Rock Stars

Famous Boulders From Around The World

David Titterington
6 min readMay 24, 2023
Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) to assess the condition of the Sacred Red Rock Iⁿ zhúje waxóbe in Kansas.

People form intimate relationships with boulders. Like caves, boulders are a big deal in our collective unconscious. Archaeologist Christopher Tilley (2004) argues that our prehistoric identities were created for the most part near irregular stone outcroppings in the landscape. These stones were considered ancestors, gods, social sites, and landmarks — pegs and attractors within our cognitive maps of the world. Viewing boulders was an important process by which we could tap into ancestral powers at specific locations, and they helped us anchor identity in those powers and locations.

We also love climbing on top of them! Researchers in the field of spatial psychology propose Prospect-Refuge theory (Appleton, 1975; Dosen and Ostwald, 2016) suggesting humans evolved to seek out higher and safer vantage points. Alas, bouldering and a child’s path up a boulder or a tree was laid down by millions of years of hunter-gatherer instinct.

Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places looks into Western Apache boulders that tell important stories and keep people connected to their ancestral languages. Louis and Pearce, in Mainstreaming Indigenous Geographies (2008), point out how, in general, Indigenous cultural knowledge is “processual, situated, and incorporated into the landscape through place names and stories expressed in the meanings, connections, and interrelationships of those place names.”

We humans also seek out landforms with physical characteristics that support certain psychological dimensions. A boulder’s silence, indifference, and durability make it a perfect receptacle for our dreams of transcendence.

Stones command change. God in the Bible is called “a rock” many times. Is this just a metaphor? The Black Stone in Mecca is the “right hand of God.” (It’s a meteorite who fell into Eden to be the first altar, according to Abrahamic myth-histories. The first family smuggled it out before the garden was lost. Muslims call it Hajal al Aswad and keep it enshrined in a silver frame at the large black Kaaba or “Cube.” Muhammad evidently touched the stone, and so kissing it is by extension kissing his hand.) Christians have a similar Stone of Anointing where Jesus’s dead naked body was bathed and prepared for burial. It is customary for pilgrims to kiss the stone and rub it with oil.

Sessho-seki before it cracked open.
Ishigami, Viewing stone, and allegorical stones in a Buddhist rock garden in Kyoto.

In some stories, a boulder is a site for killing things. I’m thinking of Season 3 of Twin Peaks, and the Biblical Binding of Isaac, where Abraham takes his son to die atop a large stone on Mount Moriah. In Japan, there are large Iwakura or Ishigami “Stone Gods,” not to be confused with shape-shifting tanuki, foxes, or trolls like the ones we see in Disney’s Frozen who can roll into a ball to resemble a rock. Ishigami are places where a god can dwell, and not every stone hosts a god. Some Ishigami are dangerous: The Sessho-seki is a stone containing a “nine-tailed fox” said to kill anyone who comes into contact with it. The most famous of these recently made the news by cracking open on March 5th, 2022!!!

Japan has a strange relationship with boulders. They are featured culturally as garden sculpture, as in Zen rock gardens. Boulders are mini-mountains, and small ones are framed like bonsai trees and placed onto tables, turning an office into a mountain top. It’s an innovation on the potted plant. Some stones, suiseki, aka water stones, viewing stones, and “scholars rocks” are used like inkblot tests to encourage altered perspectives and stabilize meditation. They can also be good luck. This kind of art-stone plays an enigmatic role in the film Parasite (2019).

There are other famous boulders like the Stone of Scone, The Blarney Stone, the mythical Excalibur’s stone who releases the sword only when the king is worthy. Stones can be psychic, like the Biblical Stone of Jacob who gives him the famous dream of a tiered universe populated with angels. This stone was then anointed with oil and consecrated like a king.

Some boulders, like the glittering Sacred Red Rock Iⁿ‘zhúje‘waxóbe in Kansas, look out of place because they’re glacially transported erratics. These become the center of local legends and important sites for cultural transmission. Some of these erratics have soft edges because they’re buffalo rubbing stones. Indigenous stories abound of boulders who were once giants, monsters, gods, even human people who turned into stone and may one day turn back, such as the Lakota Standing Rock, the Paiute Stone Mother, and the Navajo Shiprock.

Celtic landscapes are likewise filled with magic boulders, like Lia Fáil, a coronation stone that was said to scream when a true king sits upon it. Other legends say it screams only when a false king sits upon it. There is the great Cat Stone aka Stone of Divisions near Ireland’s geological center, on the Hill of Uisneach, that marks where the goddess Éire (Ireland’s namesake) is buried.

Plymouth Rock.

“Standing on this rock, therefore, we may fancy a magic power ushering us into the presence of our fathers” said Plymouth historian James Thacher. In U.S. settler myth histories, the most famous rock star is probably Plymouth Rock, where English Pilgrims first landed around 1620. Originally, this boulder was humongous, the size of a train car, but like the body of a Catholic saint, fragments were carved off, venerated and distributed far and wide. “Its very dust is shared as a relic,” says Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835. Over the course of 400 years, it went from a 200-ton boulder to a five-by-six-foot rounded fragment with numbers carved into it. Indigenous American activists sometimes bury Plymouth Rock, as it is also “a monument to murder, slavery, theft, racism and oppression.”

Boulders are generally perceived as inert and lifeless, but some Indigenous worldviews see them as alive, even accountable. I love Jimmie Durham’s artwork because he makes it easy to see how boulders have active power. Durham likes to paint faces onto boulders and drop them from cranes onto undercover cop cars as sort of anti-art inverted monuments.

Jimmie Durham — Still Life With Spirit and Xitle, 2007, boulder from Xitle (Shiitle) “Spirit” Volcano, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C.

A boulder can resemble a fictional character who is part of your identity, and the community will tell stories and even paint the rock to resemble the character, as we see in Finland with the stone known as Oulu painted as The Groke. What the Finnish hockey fans are doing to Oulu isn’t at all comparable to what the Kansa are doing with Iⁿ‘zhúje‘waxóbe or what the Japanese are doing with Ishigami, but what is something that they all have in common?

Oulu stone painted to resemble the fictional character The Groke, celebrating Finnish World Cup victories.

It’s not a boulder, but the government of New Zealand recently granted the Whanganui River the status of a legal person with rights and responsibilities. Alas, rivers, boulders, and other features of the landscape can be approached as other-than-human people. Anishinaabe scholar Melissa Nelson points out in Getting Dirty that there is an entire genre of Indigenous North American oral stories about intimate relationships humans have with other-than-human entities like rivers, bears, and boulders. Is there a rock star you want to get to know better? Is there one you’ve already developed an intimate relationship with? Tell us about it!