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Builders' rites are ceremonies attendant on the laying of foundation stones, whether ecclesiastical, masonic or otherwise, and other traditions connected with foundations or other aspects of construction.
One such custom is that of placing within a cavity beneath the stone, a few coins of the realm, newspapers, etc. 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 (Teutonic Mythology (1883–1884), (trans. Stalleybrass).) 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." (Baring-Gould on "Foundations," Murray's Mag. (1887).) 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).
There are also references of this practice in Greek folk culture in a poem about "Arta's bridge". According to a folk poem the wife of the chief builder was sacrificed by himself to establish good foundation for the bridge that was of grave importance to the secluded city of Arta. The actual bridge was constructed in 1602. A similar legend appears in the Romanian folk poem Meșterul Manole, about the building of the church in the earliest Wallachian capital city.
Another analysis of the scope of the foundation sacrifices can be found in Folklorist Alan Dundes' The Walled-up Wife. U.of Wisconsin Press (1996).
- One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Hughan, W. J. (1911). "Builders' Rites". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica 4 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. According to the above, the best succinct account of these rites was to be obtained in G. W. Speth's Builders' Rites and Ceremonies (1893).
- Alan Dundes' The Walled-up Wife. U.of Wisconsin Press (1996).
- John V. Robinson. http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3732/is_200110/ai_n8986046 "The 'topping out' traditions of the high-steel ironworkers." Western Folklore. Fall 2001.