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STONES . Sacred stones have been known from the earliest times, and they occur all over the world in different cultures and religions. Often they are used as objects of sacrifice, elements in various magical rites, or instruments of divination. They may also serve practical purposes as witness or boundary stones, or as memorials; in such cases they may also evoke religious veneration. The unseen powers that are represented by such monuments are of as many different kinds as the reasons why people turn to them.

The general term stone includes many different objects, some of them characterized by names of Celtic origin: menhirs (tall, upright monumental stones); cromlechs (circles of standing stones); dolmens (table stones or large, flat, unhewn stones resting horizontally on upright ones); and cairns (heaps of stones). These four types as well as other monuments shaped like pillars or columns are all raised up or built by humankind (see Eliade, 1978, secs. 34ff.). But natural rocks that, in whole or in part, have peculiar or startling shapes or otherwise contrast with a flat or desolate landscape may also be venerated as sacred. Smaller, movable stones can serve as cult objects at home or can be carried as magical protection.

The symbolic meaning of sacred stones is not fixed. They may represent qualities such as firmness or barrenness but they also may represent fertility. Interpretation is made difficult by the fact that many sacred stones come to us from religions and cultures for which there is little or no literary evidence. Under such circumstances, it is understandable that historians of religion have applied many different theories to such ancient religions, speaking of ancestor cults, nature worship, fetishism, noniconic (nonfigurative) cults, animism, and dynamism. If written sources are lacking (as in the case of prehistoric times) or few (as generally occurs with ancient historic cultures), the field is open for sheer speculation. Oral traditions recorded from illiterate peoples who are still livingor who lived into comparatively recent timescontain much detailed and valuable information that may throw light on older times. Treating primitive material in this way means, however, that one adopts the much-criticized survival theory, although this theory seems to be more applicable in the case of sacred stones than in other cases. Altogether, the immensity and variety of the material illustrates well the difficulties of a phenomenological method (see Eliade, 1958, secs. 74ff.; Heiler, 1961, pp. 34ff.). In the following discussion, I shall restrict myself to observations on sacred stones from various cultures for which there is at least some literary evidence to guide the interpretation.

Ancient Western Traditions

Stones or stone pillars (Heb., matstsevah, from the Semitic ntsb, "to stand") figure prominently in the biblical story of the patriarch Jacob. When his wife Rachel died, Jacob erected a funerary stele on her grave (Gn. 35:20), probably as a memorial to keep her name alive. Such a pillar could also commemorate an important event, such as the pact between Jacob and the Arameans (Gn. 31:43ff.). However, the cultic use of stones was most common. During Jacob's flight from the wrath of Esau, God appeared to him in a dream, and he was struck with awe. Jacob took the stone that had served him as a pillow, raised it as a pillar, anointed it with oil, and called it beit-El (Bethel), the "house of God" (Gn. 28:16ff., 35:14). In this case, the stone appears to have signified the presence of God.

Such cultic pillars could be connected with altars as in Exodus 24:4. Such use was proscribed by the Deuteronomic Code (see, for example, Dt. 16:22) as a consequence of the polemics against the corresponding Canaanite cult that was condemned as the worship of pagan gods. Indeed, archaeologists have frequently overinterpreted large, upright stones from the early Palestinian excavations as cult pillars from ancient Canaan. More critical study has unveiled them as, for example, ruins of mortuary shrines or remnants of Iron Age house structures. Actual pillars were discovered at Beit Sheʾan and the ancient city of Megiddo in Israel, and at Jubayl, the ancient Byblos, in Lebanon; their meaning, however, is still not quite clear. The earliest pillar of this kind was discovered in 1933 at ancient Mari, a site on the Middle Euphrates, now in Syria (Tell Hariri). It dates from the Old Akkadian period, circa 2300 bce (Kennedy and Wevers, 1963).

Light may be thrown on the cult of sacred stones in the ancient Near East by the later, rich material from pre-Islamic Arabia collected by the authority on Arab paganism Ibn al-Kalbī (737829?). Sacrificial stones are alluded to in the Qurʾān (70:43), and they are explicitly forbidden by Muammad (5:490492). Observations by ancient Greek authors confirm the existence of sacred stones among the Arabs from much earlier times (Buhl, 1936; see also Clement of Alexandria, Proprepticus 4, 46). The rites that take place around the Kaʿbah in Mecca represent a legitimated survival of the ancient worship of ʾanāb (stones). As elsewhere, such worship originally existed together with the veneration of trees, wooden trunks, and posts, or has been interchangeable with such veneration (Höfner, in Gese et al., 1970, pp. 359ff.).

It is uncertain whether the ancient Greek baituloi ("animated stones," i.e., meteorites) can be compared to the Aramaic-Hebrew beit-El (Fauth, 1964). But the Greek author Theophrastus (fourth century bce) characterizes the superstitious person as one who dares not pass the already oily stones at the crossroads without prostrating himself and pouring oil on them (Characters 16). These quadrilateral pillars, sometimes ending in a head and surrounded by a heap of stones (Gr., hermaios lophos ) were called "herms." This name is identical to that of the god Hermes, which etymologically means "stone." He is the stone as god or the god in stone. The various specialties of Hermes may derive from his role as god of the crossroads. As such, he is the guide of those traveling on the road and therefore a protector of commerce and illegal business. He is a messenger too, and as a guide he develops into a psychopomp who accompanies the souls of the dead to the underworld. In his connection with border stones, Hermes becomes a god of the land and thresholds and finally a patron of the entire community. The ithyphallic form of the erected stone (also observed in the Hindu liga s) represents both the fertility and apotropaic powers of the god, which in turn make him a patron of the shepherds (Herter, 1976).

There were other gods of the ancient Greek pantheon who could also be represented by either uncut or sculptured stones. To the latter belong the common sacred column, tapered to a point and called Apollo Aiguieus ("of the road"), commonly found set up in the street in front of a house door. They were anointed with oil, decorated with ribbons, and identified as altars. In the old gymnasium of Megara, the capital of the province Megaris to the west of Attica, was a small pyramidal stone that bore the name of Apollo. But the best-known sacred stone of ancient Greece was the conical stone of Apollo, the omphalos ("navel"), at Delphi. The poet Pindar (522438 bce) explains its sanctity with the belief that the sanctuary of Delphi is situated at the exact center of the earth. This interpretation might be secondary, however; the discussion of this Greek material reminds us of the difficulties of distinguishing earlier from later phases in historical development (cf. Hartland et al., 1920, p. 870, and Eliade, 1958, secs. 81f.).


On Madagascar there exists a richly developed stone cult. The traditions explaining why these monuments were raised and the rites and practices associated with them have continued to exist right down to the present time. They present a great richness of variations, a fact that constitutes a warning against simplified reconstructions when, in other places, only archaeological memorials survive.

According to the report of a Norwegian missionary, the most common practice involving these stones takes place in the context of an ancestor cult. A man who is prominent and rich calls together his extended family before he dies and decrees as follows: "My body shall certainly die and be buried, but my spirit shall always remain with you, my children. When you are eating, set out a little food in that place where I usually eat. And what I wish for you to offer up as a sacrifice to me is the following: [At this point, he names whatever he is fondest of, such as rice, meat, liquor, eel, different kinds of fish, or honey.] And should anyone fall sick or lack for anything or suffer bad luck, then call upon us, and we shall help you. We shall protect you, sending riches, good harvests and many children." The old man lists the taboos to be observed and states where the stone or altar shall be raised and its size, which corresponds to his own importance. He himself will live in the memorial monument and accept the sacrifices. The choice of this stone, its difficult transport, and its establishment on a raised spot near the village are accompanied by many rites before the ceremonial dedication is accomplished (Ruud, 1947, pp. 117ff.). A French researcher, Charles Renel, has carefully recorded the occurrence, within the separate geographical tribal territories, of stones associated with bequests, graves, memorials, and sacrifice and the different, indigenous names that correspond to their changing appearance and varying functions. As gravestones, they are usually raised to the east on the location of the corpse's head, which is also called the grave's head. The stones are smeared with fat, flour, and the blood of sacrificed animals, and at the foot of the stone sacrificial gifts are deposited.

The older stones are generally uncut; the sculptured stones belong to more recent times. Both are called, among other things, "stone-upright" or "stone-man." Wooden scaffolding, occasionally freestanding, may sometimes have been built over them, and on these the skulls of animal sacrifices are placed. The height of the stone can vary with the social level of the deceased and sometimes directly corresponds to his physical stature; thus, the stone also acquires the character of a more or less nonfigurative statue or memorial. In this case, it may also be set up independently of the burial site. When the deceased has died in a foreign country or for other reasons has not been able to be buried, the importance of the local stone as a memorial becomes even more marked. Nevertheless, it can still be used religiously; one goes to it to make a vow, to leave a sacrificial gift, or to carry out a bloody sacrifice.

In some parts of Madagascar, wooden poles are used in place of stones and are called "intermediaries" or "transference vessels" of the spirits of the dead. A heap of stones of varying size can also be substituted for the single stone, often at the request of the deceased himself. Sometimes, passersby throw a new stone on the heap with a prayer to the unknown spirit for a fortunate journey or for protection against unknown powers reigning over the road. But most often it is relatives or fellow tribesmen who carry out this ritual piling of stones in connection with a sacrificial vow. The worship at stone heaps that are associated with particular persons is believed to promote success in love or fertility. Thus, vo-tive gifts can consist of wooden carvings representing the male or female sexual organs, depending on the sex of the supplicant.

Other holy stones have functioned as coronation stones, for example, Stone-Holy and Stone of the Red Head in Antananarivo (formerly Tananarive). During his coronation, the king placed himself on each stone in turn to signify that his sovereignty extended over both halves of the kingdom. At the same time, the stones were associated with his ancestors, so that in touching them he assumed the strength and holiness of his forefathers. This hereditary ceremony was carried out as late as 1883 by Queen Ravanalona III, despite her conversion to Christianity.

However, not all Malagasy menhirs are connected with the dead, ancestors, or spirits. Some of them commemorate special events, certify a treaty, or mark a boundary. Such monuments are called "stones-planted." But these, too, have been dedicated with religious rituals; for example, a stone was raised in 1797 to the memory of a royal wedding that united two tribes. The king called on the Holiness of his ancestors, the Holiness of the twelve mountains, and the Holiness of heaven and earth. Then a deep pit was dug, into which the king threw a silver coin and red coral beads. After the stone had been raised, they killed a black ox with a white face and also an unruly bull. The king took their blood, smeared his forehead, neck, and tip of his tongue, and then poured the rest over the base of the stone. Meanwhile he spoke to the two tribes and commanded them to be one, just as he and his queen were one, to endure as long as the stone lasted.

Other menhirs can symbolize the royal power present and prevailing among the people. In other cases, cults center around natural cliffs of peculiar appearance that are connected with divination. For example, women come to pray for children at the "stone with Many Breasts." They smear the "breasts" of the cliff with fat, then touch their own, and throw a stone toward the protuberances of the cliff. Should it strike a large protuberance, it is said that the child will be a girl; if a small one, it will be a boy. Should the devotee come to the cliff with a health problem, a votive vow is made that is to be discharged after one has regained one's health. Hunters pray for success in the hunt to the spirit dwelling in another holy cliff said to protect wild game. Each hunter in turn whistles as he walks around the cliff; if they are all able to hold the note, it is a good omen for the presence of quarry. On their return, they sacrifice the finest wild ox as a thanks offering, burning its fat and its liver at the foot of the cliff. The meat is eaten on the spot by the hunters and their families (Renel, 1923, pp. 94111).

The Sami

The holy places of the pre-Christian Sami (Lapps) in northern Scandinavia and on the Kola Peninsula have been thoroughly investigated. Five hundred and seven of them are registered in Swedish Lapland (Manker, 1957), 229 in Norway, 80 to 90 in Finland, and about 10 in Russia west of the White Sea. If restricted to the material from Sweden, the cultic sites are of various kinds: 149 hills and mountains; 108 steep cliffs, caves, springs, waterfalls, rapids, and lakes; 30 islands, skerries, peninsulas, meadows, and heaths. But the largest number consists of venerated stones or cliffs, of which there are 220. In this group, 102 examples are understood to be naturally occurring, uncut images of a deity; in only two cases are there indisputable traces of human intervention. In general, the majority are massive stones. These cult objects are called seite s, a term of disputed meaning and origin that occurs in different dialectal forms.

Literary sources from the sixteenth century on, combined with anthropological records from the nineteenth century, provide a rich commentary on the seite cult, which, in some cases, has been directed toward wooden trunks, stumps, or sculptures in addition to the stone seite. A detailed Swedish account from 1671 describes the ritual slaughter of a reindeer behind a tent. Afterward the seite is approached by the Sami, who takes off his cap, bows deeply, and smears the seite with blood and fat from the animal. The prime cervical vertebrae, the skull, and the hoofs are offered to the deity, as are the horns, which are piled up behind the stone. In one such "horn yard" thousands of horns may be seen. The meat of the animal is eaten by the participants in the sacrifice. Then the drum tells them what kind of game they will capture and assures them of good luck with their reindeer (Manker, 1957, p. 306; cf. Holmberg, 1964, p. 109).

The god of the seite can also appear in human shape to his worshiper. Another seventeenth-century account tells how such a god showed himself as a tall, well-built man dressed in black like a gentleman, with a gun in his hand. A similar vision is transmitted from eighteenth-century Norway: "Then a being in human form, like a great ruler, extremely good to look at, dressed in expensive garments and trinkets, appears and sits down to take part in their meal, speaks with them and teaches them new arts, and says that he lives in the stone or mountain to which they sacrifice" (Holmberg, 1964, p. 105).

Omens are taken in connection with the sacrifice, not only with the help of the drum. From the 1670s in Finland, there is a story of a movable little stone god called Seite or Råå ("owner"). Holding this god in his hand, the Sami utters his prayers with great veneration and lists his requirements. If he then cannot lift his hand it is a bad omen, but he repeats his wishes again and again until the stone in his hand becomes so light that his hand leaps upward. When the Sami has received what he wishes, he asks the god what kind of thanks offering he wants, using the same method to get an answer (Manker, 1957, p. 314).

When compared with the stone worship of Madagascar, the Sami cult lacks a clear connection with ancestors, concerning itself instead with the "owners" of the land and the lord of animals. On the African island, the sacred stone monuments are generally erected or constructed by human hands; but in Lapland, the veneration of natural boulders, often left from the glacial epoch, predominates. The belief is common here as elsewhere that the pillars or rocks are inhabited by unseen powers, or, in Mircea Eliade's words: "The devotion of the primitive was in every case fastened on something beyond itself which the stone incorporated and expressed" (1958, sec. 74).

American Indians

Sacred rocks and stones together with their spirits are highly venerated by the Indians of both North and South America. One volcano in Ecuador has even received human sacrifices by the Puruhá. The Dakota have decorated and painted great boulders, praying to them and sacrificing dogs upon them. The Crow keep small, animal-shaped stones as powerful medicine. The Algonquin around Lake Mistassini in Canada dare not cross the waters before having sacrificed to the spirit who inhabits a massive, anomalous block. Southward, in the United States, higher, personalized gods are also believed to dwell in stones. The Kiowa in Texas possess a little stone god to whom they pray during the Sun Dance. The Tao in New Mexico venerate at the foot of a sacred mountain the "stone men" who represent two war gods. The Pueblo Indians believe that the hunter's good luck depends on his possession of stones of a curious shape.

The statuettes of the West Indian Taino consist of slightly sculptured stones that are venerated in caves. Among the South American Indians of the Andes, stone worship is very common, but stone gods are found also in the tropical region to the east. The mother goddess of the Jivaroan people in northern Peru and the supreme being of the Warao of the delta of the Orinoco are both represented by stones (Hultkrantz, 1979, pp. 60ff.).

This little catalog needs a supplementary description of the modes of worship, but it can nevertheless be compared (at least in part) with the corresponding examples from the Saami. The ecological environment of North America and Lapland is the same, both with regard to natural objects of veneration and with regard to the motives for worship, primarily to ensure good hunting and fishing.

See Also

Altar; Amulets and Talismans; Crossroads; Megalithic Religion, articles on Historical Cultures and Prehistoric Evidence; Phallus and Vagina.


Buhl, Frants. "Nusb." In The Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 3, p. 967. Leiden, 1936.

Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion. New York, 1958.

Eliade, Mircea. A History of Religious Ideas, vol. 1, From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries. Chicago, 1978.

Fauth, Wolfgang. "Baitylia." In Der kleine Pauly: Lexikon der Antike, vol. l. Stuttgart, 1964. A very compressed, well-documented survey.

Gese, Hartmut, Maria Höfner, and Kurt Rudolph. Die Religionen Altsyriens, Altarabiens und der Mandäer. Die Religionen der Menschheit, vol. 10.2. Stuttgart, 1970.

Hartland, E. Sidney, et al. "Stones." In Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 11. Edinburgh, 1920. A group of articles covering primitive, Greek and Roman, Indian, and Semitic traditions by Hartland, Percy Gardner, William Crooke, and George A. Barton, respectively. See also R. A. W. Macalister's "Stone Monuments," in volume 11, and D. Miller Kay's "Maēbnāh," in volume 8 (1915). These articles include valuable material despite their sometimes outdated theories.

Heiler, Friedrich. Erscheinungsformen und Wesen der Religion. Die Religionen der Menschheit, vol. 1. Stuttgart, 1961. A rather short but good cross-cultural survey of the subject. Subsequent volumes of this voluminous series contain reliable information on stone worship: for example, volumes 5.1 (Indonesia), 5.2 (South Pacific and Australia), 7 (Old America), 18 (Celts), 20 (Tibet and Mongolia), 22.1 (Korea), 23 (Southeast Asia), and 26 (ancient Israel).

Herter, Hans. "Hermes." Rheinisches Museum für Philologie (Frankfurt) 119 (1976): 193241.

Holmberg, Uno. The Mythology of All Races, vol. 4, Finno-Ugric, Siberian (1927). Reprint, New York, 1964. A classic study by a field-worker and cautious historian who is largely free from now-abandoned theories.

Hultkrantz, Åke. The Religions of the American Indians. Translated by Monica Setterwall. Los Angeles, 1979. A restricted phenomenological approach by a specialist. Hultkrantz has deposited a comprehensive unpublished manuscript on stone worship among the Saami (Lapps) in the Nordic Museum, Stockholm.

Kennedy, A. R. S., and John W. Wevers. "Pillar." In Dictionary of the Bible, 2d ed., revised by Frederick C. Grant and H. H. Rowley, pp. 772773. Edinburgh, 1963. An instructive comparison can be made with the article in the first edition, edited by James Hastings (Edinburgh, 1909).

Manker, Ernst. Lapparnas heliga ställen. Stockholm, 1957. A standard work; includes an English summary, "The Holy Places of the Lapps."

Renel, Charles. "Ancêtres et dieux." Bulletin de l'Academie Malgache (Tananarive), n.s. 5 (1923): 1263.

Ruud, Jørgen. Guder og fedre: Religionshistoriskt stoff fra Madagaskar. Oslo, 1947.

Carl-Martin Edsman (1987)

Translated from Swedish by David Mel Paul and Margareta Paul

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