In the opening scene of Emanuele Crialese’s 2006 film Nuovomondo (English title The Golden Door), the camera follows a man and his son as they clamber barefoot over a rocky landscape. Dirty and shabbily dressed, they use their hands to pull themselves upwards over the never-ending boulders. They carry large stones in their mouths, and during the sequence the younger man’s mouth begins to bleed. When they reach the top of the mountain, they stop and kneel before an old wooden cross to which a number of silver plaques are tied with decaying ribbon; they spit out their offerings onto a pile of similar-sized stones, and gaze up at the cross, until the older one says (in a strong Sicilian dialect) ‘We’re here. We’ve brought the stones. We wanted to ask you a question. Do we leave, or do we stay here?’ God’s answer soon arrives in the form of the dedicant’s mute second son, who brings with him a set of photographic images of New World prosperity, including gargantuan vegetables, hens as big as people, and coins growing on trees. The men return home, pack their bags, and board a ship for America, confident that their journey has divine approval.
This little vignette, set in rural Sicily in the opening years of the twentieth century, presents one filmic re-enactment of a very common type of ritual – that is, the dedication of stones as votive offerings. Stone dedication is a global phenomenon, and S. Brent Plate’s brand new book The History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects has a whole chapter on stones that are ‘selected, unearthed, transported and repurposed for sacred means, becoming talismans, amulets, altars, or memorials.’ Plate discusses a range of fascinating cross-cultural examples, from Mongolian oos to the makeshift altar on his own daughter’s dresser, showing amongst other things how stones ‘help to hold certain spaces as sacred, literally and figuratively weighing them down’. His account of the annotated stones deposited by international travellers at Detroit Metro airport becomes even more interesting when considered alongside the scene from Nuovomondo described above, since the film implicitly presents the New World of America as a profane, progressive place in which atavistic traditions like votive worship apparently have no place (yet). In fact, Plate argues that the Detroit airport fountain is to be seen as an unwitting continuation of the ancient phenomenon of cairns – piles of rocks which provide the traveller with the means to ‘connect […] to those who have gone before and will come after.’ Again, we can imagine the protagonists of Nuovomondo taking comfort in the fact that their now-precious stones will remain on top of this familiar mountain, as part of the landscape they call home – even though their aching bodies will soon be a whole world away.
Although the traces of stone piles must often be quite hard to identify in the archaeological record, ancient literary sources tell us that stones were dedicated in the Greco-Roman world too. A recent article by Timo Muhonen in the journal Material Religion [Volume 8, issue 3, pp. 539–540] draws attention to a first-century CE text by the Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Cornutus which describes the following tradition: ‘Now they heap up stones beside herms, as each passer-by adds another one to the pile, either since each person thereby does something useful for himself and the common good by clearing the road; or thus summons Hermes as witness; or thus makes a gesture of the honor due to Hermes, even though he might have nothing else to offer him; or thus makes the statue more conspicuous to passers-by; or for a symbol that the ‘spoken word’ is composed of many small parts.’ [Theologiae Graecae at pp. 24-25 ]. Besides its useful documentation of a classical ‘cult of stones’, this passage is valuable because it shows an ancient writer acknowledging and exploring the many possible motivations that might lead people to deposit things in sacred places (including, in this case, a desire to ‘tidy up’ the street as well as any deep-seated wish to honour the god represented by the statue). Ultimately, then, while Crialese’s film opens a window onto one intimate act of votive dedication, Cornutus’ text reminds us that in ‘real life’ we are normally excluded from these pre-deposition scenes, and in most cases can do no more than make an educated guess at what a votive offering might have meant to the person who left it behind.