Stone Cairns

I wrote the basis of this post some time ago, after a discussion on how stone cairns are used in modern praxis. I have gone on to expand it with some modern thoughts and observation that have occurred to me recently.

History of Cairns
Stone Cairns are a collection of stones, gathered together and erected into a pile, usually taking the form of a pyramid/cone but also appear as long monuments in prominent locations. In history they are serve as landmarks for both a spiritual and mundane purposes, such as a method of navigation or as a visible indication that it is a special site. In truth they are still constructed for these very reasons, for example on  Bossington Hill.

In modern and ancient times Cairns are used to mark trails and paths through the wilderness and would be built along road sides and cross roads as well as holy places. In Greece cairns erected as part of navigation but were also dedicated to the messenger God Hermes.

Hermes is credited in legend with causing the first cairn to be created, by winning a dispute against the goddess Hera. The God’s threw stones at the individual they believed to be most persuasive in their argument. The quick tongued Hermes won, and as a result was practically buried under the thrown stones. When Greek travellers came across a cairn they would add a stone of their own to the mound as a petition to the God of Travellers to ease their journey both in terms of discomfort and potential danger.

There is still a tradition of adding stones to cairns that continues however it is for the more prosaic cause of ensuring that cairns remain visible and can represent a double edged sword as unwitting hikers use stones from other ancient monuments in creating new ones new ones.

In British archaeological tradition Cairns were used to mark burials in the Neolithic period (c. 4000 to 2500 BCE). A central chamber was constructed as a house of the dead and stones collected and placed to form a large and imposing monument.
These cairns are, of course, much larger than directional cairns and represent an imposing statement in the landscape. Mutiny Stones located in the Scottish Borders is a massive 85 meters long and 7.5 meters wide although it is likely that it was significantly bigger before being partially dismantled in the search for building stone by later inhabitants of the area.

Cairns represent visible markers and boundaries to territories as the inhabitants of Britain had transitioned from a hunter/gatherer lifestyle to settled farming.  They are a statement of belonging within the landscape, often marking boundaries between one group of people and another. Its also important to note that cairns and other monumental building projects within the Neolithic period indicate that not only did people have the time, afforded to them by farming, to complete these massive building works but that there was someone significantly in charge, organising the greater population. 

Cairns, and other Neolithic burial traditions, represent early forms of ancestor worship, establishing an ancestral right to the land which had been less important to Palaeolithic or Mesolithic man. It is likely that the cairns were a place in which ancestor worship took place, especially during times of danger and distress, or on important days. One can quite easily imagine a farmer visiting the family cairn to add his own stone offering in order to petition his ancestors for protection over his fields and flocks.

As time moved on, and the purpose of the monuments was lost a further supernatural meaning was added to to them. As with other megalithic and monumental constructions their construction became associated with Devils and Giants or known as the home of the fae and witches. They became a place where

Modern Cairns in Paganism
In modern practice the use of cairns centres around both ancestor worship and the creation of liminal spaces as well as protection. Created on your property as a permanent or in nature as a temporary structure, they establish a connection with the land and a space in which to interact with the spirits around us.

The purpose of a cairn can vary or be multiple. For example, a permanent cairn on your property might be dedicated to a particular deity or to the land itself. It could also be used to cover a spell bottle or spell components or even a photograph or belongings of an ancestor. Multiple cairns could be constructed with the purpose of defining a liminal or protective zone. This could be a permanent structure on your land defining its boundaries or marking a ritual space, serving as a focus or station/directional stones.

In nature you should remember to build temporary structures in a responsible way. Don’t disturb ancient monuments or local wildlife if it can be avoided. Such structures should be easy to dismantle either by nature, as in my river side example where the cairns created will be returned to the river next time it was in full spate, or yourself when you leave. If you are lucky enough to be able to return to a given space you may with to hide the cairn stones to reuse later, making it less obvious as to your activities.


Two temporary cairns built on a trip to Bolton Abby

The choosing of stones and construct of the cairn can be a ritual in itself, and should be done with carefully consideration.  As well as making sure that you are taking stones responsibly you are looking for stones that are visually pleasing, the number of stones that you choose to use can also have a relationship to the purpose of the cairn.

Making a Cairn
Small Cairns
Identify your three or four stones, ideally with the being relatively flat in shape and of descending sizes. Decide in the order they should be placed and then secure them together using glue or similar bonding material if they are to remain as a permenant marker, ortherwise let gravity hold it together.

Large Cairns
You need a flat, dry location for building the cairn, ideally an area which is not going to be disturbed often or put animals and children at risk in the event you deicde not to use a bonding material. Build the base using large, flat stones in a roughly circular shape to form the base of the cairn, using smaller stones build the cairn up. Focus on the cairns function as you go. If you wish to add anything to the cairn, such as offerings and memories or symbols of the cairns intent, now would be the time to do so. The ideal location for such things would be in amongst the stones that make up the base, you might even consider building a small “chamber” within the centre of the cairn which can be packed with dirt and rubble or corbeled across to form a hollow space. This gives you the option of leaving it unsecured so that you can remove the upper stones to allow access to add or change the contense. The downside is that it might not be 100% waterproof (so wrap in plastic) and it might be less secure against little fingers and pets. If this isn’t practical or doesn’t appeal then you will want to use a bonding material like cement. Build the cairn upto the desired height, bringing in the sides as you travel upwards.

What To Do
The act of gathering the stones can become part of the act of ritual as much as placing and dedicating them. By entering a meditative state you can open yourself to guiding energies to help guide you to the perfect stones. You might wish to invoke a deity/spirit/elemental just before you begin the construction or once it is completed. Personally I would do such a calling before begining contruction if I was building a permenant structure to serve as a monument to the ancestors or boundary marker. If I was mearly using cairns to mark the compass points then I would build them ahead of the ritual and invoke afterwards.

Once the stones are in place you can use the area as you wish within your own praxis. You might want to add plants or ornaments and over time or bring votive offerings.

Some suggested focuses of the cairn might be as as shrine to either deity or the genius locci of the area, a space for ancestor worship, a space for religious devotion, a boundary marker but ultmatly it is a focus for any activity that you would prefer.


About knotmagick

Weaving Magick and Crochet in the madhouse I call home. I am a devotee of Hekate and a follower of Pan.
This entry was posted in Archaeology, History, Magick, Pagan Blog Project and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Stone Cairns

  1. Fascinating, thank you so much for sharing.
    I have built a couple of small cairns for my cats when they passed over the rainbow bridge, one on top of Ben Lawers which is scotland’s 10th highest munroe and one on top of Schiehalion which is one of the most beautiful munroes I have ever climbed, Schiehallion translates from Gaelic to fairy hill and it certainly lives up to its name…

  2. Amy Parmeter says:

    This made me think of my days backpacking in the Yosemite area when I knew small cairns as “ducks” – handy trail markers left so you could make your way across vast and majestic granite mountainsides. Not so mystical, perhaps, but very important!

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