Week Two: Horizons of Order
The placing of the cornerstone of a building exemplifies the idea of a ritual re-enactment of a myth while also speaking about the laying out of an order.
Mircea Eliade, who touches upon these ideas when speaking of archaic man, states that “an object or act becomes real only insofar as it imitates or repeats an archetype.” The cornerstone itself has no value, but acquires its significance through participation in repetitive myth-making. As Eliade states “among countless stones, one stone becomes sacred.”
Cornerstone rites are prevalent in many cultures. In the 1920s scholar Sinclair Stevenson recounted such a ceremony in India:
“Before a single stone can be laid, another ceremony has to be performed. The astrologer shows what spot in the foundation is exactly above the head of the snake that supports the world. The mason fashions a little wooden peg from the wood of the Khadira tree, and with a coco-nut drives the peg into the ground at this particular spot, in such a way as to peg the head of the snake securely down. This seems a tactless thing to do, but the reason given is that the snake has a tiresome habit of shaking its head and so causing earthquakes and wrecking houses (even a tiny shake knocks a house down), but this peg keeps it and the house firm.”
Sir James Frazer spoke of a ritual in Greece alive in the 1950s:
“In modern Greece, when the foundation of a new building is being laid, it is the custom to kill a cock, a ram, or a lamb, and to let its blood flow on the foundation-stone, under which the animal is afterwards buried. The object of the sacrifice is to give strength and stability to the building. But sometimes, instead of killing an animal, the builder entices a man to the foundation-stone, secretly measures his body, or a part of it, or his shadow, and buries the measure under the foundation-stone; or he lays the foundation-stone upon the man’s shadow.”
Referring to a cornerstone ceremony of your own research, please elaborate on what the rite articulates. What significance could the laying of such a cornerstone hold for us today?