Cup marks – rock art in folklore

Stones with cup marks can be found in Ireland, Sweden, Estonia, Germany, Poland and many other countries. They first started to appear in Bronze Age among other rock carvings like ships, animals and human figures. They were also carved on cult stones from previous eras, e.g. on Neolithic dolmens. Cup marks also commonly appeared on tops and sides of freestanding boulders. After the disappearance of pagan religions they continued to be surrounded with magical practices and superstitions of rural societies.

Erkes dös. A passage grave in Lilla Isie, Skåne

In Swedish lore cup marks were also referred to as älvkvarnar – elven mills, because people believed that elves use the pits at night to grind flour. Written records confirm that they were important in popular belief from the 17th to the 20th century. It doesn’t come as surprise that such stones have been a subject to many rituals and magical performances.

Utrikestenen near Lofta, Småland

Empty cup marks had been smeared with grease, after which sacrifices were made. Seeds, grains and coins were left as offerings in the pits. Rites were practiced by females, most probably wise women. The greasing was performed at sunset in counterclockwise motion, preferably three times. The smearing ritual supposedly cured various diseases caused by vindictive elves. Sources mention another healing practice: the rainwater, which collected in the holes, was considered to be a great remedy against warts.

Ballersten. A boulder with cup marks in Falköping, Västra Götaland

Similar beliefs existed in Slavic folklore as well. Water gathered in cup marks healed various ailments, especially eye diseases.

Stones with cup marks were later commonly associated with the cult of Mother Mary, when the pagan traditions were replaced (or rather overwritten) by the new faith. As both were eagerly blended together by rural folk, stones were of course considered very special. They served as sacrifice altars for the old gods and supernatural beings, and at the same time for Christian saints. Such stones could even protect from floods and wildfires. But some of them were affiliated with the devil and malicious forces – depending on the region.

A boulder in Malmö, Skåne

Polish archeologists link cup marks with fertility rites and kindling of the ritual fire during Midsummer and spring celebrations. It’s quite possible they were also used in funerary rites and to honor the ancestors.

1. Ullén Inga, Lyckostenar, (access 5/01/21)
2. Åmark Mats, När de sista skålgroparna smordes, (access 5/01/21)
3. Woźny Jacek, Archeologia kamieni symbolicznych, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Kazimierza Wielkiego, Bydgoszcz 2014.

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