I think its important that, as druids, we work to build sacred spaces within the landscape. Yes, many would say that all land is sacred, and I’ll not disagree. But at the same time, there’s quite a difference between a parking lot or a strip of land between two segments or highway and a quiet forest glade or a stone circle set upon a hillside overlooking a river. Whether in your own home garden, in a corner of a local park, or in the forest behind your workplace, you can build and maintain small sacred spaces that can provide peace, restorative energy to you and the land, demonstrate reverence and respect. In my own property and in other wild places I visit, I’ve been working to build small natural sacred spaces and wanted to share my experiences and insight.
This post is meant to be the first in a series; I will detail other building techniques in the next few months. Some of these will include a set of smaller projects that you can undertake in as little as 10 minutes or larger projects which may take days, weeks, months, or years to complete.
Stone Cairns / Stone Balancing / Stone Stacking
The first “Sacred Space” building technique that you can use is building stone cairns, also known as stone stacking, stone building, or stone balancing.
The art of balancing stones has origins in many cultures. In many parts of Asia, stones are balanced and stacked as a sign of prayer and meditation. In North America, native Americans used stone cairns to watch over animals and forests while humans were not present. As druids, we often meet among stacked stones (such as the OBOD events at Stonehenge each year) or in stone circles. I see stone balancing as a kind of natural poetry–an aesthetic that is difficult to put into words. When we balance stones, we connect the depths of our souls to the depths of the earth and create something of beauty and harmony. What do the stacked stones convey? Ask them, and you may find out.
Stone balancing is a very simple, yet profound activity. Stone balancing allows you, at its core, to connect with the ancient energies of the earth. As you stack stones, you can enter a deep communion with the land, a kind of movement meditation. You might begin stone balancing by simply seeing how stone A stacks upon stone B and stone B stacks upon stone C. Try these kinds of stacks for a while, and once you get the hang of simple stacking, you might want to try more complex stone stacking, where stone C depends upon both A and B, or where B and C need each other to sit atop A.
When I started stone balancing, I made stone stacks very simply with the larger, round stones found so commonly in south-east Michigan. I have several active stone stacks in my yard which I maintain–these simple stacks of rounded stones would fall over each time the weather changed by more than 20 or 30 degrees. But over time, I started adding complexity to my stone stacks–when small pebbles were added between the larger stones, I created a more solid structure that can withstand the changing seasons, wind and rain.
I also began experimenting with different kinds of stacks and designs, such as the design I’ll call “Thor’s gate” and the “Yggdrasil” designs in the photos. When I went to Western PA (which is where I grew up), I found that the rocks there were much more conducive to stone building–nice, flat rocks allowed me to stack in many different patterns. Most of the cairns I am posting on this blog are from PA, where the stones love to be stacked!
When you are working, its important to pick out a good site to begin. Something that is firm for a base (a stump, a stone in the ground, a bit of flat earth with the leaves cleared away). You should also start with an ample supply of good stones in the area (for the reason, building stone cairns nearby or in rivers/streams is an excellent activity). As you are working, let the shape of the stones determine how you work with them–they will speak to you and the stone building will just flow.
I have found stone balancing to be a wonderful activity for both my own property and for visiting natural areas and leaving a tribute. In my own property, I build them in different parts of the property as altars/shrines. For example, a stone cairn I maintain every day is my “Shrine to the Fallen” which sits on top of a white pine tree stump from a tree that was cut before we moved here. This shrine, aptly named, reminds me each day of the ongoing struggle our planet and our lands face; the trees cut in the name of “human progress” and the species threatened with extinction. In addition to the stones, I add symbols of rebirth and renewal such as pine cones and evergreen boughs to this shrine. A second stone cairn is a set of numerous stone stacks near a large oak and series of smaller sassafras trees, which I also maintain daily as a “Reverence to the Land” shrine. This shrine is where I might leave some seeds or pumpkin cakes as a “thank you” to the earth which provides all.
A second activity involves building stone cairns on public land where I am visiting: state parks, local township parks, along city walking paths, etc. Make sure you aren’t disrupting local wildlife with your stone building. I have some stone cairns that I return to often or once a year, and some that I build and never come back to again. Sometimes, I have found that if you build an impressive enough and visible enough cairn, others may add to your stone cairn or build others around it, creating a kind of shared poetry.
I have found great joy in building stone cairns in streams or along riverbeds. Recognize that spring rains and swollen rivers will eventually wash your cairns away; however, there is something inherently magical in seeing a stone cairn sitting in the middle of a tranquil brook.
Stones as Shared Poetry
The photo to the right and below was a small stone cairn I built while exploring the forest with a group of three other women. While none of them were druids like myself, all were spiritually aware and respectful of the land. When I finished building the cairn, I asked each of them how the stone cairn spoke to them; if they had happened upon it in the forest, what would it say to them? Here are their responses:
- If I had come upon this stone cairn without knowing it was built by human hands, I would have thought that it rose up from the earth on its own. The earth had built it just to communicate with me.
- I go hiking often, and many trails have these cairns as markers. So I see this cairn as something that helps guide you along your way.
- I see it as a place for the energies of the forest to converge. A focus point. I also see it where the water and the earth meet.
My own intention was that the cairn was built to revere and respect the land. But the beauty of the stone cairn is that it allows for many kinds of interpretation and communion with the natural world.
I hope that you will be inspired to post your own stone cairns! And if so, please post in the comments and share some of your work and experiences.
Beautiful stone shrine! I’d love to make one this spring.
Lovely and inspiring.
Lovely and inspiring. I love finding cairns when I am walking on desert paths, too.
Thank you so much for your nice comment! I bet the carins would be wonderful to find in the desert! I spent some time in Arizona with friends hiking. It was such a very different landscape than the one I am attuned with here!
Are any of the stacks along the Huron by the New Center your creations?
I haven’t staked any stones along the Huron river (yet!) But if you go to some of the other South-Eastern Michigan area parks, you might find some in Independence Oaks, Bay City State Recreation Area, Highland State Recreation area… 🙂
I thought you’d like to know how destructive moving river rocks can be to the lives of fish, newts, and insect, among others. I have no fight to pick, only want to help protect the wildlife just like you ^w^
Yeah, I agree. I wrote this almost 10 years ago, long before there was a lot of consciousness raised on this issue. Thanks for pointing it out!
Reblogged this on The Asatru Community and commented:
I was researching ways in which to honor the Vaettir and the land, I asked the community, and one of our members brought up stone stacking. In my adventures I have seen some stacked stones, but never really knew what they were for or why they were there. So, knowing me I did some research and came upon this post. Yes some of you might say “but that pertains to Druidry and not Asatru.” Yes and no. As with most ancient pagan belief systems, there are many similarities in thought and practice. This is no different! I agree with all that I read in this post and think the values of Asatru are very similar if not the same! So I hope you learn something, I know that j sure did and from this point on will be stone stacking in order to honor the spirits of the land, as well as the land itself.
Hi Seth, I think you are right in that all of the earth-based, pagan belief systems share some core values–like honoring the land! I’m glad you felt the post was helpful. I would be very interested in knowing how you might adapt this to your Asatru practice :).
The Norse version of this is called a horg, or in Old Norse hörgr with two dots on the o. Those are the stones made glossy by libations poured by Ottar to Freya in the lay of Hyndla, and in the Voluspa where the Aesir raised hörgr and hof — usually translated as shrines/altars and temples. But it means a pile of stones. Check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H%C3%B6rgr
Now, I don’t know exactly how the ancients built their horgs. Maybe they were all pretty flat stones balanced like Dana’s here. But I doubt it. The point was to pile some stones and pour offerings on them, either blood or booze. High cairns aren’t exactly practical for that purpose. I’ll tell you how I make mine. But first…
I have a medicinal herb garden dedicated to Gerda, goddess of enclosed gardens and bride of Frey. I dug up a lot of rocks to make this garden, so I wouldn’t be battling rocks every time I needed to pull up a root. I used those rocks to make a wall around the garden. She really does insist that it be enclosed in some way. Previously, I had a balcony garden in the city, and the railing was good enough for her. Now for the design, I created planting beds and paths such that it makes a Nine Men’s Morris game board. That was a popular viking game, and it makes a nice mandala open to the four directions. Each direction has plants related to it, such as stimulants in the south.
When I planted an Oak to Thor, I had to dig a hole. In digging that hole, I had to pull out a large flat stone, and many smaller stones. The flat stone became an altar, raised on a few bigger stones. The small stones got piled into a horg on the side. There we poured offerings of red ale and Red Bull. The stones got shiny. There was a thunderstorm the next day. It was good. 🙂
I planted a hazelnut for each of the three gatekeepers (I keep that term from my days running a Norse ADF grove). Hazels are the trees of boundaries. They’re used for fencing, but law assemblies had hazel rods in the ground with a rope running on top to make the enclosure. Hazels were pegs for the ground tarp in trials by dual. They’re the tree of liminal space.
I really just wanted one for Syn, but you need three hazels for them to cross-pollinated and bear fruit, so I planted one to Heimdall and Mordgud too. Syn got an altar. Heimdall got a horg. Mordgud got an altar and a small horg. Those are the stones that I had to move out of the holes to plant the trees. It’s all very practical. You can theorize all you want, but sometimes it just makes sense in the doing of it.
One more thing about horgs. This is an insight from devotions to Snotra, goddess of wisdom and hospitality. The pile represents elevation. But it’s communal elevation. Private horgs like mine stay small, but for community ones, people bring a stone to add to the pile at rites. So it grows, and becomes a mound. The mound becomes a gateway to the spirit world. Given time, it may become a hill or mountain. You ascend it and put another stone on top, making it a tad higher with your offering. Imagine generations of people doing this. Make of that vision what you will. It doesn’t have to be piled fancy to be holy.
By the way, nice blog Dana 🙂
Thank you, Linda! I love the description of what you are doing, how you worked with the stones you pulled out, the libations, the intentional design. Would you have photos to share, by chance? (If you are willing and the spirits/gods allow).
Hi Dana! My reply was as much to introduce myself to you as it was an answer to willowcrow, because I think your blog is cool. I looked for a post to say hello on, and this one fit the bill. 🙂
There isn’t much that’s taboo in my work, aside from a few things with the Alfar, but I don’t know how to put pics in a reply. I don’t think I’ve posted much about that on my own blog, it’s mostly dedicated to writing stories for the Ladies of Frigga’s court. I’ve got some on my Facebook. I suppose I should make a post about shrines and put a bunch of pictures. Or you can add me on Facebook!
One issue with pics of my garden is that the pattern is hard to see. It’s not a tidy English garden, it looks more like a vacant lot. I don’t have time to weed it much during the summer with all the festivals I go to. When I clean up a spot, I lay down hay to hold moisture and eventually become compost. If I don’t have time, I let the grass grow. My plants do fine among the grass. If it gets too tall, I take my hand scythe to quickly reduce it and put it down on top as mulch. I only started that garden last summer, so I’m using my time mostly to add new medicinals. This summer I also planted tree shrines as mentioned above, started clearing some of the forest and adding plants for a shade garden, and planted annuals in the new Disir garden shrine honoring my female ancestors (some heritage peas, oats,…). Gerda’s garden is almost all perennials that can survive without my fussing over them. If they can’t survive without watering, they don’t make the cut. I also devote a lot of time to trying to control the Wild Parsnip invasion. She’s a mighty warrior queen, intent on protecting weaker plants by growing on the edges humans mow down, but she gets carried away and ends up replacing them. A worthy foe, but it’s exhausting.
Mostly, I let the garden weeds grow because there’s hardly anything I can’t use. So instead of clearing a spot, I’ll go harvest all the cinquefoil growing wild as it flowers. Soon I’ll be getting the dandelion roots I intentionally didn’t weed out. I loathe pulling out plants when I’m not ready to process them. They’re all good. So I let the Mugwort grow, she’s an ally I use as a smudge stick for all my rites. Until it’s time to go all Viking Pirate on their asses. Then I HARRRvest them! ARR! There be gold in them weeds! 😀
Excellent post on cairns. I wonder how the local state park would feel if I started erecting some? I don’t have any land to call my own yet and I don’t think it would quite soon the living room..
I go to state parks fairly often and erect them. I usually find out-of-the way spaces, like way off of paths, near small streams, etc. Since I feel that it is an act of honoring the land, I see it as a positive benefit to the forest :).
That sounds excellent to me! I might just pay a visit to the local park tomorrow morning…
I would build one in my living room or bedroom. The energy of stones is powerful. I am always bringing the outdoors indoors and I never grow tired of colours and patterns or textures. But I feel its important to leave an offering as thanks for anything we take from the earth whether building altars or shrines inside or outside. A gift is never ours until we’ve said thankyou. 🙂
I am a beginner Druid. I previously lived in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. One day while stopping by the roadside and entering a little way into bushland to look at the river, I happened upon stones stacked upon each other. Instinctively I felt they were put there as some kind of offering to earth or perhaps the builder had meant them to be a god. Either way I felt the presence of something serene and friendly in the stones. I was touched that somebody had created it and left it for me to find. Now I know it was a stone cairn and I want to build one or many. Thankyou so much for this article. Bright blessings on its author.
Janet – thanks for your comment! Go forth, be inspired and build lots of cairns! 🙂
Someone has started building rock carins in Highland rec….
I have NO idea who that migt be…wink wink!
You have given me a new perspective on the rock balancing that I have been doing. Thank you. And just in time for the Spring Equinox tomorrow! I love how that happens. 🙂
Starting a “sacred spaces” non-profit construction company to build these types of items. Would LOVE to connect with people/creators for opportunities to co create. Current working in Seattle WA and Just getting started. I do have 4 years as a general contractor with experience in building and landscaping!!!! Super excited to bring forth the divine!!! Thanks you and reach out to me
Sounds awesome! I can’t wait to hear more about your new company and project!?
Sounds awesome! I can’t wait to hear more about your new company and project!
Hi from Mexico! My soul is moved by your work…what you put in it…
I had 4 beautiful old trees in my garden that fell down during a storm last year. After a year of grief it suddenly came upon me the idea to build a sacred garden so their death led to a new birth. I’m working in this garden now, and was looking for more ways to connect with our sacred Mother Earth. Your work is touching and inspiring!
This sounds like a wonderful garden, Carolina! I had a similar thing–a whole bunch of trees had been cut down on my homestead before I bought it. I found them in the woods, dumped there. And there was a lot of mourning on the land. I began using the dead trees in any way possible; to build raised beds, as firewood, as art objects–that went very far in terms of healing. Then I built a shrine on one of the stumps and tended it. These small actions made a big difference! I would love to see photos of your garden once you have it done! 🙂
I have been curious about the stone cairns I have encountered in hikes or near the road walks. With your comments I have gained a new respect for nature and plan on making some in my yard as a sign of connection to Mother Earth. Thank you.
You are most welcome! 🙂
I love stacking stones myself, but if you are out hiking around not in your own space, please do not stack stones. This movement has started to become a real problem in a lot of national parks because so many people are doing it. On such large scales it is causing erosion, damage animal ecosystems, and disrupting river flows. There are also animals and insects that use them to house eggs as well as for shelter. So please just be aware of what damage to the fragile ecosystem, especially for streams and rivers, you might be causing.
Oh absolutely. I have a few stacks on private land that I tend, but would never recommend it for public land! Thanks for the comment :).
Thank you for this Kirsten! I have the same concerns after doing a lot of reading
Ok, so most of these are dug-out rocks from farmer’s fields and from my garden–e.g. I dig them from my garden and stack them up. I live in an area that has SO many rocks we use them to line pathways and everything else. Obviously, you don’t want to be doing this in ecologically sensitive places, in the forest, etc, But I think it’s ok to do it in certain contexts.
Your property and your stone creations are beautiful! I have been reading, recently, that cairn building or stone stacking in the wild environment disturbs the habitat from which the stones are taken, and that it shouldn’t be done. Any thoughts? Thanks!