Pagan Sites of Portugal

by Ricardo Campos

There are many, many Pagan monuments in Portugal that will appeal to the traveller in search of sacred spaces. This short article will introduce you to a very small number among hundreds of beautiful pre-Christian sites in my country. I hope someday you may come to visit them and open yourselves to their inspiration.

Portugal has perhaps the very oldest megaliths in Europe, some of them quite remarkable, and there is much evidence of varied Pagan cults and places of worship.

Some natives of the British Isles might be surprised by the similarity between many of the Portuguese dolmens and the ones of their own countries. That is explained by the fact that there are close affinities between the megalithic period of Portugal and that of France and the British Isles; T. D. Kendrick talked about a western province comprising Portugal, Spain, western and south-western France and Britain and Ireland that would have been a single cultural entity throughout the Bronze Age. But there is more than megaliths when it comes to ancient places of worship. Obviously I will just pick a couple of my favourites for inclusion here.

A few words about the old Gods of Portugal: the stone ex-votos of the Roman age contain the names of many gods whose sphere of influence we can sometimes guess from their Celtic philological root. Thus we know today about such gods as Bormanico, Runesocesius, or the goddesses Trebaruna and Ataegina. Perhaps the greatest divinity of Lusitania (the name of the old province largely corresponding to the Portugal of today) was the god Endovellico, who was related to healing and the afterlife. Apparently, the worshippers spent the night inside his sanctuary (in which there was also an oracle) in order to have dream revelations. It is also believed that there might have existed a trinity of which Endovellico was the main god, Runesus Cesius the war god (his name seems to mean something like mystery god armed with dart) and Ataegina the fertility and agrarian goddess.

Stone circle of Almendres
This is the largest stone circle of the Iberian peninsula and one of the most important in Europe. It was identified to the modern world in 1964 and the first of its several phases of construction took place in the 5th millennium BCE (early Neolithic). It stands on a gentle slope facing east near the summit of an important hilltop somewhat near Evora, in the region of Alentejo. It was doubtless a place for social assembly, linked to astral observations and predictions, and some of its menhirs have carvings with social and religious symbology. One of them reveals three radial solar representations; this iconography is believed to correspond to a religious superstructure centred on a female super-divinity idealised with huge sun-like eyes, the great Mediterranean Mother-Goddess. This carving strikes me as curiously similar to the Awen. Certainly this would be one of the choice places for a modern Druid celebration in Portugal.

The Sanctuary of Mogueira
The sanctuary of Mogueira is one of a number of fascinating pre-Roman hilltop sanctuaries in Portugal. There are three rough walls around the hill, some of them joined to natural outcrops of granite. The sanctuary has several steps and stairs as well as basins and other peculiarities carved on the rock itself. The rugged look of the whole site is common to other such sanctuaries in the Northwest of Portugal. No one can know for sure what rituals were undertaken here, but the basins and the small canals connecting them are suggestive of libations.

Menhir of Meada
This is probably the tallest monolith in the Iberian Peninsula (7.15 metres tall) and it was found broken in two. It is likely to have been erected during the beginning of the fourth millennium BCE. Its disjunction probably took place during the Roman age. After a lot of hard work (due to its 16 tons of weight) it was eventually re-erected in 1993. Apparently its height is due to the fact that it belongs to a line of menhirs which were carefully arranged so that each one was visible from the next (the Menhir of Meada stands in a lower elevation than the others. It is located near Marvao, possibly the most beautiful Mediaeval village you'll ever see anywhere (I mean it).

Dolmen of St. Dinis
The Anta de Sao Dinis is one of a number of dolmens in Portugal that were Christianised. It is a large dolmen (3.3 metres tall) and it is to be found inside the town of Pavia. Sometime around the early 17th century it was turned into a surprising Christian chapel.

Menhir of Bulhoa
This menhir (which was restored and re-erected in 1970) is one of the several decorated megaliths in Portugal (some of them are even more spectacular), portraying a solar representation and wavy lines of difficult interpretation. There is a carving that seems to depict an object that is sometimes found in the dolmens and which seems to be connected with social or religious authority.

Citnia de Briteiros
In the North of Portugal and Galicia in Spain nearly every hilltop has a pre-Roman settlement, called Castro. One of the most astonishing is Briteiros, a veritable city of pre-Roman origin (despite having been expanded already during the Roman age). Walking the streets of the ruins of Citania de Briteiros is an enthralling experience. Local epigraphy shows us the Celtic names of some of its inhabitants (the North of Portugal and Galicia are one of the regions of Iberia where the Celtic peoples more strongly established themselves, together with Celtiberia in central Spain and Alentejo in Portugal. From these Castros came the famous statues of bearded warriors with torcs around their necks (beautiful golden torcs were also found). The other notable sculptures of possible Celtic origin from these areas are the more widespread statues of boars, whose precise meaning is also lost.

Anta Grande do Zambujeiro
This is the largest Dolmen in the Iberian Peninsula, a monumental structure with upright stones over 6 metres tall. It was found intact in 1964 (still inside its original earth mound) and it was the object of a careless excavation and poor measures of protection and conservation. I believe some archaeologists are developing efforts in order to change this state of affairs. Still, its size alone is enough for me to choose to include it here.

Fountain of the Idol
Inside the beautiful city of Braga there is a garden in which there is a most remarkable monument: a fountain of the Roman age dedicated to a local pre-Roman god. On a granite rock, from which the fountain springs, was sculpted the image of a bearded man holding something that is assumed to be a basket with fruit (probably a representation of the god) and beside it, a kind of frame surrounding the bust of a man (probably the dedicator). There are also two inscriptions: one is Celicus Fronto Arcobrigensis Ambimogidus Fecit (which means something like Celico Fronto, from the city of Arcobriga of the Ambimogidus) certainly an ethnic group. Both Arcobriga and Ambimogidus are names of Celtic etymology, which is also the case of the name of the god to whom the fountain is dedicated (the other inscription): Tongoenabiagoí. In ancient Celtic it seems to mean something like God of the fountain of the oaths. So we have here a sacred spring where people certainly made promises to the divinity. I am sure all readers will appreciate the importance and singularity of this monument.

Menhir of Rocha dos Namorados
This is a large and unusually shaped menhir (it has been compared to a mushroom, or even a female uterus) that is connected to an obviously Pagan tradition (that to my knowledge is found in at least one other menhir in Portugal and another in Spain near the border): during Easter Monday, young girls throw little stones onto its top, and every stone that falls down before one staying at the top means one year that they will remain unwed. Rocha dos Namorados means Rock of the Lovers and its top is heaped with little stones. Another interesting feature is that at a date I do not know (but which must have been over a century ago) someone carved a large decorated crucifix on a face of the menhir.