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Cairns: “Teaching a Stone to Talk”

Benjamin R. Helphand

Helphand graduated from Wesleyan University where he studied religion, art history, and geology. He has recently been working as a journalist in Colorado and Cleveland. Next fall he plans to attend graduate school in religious studies. He writes: “In my research and writing, I like to focus on the everyday and unglamorous corners of religion and culture all too often neglected or explained away with a shrug.”

Though the word cairn is generally used to describe a pile of stones, I use the term here to refer to everything from a single placed stone to giant cairns piled several stories high and hundreds of feet in circumference. Similarities in construction, materials and human action allow me to group all of these constructions under the same study.

What makes cairns unique? Why should we be interested in these markers, constructed from scavenged materials and sometimes highly ephemeral, crumbling almost as soon as they are built? Often, an outsider cannot easily differentiate between a cairn intended for the secular function of field marker and one meant as a religious offering—why wrestle with such indecisiveness?

What I hope to reveal in this essay is that such misgivings are precisely why cairns deserve our attention. Through their stone eyes, we can negotiate a glimpse of the meeting point between traditionally polarized sets—the built and the unbuilt, the utilitarian and the useless, and the sacred and the profane. The cairn is perhaps the purest example of an object that can claim to have its foundations rooted securely and necessarily at both poles.

The Shrine of Sidi Chemharouch

High in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, the shrine of Sidi Chemharouch rests at the convergence of streams and valleys. Its monument is a large, whitewashed boulder, some 25 feet high. Beneath this monolith, in a small chamber, lived a saint who walked the fine line between madness and divine inspiration. Pilgrims have transformed his hermitage into a place for those afflicted with mental disorders. Of special concern to this study is not the shrine itself but, rather, the cairns along the sides of the four-kilometer path to the shrine.

After using my one Berber sentence to buy a loaf of bread, I set out up the valley, out of the village of Asni and past the surrounding farms where the carefully terraced, irrigated orchards were in bloom with the fragrant pink flowers of the almond trees. An abrupt line where the irrigation ceased brought me to a landscape I would call “marginal”—that is, unbuilt, treeless, rocky, economically deprived and untouched by industrialization and modern transportation.

From here, the path meandered through a relatively flat flood plain and then quickly rose up the left slope of the valley. The sudden change in slope left me winded. Just as I could go no further, I spotted the first stone pile on the path. It seems that this stood at a place where pilgrims might regularly stop to rest.

The cairn’s connection to rest is crucial. When on pilgrimage, one sees everything through religious eyes, including one’s own physical self. The need to rest provides the opportunity to build which, in turn, provides an excuse to rest. Which came first, no one can say. Later, I was told that pilgrims mark where they stopped and rested as proof of an oath to do whatever is necessary for the baraka of the Saint to be dispersed.

Another kilometer up the High Atlas trail, I counted six cairns erected on the flat surfaces of larger boulders. Nothing struck me about this site until I looked up and was greeted by a perfect view of the Atlas peaks. Here the etymology of cairn becomes significant. First of all, the word means “horn” but, secondarily, can be “applied to any horn-like eminence, especially mountaintops” (T.C. McLuhan, 1996, p. 109). In this sense, we can talk of the cairn as a mountain in miniature. The upward piling of the stones mirrors the mountain’s verticality and counterbalances the predominant directionality—the horizontality of the pilgrimage route.

Also important to this concept of miniaturization is the question of material. When pilgrims choose and touch stones with their hands, they also touch the material of the mountain and experience a subjective taste of that which is vast and incomprehensible. In this way, the cairn mediates between the individual and the whole. It miniaturizes in order to comprehend.

Next, we can consider the ‘heaped’ form of the cairns. In these piles of stones are the residue of all those pilgrims who have come before. They have moved on, but their gesture, in stone, remains. Through the cairn, present and past pilgrims are united into a kind of community, but since only the stones remain, the community is faceless.

This anonymity is significant. Severed from the pilgrim, the offering (in Morocco, customarily three stones one atop the other) is able conceptually to sink into the belly of the cairn and undergo sedimentation. The uniqueness of each pilgrim is simplified into one entity of similar motivations and experiences. One is also aware that behind each stone stands an anonymous individual. This process provides a “comfortable crossroads” for the confrontation of various concepts, objects and entities that might otherwise remain unapproachable.1

I came across a third cairn group just a few hundred feet before the shrine. I turned a corner and, suddenly, there were about ten little piles of rocks, some more like pillars having yet to fall down. Then I looked up and had my first sight of the shrine. While my eyes told me I had arrived, my hands complemented the excitement of discovery with cairns. Does this cairn group act merely as a street sign, as if to say “Welcome to Sidi Chemharouch”? No, the cairn is performative, marking by example rather than representation.

Among this third group of cairns, one could find examples of all levels of decline—from carefully balanced pyramids to scattered stones that I couldn’t be sure were placed by human beings or nature. As soon as a pillar of stone is constructed, it enters again into the system of patterns from whence it grew and begins the process of decline, towards equilibrium. The sight of such ephemeral tension enables cairns to move beyond mere signifying to actually amplify the entropic patterns of their environment.

Cairns and Earthworks

The powerful mediating quality of cairns has been cited as a primary source of inspiration for the birth of a recent environmental-art movement known as Earthworks. This movement began in the late 1950s, as a response to the aesthetically isolated individualism of Abstract Expressionism: “A handful of artists chose to enter the landscape itself. To use its materials and work with its salient features. They were not depicting the landscape, but engaging it; their art was not simply of the landscape but in it” (Beardsley, 1984, p. 7).

On a cross country trip from Oregon to Connecticut, I convinced my driving partners to detour to Utah to visit “Spiral Jetty,” by Robert Smithson, one of Earthworks founding fathers. By choosing the constraints imposed by the marginality of the Utah salt flats, Smithson gained what he deemed the greater goal—a dynamic art object that is both a mouthpiece and a crossroads for as far as the eye can see and the mind can imagine.

When we arrived, I climbed up the shore to get an aerial view. There, beneath the waters, like the dark shadow of a great snake, the “Spiral Jetty” lurked. Through the lake’s pink waters, the form seemed to shimmer like a cinematic dream sequence. Soon after construction in 1970, the water of the lake rose and salt quickly attached itself to the unspoiled stones, growing and crystallizing. More than twenty years later, the water has subsided slightly and the stones remain completely shrouded beneath a blanket of white crystals.

I removed my shoes and waded to the spiral’s center as cuts from the crystals stung my feet. All the while, the big and colorful sky along with the mountains that framed the lake seemed to push me around the spiral as if everything, all the way to the horizon, was a piece of the artwork.

The Spiral Jetty suggests that neither the artist nor his time are isolated. Smithson opened his creation to several outside forces—site, time and viewer. The object is dematerialized. The art work is no longer the unique expression of the artist who, instead, has created a framework in which preexisting, existing and yet-to-exist forces are given voice.

At first glance, one might interpret the spiral as becoming more and more profane the farther one moves from the sacred center. In fact, Smithson reverses this relationship: the Spiral Jetty becomes the nonsite while the lake, sky, mountains, time, and viewers become the site. In short, the Spiral Jetty fragments its own site into countless locations.

Such a splintering is the only kind of site Smithson would accept, for he recognized that no site could be isolated without producing countless cracks and fissures. As he has explained, each site “contains its own void.” The center, spiral, salt crystals, pink waters, the hands of time and my own pilgrim’s footsteps are all dispersed into a complex web of countless site/nonsite relationships.

In this flopping of the poles of place, Smithson creates a dialectic between center and periphery, periphery and center. Each side of this dialectic, the site and the nonsite, continually swap places, like a mirror and its image. Though Smithson’s art is founded on the shoulders of ancient practices, the philosophical finds of Earthworks reflect back to and provide new insight on one source—the cairn. Taking this idea further, what happens when we superimpose the aesthetics of the site/nonsite dialectic on the religious context of sacred and profane?

Between Sacred and Profane

If the world is to be lived in, it must be founded, and no world can come to birth in the chaos of the homogeneity and relativity of profane space. Phenomenologist of religion Mircea Eliade (1959, p. 22) writes, “The discovery or projection of a fixed point—the center—is equivalent to the creation of the world.” Eliade’s sacred center is radically unconnected from its profane surroundings, since each is defined by its opposition to the other. For Eliade, a sacred world is oriented toward, or dwelling in, centers. This is a concentric world view. In this model, the cairn is a center, a sacred node, a hierophany emanating a divine essence.

In contrast, religious historian Jonathan Z. Smith argues for a centrifugally-oriented model of the sacred and profane: “There is nothing that is inherently or essentially clean or unclean, sacred or profane. There are situational or relational categories, mobile boundaries which shift according to the map being employed” (Smith, 1987, p. 291). In this sense, Smith would argue that Eliade’s sacred center is constructed from a tool shed in the territory of the profane. From Smith’s perspective, the cairn radiates no power of its own. It is a human-made object formed from a collection of disparate possibilities from the profane landscape of the periphery.

For Eliade, the cairn is trapped, severed from its environment, while for Smith, the center is no more than an empty vessel. If we take these contrasting perspectives to represent the two main conceptual camps in current religious-geographical theories, we must conclude that neither gives complete justice to the complexities of religious space. Both perspectives are especially deficient when it comes to the border regions we are trying to navigate using our cairn compass. What existes between sacred and profane, and how does it function? Is there any hope for reconciliation between the concentric and centripetal views?

The answer, already suggested by the stone lips of the cairn, is found in the lessons drawn from the artist-philosophers of Earthworks. If we approach the sacred center like a cairn, which is itself a center, then the center is immediately dematerialized into the stuff of the periphery/profane, and the object, or center, enters into a site/nonsite circuit.

For our Moroccan example, this included the mountain, the shrine, entropy and the self. In addition, since they are usually part of a larger circuit, the cairns are decentered into other cairns. Each marks a singular place, but the stones are infused with all directions—stacked, pointing skyward, growing with the horizontal movement of pilgrimage. They have roots extending downward and into the past and future, while the escapades of the mind establishes an anonymous community.

These tendencies of the cairn and its impermanence allow it to melt from a center into a periphery and back again. Because this is a process and not simply a beginning and an end, because a cairn once constructed immediately engages the periphery, Eliade’s abyss is transformed into a permeable membrane and Smith’s void is filled. But the cairn is merely one crossroads in the border region.

Future studies of religious space can learn from this example. The lesson can be used to transcend the dead-end philosophical pickle of the acute separation of sacred and profane. We therefore learn not to limit our options to a Kierkegaardian either/or, forcefully barring the sacred from the profane.

While the cairn with its fleeting existence may seem uniquely suited for dematerialization, I would argue that nearly every religious object and structure is to varying degrees engaged in the dialectics of site/nonsite. We must consider materials, direction, placement, surroundings, pathways, changes, and all the rest over time. Countless religious objects and structures could benefit from an analysis that paid special attention to the border regions. What qualities or traits of the said structure enable it to mediate between the dichotomies of human experience? How does this thing allow one to move from the sacred to the profane and back again?

With these inquiries, we might unlock neglected pathways, enjoying the fruits of the frontier between sacred and profane.


1. Like many cairns, monuments often mediate a comforting tension between the individual and the incomprehensible whole. For example, the Vietnam Memorial mediates between individual mourners, their loved ones, and the war. At the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, a kind of paper cairn exists in the centuries of prayers stuffed into its cracks. Yet again, the Aids Quilt helps to mediate between the isolated mourner and the enormity of a horrific disease. All of these cairn-like monuments, by drawing upon the aesthetics of heaping, approach a shrouded other through an absent community.


Beardsley, J., 1984. Earthworks and Beyond. NY: Abbeville.

Eliade, M., 1959. The Sacred and the Profane.NY: Harcourt, Brace & World.

McLuhan, T.C., 1996. Cathedrals of the Spirit. NY: Harper.

Smith, J. Z., 1987. To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Smith, J.Z., 1978. Map is Not Territory. Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill.

Smithson, R., 1979. The Writings of Robert Smithson. NY: New York Univ. Press.