In November 2004 my daughter Julia and I crossed the bridge to an island in the River Oust to visit our dear friend Sonya who had use of an old house in central Brittany throughout the fall. We crossed into a liminal world.
The Oust flows peacefully around the island past the workings of an old mill. Walking paths on either side of the river put the house on constant view by passers by yet it floats in another reality. Shielded by gardens and protected my Mother Goose it is a Breton Avalon.
We ventured forth from our secluded world to discover we lived near the ancient forest of Brocéliande, in Celtic legend forest of the Holy Grail and the Tomb in which Viviènne imprisoned Merlin in seven rings of air.
Brittany has megalithic sites of global significance which are controlled and protected in the busy summer months but open in the fall and winter to passers by. The stone alignments at Carnac on the south coast of Brittany, bordering La Golfe de Morbihan, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site which contains over 3000 standing stones of an estimated 6000 in the original configurations before farmers, church officials, road builders etc. ravaged the sites. Arriving at twilight, we sank into the otherworldly atmosphere which permeates rural Brittany. The stones and Breton landscape moved us profoundly. In Celtic culture twilight is the liminal time of day—autumn a threshold between living and dead. In Breton mythology Merlin was born of the union of an angel and a royal cloistered nun. The Carnac alignments are a Roman legion turned to stone by Merlin. In another legend St. Cornelius, a third century Pope, turned pursuing pagan soldiers into stone.
Brittany is peopled by even older shades. Those Beings we intuited. Julia was drawn to lie in alignment with the stones. She found a field where graves of menhirs buried by the Catholic Church hundreds of years ago are being excavated, the stones raised once more. Sonya was drawn to ritual. I photographed.
At first I tried to photograph the alignements, the sheer immensity of scope at Carnac confounded me. As I drew closer to alignment myself, the photographs became portraits of stone personages. The house, it’s windows and doors, companion island, abandoned birdhouse, garden, another threshold.
Each day I drove us home in gathering dusk and fog through the dark forest to sit by the fire and listen to the river flowing past the house as we slept.
This body of work is not an attempt to document the standing stones of Brittany. I wish to portray the fleeting essence of the liminal, where time has little meaning and we are at peace, I wish to introduce Stone Beings we met along our way.
A Note on the Stones
Neolithic and Megalithic sites of stone circles, standing stones (menhir or standing man in French), dolmans, and various other gigantic earthworks are scattered around the globe on every continent. The European sites, of which Stonehenge is the most famous but not necessarily the most significant, date from 2000 to 5000 BCE.
In the Far East, Middle East, and Australia there is speculation that much older sites exist, one researcher in Australia claims sites from 50,000 BCE. The oldest were built by an Ice Age culture of which we know nothing. As the ice retreated and the seas rose some sites were covered by the sea and are only recently being rediscovered. Significant sites in the waters off the coast of Japan may date from 8000 -10,000 BCE.
The stones have fascinated many but surprisingly little scientific research has been done. Perhaps this is because the modern scientific mind holds a fierce prejudice that the evolution of civilization is progressive, by definition eliminating theories that a sophisticated and advanced civilization designed and built the Megalithic structures.
Over time there has been speculation linking the stones to ancient Celts (who did use them but did not build them), Atlantis, extra-terrestrials, the hermetic tradition in Egypt, and much else. Their purpose has been speculated about but never definitively confirmed, nor is it certain that the sites in different areas of the globe were connected in any way as to who built them, or for what purpose.
Andis Kaulins, Lecturer at the University of Trier in Germany, speculates that the stones were terrestrial maps of the sky used for navigation, to establish borders and boundaries, as route markers for wayfarers, and as the first calendar. He has mapped many of the European sites which show exact correlations with astronomical constellations. Carnac corresponds to Orion in the terrestrial star map of Europe but is also in itself a map of the heavens. Modern techniques of satellite imagery and GPS plotting are rapidly expanding this research and providing validation for these theories.
Other claims about the stones may be equally valid. Some formations were used as burial sites, all likely had spiritual significance for those who built them. They are the oldest works of art and architecture in the world.
The Legend of the Birth of the Morbihan
The Gulf of Morbihan is an inland sea in the South of Brittany containing 368 islands. It is said that when the fairies were driven from the forest of Brocéliande the tears they shed formed the inland sea. The fairies threw garlands of flowers into the sea and each flower transformed into an island. Three garlands were thrown into the Atlantic and turned into Houat and Hoedic. The fairy queen’s garland became the Isle of Beauty.