Devon Perspectives

Nine Maidens

A standing stone circle around a Bronze Age burial site

The Nine Maidens stone circle near Belstone Tor
concerning stone maidens
The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper - Eden Phillpotts.

Walk out of Belstone village on the western side, go through the gate and out on to the moor, then make your way towards Belstone Tor. Near the base of the Tor you will see a stone circle or cairn erected to surround a round burial barrow from the Bronze Age, or kistvaen, as they are named on Dartmoor. On the Ordnance Survey Map the stone circle appears as Nine Stones, but it is more widely known as The Nine Maidens.

Nine Maidens at Belstone Tor
A nineteenth century rambler, Samuel Rowe, gives this brief description of the Nine Stones in "A Perambulation of the Ancient and Royal Forest of Dartmoor and the Venville Precincts" dated 1848. His chosen approach to Belstone Tor was from the East Okement valley to the west:
... we shall mount the steep ascent towards Belstone Tor, and within a quarter of a mile, on its western slope, we shall observe the circle called in the neighbourhood Nine Stones, but which in reality consists of seventeen stones, erect, the highest of which is not more than two feet and a half from the ground.
Present day stone counters reckon there to be just sixteen stones, though The Book of Belstone ups the tally to 20 if we include 'small stones and five toppled or insecure temporary ones'. Issue 61 of Notes and Queries published in 1850 reminds us of the propensity of the stones to dance, according to legend.
The stone circles on Dartmoor, are said to have been made "when there were wolves on the hills, and winged serpents in the low lands." On the side of Belstone Tor, near Oakhampton, is a small grave circle called "Nine Stones." It is said to dance every day at noon.

In The Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor by Ruth St Leger-Gordon, the author quotes this poem from the Book of Avis trilogy by Eden Phillpotts as supposedly inspired by this stone circle:

And now at every Hunter's Moon
That haggard cirque of stones so still
Awakens to immortal thrill
And seven small maidens in silver shoon
Twixt dark of night and white of day
Twinkle upon the sere old heath
Like living blossoms in a wreath
Then shrink again to granite grey.
So blue-eyed Dian shall ever dance
With Linnette, Bethkin, Jennifer,
Arisa, Petronell and Nance.

Hunter's Moon is usually the full moon in October, this being the full moon after the Harvest Moon. In the poem Eden has taken a generous poet's licence to transform the legend by changing the dancing frequency from once a day to once a year, dropping a couple of stones, and moving the dancing time from day to night. Perhaps, as St. Leger-Gordon speculates, Eden's musings were based on his recollections of a different stone circle?

It is time to pose a question. What is it that makes the number of stones in a cairn total nine, regardless of the actual number?
The answer can be found in Ruth St Leger-Gordon's book, where the mythological basis is given for the many examples in the UK of stone circles associated with the dancing legend that are called Nine Maidens, regardless of the actual number of stones in the circle. The delightful Legendary Dartmoor site has a good outline of this topic.
One well-known instance is the Nine Stones of Boskednan (aka Nine Maidens) in the Penwith District of Cornwall where it is said there are 22 stones in all, of which 11 are now standing upright following a facelift in 2004. No such permanent 'restoration' work has been carried out at Belstone Tor, which may be because local superstition cautions that disturbing the stones will curse the perpetrator with grave misfortune. This prophesy seems to have been fulfilled in 1985 when a local film crew added an extra stone while shooting a mystery called The Circle of Doom. It is said that the only copy of the film was subsequently lost in the post.
view to the north from Belstone Tor
This view to the north from Belstone Tor was captured during the heat wave of July 2013. The Nine Maidens can just be made out in the middle distance to the left of the head of the seated figure of my younger son Leo.
bibliography
The Book of Belstone by Chris and Marion Walpole, private publication, 2002.
Mysteries and Folklore of Dartmoor by Ruth St. Leger-Gordon, Robert Hale 1965; reprinted Peninsula Press, 1994.
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