I work in a very "masculine" trade or craft. I use my body to pick up small to very large pieces of heavy stone. When I want the stone to yield to my desires (shape and size) I hit it with steel tools. What else I do or say is a secret.
Recently, I read this unique perspective on stone in my wife's issue of the "Witches & Pagans" magazine. (Yes, there is such a magazine!) It was written by Archer Swiggum, who gave me permission to post it here, and I really liked it. It's a very different take on stone and it's place and significance on our planet.
This piece has a "female" energy to it when read. It is nothing I would have thought to write myself and that is why I like it.
The Bones of Being
Stones—the bones of Mother Earth, or fallen pieces of the firmament. Stones in circles, in piles, or standing alone. Upright and linking heaven and earth, or spread flat as a foundation for creation. Marking the center, the crossroads or the boundary. Rough as nature gave them or shaped to speak their identity. Honoured in their entirety or prized for the gems they hide within.
Stones can incarnate the gods or stand in for the individual, marking our votes, our destinies, our graves. What stones have is permanence, endurance, strength. They are the oldest things on earth and will endure the longest. Looming over us with raw size or concentrating their power in a translucent jewel, they bring eternity close enough to touch. If humanity’s most basic fear is death, stones reassure us that there is an essence that remains, long after all else passes away.
The Stone Itself
Large natural stones that impress with their solidity easily become centers of attention and bearers of power, and so sacred sites and behaviours cluster round them. In cultures all over the world, they are anointed with oil or blood, sacrificed to, and petitioned. They may be circled for luck and their natural features—hollows, holes, or phallic uprightness—honored as sources of healing and fertility. In many stories their power is such that they mysteriously return to their homes if moved.(1)
Such steadfast stones embody the spirit of place and attract ritual attention: in Crete’s Eileithyian cave a large belly-shaped stone with a noticeable “navel” and a stalagmite with an evocatively human form inspired a whole goddess sanctuary. And even as cultural contexts shift, the stones retain their power. Ancient megaliths revered by “barbarians” might have Roman gods carved on them after conquest, then be incorporated into Christian churches, all the while accumulating various and conflicting narratives to explain their sacredness. However, each successive culture cannot help but acknowledge what came first: the innate power of the stone. Explaining the sanctity of some local stones to a disapproving priest, a nineteenth-century French peasant could only say “I believe in the stones, we have always believed in the stones.” (2)
In Eleusis, an unhewn stone was always on view at the center of the sanctuary, and in Jerusalem the stony outcropping on which Solomon’s temple and the Holy of Holies rested is still visible beneath the Muslim Dome of the Rock. In Hebrew lore, this “Foundation Stone” is the platform on which the world was established, where humankind’s first sacrifices took place, and where the end times will be announced. Such large rough stones, honored for centuries, still hold an ancient and nameless power, and may have been the model for later ideas of a World Axis or central Sacred Mountain.(3)
The Stone in Context
If impressive stones give rise to worship and explanatory narratives, religious thought in turn finds new ways to put their power to use. Compelling stones may be moved and “replanted,” bringing their energy to massive structures like Stonehenge. Arranged in circles, spirals and lines, standing over earthworks and burials in the midst of evocative landscapes, they create more elaborate forms of sacred space, casting a rough hewn magic that we may no longer understand, but can still feel in their presence.
For the ancient Hebrews, the natural reverence shown to impressive stones took the form of setting them up, singly or in circles, as markers of significant events and (supposedly animate) witnesses of divine covenants. They could even act as “the house of God”: “Jacob’s pillow”, a stone raised and anointed after a patriarch’s powerful dream, was felt to embody the divine presence. The injunction that any altar to the Hebrew God Yahweh must be made of unhewn stone reflected the importance of these natural stones to early worship.(4) Like the megaliths of ancient Europe, they cast a net of sacred meaning over the landscape.
Smaller stones have often been used to mark the sacred center. The navel stone at Apollo’s sanctuary among the peaks of Delphi is meant to mark the center of the world, as does the Black Stone set in the Ka’aba, the Moslem holy site at Mecca, while the Lia Fail, coronation stone of the Irish kings, is set in the island’s spiritual center at Tara. Mythical narratives reflect and amplify these stones’ role in sacred geography. The stone of the Ka’aba is said to have fallen from heaven to mark the site of Adam’s first altar. The Lia Fail—like its Scottish counterpart, the Stone of Scone—is identified with Jacob’s Pillow, giving it a longer pedigree. Both the Black Stone and the Lia Fail have the power to to comment on human worth: the Black Stone will act as a witness on the day of judgment, and the Lia Fail cried out when the rightful king set foot on it to swear his oath.
These stones of the center may remain undressed or be lightly wrought, but some develop further, into pillars and pyramids. The pyramidal Benben stone of ancient Heliopolis was set where the first rays of the sun could strike it, in memory of the mound which rose from the primordial waters at the dawn of creation. The Benben stone was in turn the precursor to Egypt’s later obelisks and pyramids, echoes and embodiments of that first center.
Stones that express the power of edges and boundaries may also become sacred centers in their own right. In many places, such stones are felt to give protection to the fields and roads they mark. Boundary stones and cairns give practical guidance but also express the power, even the divinity, felt at these thresholds. In ancient Greece, rough-hewn boundary stones called hermaia oversaw the movements of traders and thieves, property and livestock. The reverence offered to them gave birth to Hermes, the “stone as god or god in the stone,” who evolved to become the patron of commerce, travel, and thievery—all qualities related to his earliest incarnation in the boundary stones of ancient Greece. (5)
Other deities seem to emerge from the stones as well. Apollo, who name is derived from a Greek dialect word for “stone” (pella), was embodied in conical pillars set up outside doorways. Local forms of Apollo, Artemis and Zeus each had their own special stone, natural or roughly shaped, but felt in some way to exude their power. Asherah, the Semetic Great Goddess, was identified with a stone pillar while Yahweh himself was called “the Stone of Israel.” (6)
Stones said to have “fallen from heaven” are often seen as special manifestations of divinity: examples include the black stone of Aphrodite, kept in her temple at Cyprus, the black stone of Cybele enshrined first in Pessinius and later brought to Rome, and the stone of Emesa, embodying the Syrian sun god. In India today there are roadside stones worshipped as manifestations of Shakti, explained as her dismembered limbs.
Stones have an innate power and so act as the focus of cult the world over. They may be seen as undefined powers who accept our offerings directly—or they may become the altar or abode of a deity, incarnating the divine power but not encapsulating it completely. They may be left unhewn, given geometric forms, or be made into refined cult statues. In contexts from crossroads to temples, their functions of marker, cult object and statue constantly blur into each other. “The important point is that the stone identifies the center…and…as a result is imbued with its perceived power. Once we concentrate on the stone, even the distinction between an altar and a statue seems secondary.” (7)
At the other end of the scale from stones which embody divinity and act as a sacred centers are the smaller stones related to human individuality. Such stones can be used to cast votes, to divine, or to act as witnesses to oaths. As such they stand in for the individual, whose word counts and whose fate is important. At roadside cairns from Greece to India, travellers still offer a single stone as a way of saying “I was here.” In the Greek myth of the flood, the world is repopulated when the survivors throw stones (the bones of Mother Earth) over their shoulders. The stonesspring up into individuals who soon enough will return to the earth and be marked with a stone—the gravestone—whose permanence “outweighs the bodily disappearance of the dead.” (8)
The Stone Within the Stone
Stones link heaven and earth, god and human—and no more clearly than in the case of gem stones, thought to be “ripened” or “birthed” from larger rocks which had absorbed cosmic energies during creation.(9) Like their larger, rougher counterparts, gemstones embody eternity and stability, while their shape, shine and colour imbue them with magical properties. Their translucence or luminescence—once released from the darkness of their origins—suggests the more ethereal or celestial forces that lie hidden at the center of things.
Just as large stones are the massive “bones” of existence, heralding its raw, nameless power, gems are its mystic heart, containing both strength and revelation. In the Bible, Yahweh’s throne and the heavenly floor beneath his feet are said to be sapphire, while the Buddha’s throne—the fixed axis of the world— is diamond. In Platonic thought the world axis is a core of pure diamond. The diamond is the physical foundation of the world but is also shining with spiritual power: acting as the “irradiant mystic center” (10) at the heart of outward existence and a symbol of the “true nature….that does not wax or wane.” (11)
In Classical philosophy, the stone that has been “trued”—cut into regular shapes such as the pyramid or cube—symbolizes the stabilizing truths underpinning the universe. Cut gems, as both “trued stones” and the result of celestial influence, thus offer contact with (and even control of) hidden forces. As such they played an important role in mystic rituals, promising everything from material gain to spiritual enlightenment.
In Hebrew lore, gems are the vehicle of revelation: the jewels of the ancient high priest’s breastplate emit light to convey Yahweh’s will and the original tablets of the Mosaic Law were made of sapphire. In this, they are reminiscent of the legendary Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, the Daoist Jade books of heaven, and the lapis tablets of Sumeria, all said to contain divine knowledge. These are the spiritualized version of stones—acting as the luminous revelation of the spirit within the roughened and opaque material world.
Another form of gem-revelation can be found in Eastern tales of the “wish-fulfilling jewel.” Equivalent to the philosopher’s stone in Western alchemy, these jewels might be objects of long quest, won from dangerous monsters, or delivered from heaven. The material gifts they offer are allegories of spiritual attainments. In Buddhism especially, the diamond or pearl represent the eternal truths of enlightenment, as well as moral strengths. These truths, like gems themselves, are hard-won and often difficult to uncover; but they are also completely at our command, for they lie hidden within us as the gem lies hidden in its original matrix, expressing our divine potential.
In the end, stones large and small, raw or gleaming, have always given us this assurance—that power and stability and realness are within our reach, tangible and solid, whether ours simply to worship or to possess and control. When all else seems ephemeral, when life disappoints or surprises, the stone lies at the heart of things, and holds that heart firm.
Archer Swiggum thinks, writes and teaches yoga in Toronto. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Ken Dowden, European Paganism, London, Routledge, 2000, p. 58. Ibid., p. 58.
2. Ibid., p. 60.
3. Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, “Stones,” Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, London, Penguin, 1996, p. 933.
5. Carl-Martin Edsman, “Stones," Encyclopedia of Religion, Ed. Lindsay Jones, 2nd ed., Vol. 13, Detroit, Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, p. 8745.
6. Genesis 49:24, The Jerusalem Bible, London, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1974.
7. Dowden, p. 62.
8. Ibid., p. 61.
9. “Stones,” Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, p. 933.
10.Elaine Magalis,“Diamond,” Encyclopedia of Religion, Ed. Lindsay Jones, Vol. 4, 2nd ed., Detroit, Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, p. 2345.
11. “Diamond”, Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, p. 290.