A menhir (French, from Middle Breton: maen, "stone" and hir, "long"), standing stone, orthostat, lith or masseba/matseva is a large upright standing stone. Menhirs may be found solely 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. However, they are most numerous in Western Europe; in particular in Ireland, Great Britain and Brittany. There are about 50,000 megaliths in these areas, while there are 1,200 menhirs in northwest France alone. Standing stones are usually difficult to date, but pottery, and/or pottery shards found underneath some in Atlantic Europe connects them with the Beaker people. They were constructed during many different periods across pre-history as part of a larger megalithic culture that flourished in Europe and beyond.
Some menhirs have been erected next to buildings that often have an early or current religious significance. One example is the South Zeal Menhir in Devon, which formed the basis for a 12th-century monastery built by lay monks. The monastery later became the Oxenham Arms hotel, at South Zeal, and the standing stone remains in place in the ancient snug bar at the hotel.
Where menhirs appear in groups, often in a circular, oval, henge or horseshoe formation, they are sometimes called megalithic monuments. These are sites of ancient religious ceremonies, sometimes containing burial chambers. The exact 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 dendrochronology have done much to further knowledge in this area.
The word menhir was adopted from French by 19th century archaeologists. It is a combination of two words of the Breton language: maen and hir. In modern Welsh, they are described as maen hir, or "long stone". In modern Breton, the word peulvan is used, with peul meaning stake or post and van which is a soft mutation of the word maen which means stone.
Douglas Harper's Etymology Dictionary
"upright monumental stone," 1834, literally "long stone," from French menhir (19c.), from Breton men "stone" + hir "long," from PIE *se-ro-, from root *se- "long, late" (see soiree). Cognate with Welsh maen hir, Cornish medn hir.
The Collaborative International Dictionary
Menhir \Men"hir\, n. [F. Armor. men stone + hir high.] A large stone set upright in olden times as a memorial or monument. Many, of unknown date, are found in Brittany and throughout Northern Europe.
n. a tall upright megalith; found primarily in England and northern France [syn: standing stone]
n. A single tall standing stone as a monument, especially of prehistoric times.
Usage examples of "menhir".
Ils savent aussi que les menhirs de Carnac sont des geants paiens changes en pierre par saint Cornely.
And as at dusk and dawn the great menhirs of Stonehenge fill with a mysterious, granitic life, seem to be praying priests of stone, so about these gathered hierophantic illusion.
A narrow but high portal marked the entrance, framed by four massive cut-stonesa broad threshold underfoot, two tapering, flanking menhirs, and a single lintel stone overhead.
Kamist Reloe, you would discover that these boulders are in fact menhirs, stones standing taller than any of us here.
Years ago in that section of the beach had once stood a long wooden pier that time and tide had reduced to a broken row of ruined pilings, barnacled, algae-furred, jutting haphazardly above the swell like ancient menhirs in a rolling field.
The structures seemed isolated: menhirs erected on a plain once green, now the peculiar lichenous shade of scrubby desert, very much like the earliest television colour pictures of the Moon.
It was a trick of the spectral light, a mirage of the twining mists which wreathed those great menhirs, a visual and mental distortion conjured of distance and dreams.
The men floundered ankle-deep in pits of sable sand, or climbed laboriously over damlike barricades of rusty boulders, huge as piled menhirs.
While he instructed his machines with the program for the meeting small, shivering men hewed blue stone into menhirs to form Stonehenge.
Among thousands of millions of obelisks and monoliths, menhirs and dolmens, their shades varying between granite-gray, moss-green, and lichened pink, one more configuration becomes unremarkable.