To Lay the Foundation Stone

The tradition of ceremoniously laying a foundation stone or of placing a coin in the foundation of a new building is still customary and is in effect the relic of an age-old protective magical act. This ancient custom derives from the belief that the Earth spirit, on whose territory a building was to be erected, needed appeasing. Originally, human sacrifices, such as children, gypsies, slaves, or outcasts, were dedicated to the Earth spirit and interred alive in the foundations of proposed constructions to influence the denizens of the deep favourably. 

Unbeknown to most people, vague remnants of the fear of angering the Earth spirit, on whose territory a building is to be erected, are still evident when the first sod of earth is dug with a silver spade, the first mortar is laid with a shiny trowel, the foundation stone or the cornerstone of a building is ceremoniously laid, or ribbons – considered to bring luck – mark the start of work or the opening of a building, bridge, or shopping centre. All these traditions stem from ancient rituals and impulses to appease higher forces.

The belief in offending the Earth spirit or the Earth mother is universal. Before the disintegration of traditional customs, the men of African and Amerindian tribes would have no part in mining, tunnelling, or hoeing, lest they anger the Earth mother and, in so doing, invoke drought, disease, and other calamities.33 Smohalla, nineteenth-century native American prophet and chief of the Wanapum tribe of the Columbia River Valley, refused to till the ground as he contended that mutilating and tearing up the Earth, the mother of all, was sinful. He said: ‘You ask me to plough the ground! Shall I take a knife and tear my mother’s bosom? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest’.34 

Similarly, the Celts laid votive offerings at the bottom of shafts, whereas in India, cattle were sacrificed when a new mine was opened, to atone for the forceful penetration of the sacred Earth. Miners in South Africa were reluctant to go into the bowels of the Earth without having made special dedications of coins pushed into crevices underground as substitute offerings to the Earth spirit. 

The same belief is found amongst Australian Aborigines. In Healers of Arnhem Land, John Cawte recounts the story of how a new sanitary system was installed in the Australian town, Turtle Street, in Arnhem Land: ‘The big objection raised by the older men to the Turtle Street project was that their earth was sacred and that you should never dig it deeper than the length of a digging stick, as the underground world must be left undisturbed’.35 

Contrary to popular opinion, the idea of appeasing the Earth spirit was by no means confined to paganism. Legend has it that the Irish missionary, St. Columba (521–597 CE), founder of Iona, found it necessary to bury St. Onan alive beneath the foundation of his new abbey to propitiate the spirits of the soil. The monks firmly believed that these spirits, unless suitably appeased, demolished at night what had been built during the day. Accounts of skeletons immured in old churches, buildings, bridges, and dykes, usually only discovered many decades later during restoration or demolition, are documented from around Europe. The survival of this custom in Christian times is suggested by discoveries of skeletons in the foundations of old churches. An example is at Darrington, Yorkshire, when it was found in 1895 that the church walls were resting on a human skull. If popular legend is to be believed, the bridge at Arta, Italy, kept collapsing until a human victim was immured in the foundations. This does however give a new and quite literal meaning to the saying that ‘someone has a skeleton in the cupboard’. In later times, animals and precious objects replaced human sacrifices. 


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