The Giants Dance (part 1)
In the 2021 BBC Documentary 'Stonehenge The Lost Circle Revealed.', as part of the introduction to the programme Dr. Alice Roberts, the presenter, offered the following:
“There is an ancient myth about Stonehenge, first recorded in the Middle-Ages. It tells of the wizard, Merlin, who led men far to the west, to Ireland, to the land of giants. Where he found the stones and, using his magical powers, transported them to England. The Merlin myth is clearly fantastical. But myths can contain within them a grain of truth, a fact that's been passed down through the generations and become embroidered and embellished over time. So within this tale of wizards and giants and magical stones, could there be a foundation in actual history?”.
Now, all of this is great, exciting, mysterious stuff and well presented. Unfortunately, this introductory script is all wrong. The references here are to certain episodes in Geoffrey of Monmouth's The History of the Kings of Britain which purport to relate the origin of Stonehenge. I want to point to several often repeated claims, presumptions and inaccuracies in Dr. Roberts' introductory piece regarding Geoffrey's tale. Stated baldly the story is not a myth, it is not fantastical and Merlin does not use magical powers to transport the stones. Dr Roberts cannot have read the source material she is referring to and she is instead relying on later erroneous commentaries upon it.
Geoffrey's story of Stonehenge begins in the reign of Vortigern when a meeting is arranged between the Saxons and the Britons for peace talks upon the kalends of May (May 1st) at the monastery of Ambrius. But the Saxons had treachery in their hearts, and at the signal “Nemet oure Saxas” (Get your knives), the Saxons fell upon the unsuspecting Britons and massacred them while Hengist held Vortigern by his cloak. 460 British barons and consuls were killed, as well as 70 Saxons whom the Britons beat to death with clubs and stones. Some time later after the death of Vortigern, Aurelius Ambrosius is the new king and he wishes to create a monument to these murdered British noblemen. He is advised to send for Merlin who counsels Aurelius thus:
“If you are desirous,” said Merlin, “to honour the burying-place of these men with an ever-lasting monument, send for the Giant’s Dance, which is in Killaraus, a mountain in Ireland. For there is a structure of stones there, which none of this age could raise, without a profound knowledge of the mechanical arts. They are stones of a vast magnitude and wonderful quality; and if they can be placed here, as they are there, round this spot of ground, they will stand for ever.”
Merlin and Uther sail to Ireland in a fleet of ships containing 1500 men, they are confronted by an Irish army and defeat them. The following passage is a translation from the Latin of what Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his History of the Kings of Britain, actually relates regarding Merlin and the removal of the stones of the Giants Dance from Mount Killaraus in Ireland and their transportation to and re-erection on Salisbury Plain.
When they had won the day they pressed forward to Mount Killaraus, and when they reached the structure of stones rejoiced and marvelled greatly. Whilst they were all standing around, Merlin came unto them and said: 'Now, my men, try what ye can do to fetch me down these stones! Then may ye know whether strength avail more than skill, or skill than strength.' Thereupon at his bidding they all with one accord set to work with all manner of devices, and did their utmost to fetch down the Dance. Some rigged up huge hawsers, some set to with ropes, some planted scaling ladders, all eager to get done with the work, yet natheless was none of them never a whit the forwarder. And when they were all weary and spent, Merlin burst out on laughing and put together his own engines. At last, when he had set in place everything whatsoever that was needed, he laid the stones down so lightly as none would believe, and when he had laid them down, bade carry them to the ships and place them inboard, and on this wise did they again set sail and returned unto Britain with joy, presently with a fair wind making land, and fetching the stones to their burial-place ready to set up.
Firstly, Dr. Roberts states that the tale is 'ancient', as have the great majority of other commentators who have visited this issue over the last hundred years or so. The tale is only as old as Geoffrey's book, though. This notion of ancientness is entirely presumptious, nothing like it appears in any extant literature, either in Ireland or in Wales, previous to Geoffrey's account. He may have been referencing a written source now lost to us, or to an oral tradition now long forgotten and this may well be the case (in fact I believe it to be the case), but we can't say that for certain. With the greatest respect to Dr Alice Roberts, if you had said 'There is a tale about Stonehenge, first recorded in the 12th century, but which may be much older'. That would have been accurate enough, but to refer to it as an 'ancient myth', frankly smacks of sensationalism This might seem a pedantic point to some, but it is symptomatic of a laziness which historically pervades commentary on this subject. I think that this kind of uncrytical thinking actually draws a veil over the really interesting stuff which is contained in Geoffrey's narrative.
Earlier, not exactly analogous, tales do exist but these all form part of a well defined group. For example the poem 'The Spoils of Annwn' (Preiddeu Annwfn), and the getting of the cauldron of Diwrnach Wyddel in Culhwch and Olwen, both of which are echoed in Bran's raid on Ireland in 'Branwen' (the second Branch of the Mabinogi). These are all to do with Arthur and Bran (both giants) and their maritime adventures to the Otherworld or to Ireland to retrieve the Cauldron of Rebirth.
Secondly, clearly this passage, at best, might be described as legendary history, there is little here that can be described as 'myth'. It is important to remember that Geoffrey is presenting his tale as history, however inaccurate. No gods, magic or supernatural heroes (the usual requirements for myths), are involved in the transportation of the stones of the Giants Dance from Ireland to their re-erection on Salisbury Plain. Okay, granted that Merlin might be construed in other contexts to be a sort of 'mythical' being, I'm thinking of his mysterious conception and birth for example. Geoffrey relates several instances of Merlin displaying wizardry or magic in 'The History', most notably in his transformation of Uther into the likeness of Gorlois. His primary characteristic, though, from his earliest appearance in the written word, (Llyffr Du Caefyrddin) is that of a prophet. But here the emphasis is clearly on Merlin's superior mechanical or engineering skills, which he uses to take down the stones as compared with the failure of his men to do so. It has nothing whatsoever to do with mysterious births, wizardry, magical levitation, prophecy or myth. Neither is it fantastical
“The giants of old brought them from the farthest coast of Africa, and placed them in Ireland, while they inhabited that country.
Undoubtably, this passage is imbued with mythical foundational motifs. However, the reason why Geoffrey introduces giants into his tale is because the stones of Chorea Gigantum are so huge that only giants could move them, a familiar folkloric trope attached to many other megalithic constructs throughout Britain and Ireland. It should be noted therefore, that it is more than likely that Geoffrey has in mind the massive (up to 40 ton), sarsen stones and not to the (at most 4 ton) bluestones. And so it should also be noted that it is once more a demonstration that it is Merlin's engineering skills which are being compared, this time, to the brute strength of giants.
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth then, Merlin does not use “magical powers” to dismantle the huge stone construction on Mount Kilaraus in Ireland, he does not use magical powers to transport them (by ship) to 'England', and he does not use magical powers to re-erect the Giants Dance on Salisbury Plain. Instead he is portrayed as an engineer, an architect, a mechanical genius non pareil. Neither is the tale presented as a 'myth', it is presented as a historical narrative and not as fantastical prose.