1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Builders' Rites

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745451911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 4 — Builders' RitesWilliam James Hughan

BUILDERS’ RITES. Many people familiar with the ceremonies attendant on the laying of foundation stones, whether ecclesiastical, masonic or otherwise, may be at a loss to account for the actual origin of the custom in placing within a cavity beneath the stone, a few coins of the realm, newspapers, &c. The ordinary view that by such means particulars may be found of the event on the removal of the stone hereafter, may suffice as respects latter-day motives, but such memorials are deposited in the hope that they will never be disturbed, and so another reason must be found for such an ancient survival. Whilst old customs continue, the reasons for them are ever changing, and certainly this fact applies to laying foundation stones. Originally, it appears that living victims were selected as “a sacrifice to the gods,” and especially to ensure the stability of the building. Grimm[1] remarks “It was often thought necessary to immure live animals and even men in the foundation, on which the structure was to be raised, to secure immovable stability.” There is no lack of evidence as to this gruesome practice, both in savage and civilized communities. “The old pagan laid the foundation of his house and fortress in blood.”[2] Under the walls of two round towers in Ireland (the only ones examined) human skeletons have been discovered. In the 15th century, the wall of Holsworthy church was built over a living human being, and when this became unlawful, images of living beings were substituted (Folk-Lore Journal, i. 23-24).

The best succinct account of these rites is to be obtained in G. W. Speth’s Builders’ Rites and Ceremonies (1893).  (W. J. H.*) 


  1. Teutonic Mythology (1883–1884), (trans. Stalleybrass).
  2. Baring-Gould on “Foundations,” Murray’s Mag. (1887).