Though its name bears resemblance to Upper Egypt’s ancient ceremonial temple, the commune known as Carnac, located in southern Brittany, France, is associated with the mysteries of the ancients for more than just its name. For here, a neolithic mystery also exists, involving ancient standing stones numbering in excess of 3,000.
These tall, upright-standing stones at Carnac, or menhirs as they are sometimes called throughout parts of western Europe, are the stuff of local legend. One myth associates them with Saint Cornelius, long held to have been the first Gentile to have converted to Christianity. In this particular folktale, Cornelius was being pursued by a Roman legion, and by invoking the power of Christ, he transformed the soldiers into stone, where they remain today; hence, the perfect straightness of their alignment is explained, according to this version of the story. A similar English variation holds that, rather than Cornelius, it had been none other than the famous magician Merlin who cast this stony spell upon the advancing legion.
In truth, the Arthurian variation holds a bit more weight, if only in that the history of the stones and their present formation certainly dates back to pre-Christian times, likely around 3300 BC, though the exact age of the site remains in question.
The greater question, of course, has to do with how the peoples of neolithic western Europe could have moved the stones–some of them massive in proportion–and also moved so many of them into place. Of equal interest in this mystery is what purpose they served, for which there are many theories and curious possibilities.
Dating back to the late 18th century, it had been suggested that the standing stones of Carnac might have been utilized by druids in their rituals. Others have suggested that they may have been erected in alignment with the stars, much akin to more modern alternative theories about ancient temples and structures, most famously the Egyptian pyramids at Giza. By the early 1800s, excavations were undertaken at the site, in which more theories were proposed, again suggesting celestial alignment and other astronomical theories the likes of which have been offered in relation to Stonehenge further to the north.
This theory may be justified somewhat, according to its proponents, due in part to similar reflections made on sites nearby, such as the massive “Broken Menhir” of Er Grah, located at Locmariaquer. This impressive menhir once stood upright, and at 20 meters, it was without question the tallest of its kind anywhere in the world. It’s modern name is derived, of course, from the fact that it now rests upon the ground, broken into four large stone slabs. And yet, much like the standing stones of Carnac, the great Broken Menhir of Locmariaquer is perhaps the most curious of all, since archaeological data proves that it not only once stood upright, but also that those who erected the monolith had likely done so as long ago as 4700 BC. What knowledge could have made this possible among the ancient Europeans, apart from elbow grease and unrivaled determination, is indeed a mystery.
Modern visitors to the region will find not only the remaining menhirs that have lasted the centuries, but also wandering goats who assist in keeping weed growth within manageable jurisdiction. Since the early 1900s, the stones have been protected as state-owned property, to prevent the inevitable borrowing by local quarrymen and builders that might have destroyed them, as fate met by similarly strange monuments found elsewhere in France. With little doubt, people will continue to marvel over their striking appearance against the French landscape; whether they were lifted in tribute to ancient lives by long-deceased family members, or they are ancient astronomical aids as many suggest, their existents serves to inspire our curiosity.