THE GULF OF MORBIHAN – BRITTANY, FRANCE
by Philip Carr-Gomm
We can never be born enough. We are human beings for whom birth is a supremely welcome mystery, the mystery of growing: the mystery which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves.
Sacred places often exist in the wider context of a sacred environment that might stretch for miles around, and include a number of different sites that are places of pilgrimage or worship. The region around the Gulf of Morbihan is one such place, whose 500 and more sites represent one of the most striking examples of the achievements of the megalithic culture of the Neolithic period – the New Stone Age that began around 9,000 years ago.
There are so many sites to see, that a visitor must make a choice. Here we look at three of the most striking: the chambered passage-grave of Gavrinis, that now stands on its own island and boasts entrancing carvings on most of the stones that line its walls; the beautifully carved Table des Marchands that lies beside the Great Broken Menhir that once stood over 20 metres (65 ft) high and was part of an alignment of 19 stones; and the famous massed rows of stones at nearby Carnac, which continue to baffle researchers.
Although these monuments retain their secrets there is one element that seems clearly present in the alignments of the standing stones and the tumuli: somehow the builders of these sites were marrying their observations of the heavens with their constructions. Star, moon and sunlight was used to position massive stones to create sites that may have served as observatories in addition to any other function.
In creating tombs within mounds of earth, there is the inescapable feeling that our ancestors were also creating temples to life rather than death. Emerging from Gavrinis at dawn on the Winter solstice, or from the Table des Marchands on the summer solstice, who could fail to feel reborn?
You may forget but
Let me tell you
this: someone in
some future time
will think of us.
Sappho 6th cent BC
The whole of Brittany is filled with megalithic remains, which stand as silent witnesses to its magical past peopled by Druids, King Arthur and the wizard Merlin, whose legends migrated from Great Britain to the Little Britain of Brittany with the Norman conquest. Not far south from the forest of Broceliande, the focus of these legends, lies ‘Ar Mor Bihan’ – Breton for ‘the little sea’.
Legends state that there were once 365 islands in this great natural harbour, but today only 40 or so can be seen at low tide. 25 of these are inhabited. If you take one of the tourist boats out into this sea you will have the opportunity to visit one of the most remarkable chambered tombs in the world.
Step off the boat on to the island of Gavrinis and you find yourself face to face with the ancestors. Only the most insensitive visitor will fail to be moved as they enter the great mound that stands not far from the jetty, and that draws them in to its heart with a pull that is primal, magnetic.
Gavrinis is just one of 500 prehistoric monuments that can be found within this area of Brittany that stretches from Carnac on the west coast to the eastern shores of the Morbihan, but if you had to choose just three of these sites to visit it would be wise to experience Gavrinis, the Table des Marchands in nearby Locmariaquer, and the great stone avenues of Carnac to the west.
A Great Coastal Plain
7000 years ago the whole area provided the perfect environment for human settlement. Since the polar ice-caps were larger than today, the sea level was 7 to 8 metres lower than it is now and the Gulf was a great coastal plain, ideal for cultivation, that contained a much smaller and shallow inland sea that would have been ideal for fishing.
It was only as sea levels rose that Gavrinis became marooned on its own island, and this dramatic change in the landscape can be seen on the island adjacent: half of a stone circle lies above the high tide on the shore while its other half is submerged in the water.
The cairn of Gavrinis is remarkable because many of the stones, 23 in all, that line the tomb and its entrance passage are ornately carved with great swirls and shapes that have intrigued scholars for over 150 years. Amongst the patterns they have identified highly schematised human figures, snakes, arrows and axes. Entering only by the torch light provided by the guide, the swirling lines are reminiscent of giant fingerprints, and some researchers believe that these shapes, along with many others found in megalithic temple-tombs, act as ‘entoptic phenomena’ - images designed to induce trances or altered states of consciousness.
The entrance to the tomb is orientated to the winter solstice sunrise, just like its counterpart in Ireland, Newgrange, which was built at about the same time, and whose kerbstone is similarly engraved with swirling spiral shapes.
The Secrets of the Capstone
In 1984 archaeologists examined the upper, hidden, side of the capstone of the of Gavrinis and found carvings on it that married with two other great lengths of stone that were 4 km (2.5 miles) away in Locmariaquer.
Initially these three lengths formed one great standing stone, known as a menhir in France, that was 14m (46 ft) high. At some time in prehistory it was broken or broke into three sections that were used to cover three different tombs. Near to this soaring menhir was another even taller – Le Grand Menhir Brise (the Great Broken Menhir) whose 355 tons have now fallen into 4 pieces. It was originally the highest of an alignment of 19 menhirs, and stood over 20 metres (66 ft) tall, making it one of Europe’s greatest megalithic achievements.
While one section of its smaller twin came to form the roof of Gavrinis, another capped the roof of a tumulus built beside the Great Broken Menhir. The entrance to this tomb is orientated to the summer solstice sunrise, and is known as the Table des Marchands, after the extraordinary stone of the same name that faces you once you enter its inner sanctum.
Originally this stone may well have been displayed in the open air, since both sides are carved. Hidden from view today is a central image of a square with a crescent moon shape beneath and two semi-circles above. At its base, now buried in the earth, are those symbols found in many examples of rock art: squiggly lines with ‘heads’ resembling sperm, and circles like ova. Although invisible to the human eye it is tempting to believe that Stone Age people somehow intuited these primal forms.
The side of the stone that faces you is vibrant and emanates a sense of fertility, as if drawing upon the primal images concealed in the earth. No-one knows what, if anything, the rows of lines represent: it could be shepherd’s crooks, which have been identified on other stones as far away as Portugal, plants or trees, or perhaps a depiction of the avenues of stones at Carnac.
The Great Avenues of Stone
Carnac is near the Atlantic coast, 13km (8 miles) from the Table des Marchands. Here more than 3,000 standing stones are laid out in long lines, prompting the local legend that they are a Roman legion turned to stone by Merlin. Certainly they are reminiscent of the great stone army of China where 6,000 terracotta men and horses protect the tomb of the Emperor in Xi’an city.
The great rows of stones were erected in the Neolithic period, with the greatest period of activity probably being around 3,300 BC. Today the existence of roads, fences around sections of the site, and a village diminish the experience of being amongst the stones, but a day spent exploring the alignments is still rewarding.
As with so many features of the megalithic culture we can only guess at the motivation and technology of the builders. Mysteriously, no trace of neolithic dwellings remain in the area, and there was an abrupt cessation of activity in around 3,000 BC perhaps prompted by warfare or climate change. Some scholars have suggested that successive generations might have erected stones in honour of their ancestors, so that the site represent a vast tribute to the dead. Sacred sites researcher Paul Devereux speculates that the lines of stones, like their smaller cousins in England on Dartmoor, are ‘Spirit paths’ or roads for the dead, built to help guide souls out of this world, or to assist the soul-flight of shamans during their trances. Quite why so many lines would be needed remains unclear, but what is certain is that this whole area was one vast sacred site for over a thousand years, and can still be for pilgrims today who wish to visit these places with an attitude of reverence and awe.
To receive vital energies and legitimize the activities of earthly life, Neolithic peoples in western Europe turned to the maternal principle, representing the creative spirit. They also called on male authority, symbolized by attributes of the power of intercession. Finally, they sought the secrets of astral, solar and lunar cycles, thus seeking some form of participation in the dynamics of time and eternal renewal.
Jean-Pierre Mohen, The World of Megaliths
4500-c.3000 BC Carnac alignments built.
3900 -3800 BC - Table des Marchands tumulus probably built around this time.
3500 BC - Gavrinis probably built around this time.
3300 BC – Peak period of Carnac activity.
1811 AD First investigation of Table des Marchands in modern times. Objects found have since disappeared.
1832 – The owner of the Gavrinis island starts to explore the monument
1883, 1937, 1985, 1991 – Table des Marchands restored
1889 – Table des Marchands classed as a historic monument
1979 -1984 – Gavrinis fully excavated and restored