There are many petrification myths and legends in settings scattered around the British Isles that tell how people have become turned to stone. It is often the case that some religious code or rule has been transgressed by one or more people for some reason and they have been punished by being turned to stone.
Moelfre in Gwynedd – Image by Oosoom – CC BY-SA 3.0 – From Wikimedia Commons
The Stone Women of Moelfre Hill
The legend of the Stone Women of Moelfre tells the story of how three women were turned to stone for working on the Sabbath. Its setting is on Moelfre, which is a Welsh hill in Gwynedd, Wales sitting on the western edge of the Snowdonia National Park, situated about three miles from the village of Dyffryn Ardudwy and about five miles from the village of Llanbedr.
The legend was said to have originated about the time Christianity was taking over from the old pagan beliefs and tells how three women had a problem winnowing their corn because there was no wind. Winnowing was an important task that their families and community depended upon to make bread. According to the legend, one woman wore a red kirtle. Another wore a white kirtle and the third wore a kirtle of the darkest blue.
After the corn was harvested the people would thresh the corn, sometimes by making oxen walk in circles over the harvested ears of corn, or by pounding it on the ground with flails. This would crush the ears leaving the chaff and grain that needed separating, or winnowing which was hard work and done by the women of the community. They would spend many hours throwing the mixed chaff and grain into the air so that the wind would take the light chaff away but leave the heavier grain to fall to the ground. The remaining grain would then be placed in sacks and ground into flour.
The problem the women had was that for many days there had been no wind or even the slightest breeze, making it impossible for them to winnow. The women worried that unless they could get their task done soon it would rain and ruin the corn. The grain and chaff would get wet making them stick together and hard to separate and they would not be able to bake bread to feed their families and began to despair that they would not be able to complete their task.
Then the woman wearing the red kirtle had an idea and said to the others, “I say there is bound to be wind on the top of Moelfre. Let us carry sacks of grain up there and do the winnowing there.”
“But we would be working on the Sabbath if we did that!” said the woman in the white kirtle. It was a Sunday and on Sundays in Wales no one at all was allowed to work because it was the Sabbath.
“But if the wind is blowing on Moelfre, shall we let it go to waste and have no flour to bake bread?” said the woman in blue, “And what would we tell our children when they have no bread? I will fetch three sacks and we can fill them up and carry them up to Moelfre.”
They all agreed that they should this so they filled up a sack each and hoisting them across their backs began the arduous journey along the path to the top of Moelfre. On the way they passed a cottage where an old man looked out of his door and was shocked to see them hauling the sacks up the path. He gave them a stern warning about the consequences of working on the Sabbath but the women continued on their way ignoring him. They passed a farm and the farmer shouted out a warning that it was the Sabbath and told them to stop or they would be punished. The women laughed at him and carried on.
Their path took them through the valley where the men of Neolithic times made axes out of the sharp Graig Lwyd stone. Passing though, they climbed the path to the high hill where the Meini Hirion, also called the Druid’s Stone Circle stood and passed this and continued on their way. They knew that the summit of Moelfre was not far off and that there would be wind there and redoubled their efforts.
Finally the reached the summit of the hill. Just as they had anticipated the wind was just right for their task so they spread out a sheet on the ground to catch the grain when it fell out of the air. They emptied the contents of their sacks into a heap and began the arduous task of winnowing the corn throwing up into air so that the wind took the husks and the grain fell onto the sheet on the ground. Then as they were busily working away a terrible thing happened. The legend says that God saw them working on the Sabbath and punished them for disobeying his law and turned them into three standing stones. One red, one white and one dark blue and there they stood on top of Moelfre for years untold, but not forever.
There is a school of thought that says the three women represent a triple goddess. Robert Graves in his book The White Goddess, says, “The three standing stones thrown down from Moelfre Hill near Dwygyfylchi in Wales in the iconoclastic seventeenth century may well have represented the Io trinity. One was white, one dark red, one dark blue and they were known as three women. The local monkish legend was that three women dressed in those colors were petrified for winnowing on a Sunday.”
Others also see the three stones places in a triangle as representing a triple goddess and the colours representing a different aspect of the goddess. Their supposed petrification may not have been just a warning about working on the Sabbath but possibly a warning of possible punishment inflicted for keeping the old ways.
Today there are no standing stones on the summit of Moelfre. Some people say those who search they may find three stones below the turf that appear to have sunk into the ground and these are said to be the Stone Women of Moelfre. Another explanation offered by Wirt Sikes in British Goblins – Welsh Folk-Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions was that they were subject to vandalism by a gang of youths who dug them up and rolled them down the hill.
© 28/03/2017 zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright March 3rd, 2017 zteve t evans