© 1998 (text only) Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe

An exploration of how and why places become invested with SACREDNESS and how the SACRED is embodied or made manifest through ART and ARCHITECTURE


Stones of various kinds and sizes have been invested with sacredness from the earliest times. The worship of stones can be found in most ancient cultures, while sacred stones can be found in most of the world's religions.

According to Pausanias (VII, 24. 4) [see BIBLIOGRAPHY], In olden times all the Greeks worshipped unwrought stones instead of images and describes thirty square stones near a spring sacred to Hermes [cf. Water and the Sacred] ar Pharae in Greece.

Beginning as early as 5000 BCE, large stones (megaliths - Greek mega, great, and lithos, stone), either unwrought or roughly worked were erected across prehistoric Europe to stand in lines or in circles (such as at Stonehenge in England), or otherwise arranged in conjunction with earthworks usually identified as burial mounds (such as at Newgrange in Ireland). Little is known the purpose or meaning of these megalithic constructions, but it is universally agreed that they mark or embellish a sacred place in the landscape.

Examples of megalithism can also found in contries around the world, such as the Beforo monument near Bouar in the Central African Republic, the Tatetsuki stone circles standing the summit of a tumulus at Okayama in Japan, and the moai statues on ceremonial platforms on Easter Island [see Jean-Pierre Mohen in the BIBLIOGRAPHY].

The moving and arranging of massive stones into a building or some other configuration in a sacred context also characterizes many early cultures around the globe, from the Inca in South America, to the Egyptians and Mycenaeans.

Smaller individual stones can also become invested with the sacred. The Stone of Scone, also known as the Coronation Stone or the Stone of Destiny, until very recently rested on a shelf beneath the seat of the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey in London (it has now been returned to Scotland [see The Stone of Destiny]. It is said that the stone could identify a rightful ruler of the country by emitting a loud cry. Since the 13th century, every British king or queen (except for the first Mary) has been crowned monarch while seated in this chair over this stone. The stone had been brought to London by order of King Edward I from Scotland in 1297. In Scotland the stone had been kept at Scone Palace in Perthshire where 34 successive Scottish kings had been crowned while seated upon it. According to tradition, the stone had been brought to Scotland from Ireland where, up to that time the newly crowned kings of Ireland had been crowned upon it on the Hill of Tara. Legend further explains that the stone had come to Ireland from Judah in the 4th century BCE when the daughter of the last king of Judah married into the Irish royal family. Previously, the stone had been kept in the Temple of Jerusalem (cf Dome of the Rock) when the kings of Judah had been crowned upon it. Traditionally, the stone is believed to be that which Jacob used as a pillow when he had his dream of angels at Bethel.

Another example of a holy stone is the very sacred Black Stone (reddish black, with some red and yellow particles ) inside the holy shrine of the Ka'ba [1. Ka'ba] at Mecca. It is thought that the Black Stone, now in pieces (three large parts, with smaller fragments which are tied together with a silver band), may be a meteor, or a piece of lava, or a piece of basalt. Its original diameter is estimated to have been 30 cm. Besides the Black Stone, built into the western corner of the Ka'ba is less sacred Stone of Good Fortune.

Stones and rocks in Japan were initially seen as symbols of mononoke (supernatural forces which permeate matter and space). Later, an abstract, undifferentiated mononoke was replaced by more definite animistic deities which resided in the stones and rocks. These rock abodes are called iwakura. All over the precinct of the Shrine at Ise are rocks and stones which are venerated as the abodes of deities, such as the subsidiary shrine at the Naiku called Takimatsuri-no-kami. Elsewhere in Japan are many stones and stone arrangements representing the male and female principle, such as the stone circle at Oyu in Akita Prefecture in Northeastern Japan. The emotional attachment to natural stones, originally religion-inspired, has persisted in Japan and is manifest today in the creation of richly symbolic and spiritual stone gardens.

1. Sacredness

2. The Sacred Cave

3. Stones and the Sacred

4. Mountains and the Sacred

5. Trees and the Sacred

6. Water and the Sacred

SACRED PLACES is written and produced by Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe, Professor, Department of Art History, Sweet Briar College, Virginia, 24595 USA





Abu Simbel


Athenian Acropolis

Holy Sepulchre

Dome of the Rock



Shrine at Ise

Bodh Gaya


St. Peter's Basilica

Saudi Arabia

Mosque of Córdoba

Kata Tjuta