How The Dewerstone and Devil's Rock Got Their Names

The legend of Dewer, the Wild Huntsman and his Whist Hounds is well known, but few ask where ‘Dewer’ originates from? The Dewerstone consists of several high granite cliffs, rising from the bottom of the Plym valley to almost the height of the moorland (SW Dartmoor) that surrounds the valley. They are located near the villages of Bickleigh and Shaugh Prior (a few miles from Plymouth) in South Devon (UK) and are popular with climbers and walkers.

Dewerstone legend 
Dartmoor legend tells of a demonic hunter, Dewer: the Devil himself. When night fell, Dewer hunted down people (And the souls of un-baptised children - a later addition to the legend.) who had become lost on the moor. Accompanied by a pack of fearsome, ghostly dogs known as the Whist Hounds (Whist is said to mean 'eerie'.) Dewer would drive people to their deaths; falling from the highest cliff at the Dewerstone, the 150' high Devil’s Rock. We can only speculate whether people may have walked over a cliff edge in bad weather or if there was a local association between suicides and the sheer Dewerstone cliffs that helped foster this legend over the centuries. Although many legends include reports of imprints of cloven hoofs being found near human footprints at the scene of tragedies, it should be born in mind that sheep, cattle, and deer all have cloven hoofs. A great many sheep and cattle roam and graze Dartmoor. It has been known for a sheep to lose its footing and fall from the top of one of the buttresses too! The last recorded hunt of wild deer on Dartmoor was in 1780. (NB: No deer remain on Dartmoor itself, a few survive in deer-parks. e.g. at Castle Drogo, Powderham castle etc.)

Legends of other ‘wild hunts’ for ‘lost souls’ are found also in other English counties, and across northern Europe. There seems to be a Norse origin to these legends, as their god, Woden, is often cited as the hunt leader. (Woden was a companion of another Norse god, Tiw or Tyr.) A Norse origin for this legend, provides a hint as to the probable source of the Dewerstone’s name. See below. Dartmoor also has other legends of ghostly, devilish dogs. One of these legends provided the inspiration for the Sherlock Holmes adventure The Hound of the Baskervilles

Origin of the names Dewerstone and Devil’s Rock 
A Celtic tribe, the Dumnonii, inhabited the West Country, in pre Roman times. There is no evidence that the word Dewer has Celtic roots, but a figure from Celtic mythology might provide an intriguing clue as to the Dewerstone’s later association with the Devil. It is speculative, but in Iron Age times, there may have been some connection between the Dewerstone cliffs (or the Plym valley), and the Celtic god of hunting and crops, Cernunnos: ‘The Horned One’. Cernunnos, (pronounced Kurn-un-os) was associated with both fertility and the underworld; and often depicted with antlers. These antlers may have been given another, darker, symbolic significance when Christianity was introduced. See below. Cernunnos’s symbols include the oak tree and the stag. (In some parts of the UK, Cernunnos is known as Cerne and associated with places with the prefix Cern. In Berkshire Cerne may be also known as the shamanic figure, Herne the Hunter.) There is archaeological evidence of an Iron Age (Neolithic) hill fort, defended by two large ramparts, on the moors, immediately above the Dewerstone cliffs. (This was excavated in the 1960’s; artefacts, plans etc from this are now displayed in Plymouth's museum.) The hill fort inhabitants would have followed the religious practices of their time and certainly would have known of Cernunnos.

 A hypothesis, with much greater supporting evidence, for the source of the name Dewerstone, is that it is of later Saxon, or even Viking, origin. Records show that an old (early English i.e. pre Norman) name for the Dewerstone was Rock of Tiw - Tiw-stan. Our word ‘Dewerstone’, probably evolved over the centuries from the pronunciation of Tiw-stan. See also footnote.

In Norse, and north European, mythology of the dark ages, Tiw, ‘The Shining One’, was a one-handed sky god; variously associated with fertility, athleticism, war and upholding justice. The Romans also knew of Tiw, as their god Mars. Tiw’s name - often pronounced Te’oo - is the origin of our modern English word ‘Tuesday’. From the Germanic ‘Tiwes-daeg’, or ‘Day of Tiw’. ('Wednesday' is derived from 'Wednes daeg' or Woden's day.)

It is not unusual for the gods of one period to become the devils of another age; when a new religious belief system emerges. It is entirely possible that the early Christian church would have, literally, demonised any reference to a pagan god, a possible rival to the Christian one; branding Tiw (and Woden - see above) a ‘Devil’, and his rock as the ‘Devil’s Rock’. As remnants of the mythology surrounding Cernunnos also survived, in folk memory, the arrival of Christianity; it may be no coincidence that the devil is also referred to as ‘The Horned One’. The Christian church would have been quick to label the old pagan belief systems as ‘Satanic’, and incorporate much of their symbolism into its own mythology. 

 We can say, with some certainty, that Tiw was a pagan god, associated with the Dewerstone cliffs (Tiw, may also have supplanted the earlier Cernunnos), only to have been recast, in the role of the Devil, when a new religion became dominant. We can deduce the origin of the Dewerstone’s name; but its true meaning and significance to ancient people has now been overlaid by centuries of folklore. If you remain at the Dewerstone cliffs after dark it becomes easy to imagine how legends could have arisen in older, more superstitious times.

There are a number of reference to the Dewerstone rocks as the Rock of Tiw (Tiw-stan). Online such references to this can be found in:

 ‘A hand book for travellers in Devon and Cornwall’ by John Murray. Published 1851. (Google books)

 The British history club newsletter. June 2005.

See also: Webbers Online Dictionary Entry for 'Tiw'.