Stone Slingers in the Balearics

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A bas relief commemorates stone slingers in Mallorca. Jackie Finch photos.
A bas relief commemorates stone slingers in Mallorca. Jackie Finch photos.

Stone Slingers Fascinating History on Mallorca & Menorca

By Jackie Finch
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

British painter Alan Hydes is artist in residence at La Residencia hotel in Deià, Mallorca.
British painter Alan Hydes is artist in residence at La Residencia hotel in Deià, Mallorca.

The warriors were so deadly that even well-armed, well-trained soldiers were terrified of them. Using only stones and slings, the Balearic fighters were fearsome adversaries.

“When the Romans tried to conquer the island, they failed because the Balearic stone slingers made holes in the Roman’s boats with their stones,” said tour guide Inma. “So when the Romans came back, they had covered their boats in leather.”

On my visit to the Balearic Islands of Mallorca and Menorca in Spain, it was fascinating to hear about the historic stone slingers and see remnants of their times, plus monuments honoring the unusual islanders.

Fast and Aggressive

“The stone slingers were very fast and aggressive. They were trained from childhood,” Inma said. She pointed out a large statue of a stone slinger in the Mallorca capital city of Palma and a bas relief of children being taught the deadly skill by their parents.

The 14th century cathedral La Seu is Palma's most famous landmark. Max Hartshorne photo.
The 14th century cathedral La Seu is Palma’s most famous landmark. Max Hartshorne photo.

The prehistoric warriors were known to inhabit the islands about 2200 BC. In fact, the name for the Balearic Islands originates from the Greek word “ballo” which means “to launch.”

The sling was a simple rope woven of natural fiber with a small pouch where the “bullet” was held until it was launched.

Inside the cathedral La Seu in Palma de Mallorca.
Inside the cathedral La Seu in Palma de Mallorca.

“The ‘bullet’ was most often a stone or a piece of lead or clay,” said Menorca tour guide Carolina. “As many as 12 bullets could be thrown per minute by a good slinger with a speed of 100 miles per hour. They could hit their opponents at a distance of 1,300 feet.”

The stone slingers carried three slings – one around their head, one around their waist and one in their hands.

“They used different slings to hit targets at different distances,” Carolina said. “The longer the sling, the more distance it could cover.”

Stone Slingers Become Valued Mercenaries

The great Carthaginian general Hannibal was so impressed by the stone slingers that he recruited them into his army against the Romans during the Second Punic War from 218-201 BC.

A stone slinger statue stands in Palma, Mallorca.
A stone slinger statue stands in Palma, Mallorca.

“The stone slingers didn’t want money for their deadly services. They demanded to be paid with wine and women,” Inma said.

“The Romans were terrified of the invisible stone slingers. They couldn’t see them but they definitely felt their stones. Stone slingers gave lots of headaches to the Romans.”

In fact, when the Romans defeated the Carthaginians, the winners made sure the Balearic mercenaries joined the victorious Roman legions.

Eventually, stones and slings were replaced by firearms which didn’t take a lifetime to learn and required less skill and muscle.

On the islands, there are tons of temples, funeral chambers and megaliths that developed out of the Talaiotic culture and its stone slingers.

The street in Valldemossa where Saint Catalina Tomas was born on May 1, 1531.
The street in Valldemossa where Saint Catalina Tomas was born on May 1, 1531.

Walking around the Naveta des Tudons in Menorca made me wonder how people so long ago moved massive stones to dry stack them to perfectly create this upside-down boat-shaped structure for burial.

Downtown Palma de Mallorca. Max Hartshorne photo.
Downtown Palma de Mallorca. Max Hartshorne photo.

Europe’s Oldest Building

“This could be considered the oldest building in Europe,” Carolina said,. “As many as 100 people were buried here. The Talaiotic culture was quite sophisticated. They knew about agriculture, astronomy, how to make cheese.”

And how to make wine. There are almost 100 wineries in Mallorca and about a dozen in Menorca. At Ses Talailes (Six Towers) in Mallorca, the vineyard origins go back to the 13th century.

One of the tasty Ses Talailes wines honors the ancient Talvin culture with a wine whose label features the famous stone slingers, holding a sling is one hand and a cluster of grapes in the other.

Some Mallorca Highlights

Even though they’re separated by just 40 miles and easily visible from one another, the islands of Mallorca and Menorca in the heart of the Mediterranean seem quite different. At 1,405 square miles, Mallorca is the largest with a population of about 416,000.

Built in 14th century BC, Naveta des Tudons was a stone slinger-era burial site in Menorca.
Built in 14th century BC, Naveta des Tudons was a stone slinger-era burial site in Menorca.

Menorca covers only 260 square miles and has about 95,000 residents. Both are beautiful and have many reasons why people come to visit, including spectacular beaches, towering mountains, delicious cuisine, outdoor activities, and amazing ancient architecture.

The sun sets on an unusual cliffside bar at Cova d’en Xoroi.
The sun sets on an unusual cliffside bar at Cova d’en Xoroi.

The islands are an archaeologist’s dream.  In Mallorca, the 14th century cathedral La Seu is Palma’s most famous landmark. “It rises above everything to get closer to God,” said Inma.

The Cathedral of Light

“It has 61 stained glass windows and is called ‘The Cathedral of Light.’ When the morning sun comes through the central rose window, the cathedral is flooded with beams of colored light.”

Between 1904 and 1914, Spanish Modernist architect Antoni Gaudí was asked to do a complete restoration of Le Seu. “Some people weren’t happy with the changes he made,” Inma said. 

Among the Gaudí changes was a massive chandelier, the Crown of Thorns, hanging from cables in the choir. The chandelier was actually completed by one of Gaudí’s pupils and a colleague.

Gaudí also placed chandeliers with 16 candles of electric lights on each on the cathedrals 14 columns to successfully illuminate Le Seu with the electricity advance of the time.

The 18th century Llazeret was a quarantine island for mariners.
The 18th century Llazeret was a quarantine island for mariners.

Next to the church stands the Almudaina Palace with its sea wall that used to protect the city.

In a brief nine-minute drive to the midst of a valley, we arrived at the village of Valldemossa where composer Frederic Chopin and his lover, female novelist George Sand, spent a winter in 1838-39. It was here that Chopin composed his famous “Raindrop” Prelude.

Mallorca has long been renowned as a destination for painters and artists and the village of Deià is undoubtedly one of its most important cultural hubs. The fairytale village of Deià has exerted a magical draw for decades for icons in the worlds of literature, film, music, art, and fashion.

Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote some of his famed Broadway musicals here. More famous names include The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beyoncé, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and many more. Princess Diana is said to have taken refuge here when her marriage was coming undone.

Winemaker Frederico at Ses Talaioles (Six Watchtowers) Winery shares the history of the winery and its label honoring stone slingers.
Winemaker Frederico at Ses Talaioles (Six Watchtowers) Winery shares the history of the winery and its label honoring stone slingers.

The town of Sóller is famous for its orange groves and hosts a two-week citrus festival every spring when thousands of oranges are arranged in a sculpture in the town plaza. 

Drach Caves in Porto Cristo is easily walkable with many lighted cave formations and a lovely blue lake.

But it was the live music that was the most enchanting. Visitors sit in bleachers while a lighted white rowboat glides over the lake with two violinists, a cellist, and a harpsichordist playing Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”

Some Menorca Highlights

The world is full of great bar lounges. But the Cova d’en Xoroi bar on the southeast coast of Menorca is about the weirdest place I’ve ever watched the sun set while sipping a cocktail.

One hundred feet about the pounding waves, we’re standing on a deck hoisted on a ledge in the limestone cliffs.

Then there’s the 18th century Llatzeret, an enormous walled quarantine facility to house arriving sailors and passengers on ships who may be bringing the dreaded plaque, leprosy, or other contagious diseases with them. A short boat ride took us to the tiny island isolated in the center of the harbor.

A bust of Frederic Chopin is in Valldemossa where composer Frederic Chopin lived and wrote his ‘Raindrop’ prelude.
A bust of Frederic Chopin is in Valldemossa where composer Frederic Chopin lived and wrote his ‘Raindrop’ prelude.

“The quarantine island opened in 1817 and closed a century later. The quarantine for suspected diseases was 40 days. People would have to stay here until they were well or until they died,” Carolina said.

She noted the barred cell-like stone structures surrounding an outdoor circular chapel where the quarantined could listen to an outdoor church service without touching the priest or each other.

Palma is a city that's full of gorgeous beaches. Max Hartshorne photo
Palma is a city that’s full of gorgeous beaches. Max Hartshorne photo

“The holy wine and bread was passed to the quarantined on a very long-handled tool that looked like a shovel so no human contact was made,” Carolina said.

Seminars and Tours

Born passageway, a pedestrian area in Palma.
Born passageway, a pedestrian area in Palma.

Today, the whole complex still belongs to the Spanish Ministry of Health and is open to scheduled tours and health-related seminars.

The island is also used during summer months as a holiday getaway for health workers and their families.

Ciutadella hosts one of the island’s most famous events every June – the Festival of Sant Joan.

Regal horses ride through the streets, rearing up on their hind legs as a symbol of power and nobility. But it is what happens when the horses rear that amazed me.

“When the horses rear up, daring young people duck under the horses’ front legs to try to touch the heart of the horse for good luck,” Carolina said.

Although I spent only four days in Mallorca and three in Menorca, I felt very lucky to have seen as much as I did. The highlights I mentioned for each island are just a wisp of all that draws visitors to the beautiful Balearic Islands.

 More than 100 people were buried in Naveta des Tudons in Menorca.
More than 100 people were buried in Naveta des Tudons in Menorca.

When I was departing Menorca on a flight back to Indy, a lady told me that if I closed my eyes as our flight flew over Menorca and made a wish to return to the Spanish island, that my wish might come true. Seated by the airplane window as we soared away, it seemed worth a try.

Balearics Islands Information

For more information about Mallorca: Visit www.mallorca.es
For more information about Menorca: Visit www.menorca.es

For more information about Spain in general: Contact the Tourist Office of Spain in Chicago at (312) 642-1992 or www.Spain.info/en