From Chapter 2. Ceremonial Beginnings: Finding and Marking the Place
Beginning with a proper state of mind, augmented by proper rites and ceremonies, is essential for any enterprise. The most developed ceremonies of beginning are in European building traditions. One of the best explanations of this is by the Italian Renaissance architect, Leon Battista Alberti, in his influential book, De re aedificatoria (On the Art of Building; 1452). Alberti wrote:
“It is undoubtedly proper . . . to set about our work with a holy and religious preparation. . . . We ought therefore to begin our undertaking with a clean heart, and with devout oblations, and with prayers to almighty God to implore his assistance and blessing upon the beginnings of our labour, that it may have a happy and prosperous ending, with strength and happiness to it and its inhabitants, with content of mind, increase of fortune, success of industry, acquisition of glory, and a succession and continuance of all good things.”
Every beginning must be marked in some way that distinguishes the time after from the time before. The fundamental recognition of time and process, and one’s own place in that continuity, takes place when one conducts a beginning consciously. As with other beginnings, in founding a building, there are a number of points that can be taken as the beginning—choosing the site, clearing the place, digging the first hole, and laying the first stone.
SOME TRADITIONS OF SITE LOCATION
The Etruscan Discipline and its Roman development were formal, official systems of taking omens to decide on the suitability of places for building. In their full form, they were used for the foundation of cities, temples, and civic buildings. In his Ten Books on Architecture, the Roman architectural writer Vitruvius wrote:
“When about to build a town or a military camp, our ancestors sacrificed cattle that grazed at the place and examined their livers. If the first victims’ livers were dark colored or abnormal, they sacrificed others. If they continued to find abnormalities, they concluded that the food and water supply at such a place would be equally unhealthy for people, so they went away to another locality, their main objective being healthiness.”
It is clear that there have always been similar less official, local techniques with the same function, both in Italy and across the rest of Europe. They have been practiced since time immemorial and exist to this day in folk traditions all over Europe, and they are by no means out of use. The objective of the locator is to determine the true ambience of the land. According to widespread European folk tradition, place-spirits sometimes object to humans building on their land, and so they must be consulted before a decision to build is made. In the early medieval Norse Kormákssaga (Saga of Kormak), the place-spirits are asked through a ritual of measurement. The Norse builders measure the building-place three times. If the measurements come out the same thrice, then the place is a good location to build, but if the measurements are different, this is an omen that the place should not be built upon. A later northern technique employs the magnetic compass to determine the suitability of a building plot. In the Faroe Islands, a compass is laid upon the site. If it does not show true North, then the huldrafolk (“hidden folk”) there have rejected the proposed building, and another site must be sought.
A south Slav site-testing tradition rolls a wheel-shaped loaf of bread around the area where a building is to be erected. If the bread falls upper-side-up, then the anima loci permits building there. But if it is inverted, then the place-spirit has rejected the humans’ wishes, and the building should not be started. An Estonian custom involves laying stones all over the proposed site. If, after three days, there are worms beneath them all, then the place is all right to build on. If not, then not. White settlers in the Ohio Valley in North America sited their farmhouses “right with the earth”—in a proper and appropriate place with regard to terrain, watercourses, and orientation for sun and winds—until the nineteenth century. In India, construction is abandoned if anything untoward is found when digging the hole for the main post. If bones, a skull, hair, ash, chaff, timber-work, or red earth is found, then work must be abandoned. Brick or stone is auspicious.
There are many instances in Celtic literature that tell how priests and monks of the Celtic church used animal augury to discover appropriate places for monasteries, chapels, and churches. They are mostly legends, as far as can be ascertained, yet they record genuine traditions of place-divination. Traditions dating from the sixth century onward speak of place-omens being given by insects, birds, swine, cattle, and deer. The priests of the Celtic Church were inheritors of a syncretic tradition that incorporated elements of Jewish, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and pre-Christian Celtic practices. The Celtic Church saw foundation of new settlements in terms of sowing or planting, and many foundation legends display sowing symbolism.
St. Dyfrig, the priest legendarily said to have crowned King Arthur, walked around his lands at Inis Ebrdil in south Wales, looking for a suitable place to build his monastery. In a meander of the River Wye, on land covered by thorn bushes, Dyfrig discovered a wild white sow with her piglets. This was the omen he sought, and there he built the monastery called Mochros, the “swine moor.” In Celtic symbolism, the wild pig denotes fruitfulness, because in autumn it tramples the seeds into the earth. The sow herself is the epitome of motherhood, for she gives birth to many young. Like the earth, the sow also devours her own young. The Celtic monks who followed the ascetic practices taught by St. Anthony of Egypt were enthusiastic pig-keepers and in Celtic monastic legend, the tradition easily merged with the earlier Pagan swine-cultus of the corn-goddesses Ceres and Cerridwen.
A legend of St. Carannog from Carhampton in Somersetshire, England, tells how he borrowed a spade from a peasant, and began to dig the foundations of his new church. During rests from digging, Carannog whittled a pastoral staff cut from the local wood. While he was whittling, a wood pigeon flew out of a tree, picked up some of the wood shavings, and carried them off. The monk followed the bird, and discovered that it had dropped all of the wood chips at a certain place preparatory to nest-building. He took this as an omen and built his church there instead of at the original place he had chosen.
According to another Welsh legend, St. Patrick’s disciple, the Welsh saint Ieuan Gwas Padrig was told by an angel not to found his church on his own land at Llwyn in Ceinmeirch, but to walk southward until he saw a roebuck, and to build there. At Cerrig y Drudion, he came across the roebuck, and the church was built. Sometimes, an unusual incident during a hunt revealed a holy place, which then was honored. A Breton legend tells how Conmor, the Count of Poher, was hunting near Carhaix. Without warning, the stag he was pursuing stopped at a special place, and the hounds refused to kill it. The count examined the place and found the forgotten grave of St. Hernin. A church was built there to commemorate the miracle. The city of Bern in Switzerland was also founded after a strange hunting incident, when a knight beheld a miraculous apparition of a bear. It was taken as an omen to found a new city, which was named after the bear. Bears have been kept at Bern ever since, as the “luck” of the city.