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A Myth is Good for a While. Part 2: Stone Circles.

By the non-mythical Sergeant Frosty.



Castlerigg Stone Circle, near Keswick.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

Stone circles. There are a lot of them in Britain and northern France. There’s an estimated 1300 stone circles in Britain alone, and most of them seem to have stories attached to them. Some are said to dance and move on the night of a full moon; some are said to be giants who strayed into the sunlight and were turned to stone; some can’t be counted and anyone who tries counting them comes up with a different number each time; some are said to be a gateway to the elven kingdoms beneath the hill.

 

Not, I might add, the noble, honourable, upright elves of many fantasy novels and role-playing games. The elves of British myth are malicious, capricious, inhuman and inhumane. Stealers of children, abductors of the unwary, vulnerable to iron and unable to withstand consecrated ground.


I digress.

 

Stone circles, in the tales told about them, are places of power, mystic places that follow unnatural laws.

 

One could fill a book with all the tales associated with stone circles. Indeed, many such books have been filled.

 

I’ll detail the story behind one such, a story of greed, of impatience, of wealth, of vengeance.

 

Oh, and it’s also a story of sheep, known in the Dartmoor region as wethers.

 

 

 

The Legend of Grey Wethers

Traditional

 

There are two broken stone circles on the south-eastern slopes of Sittaford Tor on Dartmoor. Thirty rough block of granite that look like a flock of sheep grazing. These are known as Grey Wethers, wether being the local word for sheep.


Grey Wethers, Dartmoor.

Picture courtesy Jodie Newton.


This is the story of how Grey Wethers came to be formed.

 

Many hundreds of years ago, a peasant called Zorac, one of a tribe of people worshipping Belus the Sun God, came to Sittaford Tor and made it their home. Zorac found favour in the sight of his god and he grew from being a person without possessions to becoming the richest person in the tribe. However, Zorac became greedy as he became rich, and he begrudged having to make sacrifices to the Sun God.

 

The time came for the great festival of Midsummer. The followers of Belus vied with each other in search of the choicest offering to make to the Sun God. While they did this, Zorac went in the early morning to the green slopes of Sittaford Tor to choose one of his flock to sacrifice to the Sun God. As he gazed, he felt that there was not one of the sheep from his flock of forty that he could willing bring himself to part with. One of his neighbours several lambs that had been born late in the season. He decided to steal one of them and sacrifice it in place of one of his own sheep. Belus, who knew what Zorac had done, was angry and decided to punish him.

 

When Zorac returned in the evening to where he had left his flock, he found – to his amazement – that they had vanished. On the green grass where they had been grazing, two circles of upright granite posts stood in their place. Belus had had his revenge.


From that day, Zorac's fortunes changed. Soon, he sickened and died; he was buried beneath the cairn on top of the hill.


The two stone circles still stand there. Every Midsummer Eve, at midnight, the stones turn back into their former shapes and, as sheep, graze until morning on the green slopes of Sittaford Tor.

 

And should anyone succeed in shearing one of these sheep before the sun rises and they turn back into stones, then the fleece, if sprinkled with water from a deep rock basin on the very top of the Tor, will turn to gold. However, the shearing has to be done with Zorac’s shears, which are buried with him in his cairn. The legend says that, in addition, the shears first have to be dipped into the river Teign at midnight.

 

Lynhur, a local sheep farmer, came across a rhyme about the Grey Wethers.

 

At midnight by the Tolmen, upon the River Teign,

The shears within its waters shall carve thy weal or bane.

Strike on thy left, then on thy right, red blood the flood shall stain.

Beware lest trembling fingers withdraw the blade again,

But hold it firmly ‘neath the stream till tress of hair appears,

Which seize and keep to bind the sheep, then use the magic shears.

 

Lynhur brooded over the story of Grey Wethers all winter. He finally resolved to test out the legend. If it were true, he would be rich. The idea became an obsession; he could hardly wait until summer.


Sheep trying to disguise itself in a hut stone circle on Dartmoor. The sheep is the white one.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


At last, a week before Midsummer’s Day, the time was ripe. Lynhur set off for the Tor and, after a brief search, found the cairn. After a few hours of hard labour, he uncovered the stone coffin. He prised off the lid and gazed inside. There was a skeleton, a few amber beads, some fragments of metal and, proving the story to be true, a pair of shears. He took the shears and set off for the Tolmen stone on the River Teign. On the way, he filled his flask from the deep pool on top of the Tor. He arrived at the Tolmen just before midnight and knelt at the edge of the river. He recited the words that he had memorised.

 

At midnight by the Tolman, upon the River Teign

The shears within its waters shall carve thy weal or bane.

Strike on thy left, then on thy right.”

 

With that, he plunged the shears into the river. The water hissed and seethed around them, then a dark cloud seemed to pass across the moon, the air turned chill and a low, eerie moaning filled the air. Suddenly, a loud voice rang out.

 

Strike! Strike! Crimson blood shall stain the flood

And whet the glistening blade that shears the sheep.

Strike! Strike!

 

Lynhur was terrified. He withdrew the shears from the river. As he did so, the foaming, seething water was stained the colour of blood. He gazed in horror before recalling the warning of the legend. He plunged the shears into the river once more. A peal of mocking laughter filled the valley and again the voice rang out:

 

Strike! Strike! See there before thee in the stream,

To bind the sheep, fair tresses gleam.

Strike! Strike!

 

As the words rang out, a long tress of woman’s hair rose to the surface of the river and floated past the rock on which Lynhur knelt. Spellbound, he watched as it floated past him. Then realising that it was passing out of reach, he flung himself full length, grabbing at it frantically. Although he was almost too late, he managed to reach it. Then he set off back for Sittaford Tor to wait for Midsummer’s Eve.


Sittaford Tor.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


On Midsummer’s Eve, Lynhur waited by the Grey Wethers. Despite the terror and excitement, he somehow fell asleep. He was woken up by the bleating of sheep. To his delight, the stones had turned back into fine sheep.

 

He sprang to his feet. Because he had been asleep, he had no time to spare. Dawn would be breaking soon, so he had to work fast. He drew the short rope he had woven from the tresses and crept up on the nearest sheep. He eventually cornered it after a lengthy chase, tied it with his short rope and began shearing as fast as he could. The shears were blunt, and it took time. However, piece by piece, the fleece dropped to the ground. Lynhur started to gloat over the fortune that he would have at sunrise. Then he suddenly became aware of a light on the eastern horizon. The sun was almost rising. Lynhur tried to speed up his shearing but suddenly the knots on the too-short rope loosened and the sheep made its escape. Lynhur was now petrified. Why had he withdrawn the shear from the river? Why hadn’t he immediately grabbed the tresses instead of letting them float by? The shears would have been sharper, and the rope would have been longer. He would have completed his task. He cursed himself firstly for having started off on the adventure and secondly for his stupid folly at the river’s edge.

 

He remembered the flask of water and decided to sprinkle the fleece with it. However, before he could make a move, he became aware of a sense of doom. He looked up and saw the herd of sheep closing in on him, forming a circle around him and growing to gigantic proportions.

 

Suddenly, a voice rang out.

 

Those that seekest to steal from the flock of the dead,

Shall take the gift of the grave and join the flock instead.

 

The next day, no-one could find Lynhur. He seemed to have just vanished. There was, however, one extra granite stone on Sittaford Tor. The flock of Grey Wethers had grown.



*****


Sergeant Frosty writes under the pen-name David Flin, and his books can be found Here.


Discuss this myth Here.

 


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