Litholarty is no doubt the earliest kind of worship, as the object of idolarty found all of the world seems to have been unwrought stone – such stone was often symbolic of the generative or emblem of the procreative power of nature. Remnants of stone worship can be found all over the world, distributed across the surface of the earth from Carnac to Brittany and beyond. In many cases the stones were aligned or arrange din orderly rows and several field studies have suggested the ancient ‘litholarters’ knew of mathematics and geometry, which may come out in the alignment of the stones. These stones still stand for a great achievement to an ancient, scattered astronomical knowledge.
In the old mysteries each of the four elements corresponded to an analogue with the constitution of the human-being. The old philosophers taught that the rocks, the earth (geology) corresponded to the flesh and bones of the human. The body was everything was linked to the rock.
Stones have played a big part in ancient mythologies, for example in Scandinavia where Ymir’s bones were formed from the stones and cliffs, the -primordial seething clay. And in ancient Hellenic mysteries the rocks were the Great Mother’s bones – Gaia’s bones. In some cases the stones were turned into columns with runic writing, or to the ancient Hindus turned into the lingam and the sakti stones. Then there are the well-known stones of Easter Island, carved into rough human likeness, or the stones of the Khmers in Cambodia, or those sculptured figures in Central America. Litholatry persists also in the Abrahamic traditions, for example with the “rock of refuge” in Christianity, the “rock” of the church of Christ, the stony pillow of Jacob, the sling stone of Kind David, the Moriah rock which was the altar of Solomon’s Temple, the black stone of the Kaaba in Mecca, or the “white stone” in the book of Revelations, and of course probably one of the most famous stones in the Biblical accounts: the stone tablets of the Law. Then there is the Syro-Phoenician sun god to which the stone was sacred to the sun. The mythological reference sets up a scene where the stone gives birth out of itself to the Sun (fire): as a symbol for a foundation of life, it was also symbolized accordingly in the manner of Mercury or Hermes. Then there is the “philosopher’s stone” as the transmutation of the substances of gross ignorance into enlightenment.
There is an entire tabulation of stones and gems corresponding to the planets. The carbuncle, ruby, garnet (and sometimes diamond) are assigned to the Sun. To the Moon is assigned the pearl, selenite or other crystal. Assigned to Saturn was jaspar or onyx. To Jupiter, the emerald, marble or sapphire, and to Mars was assigned the amethyst, lodestone. To Venus was turquoise, beryl, sometimes pearl or emerald. And finally to Mercury was assigned agate, sometimes marble, or chrysolite. Stones or gems are also assigned to the Zodiacal cycle and are popular known as the “birthstones.” Besides the planets and the constellations, also playing its part in universal litholarty are all of the extra-terrestrial incursions – i.e. “rocks from heaven,” meteors, etc. Since the ancient times these were considered either emblems of divine favor or else of divine punishment, and often stones were enshrined as a kind of pact with the gods. There is conjecture that the black stone in Mecca is a meteorite.
I could keep going because there are plenty of good mythology surrounding stones or rocks. It is all about measuring ourselves against that nature beyond us. The raw topographical scale often dwarfs the human, seeming to declare the littleness of the human-being in nature. Mountains were extremely important as they related us back to this common, inorganic origin. Or as Ruskin claimed in Modern Painters, “mountains are the beginning and end of all natural scenery.” Mountains were that thing in which the humans would measure their stature, for example in mountain carving, and when they were carved out into figures came to represent the ultimate colonization of nature by culture.
Thus far I haven’t discussed the Eastern traditions much, so for good measure I’ll toss in the carvings of the Buddha, for example at Ling Ying Su in Fukien Province. In the Taoist tradition there is an almost opposite sentiment regarding the mountain as an edifice in which to measure oneself, to carve, climb or conquer: the peaks were the abode of the Immortals whom in their transcendence dissolve themselves into the breath of chi, and a rich tradition of mountain painting comes down to us to illustrate this travel through the vaporous air. In the East, mountains are brought down as miniature forms in the gardens, compressing the mountainous sacredness, as is so often familiar to us in rock gardens of China and Japan. While in the Chinese tradition the mountain was a staircase to the celestial, a means in which to concentrate on the dissolution of the self, which is actually similar to some of the ascetic Christians who retreated to the mountains as a trial of the spirit.
Litholarty is a fascinating subject. It is not only interesting because of all the ancient commonalities that surface when one begins to dive into the subject, since it is just as relevant today albeit from a different angle. In our age of ‘disenchantment,’ or of the shattering of the ‘scared canopy’ of the old nomos, we ought to re-inscribe myth in order to make sense of it rather than just tossing it out as a bunch of childish stories. Just because it isn’t true in a scientific sense doesn’t mean it doesn’t retain a myriad of truths of the intuitive, artistic, or elemental sense. Obviously, stones don’t have personalities or feelings, but they do have energies – precisely because they are matter, and all matter is energy; why would one think any different with a stone? Maybe early humans gravitated to the stones because they sensed in it a common origin, which is a fundamental fact: that all vegetative and organic biologists come back at some point to the mineral, inorganic substratum. How is it that life can arise from stone? Who knows.