Before tidy roads cut their way across this land, the Passais was a wild, remote place. Named from the old French passer, to pass, this was a place of passage between the Duchy of Normandy and France. These dangerous, enchanted borderlands were thick with forest and superstition.
Lost in the mists of time
Thousands of years before Vikings proclaimed ownership of Normandy, around 3000 BC a strange and powerful people lived here. Their lives are a perpetual mystery; we know them only from theatrical remnants set stubborn and stolid into the earth.
Now scratching posts for cows and stopping points for ramblers, huge standing stones raised for long forgotten gods point to the stars. Dolmen, burial chambers with room for perhaps one, protect a long forgotten memory of greatness. And Allée Couvert, long barrows, vast impossible constructions that surrender few small signs of the communities who once carefully lay their dead here; a few burnt bones, fragments of pots.
The Devil’s table!
By the side of a small road in this still bosky territory is La Table au Diable, the Devil’s Table. Our forbearers, having lost the knowledge to move and build with stones on this scale, declared Neolithic constructions to be the Devils’ work. From the 5th century they were encouraged by christian missionaries, keen to replace the old religions with their own.
And so the legends began.
They say that the devil’s table was shaped and thrown down by two giant men of enormous strength who still live in the woods. A reckless man spied on them and was beaten and shaken for his trouble. He managed to crawl home but there he lay down and died.
At night a demon roams around these parts, its howls and screeches terrifying the local people. Of course lights are seen on the devil’s table top, but who would be foolish enough to investigate them when fairies are known keep their treasure here? Fairies were always believed to live in the Passais. A nearby forest hamlet, possibly the oldest, is still named for them; Le Chêne aux Fées, Fairies’ Oak.
Punishment for avarice
Evil spirits living in the stones play tricks on innocents passing by. They like to throw enchanted heaps of coins around the table to tempt the greedy. Once lured they are beaten for their avarice. On the morning of Good Friday, a peasant woman saw the ground covered in silver and bent down to pick it up but as she did her sight became blurred and she fainted dead away. Some say she vanished for a while. When she awoke her wits, and the silver coins, were gone.
For centuries these legends were only spoken of, a few versions written down just a century of so ago. Which explains the many variations; our peasant lady has also been pushed by an invisible hand hard onto her back, getting up only to see the silver disappear. In some stories the coins are Judas Iscariot’s salary.
Clearing the forests
A few metres away in a (private) wood lie a heap of colossal stones known ghoulishly as the ‘table of sacrifices’ that are yet to be excavated.
Duke Jean II of Alencon was the first to clear the Passais forests in the fifteenth century as he needed the cash (the Duke had been imprisoned again). Then in 1475 Louis XI, devoted to the Virgin Mary, created a new parish Conception-Notre-Dame-en-Passais.
By the 19th century the devils table was a heap of stones. A report in l’Homme Préhistorique 1926 by Dr Chervin & A. de Mortillet declared:
Allée couverte de la Table du Diable. This monument has been badly damaged by the neighbouring chestnut trees, which have disturbed the supports and tables of diorite, three of which are still more or less inclined and in place; in the North, five supports are well aligned and neighbours; the bottom of the partition is in the west, while in the south there are only three, less well aligned; to the east, three stones are near the last table, which rests on one of them. In the west lie two large tables vertically 2m30 long, which we do not know how to justify the presence at this point.
The vestibule, which is oriented west east, measures on average a width of lm 45cm; its length is currently 6 meters; a base slab exists in the west; the opening was in the east; this side is the most mutilated; the fall of a chestnut in 1894 displaced the supports of the fourth table.
Excavations were carried out between 1989 and 1991 revealing the toppled stones original position, and they were restored. Several vases and bell shaped pieces of pottery were discovered, dating the site to the end of the Neolithic age. Also found were some burnt pieces of bone (unburnt would not have survived in this soil).
Our visit on a damp autumn day was unspoilt by evil spirits or disappearing silver, the megalith is free to access and appears benign. However the Christians are not taking this for granted. A short distance away in the beautiful chapels of the Oratory at Passais one of the statues of the Virgin Mary is said to be staring, very hard, in the direction of the la Table du Diable.
Classified a national monument 16 August 1973
Useful map of local megalith sites from the Domfront Tourist Info office.
Very handy where are they what is it Megalith website.