“Here is a stone which the feet of a few outcasts pressed for an instant; and the stone becomes famous; it is treasured by a great nation; its very dust is shared as a relic.” -Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835
“Standing on this rock, therefore, we may fancy a magic power ushering us into the presence of our fathers.”-James Thacher, History of the Town of Plymouth, 1835
It’s clear Plymouth Rock signifies much more than the rock itself. Like the body of a saint, fragments are venerated and tiny pieces distributed far and wide. Over the course of 400 years the rock went from a 200 ton boulder to a five-by-six-foot rounded fragment, which is now enshrined in what looks like a Roman temple. “A monument to racism and oppression,” according to indigenous activists today. On the first National Day of Mourning in 1970, American Indians buried Plymouth Rock. They did it again in 1995.
I wonder if the unimpressive stone enshrined at Plymouth has the same sort of aura as the holy stones in Japan. They are both housed in temples that resemble the architecture of the old world; both gather people around them during important times of the year; both hold place and reason for gathering and celebrating, or for not celebrating.
Of course the history connected to the rock at Plymouth makes it different from the Shinto stones in Japan. And yet, one aspect remains roughly the same. While we are locked into history, they are not. Stones and boulders connote deep time, immovable forces, silence, and indifference, and thus they become perfect receptacles for our dreams of transcendence.
Romancing the Stone
When I first heard the Tibetan creation story of a monkey making love with a rock-spirit to produce the human race, I was a little disappointed. It was so hard to imagine. But then I considered the myth as a ‘compression of time,’ as a picture of a transformation that took millions of years, and suddenly the Tibetan version of genesis made perfect sense.
In the beginning was not the word, but the stone. Humans are first and foremost stone-animal hybrids. Darwin proposed that before we could talk, stones shaped our hands, and McLuhan would repeat: “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.” The primitive holding and throwing of a stone (what Peter Sloterdijk calls “lithotechnics”) is considered the momentous leap — cue music from Kubric’s 2001 — just a few tosses away from the launching of a space station. “Becoming human,” Sloterdijk writes, “happens under the protection of lithotechnics.” Sloterdijk also points out that the “opening” or “clearing” of subjective experience — Heidegger’s ‘place where Being arises’ — is initially “a work of stones.”
Stone tools are supposed to separate us from our primate cousins, but I don’t know anymore. Chimpanzees in West Africa have been spotted banging and throwing rocks against trees and throwing them into gaps inside, leading to piles of rocks. Those rocks do not appear to be for any functional purpose. For humans, stone piles have symbolized a wide variety of things, such as burials and sacred shrines. These are often among the earliest examples of religious behavior, and so the chimpanzee behavior could represent a similar instinct.
Rock Hard Religion
The great stone in the center of all our lives, the iron core, provides our atmosphere, and her flinty stone children provide our fire. Stones are also central to our religious narratives. A quick survey of the world’s major faiths finds a common fixation on special rocks. For example, there is the “baetyl” or holy rock-pillow from which Jacob in the Bible received his dream-vision of a tiered universe populated by angels. There is the Black Stone, Al Haja al Aswad, “the Right Hand of God,” enshrined at the Kaaba or “Cube” in Mecca. It’s encased in a silver vulva so the stone looks like the crowning head of a newborn, ready to be kissed. The Cube is its mother, shrouded in black.
We hear from the Bible again and again that God is “a rock.” Is this a metaphor? The “Stone of the Anointing” at Calvary in Jerusalem, where Jesus’s dead body was bathed, is another example of an important stone at the center of a major faith.
Some stones are sacred because they were at one time ancestors or angels. Rainbow Bridge, according to Navajo stories, is two ‘holy people’ who were frozen the moment they joined together. Maybe these spirits are just moving in deep time and we can only perceive them as ‘frozen.’
I am reminded of rock giants like Yayali (Miwak), Nunyunuwi (Cherokee), or even the Biblical Nephilim who are depicted in Darren Aronofski’s film Noah (2014) as literal rock monsters. It turns out, with our rock-hard bones and minerals in our blood, we are the rock giants — angels who dove head-first into the earth and got trapped in its materiality.
California charmstones and Oregon henwas are said to be able to move around by themselves. The former look like glans, while the latter look like goddesses — the mounds at the top may be bilobed coifs, and the tiny protuberances are described as “breasts.” Evidently, these were once free living spirits but were transformed “when Crow laughed at them.”
Crystals are also revered in many cultures. They are associated with teeth, bones, shells, and in some cases, semen. Amazonian quartz is petrified semen from the gods; red pipestone is believed to be petrified buffalo blood; and red ochre is petrified menstrual blood of some deity. There is an indigenous American belief that the sky is a humongous, living crystal firmament filled with the glittering sparkle of stars, and when we look down at the crystal in our hands, we see miniature suns inside. Gemstones appear to emit light from tiny nebulas frozen in deep time. Religious stones and icons like talismans vary in size, and when they get really small they can become magic amulets worn on the body. Mixed with ancient beliefs that stones are alive and can grow, the small rocks resonate with their larger counterparts, seen or unseen. In the American Southwest, turquoise was also thought to be alive, and interestingly it’s the only mineral able to change its color depending on the environment. It also appears on Aaron’s Breastplate of Judgement which was used to communicate with God.
Gold nuggets aren’t “precious stones;” they’re miniature suns, and pearls are miniature moons. There is a logic of correspondence and resulting sympathetic magic that turns small stones into cosmic interfaces. Faeries, Jinn and other trickster elementals may be living in the crystals of our computers and cellphones, while older spirits live in the minerals of our bones. Water nymphs are alive in our blood, and fiery angels dance in the burning oil of our brains.
There is a geology of media and of transcendence. Even our etherial wifi is supported by stone and mineral satellites and servers — the stones in the cloud. In the same way, our “out of body experiences” always depend on having a body.
We also turn to stone. Human life can be characterized as a process of ‘hardening,’ so that death and its associated rituals transform soft, moist flesh into hard, dry bone, and ephemeral wood houses turn into permanent stone tombs for the ancestors. We are infected with what alchemists describe as a ‘hardening spirit.’
Stones become sacred for a variety of reasons. In some cultures, the value of the stone is related as much to the journey that was made to acquire it as to its physical qualities. Long distances and hardships help someone gain esoteric knowledge, and the stone or mineral from that place may be the proof that such a journey had actually taken place.
No stone unturned
Likewise, a stone can act as a mnemonic device for that trip to the beach or mountain. It can be a reminder of the person from whom it was gifted (see the tear-jerking film Departures). Stones, like other seemingly inert material objects, “speak” to us through the memories we attribute to them. They are exograms, or what Michel Serres calls “message-bearing systems” and “angels.” Our skilled use of such crafted stones or message-bearers gave us our ‘extended brain,’ which means we could create and support ideas and memories beyond those of creatures restricted to the brain’s biological memories or ‘engrams’ alone.
Serres: “Because our universe is organized around message-bearing systems, and because, as message-bearers, they are more numerous, complex and sophisticated than Hermes, who was only one person, and a cheat and a thief to boot…Each Angel is a bearer of one or more relationships; today they exist in myriad forms, and every day we invent billions of new ones.”
Keith Basso, in Wisdom Sits in Places, studied Apache sacred boulders and found that, although the stone outcroppings were ‘alive,’ they functioned primarily as ‘mnemonic pegs’ onto which moral stories are hung. Moreover, these sacred places are named in the ancient language, and the names are descriptive pictures, so hearing the name is also seeing the place and connecting with the ancestors. Furthermore, the names of the places are used like mantras or “mind-protectors:” reciting them ensures an ethical life. Basso interviewed Apache convicts who feel that they lost their way because they forgot the names of the large stones in the landscape.
In the science fiction story Three Body Problem, the future humans with unlimited technology decide that writing in stone is actually the best way to communicate a message across time. Go figure. Stones in general act as a stable, material substrate used for the transmission of culture: Plymouth Rock is enshrined like a goddess; Standing Rock is a woman who turned into stone and may one day turn back; Henwas are spirits that have been cursed to be stones but may one day return to their faerie bodies; and the rock ogress in the Tibetan emergence story is angry and ugly because she, too, is living out her negative karma. Thank God Avalokiteshvara told monkey to “marry her already!”