stand still long enough, therefore making it impossible to get the same total twice.

The Legend of the Stones

This legend also relates to the origin story of the stone circle, as well as its name. According to local folklore, the stones were once a group of 17 brothers who danced on the Sabbath. As  punishment for this, they were turned to stone. 

The Nine Maidens Stone Circle, Dartmoor (Guy Wareham /  CC BY-SA 2.0 )

One version of the story states that the brothers are forced to dance at noon each day till the end of time. Another asserts that the stones would come to live and dance every Hunter’s  Moon, i.e. the full moon in  October. Yet another claims that the stones would come to life when the bells of Belstone church are rung.

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Despite the fact that there are more than nine stones in this stone circle, it is more commonly known as the Nine Maidens. One explanation for this is provided by Ruth St Leger-Gordon in  The Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor . In this book, the author points out that there are many examples of stone circles in the UK that are associated with the legend of the dancing maidens, and have been called ‘Nine Maidens’, regardless of the number of stones. 

Another good example of this is the Nine Stones of Boskednan, a stone circle containing 22 stones, in Cornwall. The author also suggested that witches may have used such sites to worship the moon.

The Archaeology of the Site

Archaeology provides an alternative explanation to the formation of this stone circle. According to this explanation, the Nine Maidens Stone Circle was erected during the  Bronze Age , and likely served a funerary function. If the archaeologists are right, then a  cairn (burial mound) would have once stood in the centre of the circle. This structure, however, no longer exists. 

Additionally, there would have also been cist (a small stone box serving as a  tomb), or kistvaen, as it is known locally, to contain the bones of the dead. It seems that this has also been destroyed at some point of time.

Local Beliefs Run Strong

Despite the archaeological explanation, local beliefs still remain about the Nine Maidens Stone Circle. According to a local superstition, one that still seems to be taken seriously, anyone who disturbs the stones would suffer serious misfortune. Therefore, no restorations have been done to the site. 

Dartmoor is a remote place, even in modern Britain (tiny_packages /  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

According to one story, a local film crew added an extra stone to the circle when they were shooting a horror film / mystery in 1984-5. The only copy of the film, called  The Circle of Doom , apparently got lost in the post.

The Nine Maidens Stone is a short walk from Belstone village, and directions to the site from the village, as provided by the David Ross’ website,  Britain Express , are as follows:

“There is a car park at the eastern edge of Belstone village. Walk through the village and take the road that forks left towards Watchet Hill. You are now following the long-distance Tarka Trail. Follow the signposted trail onto the moor and head for an army flagpole to the south. At the pole turn west following the obvious grassy trail which leads you straight to the stone circle.”

Top image: The Nine Maidens on Belstone. Source: Ethan Doyle White /  CC BY-SA 4.0 .

By Wu Mingren             

References

Belstone Village Hall, 2021. Belstone: History. Available at:  https://belstonevillage.net/history/

Devon Perspectives, 2021. Nine Maidens. Available at:  https://www.devonperspectives.co.uk/belstone_ninemaidens.html

holidayindartmoor.co.uk, 2021. Nine Maidens Stone Circle, Belstone, Dartmoor National Park. Available at:  http://holidayindartmoor.co.uk/belstone/nine-maidens-stone-circle-35888.html

Ross, D., 2021. Nine Maidens Stone Circle. Available at:  https://www.britainexpress.com/counties/devon/ancient/nine-maidens.htm

Sandles, T., 2016. Nine Maidens. Available at:  https://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/nine_maidens.htm

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