The Sun was the First Traveler, you know. He is still a pilgrim, walking across the turning arch of sky and the broad back of the land. At certain times, he moves within the earth and he knows the secret way between the worlds. Where he stops, he leaves his mark upon the stones.
This will always be so.
Stones are memories. They are the bones of the land, the anchors of myth. They may delineate boundaries; may be fashioned into fetishes, objects of power; or may be carried as reminders of where we have been, protecting us upon our travels. Stones may also be signposts, markers on the land where we perceive enduring emblems of the ancient world. Hundreds, even thousands of years later, we can still see the same surface of the stone that the ancient people saw. Signs left on these stones appear as if they were carved only yesterday, even though a thousand years have flown their shadows across the surface of the rock. Through stones and the signs made upon them, the past speaks and reaches out to us
As physical boundaries, some rocks may be called ‘merestones.’ These stand as markers of property, region, and district. But such stones may also delineate boundaries between this world and the Otherworld.
The carved stone at the entrance to Newgrange in Ireland bears spirals upon it. From a center line, they turn away to the left and to the right. The middle of these opposite-turning spirals aligns with the entrance to the ancient tomb, the place where the Midwinter sun rises on the shortest day of the year. At Newgrange, there are no human figures carved on the stones. They are implicit in the shape of the land, both as the hills and as the spirals themselves. An old story tells of the Irish Sun god entering the mound of Newgrange where he stayed only briefly. When he departed the mound, he was an old man, though he had only been there a few days. The hill is the ancient hag whose body is the path to the Inworld; the spiral is the Sun's map, the trackway where he travels deep into the land. The Hopi (an American Indian tribe of the southwest) know that spiral and circular markings upon the rocks are signatures of the Sun. Sometimes they show the places where the Sun has walked, and sometimes they mark the places where the Sun has gone into the ground.
Ancient women, hags, goddesses, and witches are often closely tied in folklore and such stories frequently are marked by, or take place at a stone-related site. In Oxfordshire, England, the Rollright stone circle was at one time home to a witch. An arrogant nobleman (accompanied by his knights) visited her with the hopes of becoming king of all England and was told by the witch that if he could see the hill of Long Compton (actually, I believe, a barrow mound) in the distance, he would indeed be king. But already we know this was not to be, for of course, Long Compton is not actually visable from the Rollright site. At the moment when the knight realized this, the witch began to sing,
As Long Compton thou canst not see
King of England thou shalt not be.
Now rise up stick and stand still stone
For King of England thou shalt be none.
Thou and thy men Hoar Stones shall be
And I myself an Eldern tree.
And so it was. All of the men were turned into the stones that make up the stone ring of Rollright, and the witch changed into an elder tree who watches over them to this day. Perhaps the rocks are our gift from the witch, warning us against arrogance, or the perils of disturbing an old woman at her business. It may also be a comment about what happens to would-be kings who cannot see or are unconnected with the lineage ancestors of the lands they wish to rule. Either way, the stones endure and so does the story.
But large stones of the land are not the only kind that figure in legend and ceremony. Often small stones, even pebbles, can contain enduring associations with landscape and the power of place. Because of their roles in story and folklore, small stones may become personal or cultural talismans, carrying ancient associations into the present.
Stone arrowheads can be found in every part of the world and though they are no longer used for hunting in most places, they still have traditional uses. They are considered lucky when found on open ground. Medicine People among the Navajo and other American Indian tribes use them for healing and for protection. It is believed that arrowheads still hold part of the power and purpose of their making. Such objects, indeed any worked stone, may send our minds into motion. When you hold one in your hand, you wonder: Who has made this thing? What was the name of its maker? How has it survived so long? Will it bring me luck?
Yet, arrowheads are not always lucky. In English lore, small flaked arrowheads are called ‘elfbolts.’ These are thrown by Faeries at cattle or people and are known to induce paralysis or cause illness or death. In this sense, such objects represent strong warnings from the spirits of the land. These are artifacts of the borderland and speak of places or times where or when people transgressed against the sacred. In the Americas, small flints can also be associated with Little People and mark the boundary between worlds, between village and wilderness.
So stones connect us to the power of place. Holed stones —thought to be lucky when found — can be enchanted in this regard. Called ‘hag stones’ in Britain, such objects are related to Faerie traditionally, perhaps because looking through one we can catch a glimpse of the Faerie realm. But more generally, by seeing in this way, we are looking with the land’s eyes.
Stone artifacts automatically convey the Neolithic into our time. They are often considered sacred because they remind us of the ‘first age,’ the time of story and creation. Their power, whether dangerous or beneficial, is always associative. Among the Blackfeet tribe of Montana, special stones were brought out in times of famine. These ‘iniskim’ were small fossils found in the wilderness. Ages ago, the People were starving and a young woman left her camp to find food. She heard a strange singing and followed the sound to a hollow log. It was a stone that was singing to her. This stone spoke and said that if she kept it safe, and learned to sing its song, it would call the buffalo to the people so that they would not starve. And this is how the iniskim came to be with the people. They learned the song; they keep such stones safely wrapped in buffalo hide. When food is scarce, the iniskim are taken out. The buffalo come.
As part of the land, stones speak of ancient times. We have all heard of creatures . . . giants, dragons, gods, monsters . . . being turned to stone. Indeed, creatures associated with pre-Christian practice often become memory-laden aspects of the landscape. The elder gods are often turned to stone and in this shape, endure, carrying the Ur-time into the present, speaking to those who ask for stories from the land. This kind of transformation is a method of preservation. The articles of faith may change down the centuries, but the stones endure. We see a circle of stones, and we begin to ask questions. The story in the stones begins again to be told. Imagination applied in this way, to objects that endure and weather well, is the birth of story. Even small stones may play a part in this process.
Imagine a simple stone. Perhaps you found this by the shore, or on a path deep in the wood. We have all picked up stones. Much worn and polished by handling over the years, such stones could be almost anything. From one side, it looks like a bear, yet it has not been carved. Or perhaps it has another form, that only you can see and imagine. What story does the simple stone tell? Where did it come from? Isn’t it like the shapes your mind has seen in stories? Why do we keep such things? Perhaps they keep us.
So we pick up pebbles and carry them in our pockets: a pilgrim’s talisman, a charm for traveling. Like the Sun, we leave our marks upon the stones as reminders to those who will follow. Thus we follow ancient roads, though brief are our travels. We barely exist. But we leave our marks upon the land, signatures of our pilgrim's path. The signs and the stones, these alone endure.
A Traveling Song
At dusk we'll stand together
On the weathered plain
Shadows making impression
Upon ancient ground
These words and deeds are carved
On the banded stone
Our spirits already there
In the Faraway
About the Author: Dr. Ari Berk is a writer, visual artist, folklorist/mythologist, screenwriter, and film consultant. His publications have included works on myth and ancient cultures, as well as popular books for both children and adults. Ari’s most recent titles are Death Watch, Mistle Child and Lych Way (The Undertaken Trilogy) which the School Library Journal called "reminiscent of the classic gothic works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Shirley Jackson"; Nightsong (illustrated by Loren Long); The Secret History of Giants (winner of a NCTE Notable Award), The Secret History of Mermaids, and The Secret History of Hobgoblins. Ari holds degrees in Ancient History and American Indian Studies, as well as a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Culture. He has studied at Oxford University in England and, at the University of Arizona, was mentored by Pulitzer Prize-winning Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday. He currently sits on the advisory board of the Mythic Imagination Institute (Atlanta, Georgia). Ari and his wife, Renaissance scholar Dr. Kristen McDermott, currently live at the edge of a wood in the heart of Michigan. They are both professors in the English department at Central Michigan University. Visit him on the web at: www.AriBerk.com
This article and the poem, "A Traveling Song," are copyright © 2000 by Ari Berk. They may not be reproduced elsewhere on the Web, rewritten, or distributed in any other form without permission from the author. Photograph "Scorhill, an ancient stone circle on Dartmoor" © Peter Brough