AskDefine | Define menhir

Dictionary Definition

menhir n : a tall upright megalith; found primarily in England and northern France [syn: standing stone]

User Contributed Dictionary

see Menhir



From Breton maen-hir (from maen ‘stone’ + hir ‘tall’), cognate with Welsh maen hir and Cornish mênhere.


  • /'mɛnhɪɚ/, /"mEn.hI@/


  1. A single tall standing stone as a monument, especially of prehistoric times.
    • 1963, no time has passed since we lived in caves, grappled with fish at the reedy shore, buried our dead with a song, with red-ochre and pulled up our dolmens, temples and menhirs and standing stones to the glory of some indeterminate god or gods — Thomas Pynchon, V.
    • 1980, On the coast tree ferns and pandanus palms. Inland termite menhirs seventeen feet high. — Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers




  1. A menhir.

Extensive Definition

A menhir is a large upright standing stone. Menhirs may be found singly as monoliths, or as part of a group of similar stones. Their size can vary considerably; but their shape is generally uneven and squared, often tapering towards the top. Menhirs are widely distributed across Europe, Africa, and Asia, but are most numerous in Western Europe; in particular in the British Isles and Brittany. They originate from many different periods across pre-history, and were erected as part of a larger Megalithic culture that flourished in Europe and beyond.
The function of Menhirs has provoked more debate than practically any other issue in European pre-history. Over the centuries they have variously been thought to have been used by Druids for human sacrifice, used as territorial markers or elements of a complex ideological system, or functioned as early calendars. Until the nineteenth century, antiquarians did not have substantial knowledge of prehistory; and their only reference points were provided by Classical literature. The developments of radiocarbon dating and tree-ring calibration have done much to further human knowledge in this area. The word menhir was adopted from French by 19th century archaeologists. It is a combination of two words found in the Breton language; men (stone), and hir (long). In Modern Welsh they are described as maen hir, or "long stone." In modern Breton, the word peulvan is used.

Description & History

The shape of a menhir tends to be square, narrowing toward the top. Some have vertical grooves and certain of those at Carnac appear to have been partially smoothed.
Practically nothing is known of the social organization or religious beliefs of the people who erected the menhirs. We have no trace even of these peoples' language, however we do know that they buried their dead, and had the skills to grow cereal, farm, and make pottery, stone tools, and jewelry. Speculation as to their use remains speculation, however it is likely that many had a functionality involving fertility rites and seasonal cycles. Until recently, menhirs were associated with the Beaker people, who inhabited Europe during the later third millennium BC; the European late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. However, recent research into the age of megaliths in Brittany strongly suggests a far older origin, perhaps back to six to seven thousand years ago.
Many menhirs are carved with megalithic art. This often turned them into anthropomorphic stelae, although images of objects such as stone axes, ploughs, shepherd crooks and yokes were common. With the exception of the stone axe, none of these motifs are definite, and the name used to describe them is largely for convenience. Some menhirs were broken up and incorporated into later passage graves where they had new megalithic art carved with little regard for the previous pictures. It is not known if this re-use was deliberate, or if the passage grave builders just saw menhirs as a convenient source of stone (Le Roux 1992).
In Scandinavia, menhirs are called bautasten or bautastenar and continued to be erected during the Pre-Roman Iron Age and later, usually over the ashes of the dead. They were raised both as solitary stones and in formations, such as the stone ships and few stone circles.
Sometimes, they were raised only as commemoration to great people, a tradition which was continued as the runestones.
The tradition was strongest in Bornholm, Gotland and Götaland and appears to have followed the Goths, during the 1st century, to the southern shore of the Baltic Sea, (now Northern Poland) where they are a characteristic of the Wielbark culture. In many areas, standing stones were systematically toppled by Christians; of the many former standing menhirs of northern Germany, scarcely one stands today.

Menhirs in Sweden

In Sweden by the 13th century menhirs were erected as markers for the graves of warriors. The following lines are taken from the introduction of the Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson;
As to funeral rites, the earliest age is called the Age of Burning; because all the dead were consumed by fire, and over their ashes were raised standing stones.
For men of consequence a mound should be raised to their memory, and for all other warriors who had been distinguished for manhood a standing stone; which custom remained long after Odin's time.
In the same work, Sturluson wrote that the Swedes burnt their dead king Vanlade and raised a stone over his ashes by the River Skyt (one of the tributaries of the River Fyris):
The Swedes took his body and burnt it at a river called Skytaa, where a standing stone was raised over him.
The tradition is also mentioned in Hávamál.

Prominent menhirs

Brittany stands out in the distribution of menhirs by virtue of both the density of monuments and the diversity of types. The largest surviving menhir in the world is located in Locmariaquer, Brittany, and is known as the Grand Menhir Brisé (Great Broken Menhir). Once nearly 20 meters high, today, it lies fractured into four pieces, but would have weighed near 330 tons when intact. It is placed third after the Thunder Stone in St. Petersburg and the Western Stone in the Western Wall as the heaviest object moved by humans without powered machinery.
Alignments of menhirs are common, the most famous being the Carnac stones in Brittany, where more than 3000 individual menhirs are arranged in four groups, and arrayed in rows stretching across four kilometres. Each set is organised with the tallest stones at the western end, and shorter ones at the eastern end. Some end with a semicircular cromlech, but many have since fallen or been destroyed.


  • Le Roux, C.T. 1992. “The Art of Gavrinis Presented in its Armorican Context and in Comparison with Ireland.” in Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland vol. 122, pp79-108
  • Mohen, Jean-Pierre. 2000. Standing Stones. Stonehenge, Carnac and the World of Megaliths. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-30090-9


See also

menhir in Breton: Peulvan
menhir in Bulgarian: Менхир
menhir in Catalan: Menhir
menhir in Czech: Menhir
menhir in German: Menhir
menhir in Spanish: Menhir
menhir in Esperanto: Menhiro
menhir in French: Menhir
menhir in Korean: 선돌
menhir in Italian: Menhir
menhir in Hebrew: מנהיר
menhir in Georgian: მენჰირი‎
menhir in Lithuanian: Menhyras
menhir in Macedonian: Менхир
menhir in Dutch: Menhir
menhir in Japanese: メンヒル
menhir in Polish: Menhir
menhir in Portuguese: Menir
menhir in Russian: Менгир
menhir in Slovak: Menhir
menhir in Finnish: Menhir
menhir in Tamil: குத்துக்கல்
menhir in Walloon: Menir
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