The veneration of sacred stones is one of the most ancient and enduring religious practices.
Mountains have always inspired awe; an arduous and dangerous climb up a mountain is a widespread religious metaphor of celestial ascent. Sacred rocks are small parts of these mountains; from the human temporal perspective they seem eternal. They are thus intended as everlasting memorials silently attesting to human encounters with the divine.
Historians of religion divide the use of sacred stones into four categories, giving them technical names drawn from Celtic terminology.
A single upright stone is known as a "menhir." A circle formed from such standing stones is called a "cromlech," the most famous example being the magnificent Stonehenge in England. Flat stones placed on the top of pairs of upright stones are called "dolmens" and are frequently associated with burials. Finally, memorials formed from large heaps of stones are called "cairns."
Archaeologists and historians have found examples of all of these types of sacred stones in nearly all cultures of the world, from Neolithic times to the present.
Ancient Greek temples often contained a sacred stone called the "omphalos tes ges" — "the navel of the world"— thought to have been the spot of creation. Similar traditions are preserved by the Jews about the "Rock of Foundation" at their temple, which is today found in the Muslim Dome of the Rock.
Many medieval Christians believed this center of the universe was at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, near the sacred rock of Golgotha. Hindu temples often have sacred stones called "lingam," which are reminders of the presence of God.
The Ka'ba — the great Muslim shrine at Mecca — contains the famous Black Stone that is said to have originally been a pure crystal from paradise, turned black by the sins of humankind.
Tibetan pilgrims build cairns at temples and crossroads; at the summit of 16,000-foot-high mountain passes in the Himalayas, huge cairns containing hundreds of thousands of stones have been left by pilgrims over past millennia.
Today, Jews will often leave small pebbles on graves, forming miniature memorial cairns honoring the dead. Not to be outdone by anyone in their devotion to the gods, the Egyptians raised many massive free-standing stone monuments called obelisks — some weighing hundreds of tons and requiring thousands of workers to carve, move and erect.
The Hebrew Bible also contains numerous examples of the use of sacred stones. In Hebrew, a raised freestanding sacred stone is called a "masseba," often translated as "pillar."
Jacob set up a masseba as Rachel's tombstone (Genesis 35:20), and another as a memorial of the covenant he made with Laban (Genesis 31:45-46).
At Bethel, Jacob raised a stone to commemorate his vision of God (Genesis 28:10-22, 35:1-15) on which he poured oil and wine, declaring, "this stone, which I have set up as a pillar (masseba), shall be the house of God."
Joshua raised a masseba as a memorial or "witness" of the covenant made by Israel at the shrine of the Lord by the oak of Shechem (Joshua 24:22-27).
Such massebot were sometimes placed in the temple of Jerusalem and other Israelite shrines and high places; surviving examples have been found by archaeologists at Arad, Lachish, Hazor and Dan. They are simply uncarved upraised stones, a few feet high. It is only a short step from raising such sacred memorial stones to carving that stone into an image of a god and using it as an idol. The Israelite altar at the temple was made of uncarved stones (Exodus 20:25), and was thus in a sense simply a cairn. Israelites also raised circles of standing stones, such as the 12 stones set up by Moses by the altar at Sinai (Exodus 24:3-8) and Joshua's circle of 12 standing stones at Gilgal, the first Israelite shrine in Israel (Joshua 4:19-24).
The sacred stone also frequently appears as a metaphor in the Bible.
God himself is called "the Rock" (Deuteronomy 32:15-43); "for their rock (the god of the Canaanites) is not our rock (the God of Israel)" (Deuteronomy 32:31). God's kingdom is a stone cut without hands (Daniel 2:34). Both Jesus and Peter are called the Rock (Matthew 16:18, 1 Corinthians 10:4), while Christ is the rejected cornerstone (Matthew 21:24).
The concept of the sacred stone thus survives as one of the most enduring metaphors of the holy.