Prehistoric Europeans told legends about powerful, mysterious female
makers of European stone tombs called dolmens and cromlechs. On the one
hand, they were said to bestow riches and fertility on individuals, and
fantastic gifts like the skills of brewing beer and farming; all they
wanted in return was a little milk.
On the other hand, they were described as angry snakes guarded by
bulls, cursing people and hoarding the very gold of the sun. They were
imagined as beautiful cloven-hoofed, snake- or bull-women, who guarded
the dolmens and could speak with the dead, spin the rays of the sun, and
even create the world.
In her master’s thesis of 2014, archaeologist Henna Lindström of the
University of Helsinki in Finland wrote of the folktales and legends
that grew up around the supposed supernatural makers and guardians of
Portuguese dolmens. Lindström’s fascinating paper details stories from
other parts of Europe as well about the Mouras Encantadas, as the
mysterious women are called in Portugal.
Casa da Moura ("House of the Moura”), a dolmen in Portugal
Carbon dating shows the people of Europe began building megalithic
tombs between 4800 and 3800 B.C., corresponding to about the beginning
of the New Stone Age or Neolithic period. At first, the megaliths were
menhirs, or single standing stones; then people made cromlechs, or stone
circles. There are thousands of known megaliths in Iberia alone. People
in Portugal were among the first to build megaliths, around 4800 B.C.
As for the women who built them, "Folklore makes it clear that these
women are about omnipotent—they have everlasting life, youth, beauty and
riches, wisdom and skills, which they [taught] to people. [A] big part
of these skills connects the Mouras … to the Neolithic revolution—Mouras
taught people spinning, weaving, cheesemaking, brewing, and plowing,
and gave sheep, pigs, and cows as gifts for people,” Lindström wrote.
"[A] big part of
these skills connects the Mouras … to the Neolithic revolution—Mouras
taught people spinning, weaving, cheesemaking, brewing, and plowing.”
, University of Helsinki
Linguistics connects the Portuguese Mouras to many other European
goddesses, including the Greek Moirae, or Fates, who held everyone’s
destinies in their minds and to whom even Zeus had to answer.
Mouras were also said to have lived in the world before people were
made. When people appeared, the Mouras acted as cultural heroes,
teaching people farming and animal husbandry, navigation of the sea, and
graves in Fornos de Algodres, Portugal, said to be the place where the
Mouras kneaded bread.
The Mouras "came to the [land] … in the beginning of time and shaped
it—its hills and valley and rivers, dolmens and menhir and red paintings
on the rocks, and gave birth to children, who possibly became the
ancestors of the community telling the legend,” Lindström wrote.
Writing of the dolmens themselves, Lindström said: "The art and
symbols in Portuguese dolmens, and their orientation towards the rising
sun or equinoctial full moon can be seen as telling about their faith in
rebirth. The art itself can be seen as made to guide people—living,
dead and unborn—to travel between worlds of living and dead. Megalithic
graves were burial sites and places for ritual burials, but it is very
plausible it wasn’t their only and maybe not even their main function.
It is likely that they were, like the churches in Christian times,
spiritual centers around which the community got together to celebrate
important dates and happenings, to negotiate and agree about matters
concerning the whole community and to strengthen their communality.”
She said Christian bishops in later years banned annual celebrations
around dolmens. The Church also destroyed some dolmens and declared
others sacred Christian sites. Nevertheless, the legend of the Mouras
have withstood the passage of time.