The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian


Circle henge


Like at many a megalithic monument, the stones of Stonehenge cannot be counted. Or at least, the poet Sir Philip Sidney couldn't count them. He made mention of this in his 'The 7 Wonders of England', written pre-1581.

"Neere Wilton sweete, huge heapes of stones are found,
But so confusde that neither any eye
Can count them just, nor reason try,
What force brought them to so unlikely ground."

Perhaps it was common knowledge and not just a personal problem with figures, since Alexander Craig mentions it in 'To His Calidonian Mistris' (published 1604):

"And when I spide those stones on Sarum plaine,
Which Merlin by his Magicke brought, some saine,
By night from farr I-erne to this land,
Where yet as oldest Monuments they stand:
And though they be but few for to behold,
Yet can they not (it is well knowne) be told.
Those I compared unto my plaints and cryes
Whose totall summe no numers can comprise."
..a literary reference occurs in William Rowley's The Birth of Merlin, a play published in 1662, but believed.. to have been staged forty or fifty years previously.

..and when you die,
I will erect a monument upon the verdant plains of Salisbury:
no king shall have so high a sepulchre,
with pendulous stones that I will hang by art,
Where neither lime nor mortar shall be used,
a dark enigma to thy memory,
for none shall have the power to number them.

That the tradition was well known is indicated by the fact that King Charles II spent October 7, 1651, 'reckoning and rereckoning its stones in order to beguile the time'. Colonel Robert Phelips, who accompanied his sovereign, added, 'the King's Arithmetike gave the lye to that fabulous tale.
Celia Fiennes, travelling in about 1690, had no trouble, and 'told them often, and bring their number to 91.'

Gathered in
The 'Countless Stones': A Final Reckoning
S. P. Menefee
Folklore, Vol. 86, No. 3/4. (Autumn - Winter, 1975), pp. 146-166.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
23rd December 2006ce
Edited 28th May 2007ce

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