Sir James Emerson Tennent

(Extracted from Notes and Queries, vol. 5, 1852, pp. 121-23.)

In a work recently published by the Earl of Roden, entitled Progress of the Reformation in Ireland, there occurs a curious account of a remnant of this ancient form of fetichism still existing in Inniskea, an island off the coast of Mayo, with about 380 inhabitants; amongst whom, he says,

"A stone carefully wrapped up in flannel is brought out at certain periods to be adored; and when a storm arises, this god is supplicated to send a wreck on their coast."P. 51.

A correspondent in the same volume writes to Lord Roden that,

"They all speak the Irish language, and among them is a trace of that government by chiefs, which in former times prevailed in Ireland: the present chief or king of Inniskea is an intelligent peasant called CAIN, whose authority is acknowledged, and the settlement of all disputes is referred to his decision. Though nominally Roman Catholics, these islanders have no priest resident among them; they know nothing of the tenets of that church, and their worship consists in occasional meetings at their chief's house, with visits to a holy well called Derhla. The absence of religion is supplied by the open practice of pagan idolatry. In the south island a stone idol called in the Irish Neevougi, has been from time immemorial religiously preserved and worshipped. This god resembles in appearance a thick roll of homespun flannel, which arises from the custom of dedicating to it a dress of that material whenever its aid is sought; this is sewed on by an old woman, its priestess. Of the early history of this idol no authentic information can be procured, but its power is believed to be immense; they pray to it in time of sickness, it is invoked when a storm is desired to dash some hapless ship upon their coast, and again it is solicited to calm the waves to admit of the islanders fishing or visiting the main land."Ib. pp. 53, 54.

This statement, irrespective of graver reflections, is suggestive of a curious inquiry, whether this point of Ireland, on the utmost western verge of Europe, be not the last spot in Christendom in which a trace can now be found of stone-pillar worship? the most ancient of all forms of idolatry known to the records of the human race; and the most widely extended, since at one time or another it has prevailed in every nation of the old world, from the shores of Lapland to the confines of India; and, I apprehend, vestiges of its former existence are to be traced on the continent of America.

Before men discovered the use of metals, or the method of cutting rocks, they worshipped unhewn stones; and if the authenticity of Sanchoniathon is to be accepted, they consecrated pillars to the fire and the wind before they had learned to hunt, to [122] fish, or to harden bricks in the sun. (Sanchon. in Cory's Ancient Fragments, pp. 7, 8.) From Chna, "the first Phoenician" as he is called by the same remote authority, the Canaanites acquired the practice of stone-pillar worship, which prevailed amongst them long before:

"Jacob took the stone that he had put for his pillow, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it ; and called the name of the place Bethel, saying, this stone which I have set up for a pillar shall be God's house."Gen. xxviii. 18. 22.

The Israelites were repeatedly ordered to destroy these stone idols of the Canaanites, to overthrow their altars, and "break their pillars" (Deut. vii. 5.; xii. 3.). And when the Jews themselves, in their aberrations, were tempted to imitate their customs, Moses points a sarcasm at their delusion:

"Where are their gods, their rock in whom they trusted! How should one chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight, except their rock had sold them?"Ib. xxxii. 30. 37.

From Jacob's consecration of his stone pillar, and the name Bethel which he conferred upon it (which, in Phoenician, signified the house of God), were derived the Bastylia, [Greek] or [Greek] the black stones worshipped in Syria and Asia Minor, in Egypt, and in Greece before the time of Cecrops, under the names of Cybele and of Saturn, who is fabled to have swallowed one of them when he intended to have devoured his son Jupiter. Even in the refined period of Grecian philosophy, the common people could not divest themselves of the influence of the ancient belief; and Theophrastus gives it as the characteristic of the "superstitious man," that he could not resist the impulse to bow to these mysterious stones, which served to mark the confluence of the highways. From Asia Minor pillar worship was carried to Italy and Gaul, and eventually extended to Germany, where the trunks of trees occasionally became the substitute for stone. From the same original the Arabs borrowed the Kaaba, the black stone, which is still revered at Mecca; and the Brahmans a more repulsive form, under which the worship now exists in Hindostan. Even in early times the reverence of these stones took a variety of forms, as they were applied to mark the burial-place of saints and persons of distinction, to define contested boundaries, and to commemorate great events (vide Joshua iv. 5.; xxiv. 26.); and perhaps many of the stones which have now a traditional, and even historical celebrity in Great Britain, such as the "Lia Fail" of Tara, the great "Stone of Scoon," on which the Scottish kings were crowned; the "King's Stone" in Surrey, which served a similar office to the Saxons; the "Charter Stone" of Inverness; the "Leper's Stone" of Ayr; the "Blue Stone" of Carrick; the "Black Stone" of Iona, and others, may have acquired their later respect from their earlier sanctity.

There appear to be few countries in the old world which do not possess some monuments of this most remote idolatry; but there is none in which they would seem to be so abundant as on the western extremity of Europe, in Cornwall, and especially in the islands and promontories from the Land's End to Caithness and the Orkneys. In the latter the worship of stone pillars continued to so recent a period, that one is curious to know when it actually disappeared, and whether there still
exist traces of it in any other locality, similar to that pointed out by the Earl of Roden at Inniskea.

My own acquaintance with the subject is very imperfect; but, so far as my recollection serves, the following references may direct attention to interesting quarters.

Scheffer, who published his Description of Lapland in 1673, states that the practice of stone-pillar worship then existed there, and that Storjunkar, one of the deities of Scandinavian mythology, was

"Represented by a stone. Neither do they use any art in polishing it; but take it as they find it upon the banks of lakes and rivers. In this shape they worship it as his image, and call it Kied kie jubmal, that is, the stone god."Scheffer, Lapponia. Engl. London, 1751.

He adds that they select the unhewn stone, because it is in the form in which it was shaped by the hand of the Creator himself. The incident suggests a curious coincidence with the expressions of Isaiah (ch. ;vii. v. 6.):

"Among the smooth stones of the stream is thy portion; they, they are thy lot: even to them hast thou poured a drink-offering; thou hast offered a meat-offering. Should I receive comfort in these?"

Joshua, too, selected the twelve stones with which he commemorated the passage of the Jordan from the midst of the river, where the priests' feet stood when they bore the ark across.

Martin, in his account of the Western Islands of Scotland in 1703 A.D., describes repeatedly the numerous pillar-stones which were then objects of respect in the several localities. And in one instance he states that an image which was held in veneration in one of the islands was swathed in flannel, a practice which would thus seem to have served as a precedent for the priestess of Inniskea, as detailed by Lord Roden. In speaking of the island of Eriska, to the north of Barra, Martin says,

"There is a stone set up, near a mile to the south of St. Columbus's church, about eight foot high and two broad. It is called by the natives the bowing stone; for when the inhabitants had the first sight of the church, they set up this stone, and then bowed, and said the Lord's Prayer."A Description of the Western Islands, p. 88.

But Borlase, who notices this passage in his [123] Antiquities of Cornwall, gives a much more learned derivation of the name. He says:

"They call them lowing stones, as it seems to me, from the reverence shown them; for the Even Maschith, which the Jews were forbade to worship (Leviticus xxvi. 1, 'neither shall ye set up any image of stone') signifies really a bowing stone, and was doubtless so called because worshipped by the Canaanites."Borlase, Antiquities of Cornwall, book iii. c. 2.

I fancy the word which Martin rendered a bowing stone, is cromlech, or crom liagh.

As regards the ancient monuments of stone worship m Cornwall, the most learned and the most ample information is contained in Borlase's Antiquities of that county; but there their worship ceased, though not till several centuries after the introduction of Christianity. Borlase says:

"After Christianity took place, many continued to worship these stones; coming thither with lighted torches, and praying for safety and success: and this custom we can trace through the fifth and sixth centuries; and even into the seventh, as will appear from the prohibitions of several Councils."Borlase, Antiq. Corn., b. iii. c. ii. p. 162.

In all parts of Ireland these stone pillars are to be found in comparative frequency. Accounts of them will be found in The Ancient and Present State of the County Down, A.D. 1744; in Wakeman's Handbook of Irish Antiquities, and in various similar authorities. A writer in the Archceologia for A.D. 1800 says that many of the stone crosses which form so interesting and beautiful a feature in Irish antiquities were originally pagan pillar-stones, on which the cross was sculptured subsequent to the introduction of Christianity, in order that,

"The common people, who were not easily to be diverted from their superstitious reverence for these stones, might pay a kind of justifiable adoration to them when thus appropriated to the use of Christian memorials by the sign of the cross."Archaeol. vol. xiii. p. 203.

The tenacity of the Irish people to this ancient superstition is established by the fact of its continuance to the present day in the sequestered island of Inniskea. And it seems to me that it would be an object of curious inquiry, if your correspondents could ascertain whether this be the last remnant of pillar worship now remaining in Europe; and especially whether any further trace of it is to be found in any other portion of the British dominions.