The Folk-Nature of Sacred Stones
edited: Sunday, February 27, 2005
By Gary R Varner
Not "rated" by the Author.
Posted: Thursday, October 09, 2003
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An excerpt from a recently released book, Menhirs, Dolmen and Circles of Stone published by Algora Publishing.
They may appear to be simply pieces of smooth rock but they wind up as “worry stones” in the suit pockets of Wall Street investors and presidents. These worry stones are not so much different than those smooth stones regarded as “thunder-stones” during Roman and Middle Age times. These thunder-stones were believed to protect the possessor from lightning, ships from sinking and gave victory to the holder in law suites and battle. Little do the keepers of these worry stones realize but they are practicing one of the ancient traditions of transferring their problems to an inanimate object. The recognition of stones as objects of power continues uninterrupted from the dawn of humankind into the 21st century.
Religious fanatics during the Reformation destroyed many standing stones. Specifically between 1646 and 1649 traditional customs, festivals and monuments, such as holy wells and standing stones, were forbidden and destroyed. Some of those monuments were preserved, usually due to their location or through the influence of powerful men, and have become sought after for their powers of fertility and healing. One such stone, now in the churchyard of La Pierre de Saint Martin in France has become festooned with strips of cloth left by pilgrims—much in the same way many holy wells are decorated in Europe.
Stones are eternal. The mythos surrounding standing stones in particular has been described as one that “offers an image of a reality that survives the passing of time…the stone symbolized the essential being: the soul or spirit of animate life that was not subject to decay, but endured beyond and beneath all appearances.” (1) It is the eternal, timelessness of stones that has contributed to the feeling of sacredness, which pervades many of the locations in which they are found.
To many Native American cultures stones were the First People and very much alive. Rocks were also considered Wakan among the Lakota, being that they are very hard to understand. Wakan is also a term given to “spirit”. (2) The Rock in Lakota belief, was also called Inyan, which was “the primal source of all things.” (3) Native Amercans, like many other people, believed that rocks were the source of life as well as a doorway to the Otherworld. Some tribes believed that they descended from stones. Dakota Indian Alvina Alberts, born in 1912 and an expert on Dakota folklore, stated that the Dakota “came from the water, and a stone impregnated a woman, and from there we grew.” (4) Among the Khoi Khoi in South Africa the great rain god Tsui’goab was also the creator and the Supreme Being—making the first humans from rock. (5) In some Polynesian tales rocks are living beings, have sex and families the same way other creatures do. This belief was still prevalent in 16th century Europe. The small pebbles are simply the young offspring of the larger rocks. Hawaiians believed that the solid rocks were male and the porous ones female. (6) Before the folklore of standing stones is discussed we will delve into the magical use of much smaller stones.
Stones Used In Magic: Healing & Cursing
The super-natural powers believed to be inherent in stones have caused them to be used as charms for thousands of years. They were worn to protect against the anger of certain gods, to profit in business transactions, to keep diseases and evil at bay, to heal and to gather the energy needed to acquire abundance. Charmed stones were used by the mightiest of rulers to the commonest of the common. Two fourteen stone chains have been attributed to Naram-Sin, a famous conqueror and ruler of the Akkadian Empire, and to the king of Babylon and lawgiver Hammurapi. These two chains were composed of lapis lazuli, green obsidian and jasper. (7) While the purpose of these two chains is unknown, it is believed that they possessed powers to enhance the abilities of the two kings to rule.
The belief in the magickal-protective powers of stones continues into the present day. The Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, still in hiding from American forces while I write this, is said to be protected by a magickal stone. Iraqi lore says that Hussein placed the stone on the back of a cow, fired a shot at the cow, and watched as the bullet swerved around the animal leaving it unscathed. (8) While many Americans scoff at such a belief none can dispute the fact that he survived several attempts by American forces to kill him with “bunker busters”.
Stone charms and amulets are still sought out and used today for their protective and healing properties. In Utah, at least though the 1950’s, wearing pale blue stones around the neck was believed to relieve headaches. These stones were also believed to prevent or stop bleeding. In some locations the evil eye was warded off by taking stones found on river and creek banks, drilling holes in them, and placing them on strings around the neck of children. Amber worn around the neck was a protection against heart disease and protected against or aided in such physical ailments as colds, flu, convulsions, goiter, whooping cough, teething, lung ailments, sore throat, poisons, eye ailments, neck swelling and sexual desire (the prevention of).
Necklaces of chalcedony were worn around the neck to cure insanity and it was a practice in 1920’s Ozarks for small stones to be sewed into children’s clothes to protect them from common childhood diseases.
The belief that certain stones hold supernatural powers is an extremely ancient one probably dating back to the Stone Age. A common worldwide belief in the transference of diseases or evil to stones or through stones to other persons is found in ethnological and folklore accounts. As shown above the use of stones to combat illness is a universal one. For fever it was believed that by placing an agate on the individual’s head the fever would depart—being transferred to the agate. A Scottish treatment for fever states that three stones from a streambed should be held in the person’s hands and mouth while they lay quietly. As will be seen the combination of water and stones is a powerful one and used over and over in these folk treatments.
Perhaps the most worrisome condition is childbirth or the lack of fertility. The use of stones for these conditions was common and there are many examples to illustrate the various practices. In Burgos, Spain a fountain dedicated to Saint Casilda was reported to have the powers to make a woman fertile. If a stone was thrown into the waters a baby boy was assured and girls were ensured if tiles were tossed into the fountain. In Armenia it was believed that sterile women would frequent the stone passes in Varanta. Legends say that “if she is to have a child the stone enlarges and lets her pass but the opposite happens if she is not to have a baby.” (9)
Near the Yorkshire village of Ratho, seven miles from Edinburgh, the Witch’s Stone, a large sloping boulder (now destroyed) with ancient cut marks was used by women who slid down the stone in the belief that the stone would assist them in conceiving. A similar stone used in the same way is located in Kings Park, Edinburgh. The stones were highly polished by the many women who slid down them over the years.
A fertility amulet, also known as a pregnancy stone, was in use in Italy and recorded by Walton McDaniel in 1948 in the Journal of the History of Medicine:
The amulet, “in the shape of a womb…a limonitic concretion or brown hematite, which, on being shaken, produces a sound…the prospective mother wears it nine months, fastened to the right arm, but then, at the arrival of the first pains of partition, she transfers it to the right thigh. Women hire the use of these stones from a midwife, if they do not possess one of their own as a family heirloom. Although these amuletic objects might seem to be somewhat pagan, grateful mothers do not hesitate to deposit them as tokens of success, as ex-votos in a Christian Church.” (10)
Difficult childbirth was avoided by wearing, or keeping close, stones the color of the sea, such as beryl. Stones with holes in them were especially prized and if hung over a woman in labor the birth would be much easier as it was viewed as a protection against evil. In ancient Roman times it was believed that a stone used to kill a powerful animal (or a strong man) also had the power to make childbirth easier. The stone was thrown over the house where the woman lay in labor. (11)
For those worried about the inability to conceive, it was thought collecting stones from the property of couples with many children could reverse the condition. This belief was still present in 1950’s Arkansas. (12) In ancient Egypt it was a practice to make scratch marks on stones in the belief that by doing so pregnancy would be induced. (13)
In Greece and Scotland women desiring children would wade into the sea and then pass through large water worn holes in nearby rocks. Passing through stones is commonly seen throughout the world’s folk medicine traditions. It is a passing through dimensions in an attempt to “pass on” or transfer illnesses and to obtain power and health. Small stones found with naturally occurring holes in them have been especially prized for their magickal properties and they are believed to be linked directly to the Goddess. In North Carolina holed-stones worn by pregnant women eased childbirth and in Northumberland during the early 20th century holy, or holed stones were placed around a horses neck to protect it from disease.
One of the most famous holed-stone is that of Men-an-Tol, near the healing well of St. Madron’s in Cornwall, England. At least through the 18th century, and most probably well beyond that time, persons with back and limb pains would crawl through the hole in search of a cure. Children with rickets were also passed through the stone. For pains the individual must pass through the hole either three or nine time, against the sun, or widdershins. Children with rickets could only be cured if they passed through to an adult of the opposite sex.
Other important holed-stones are the Tolvan Stone, also in Cornwall. At the Tolvan Stone children were passed through the hole nine time, back and forth through the stone. To ensure that a cure was obtained it was necessary for the child to pass through on the ninth pass on the side where a grassy mound was located. The last part of the ritual was to lay the child to sleep on the mound with a sixpence under his or her head.
Rock crystal was a tool used by the Apache Indians to prevent pregnancy. According to early ethnologist Morris Opler, “rock crystal is used as a medicine when a woman does not want a child. The rock is ground up fine, and some of the powder is put in a drink. There are prayers and a ceremony connected with this, but I do not know them.” (14)
New mothers who had difficulty breastfeeding frequented certain holy stones in Armenia. According to Lalayan the women would be taken to these stones, which were naturally shaped like breasts, drink the water that dripped from the stone and wash their own breasts with the water. Afterwards they would pray and light candles in front of the stones. (15)
Healing stones were used for a variety of complaints and illnesses including mumps, insanity, rheumatism, consumption, and, of course, warts. Warts evidently have been a bane of humankind since the beginning—being treated at holy wells and sacred rocks. For the most part warts were treated via the transference method by rubbing them with a pin and tossing the pin into a holy well or with a rock and tossing the rock. One ritual recorded in Ohio involved counting the number of warts and to collect the same number of small stones in a small bag. The directions then indicate that the individual is to “go to the intersection of a road, throw the bag over your left shoulder, and return home by another way. The person who picks up the bag of stones will get your warts.” (16) Other varieties of this tradition say that the warts are to be rubbed with the stones first and that the bag should be tied with a red bow.
Another cure, also from Ohio, says to rub warts with a stone and bury it at the first crossroads encountered. We see in these two examples that road intersections, or crossroads, are important for the cure to work. Why this is so important for the treatment of warts is unknown but the crossroads are indicative of a much more magickal power. Symbolically the crossroads represent the meeting place of time and space where magick takes place and where demons also meet. It is a dangerous place.
A Scottish antidote called for the warts to be washed in water collected in natural basins found in “old ‘layer’ stones”. After washing the warts would disappear.
Mumps were given a special treatment. According to Lady Wilde nine black stones must be gathered before sunrise and the patient brought to a holy well with a rope around his neck. It is imperative that no one speaks while journeying to the holy well. Once there, “cast three stones in the name of God, three in the name of Christ, and three in the name of Mary. Repeat this process for three mornings and the disease will be cured.” (17)
Bothered by insomnia? In Pennsylvania during the first two decades of the 20th century it was recommended that you put a small round stone found lying on a fencepost under you pillow—sleep was sure to follow. (18)
Applying nine stones taken from a stream treated swelling of any kind and stings. A different stone was taken each day for nine days and returned after its use. Similar treatments were common in both Chile and ancient Rome. The number nine is commonly associated with certain healing and divination lore around the world. Nine is anciently connected with potent magic. Hopper noted that the number nine “invokes the favor of the triple triad of the angels and at the same time enlists the power of the devil.” (19)
Likewise the number three has been an important aspect of various rituals. Three is one of the powerful numbers of religio-magic traditions. In the British Isles using three stones in healing rituals was common. William Black noted in particular wise-woman Margaret Sandieson took but “thrie small stones and twitched her head thrie tymes with everie one of them” (20) when she treated an ill woman. A similar method was also used in Scotland.
Storaker reported that a cure for illness is to have a woman healer heat three small stones, drop them into water and then have the patient drink the water. (21)
Bonwick noted that in Ireland “down to a late period” people poured water on the surface of stone “temples” “that the draught might cure their diseases. Molly Grime, a rude stone figure, kept in Glentham church, was annually washed with water from Newell well…babies were sprinkled at cairns in Western or South Scotland down to the seventeenth century. Some stones were kissed by the faithful, like the Druid’s Stone in front of Chartres Cathedral, once carefully kept in the crypt.” (22)
Stonehenge may be perhaps the largest “healing stone” in the world. Geoffry on Monmouth wrote in the 12th century that the megaliths became a source for the healing of many diseases. Again the mixture of water and stone becomes evident as Geoffry notes that the stones were washed and the water used in baths in which the ill bathed. The healing attributed to Stonehenge was accepted into the 17th and 18 centuries. Similarly the “12 o’clock” stone, a large standing stone in Cornwall, can cure children of rickets as long as they are not illegitimate or the offspring of “dissolute” parents.
Thunderstones are stones reportedly found only where lightning strikes, are black in color with white streaks running through them. They also have great power for healing and strength. They are effective in the treatment of jaundice, lameness, cataracts, convulsions, consumption, goiter, snakebite and childbirth and, if carried on the person, relieve rheumatism.
Folklore in Surinam says that should one bathe in water containing a black thunderstone enormous strength will be obtained. In fact a man may become so strong that he can kill another with one blow—if the stone is dark enough. The darker the stone the more potent it becomes. (23)
The Lore of Mystical Stones
Stones, in themselves steeped in myth and hidden meaning, are inextricably linked to sacred water. Ancient standing stones and sacred waters have a common ancestry. Their existence is intricately interwoven. “Rain rocks” utilized by Native American shamans were intended to control the weather, especially rain and snow, as well as act as ritual ties to the Grizzly Bear. I have seen standing stones erected by ancient Britons perched high above important water sites in Ireland, such as the five-stone circle at Uragh, Co. Kerry, Ireland situated above the Cloonee Lough Upper and Lough Inchiquin, as well as large rock outcroppings decorated with rock art situated high above similar water sources in the American West. But the importance that individuals feel toward creating rock monuments on or near water has not died. I recently discovered a rather mysterious creation of several dozen rock cairns along a sand bar on the American River in the middle of Sacramento, California. Obviously these cairns are not an ancient construction--as the ebb and flow of the river in flood conditions would have destroyed the cairns--the reasons for their creation is unknown but can be presumed to be linked to the same inner need to create a special, physical link between the human and the spirit world associated with the nature of water.
At Panther Meadows, mid-way up Mt. Shasta’s 14,000 foot slope, I have seen rock cairns in contemporary use by the Native Americans who still regard the site as their spiritual center. Rock cairns have been used since time began around the world to mark migration trails of game, places of death, water sources and holy sites. The Cree say that when someone creates a small cairn out of a few rocks, “it grows, no one knows how, rock by rock”. (24)
In Finland the Stone of Pain was reportedly situated at the confluence of three rivers and the spirit of pain was believed to reside there. Pilgrims would visit the spot to request relief from their painful physical conditions. The combined power of the three rivers and the stone created an ideal source for healing.
Other ancient stone circles found on or near water occur at Pobull Fhinn on Loch Langass in the Hebrides, Uneval, Kintraw, Argyll, Kockadoon, Co. Mayo, and Killadangan, Co. Mayo, among the hundreds situated around the world.
Sacred stones in association with specific holy wells are also common. One such well-stone combination is found at Whitstone, England. Whitstone is a name derived from a white rock located on the south side of the nearby Whitstone church. R.A. Courtney, a noted pre-World War I antiquarian, wrote “the Church is dedicated to St. Nicholas, and in the churchyard is a well commonly known as St. Anne’s well. It is said to never have been known to fail; and it would show that the Church is but the successor of the sacred white stone; the water from the well being used for baptisms. It may be remarked that the saint of the Church is a male, the well a female; and, if my theory is correct, the stone represented the lingam, the well the yoni.” (25) Another megalith with a long history of connected ritual is the dolmen called La Pierre à Berthe located in a field next to the village cemetery of Pontchâteau in Brittany. According to Aubrey Burl, it was believed that the dolmen would cure gout if one approached it on one’s knees. “Up to the 19th century," wrote Burl, “pilgrims would go from the fountain by the church to make their devotions at the stone.” (26) The fountain, or well, connection to the standing stone had an important part in the perceived cure received at the dolmen. Unfortunately, the dolmen was blown up in 1850 by a treasure seeker.
As the Hupa Indians of Northern California ritually washed certain standing stones called “story people” to change the weather (27), so too did the fishermen on the Isle of Skye. W. Winwood Reade, in his classic The Veil of Isis, or Mysteries of the Druids, wrote “in a little island near Skye is a chapel dedicated to St. Columbus; on an altar is a round blue stone which is always moist. Fishermen, detained by contrary winds, bathe this stone in water, expecting thereby to obtain favorable winds; it is likewise applied to the sides of people troubled by stitches, and it is held so holy, that decisive oaths are sworn upon it.” (28)
An account of a “Pagan idol” from the Irish island of Inniskea, off the coast of Mayo, wrapped in flannel, was given in the Notes and Queries issue of Saturday, February 7, 1852:
“A stone carefully wrapped up in flannel is brought out at certain periods to be adored; and when a storm arises, this god is supplicated to send a wreck on their coast.”
“Though nominally Roman Catholics, these islanders have no priest resident among them; they know nothing of the tenets of that church, and their worship consists in occasional meetings at their chief’s house, with visits to a holy well called Derivla. The absence of religion is supplied by the open practice of pagan idolatry. In the south island a stone idol called in the Irish Neevougi, has been from time immemorial religiously preserved and worshipped. This god resembles in appearance a thick roll of homespun flannel, which arises from the custom of dedicating to it a dress of that material whenever its aid is sought; this is sewed on by an old woman, its priestess. Of the early history of this idol no authentic information can be procured, but its power is believed to be immense; they pray to it in time of sickness, it is invoked when a storm is desired to dash some hapless ship upon their coast, and again it is solicited to calm the waves to admit of the islanders fishing or visiting the main land.” (29)
Can we make a connection with this flannel cloth made by a priestess to adorn a sacred stone and the strips of cloth that still adorn wells and trees? The association of the stone and the holy well is, again, indicative of many sites throughout the British Isles. The stone is also anciently associated with sacred wells and this account may be one of the truly surviving Pagan practices recorded in Ireland in the 19th century.
"Rain rocks" were utilized by shamans as tools to control rain and weather. Rain rocks in Northern California were inscribed with meandering lines, grooves, pits and representations of bear claws and paw prints. The Shasta Indians in the Klamath River area carved long parallel grooves on rain rocks to make snow fall, and cupolas to produce rain. To stop rain they covered the rain rock with powdered incense-root. According to rock art researcher Campbell Grant the Hupa Indians of California “had a sacred rain rock called mi. By this rock lived a spirit who could bring frost, prolong the rainy season, or cause drought if he was displeased.” (30) The Hupa would cook food next to the rain rock and provide a feast for the spirit to ensure that the spirit would continue to help them. “If the end of a rainy spell was needed”, continues Grant, “powdered incense-root was sprinkled on the rock.” (31) Rain rocks were fairly universal among early cultures. In Australia’s Northern Territory it was “essential” for certain types of rocks to be scratched to ensure rain. (32) Although rarely found in Southern California, a five foot rain rock marked with hundreds of small, drilled holes was located on the slopes of Palomar Mountain in northern San Diego County. The site was originally a proto-historic Luiseño village called Molpa. (33) Just below the rain rock is a small spring, which was a steady source of water. Because the decoration or alteration of rock material is difficult to date we do not know when the use of “rain rocks” began. We do know that the Tolowa, Karok and Hupa tribes on the North Coast of California used rain rocks predominantly to control the weather at least from 1600 CE and the practice continued into the early 1800’s and may in fact continue today. (34)
The use of special stones to create rain appears to be a fairly universal one. Rain-stones were used by the Samoan Islanders, Australian aborigines, by people in Central Africa, Japan, and Great Britain, as well as North America. In most cases these stones were dipped into or sprinkled with water by priests or shamans and treated to elaborate rituals. Sir James Frazer wrote that in North-western Australia “the rain-maker repairs to a piece of ground which is set apart for the purpose of rain-making. There he builds a heap of stones or sand, places on the top of it his magic stone, and walks or dances round the pile chanting his incantations for hours, till sheer exhaustion obliges him to desist, when his place is taken by an assistant. Water is sprinkled on the stone and huge fires are kindled. No layman may approach the sacred spot while the mystic ceremony is being performed.” (35) In North America the Apache Indians in Arizona would carry water from specific springs and throw it on the top of a certain rock, “after that”, Frazer continues, “they imagine that the clouds would soon gather, and that rain would begin to fall.” (36) Similar rain-stones were used during times of draught in ancient Rome as well. The stone called lapis manalis was kept near the Temple of Mars and “dragged into Rome, and this was supposed to bring down rain immediately.” (37) Just what is it in these stones that is believed to cause rain? In most instances the stone contains the spirit of divinity or acts as a conduit to the divine to plead for rain.
Individual stones in association with water traditionally are said to cure illnesses. If you suffer from cramps while swimming you should pick up a few stones, spit on them and throw them into the water. A Norwegian technique to cure an illness is to take a stone from a hill, one from a field and a third from a crossroad (they cannot be touched by the bare hand though), heated and dropped into water. The individual then must sit over the water with a blanket covering his head. (38)
Stones also contain spirits and are the homes of Rock Babies, Faeries and other citizens of the Underworld. Storaker wrote in 1928:
“It was once believed that one could see the soul of a person as a small flame burning with a clear light. Such a light is often seen from stones. But usually, is such a light from the stones believed to be lit by the spirits living in the stone, and it is burning during the night. When the spirits of the stones appear like that, they are given the names of goblins, gnomes or subterraneans. The light looks like the light that is often seen at mounds, and which is called mound-light or spirit-light.” (39)
This “spirit-light” or “mound-light” is subject to speculation. Storaker speaks matter-of-factly about the lights even while he treats the original premise of souls appearing as flames in stone as simple wives-tales.
Storaker also noted, that “occasionally one would see a light burning in some stone, especially at the darkest time of the year. The light came from some creatures that had lived in the stones.” If the location was examined carefully, Storaker wrote, sometimes a small, round stone would be found which could be used by a “wise woman” to cure an illness. (40)
Spirits inhabiting stone is a tale also found in Belgium. Spence noted a “particularly fearsome ghost story…in which it is related how certain spirits had become enclosed in a pillar in an ancient abby…”. (41)
The concept that human spirits existed in stone is one that has continued from the Mesolithic Azilian culture to a contemporary Mesolithic society—the Australian Arunta people. Among these two cultures it was believed that the spirits of the dead could be preserved in decorated stones.
The Azilian culture was spread across northern Spain, England, France, Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland. A hunter-fisher society, the Azilian left little evidence of their religious traditions except river cobbles that they engraved or painted with circles, points, line and human figures.
We do not know specifically what these cobbles meant to the Azilian but the similarities to the Arunta are too striking to ignore. Every Arunta tribe has a storehouse, which protects their “churingas”, painted pebbles referred to as their “far distant ones.” (42)
The “far distant ones” are the male and female spirits of their ancestors, carefully arranged in the cave storehouses of the tribe. “The churinga,” according to Maringer, “is regarded as the embodiment of the dead person whose spirit and qualities are transferred to the present possessor.” (43)
In a cave in Switzerland, 133 Azilian stones were found broken. Researchers believe that these ancestor stones were intentionally broken by an enemy group who, in effect, destroyed the souls of a tribes ancestor population. An act of spiritual genocide.
Standing stones and stone circles, however, have a long tradition of being associated with the Faery. Lewis Spence wrote in his 1945 publication, The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain, “standing stones in Brittany and other parts of that country are associated with fairies, who are thought of as inhabiting or “ensouling” them.” (44) Spence notes that the fairy probably represented “the spirits of dead chieftains once worshipped ancestrally.” (45) In some cultures the Faery are spirits waiting to be reborn.
Native American lore is also rich in tales of divine stones. Walker recorded the following account from an old Lakota shaman:
“Tunkan is the spirit which fell from the sky. It is a stone. It knows all things which are secret. It can tell where things are when they are lost or stolen…” (46) When children vanished “the mysterious stones were consulted to learn what had become of the child.” (47) The Lakota utilized special shamans, called Rock dreamers, to communicate with the Tunkan spirit. In the best case the stone will tell the shaman where lost objects are and even who the individual is who has stolen an object. Rock dreamers were believed to take on some of the characteristics of stone as well, such as being impervious to bullets. Because of this protection the Rock dreamers were responsible for “war medicine”.
Perhaps the most unusual magickal stone is the Blaxhall Stone situated on the Stone Farm in Suffolk, England. The Blaxhall Stone grows. Reportedly a hundred years ago it was the size of a small loaf of bread and today it weighs in at five-tons. It is said to still be growing.
Saints and Stones
Similar to how Catholic Saints became associated with holy wells, certain sacred and healing stones have also become assimilated into Church lore and particular saints. One such saint is St. Fillan. St. Fillan was a 7th century follower of St. Columba known primarily for his holy well in Scotland. Into the 18th century invalids would throw white stones on the saints cairn as part of a ritual performed in their search of healing. This particular well also was said to move on its own and to cure insanity and other illnesses. The well is still frequented today. Those seeking a cure must walk around the well three times and then throw a pebble into the well.
St. Fillan was the son of a princess of Ulster, who later became St. Kentigerna. His father was Prince Federach. Fillan was born with a stone in his mouth, which enraged and/or horrified his father for some reason. Prince Federach grabbed the infant and tossed him into a nearby lake (again the association between saints, water and sacred stones). A local Christian Bishop just happened to be nearby (aren’t they always in these tales?) and rescued the baby. Out of gratitude Fillan’s mother became a Christian. (48) In time Fillan and his mother became missionaries and traveled to Scotland where he established a priory in Auchtertyre at what is now Kirkton’s Farm. One of the miracles which St. Fillan is known for is his ability to have his left arm and hand light up in the dark so he could read at night. Because of this his arm has been preserved as one of the relics of that age in Glen Dochart, Scotland. (We do not know if it continues to act as a flashlight or not.)
The most famous relics of St. Fillan are eight healing stones left to the monks at his priory. Like many talismans around the world, the stones are representative of body parts and are used by pilgrims to effect healing of the head (and sight, hearing, headaches, etc.), stomach, back and limbs. These eight stones are kept in an old mill at the priory site where, each Christmas Eve, they are given a new bed of straw and reeds from the river. Pilgrims are allowed to pick up the stones and rub them on afflicted body parts in hopes that St. Fillan’s healing powers will work for them as well.
Another curios tale is that of St. Piran. St. Piran was a busy man in his early years, having founded six monasteries in Ireland, and a church in Cardiff, Wales. Legend has it that St. Piran, in advanced age, was captured by local Irish pagans (!) who were jealous of his ability to heal, tied to a millstone and tossed into the ocean in a horrendous storm. However, much to the pagans’ amazement, the millstone floated and Piran used it to sail to Cornwall where he founded a small oratory.
This legend of the floating stone is similar to many told in Ireland. One of these is that of St. Boec who sailed to Brittany from Carn parish in County Wexford on a stone. When the saint landed near Penmarch the stone sailed back to Ireland. Supposedly, a piece of the floating stone still rests in a cemetery in Brittany and bears the imprint of the saint’s head. It is said that individuals seeking a cure for fever can find it by placing their heads on this stone. (49)
Twelfth century traveler and writer Gerald of Wales wrote of the church of St. Michael, located on an island off Cork, Ireland, that had a special stone that was almost touching the church door. The stone contained a hollowed cavity that, according to Gerald, “is found every morning through the merits of the saints of the place as much wine as is necessary for the celebration of as many Masses as there are priests to say Mass on that day there.” (50)
Stones that Move
European lore is rife with stories about stones that move on their own volition. Patrick Logan, in his book The Holy Wells of Ireland, relates the tale of a heavy altar slab located near Tobar na Mult in County Kerry:
“…the story is that an enemy (Cromwellian) once used an ox cart to take it away from the well. When the cart had got as far as Bullock Hill, it stopped and the oxen refused to move it any further, so it was left on the spot until the next morning. Then, to the surprise of some people, the stone was found to have moved back to its original place near the well.” (51)
Other “homing stones” are reported to exist at Gorman, near Malin Head in County Donegal, Kilultagh, County Roscommon, Aghabulloge parish and Loch Hyne, County Cork and Aghinagh parish, also in County Cork. The homing stone at Aghinagh Parish is a large flat stone, probably an ancient food grinding stone due to a worn hollow area in the center, located near the Tobar a’Noonan well. Logan wrote, “the stone, which is very large and heavy, was removed and built into a wall, but was found back at the well in the morning.” (52)
Another homing stone is at St. Olan’s Well, Dromatimore, County Cork. This mysterious stone is an oval quartzite that rests on an ogham-inscribed monolith, it was said to cure a variety of “feminine aliments” and, if worn on the head and carried around the local church three times cured migraines. According to one authority, “it had the gift of locomotion in that, if removed to any distance, it unfailingly returned to its original position.” (53)
Cornish wells in particular appear to have had a history of some inherent protective force, which keeps their structures intact. An item in the Notes and Queries noted above reported that the writer learned “from a native of the parish that some of the stones of the well (of St. Nun’s) have been, at various times, carted away to serve meaner purposes, but that they have been, by some mysterious agency, brought back again during the night.”
While not moving on its own accord, the Basin Stone near Arperfeelie, on the Black Isle of Taendore, Yorkshire, was able to complain of being moved. Lore tells that in the early 1800s a farmer took the basin stone home with him. That night though the stone began to emit “strange noises” which became louder and louder. On the third night a “thunderous voice” ordered the farmer to return the stone to its original resting place. After he had done so the noises stopped. The Basin Stone was used by the local women who would bathe in the waters collected in the basin “immediately before sunrise” to ensure fertility. An almost identical story is that of the Whispering Knights capstone in the Cotswolds. According to the legend a farmer took the stone to be used as a bridge over a stream. Once the stone was in place the farmer was awakened that night by “strange noises” and the next morning the stone was found laying on the bank of the stream. The farmer quickly replaced it at its original location. (54)
Folklorist Lewis Spence noted in his book, Legends and Romances of Brittany “certain sacred stones go once a year or once a century to ‘wash’ themselves in the sea or in the river, returning to their ancient seats after their ablutions.” (55) In addition, Spence tells us, the individual stones in the dolmen at Essé have the ability to change their locations at will.
Stones that move are not confined to European folklore. In fact there are some stones that are factually known to move such as those of Racetrack Playa, Death Valley, California. Some of these stones, weighing up to ¾ of a ton, have been recorded to move at three feet per second and as far as 900 feet in a single action. Some have moved up to two miles in total distance. While they have been monitored by geologist no one has seen them move but their tracks are left all over the flat desert hardpan. Dr. Robert P. Sharp, a geologist in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California has studied these stones for years. At one time Dr. Sharp encircled 30 of the stones with iron stakes, 28 of the 30 broke free of the stakes. Dr. Sharp also reported that seven of the stones monitored have simply disappeared over time. (56) While scientists have not been able to determine why or how they move, Dr. Sharp has found that they only do so on stormy nights. The National Park Service has been studying these mysterious rock movements for some time and admit that even some of the boulders appear to move uphill but they suspect that the stormy weather may be cause of the movement. Rain appears to create a very shallow veneer of water on the playa and the rocks are thought to slide with the water movement and with wind action. It seems somewhat difficult to believe that other than hurricane winds would move a ¾ ton boulder 900 feet! (57)
Naval Stones—Stones at the Center of the World
Naval stones, also called Omphalos stones, were ties to the Gods and the supernatural forces of nature. These stones, like the one at the Temple of Delphi in Greece, were oracular in nature. They became known as “naval stones” because they were placed at the center of the world, the naval of the Earth—and it didn’t matter that they were in various locations around the world as they were situated in each cultures Spiritual—if not geographical—center.
Like the cosmic tree or cosmic mountain, the omphalos is the cosmic center and acts as the balancing point of the world. Mount Tabor in Palestine is derived from the Hebrew tabur which means “naval”, and Mount Gerizim, in Samaria, was referred to in the Old Testament as the naval of the Earth. Alexander commissioned a temple to be built on Mount Gerizim in the 4th century BCE According to Leonard Greenspoon, Mount Gerizim “was the intended focus for priests, cult, and worship” in ancient Samaria. (58)
While Mounts Gerizim and Tabor are regarded as sacred centers, or ompahlos’, they are atypical of the “normal” naval stone. The most famous of these stones is the omphalos at Delphi. According to legend the egg-shaped stone was placed at Apollo’s shrine by the God Zeus. The stone was located next to the tripod where the priestess of Delphi delivered her prophesies. The Greeks, in declaring this stone the naval of the world, “connected the stone with the body of the goddess Gaia, who was seen as the Earth itself.” (59) Devereux tells us that Zeus “sent out two eagles from the extremities of the Earth; where their flight paths crossed was the center point where the stone was to be erected.” (60) Another omphalos was located on Crete and it was regarded as the umbilical cord of Zeus, which has fallen to the Earth after his birth. These two naval stones linked Zeus and Gaia together as the dual aspect of fertility and creative force. The concept of a sacred center is found universally. The Hopi spiritual center is the Sipapu, located on the Little Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The Sipapu is not a rock or stone but an ancient geyser which has thrust up from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to form a large bubble of mud and rock—it is here that the ancestors of the Hopi crawled from the last world to the current one. The Sipapu is shaped like other traditional omphalos stones however—egg shaped denoting birth, rebirth and fertility.
One rather neglected and ignored omphalos is located at Glastonbury Abby—site of the revered Chalice Well. Behind the Abbot’s Kitchen an egg-shaped sandstone, approximately 3 feet long, 2 feet wide and 2 feet high rests. This particular omphalos contains an “eyestone”, a cavity located in the center of the stone. One theory of the “eyestone” is that it was a carved basin used to hold offerings. (61)
The Stone of Divisions (also called the Stone of Density) located at Uisnech is another naval stone—regarded as the center of Ireland. It was here that the archdruid Midhe lit the first fire of the new year—a fire spread across Ireland to light every bonfire in the country. Uisnech was the central point of the five regions of Ireland and, in fact, the name Midhe is more specifically a term given to mean “middle” or “neck” referring more to the place than to a person.
That these sacred stones were an important part of shamanic ritual cannot be doubted. They may have acted as the doorway to the spirit world as well as a point of connection between the spiritual and physical planes. Could it be that the omphalos has become transmorphed into our foundation stones in our large buildings that have their own contemporary rituals associated with them—local politicians and businessmen standing nearby with shiny shovels, installing a time capsule to be opened in the distant future? These stones continue symbolically to provide an opening into both the future and the past, for when the time capsule is buried it is destined for a future time but allows those who open it to view past events.
But more than an entryway to symbolic time travel, the omphalos is also an entryway to paradise. Every account of the earthly paradise indicates that it is/was located at the center of the world, or at least the center of the world as the individual culture viewed it. According to Eliade, “the map of Babylon shows the city at the center of a vast circular territory bordered by a river, precisely as the Sumerians envisioned paradise.” (62) In a similar fashion the universe was created from a central point and spread outward, as did the creation of humankind and the human occupation of the Earth. “The omphalos”, writes Devereux, “is the mythic point where the figuratively vertical axis of mind intersects the figuratively horizontal plane of the material world, contained within the round of mundane time.” (63) It is this intersection that creates the veil between two worlds—our physical world and that of the Otherworld. Because of the universal application of these beliefs in the omphalos I believe that we need to take a more analytical look at them. Certainly they are symbolic but they also figure importantly into the rituals of shamanic people everywhere. Are they simply the focal point used by shamans in their visionary trips to the Otherworld or do they actually operate as passageways between dimensions? Why is it that solid rock is believed to allow Faery creatures and the “Rock Babies” of Native American lore to go back and forth between these two worlds? Some legends indicate that a few humans have also traversed between the worlds through rock openings.
One Kawaiisu myth ("A Visit to the Underworld") contains an interesting illustration of these portals between worlds. Recorded by Murice L. Zigmond from a Kawaiisu informant, the story tells of a man who entered an opening in a rock to find himself in an Otherworld where the spirits of deer killed in the hunt go after death. The story, as reported by Zigmond, says, “the man saw water that was like a window. He could see the mountains through it. But it wasn’t water. He passed through it and did not get wet. When he was outside, he looked back and saw the ‘water’ again.” He was cautioned not to tell anyone for three days (again the importance of the number three) where he had been. (64)
Other important religious shrines still used today, including the Ka’aba at Mecca and the “Holy of Holies”, or Foundation Stone of the Earth, in the Temple at the center of Jerusalem, are examples of omphalos’. The Temple of Jerusalem, according to Clifford, was anciently regarded as “the source of order in the world.” (65) The stone at Mecca is probably meteoric as was the original naval stone at Delphi.
According to Devereux the Etruscans, and then Romans, established an omphalos in every town and city, the very act, a “geometric act of great power.” (66) The Etruscans also viewed the naval stone, or omphalos, as the doorway to the Otherworld. The center of each Etruscan town, the mysterious entryway, was covered with a great stone referred to by the Romans as the “stone of souls”. This stone was removed on important days of the dead to allow the spirits of the dead to once again journey to the world of the living. The “stone of souls” was always located at the crossing point between the two main streets of the city. (67) The Etruscan belief in a universe of order and regulation was illustrated with the placement of a world axis in every Etruscan town. It was through the omphalos that world order and the balance of time and dimension was kept—as well as the portal to the spirit world.
As will be discussed later many sacred stones located around the world appear to have the footprints of royal or sainted persons in them as well as supernatural beings such as faeries and Native American Rock and Water Babies. The human-footprint motif is common in American Indian rock art. A site in Colbert County, Alabama contains carvings of 4 and 6 toed feet, serpents and meandering lines. It is interesting to note that the footprint is a common woodland theme but the number of toes is usually abnormal. Many times the feet are shown larger or smaller than a normal human foot as well. If these prints were meant to depict the tracks of Water Babies or Rock Babies is uncertain but the association with serpents and meandering lines would indicate an affinity to water symbolism. “Water Babies” or "Rock Babies" are described as small, dwarf-like men in traditional Indian dress with long hair, the Water Babies were regarded as unusually potent spirit helpers, which lived along streams and water holes. Likewise the Rock Babies lived in or near rock features and were able to pass through solid rock. Both the Rock Baby and the Water Baby were believed to enhance the power of the shaman. In the Owens Valley of California and Nevada is a place called Red Canyon. Here an unusual stone slab is found which is covered with small, engraved human-like footprints said to be those of the Water Baby. Next to the Water Baby tracks are engraved bear tracks, which appear to be walking in the same direction. Similar, infant size footprints have been found painted on rock shelters in Baja California. There are also stones that have the prints of hands, heads and bodies as part of their features.
Kawaiisu Indians in the California Great Basin tell of Coyote climbing to the top of a mountain where he begins to play his flute, made from elderberry wood. As he plays he notices that clouds begin to appear and start to move toward him. He stops playing his flute and the clouds stop. He again takes up his flute and becomes so engrossed in his music that he fails to realize that the clouds have gathered above him. As it begins to snow Coyote becomes worried and tries to run back to his home. Finally he becomes tired and the snow overtakes him. He falls upon a large rock where he dies. The legends say that his impression, including his hands, feet and scrotum, can still be seen on the rock. (68)
The impressions of St. Patrick’s knees are said to be found at Portpatrick on the island of St. Kilda as are the knees and elbow imprints of St. Newlyna in Cornwall. Similar to Hawaiian lore, large mortar hole depressions said to be the knee-marks of St. Gwyndaf Hên, found on a flat stone in the river-bed of River Ceri, “appear to nurture the growth of new pebbles from the mother rock”. (69)
1. Baring, Anne and Jules Cashford. The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image. London: Arkana/Penguin Books 1991, 96
2. Walker, James R. Lakota Belief and Ritual. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 1991, 70
3. Ibid, 50
4. Nixon, Lance, interviewer. Native American Folklore Interviews Collection OGL #1260, June 25, 1992: Alvina Alberts. Grand Forks: Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota.
5. Andrews, Tamra. A Dictionary of Nature Myths. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1998, 211
6. Ibid. 164
7. Thomsen, Marie-Louise. “Witchcraft and Magic in Ancient Mesopotamia”, in Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Biblical and Pagan Societies. Edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2001, 60
8. Hider, James. “Even on the run, Hussein has Iraqis under his ‘spell’, in The Christian Science Monitor, August 6, 2003
9. Lalayan, E. “Veranda: Family Customs” in Ethnographic Review #2 (1897), 186
10. McDaniel, Walton Brooks. “The Medical and Magical Significance in Ancient Medicine of Things Connected with Reproduction and Its Organs”, in Journal of the History of Medicine, 3 (1948), page 543
11. De Lys, Claudia. A Treasury of American Superstitions. New York: The Philosophical Library 1948, 216
12. Parler, Mary Celestia. Folk Beliefs from Arkansas, Vol 3. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas 1962, 9
13. Leland, Charles G. “Marks on Ancient Monuments” in Folk-Lore, 8 (1897) page 86
14. Opler, Morris Edward. An Apache Life-Way: The Economic, Social, and Religious Institutions of the Chiricahua Indians. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1941, 405
15. Lalayan. op cit., 186
16. Puckett, Newbell Niles. Popular Beliefs and Superstitions: A Compendium of American Folklore from the Ohio Collection of Newbell Niles Puckett., ed. by Wayland D. Hand. Boston: G K Hall & Co 1981, 498
17. Wilde, Lady. Irish Cures, Mystic Charms & Superstitions. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. 1991, 24
18. Fogel, Edwin Miller. “Beliefs and Superstitions of the Pennsylvania Germans” in Americana Germanica (Philadelphia), 18 (1915), 268
19. Hopper, Vincent Foster. Medieval Number Symbolism: Its Sources, Meaning, and Influence on Thought and Expression. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc. 2000, 123
20. Black, William George. “Folk Medicine: A Chapter in the History of Culture”. London: Publications of the Folk-Lore Society #12, 1883, 118
21. Storaker, Joh. Th. “Sygdom og Forgjo/relse I den Norske Folketro. Norsk Folkeminnelag No. 20. Oslo 1932, 32
22. Bonwick, James. Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions. New York:: Barnes and Noble Books 1894, 217
23. Penard, A.P. and T.E. Penard. “Popular Notions Pertaining to Primitive Stone Artifacts in Surinam”, in Journal of American Folklore, 30 (1917), 260
24. Kehoe, Alice B. and Thomas F. Kehoe. Solstice-Aligned Boulder Configurations in Saskatchewan. Canadian Ethnology Service Paper No. 48. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada 1979, 37
25. Courtney, R.A. Cornwall’s Holy Wells: Their Pagan Origins. Penzance: Oakmagic Publications 1997, 30. A reprint of the 1916 edition published by Beare & Son, Penzance
26. Burl, Aubrey. Megalithic Brittany. New York: Thames and Hudson Inc., 1985, 102
27. These stones were situated in rows. Heizer wrote “when frosts come in the fall…a man or a virgin takes a basket of water with incense root and washes all these stones, praying…that gentle rain may come and that the frost may go away.” (see “Sacred Rain Rocks of Northern California”)
28. Reade, W. Winwood. The Veil of Isis, or Mysteries of the Druids. North Hollywood: Newcastle Publishing Company 1992, 228
29. Tennent, Sir J. Emerson. Notes and Queries, Vol. V, No. 119, Saturday, February 7, 1852, 121
30. Grant, Campbell. Rock Art of the American Indian. New York: Promontory Press 1967, 31
32. Mulvaney, D.J. The Prehistory of Australia. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers 1969, 172
33. True, D.L., C.W. Meighan & Harvey Crew. Archaeological Investigations at Molpa, San Diego County, California. University of California Publications in Anthropology, Volume 11, Berkeley: University of California Press 1974
34. Clewlow, Jr., C. William & Mary Ellen Wheeling. Rock Art: An Introductory Recording Manual for California and the Great Basin. Los Angeles: Institute of Archaeology, University of California 1978, 21-22
35. Frazer, Sir James. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Hertfordhsire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd. 1993, 76
37. Ibid, 78
38. Storaker, Joh. Th. “Sygdom og Forgjo/relse I den Norske Folketero” in Norsk Folkeminnelag No. 20. Oslo, 1932, 31.
39. Storaker, Joh. Th. “Naturrigerne I den Norske Folketro” in Norsk Folkeminnelag No 18. Oslo, 1928, 12
40. Ibid, 14
41. Spence, Lewis. Legends and Romances of Brittany. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc. 1997, 52
42. Spence, Lewis. The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc. 1999, 88
43. Maringer, Johannes. The Gods of Prehistoric Man. London: The Phoenix Press 2002, 128
45. Spence, The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain, 88
46. Walker, op cit, 112
47. Ibid, 106
49. Logan, Patrick. The Holy Wells of Ireland. Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe 1980, 105
50. Gerald of Wales. The History and Topogaphy of Ireland. London: Penguin Books 1982, 80
51. Logan, op cit 102
52. Ibid. 103
53. Evans, E. Estyn. Irish Folk Ways. Mineola: Dover Books 2000, 301
54. Turner, Mark. Folklore & Mysteries of the Cotswolds. London: Robert Hale Limited 1993, 100
55. Spence, Lewis. Legends and Romances of Brittany, 53
56. To see photos of some of these moving stones in action, see http://www.angelfire.com/hi/funnyspring/movroc.html and the following citation:
58. Greenspoon, Leonard J. “ Between Alexandria and Antioch: Jews and Judaism in the Hellenistic Period”, in The Oxford History of the Biblical World, ed. by Michael D. Coogan. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1998, 459
59. Molyneaux, Brian Leigh. The Sacred Earth. Boston: Little, Brown and Company 1995, 24
60. Devereux, Paul. Symbolic Landscapes. Glastonbury: Gothic Image Publications 1992, 56-57
61. Griffyn, Sally. Sacred Journeys: Stone Circles & Pagan Paths. London: Kyle Cathie Limited 2000, 141
62. Eliade, Mircea. Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. New York: Harper & Row Publishers 1959, 10
63. Devereux, Symbolic Landscapes 1992. op cit 92
64. Zigmond, Maurice L. Kawaiisu Mythology: An Oral Tradition of South-Central California. Ballena Press Anthropological Papers No. 18. Menlo Park: Ballena Press 1980, 177
65 Clifford, Richard J. The Cosmic Mountain in Canaan and the Old Testament. Harvard Semitic Monographs Volume 4. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1972, 179
66. Devereux, Paul. Earth Memory: Sacred Sites—Doorways into Earth’s Mysteries. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications 1992, 194
67. Ibid, 199
68. Zigmond, op cit 127
69. Pennick, Nigel. Celtic Sacred Landscapes. n.p: Thames and Hudson 1996,
Web Site: Authorsden of Gary R. Varner
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|Reviewed by Kate Clifford
|Thanks! A lot of good information in this article. I have added this to my library for future reference. Great write.|