Saturday, August 19, 2006

Cherry Stone

When I was an undergraduate student, nineteen years old, I travelled to the Cantabrian Mountains in the north of Spain to map an area of around 35 square kilometres. I went with two friends and we drew straws to decide which of us would get the best mapping area. I won, much to the chagrin of my friends who, quite rightly, considered that I had not put as much effort into the planning of the trip as I should have done. Their mapping areas were covered in prickly, scrub vegetation which they had to thrash their way through day after day. They would come home to our camp in the evening covered in horsefly bites and bleeding scratches which they would show me, murderous looks in their eyes.

My mapping area, by contrast, was a paradise on earth: green meadows out of which ancient rocks poked that were full of fascinating fossils; a deep river where I could sit and watch magnificent trout swimming. It was an enormous pleasure to walk around this area of gentle hills, meeting shepherds, their fierce but well-behaved dogs, encountering strange and brightly coloured insects and wild animals that had little fear of humans.

One of the rocks that I had to map was Griotte, a striking rock of Middle Cambrian age which is found in this area. The Middle Cambrian was around 500 million years ago so this is a relatively ancient rock. What is striking about Griotte is its cherry red colour and, in the area where I was studying, the presence of abundant pieces of crushed trilobite and shells within it. I had never seen anything like this rock before. It's colour so bright and strange and all the tiny pieces of fossil inside it.

Griotte is actually a term which is widely used for similar rocks in Spain, France and Italy. Griotte marble is well known for its decorative value and is often used for fireplaces. The name derives from the French word for 'cherry' and, as you can see from the photo at the top of the page, Griotte can sometimes look just like a jar of cherry jam. In fact, the red colour comes from iron minerals such as haematite and goethite.

Since this first encounter with a bright red rock, I have discovered other, similar red rocks in my years of research as a geologist and have always been rather struck and fascinated by them. I have seen the Red Molasse of the Alps, the pink Hopeman Sandstone of Northern Scotland and the stunning red rocks of Utah. I, like humans since time immemorial, have been deeply impressed by these rocks. It is not surprising that they have entered into the mythology of mankind. Apart from cherry jam, of course, the other association that comes to mind is blood. This is the association that the poet Supervielle makes in his poem Vertigo, of which I recently published a translation here.

Many red rocks are silty or clayey due to the fact that they were often originally deposited on the banks of rivers. They can be quite soft and easily reconstituted as clay. Clays with iron ores can be powdery and are know to have been used in the formulation of red, brown or yellow paints by prehistoric cave artists. Here below I have collected a number of references to the tradition and mythology surrounding clay, red clays and ochre. The story of humankind's creation from clay, it seems, is almost universal.


Your Lord said to the angels: 'I am creating man from dry clay, from black moulded loam. When I have fashioned him and breathed of my spirit into him, kneel down and prostrate yourselves before him.'

The Koran translated by N.J. Dawood (Penguin Classics)


Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.

Genesis 2:7


Adam meaning "Earth" or "Man" in Standard Hebrew.

Adam meaning "Soil" or "Light Brown" in Arabic.



Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me...?

Adam speaking in Milton's Paradise Lost, reproaching God.


In Sumerian myth the senior gods spent their time in leisure, while the junior gods laboured at digging the channels of the rivers and other tasks. Eventually the junior gods rebelled and threatened to overturn the heavenly order. The senior god Enki therefore fashioned the first men from clay, mixed with spittle and the blood of a slain god, so that men could work and the gods could rest. Originally Enki made seven men and seven women, but the numbers of mankind soon multiplied.



Whether with particles of heavenly fire,
The God of Nature did his soul inspire;
On earth, but new divided from the sky,
And, pliant, still retain'd th'ethereal energy:
Which wise Prometheus temper'd into paste,
And, mix't with living steams, the godlike image caste...
From such rude principles our form began;
And earth was metamorphosed into man.

Roman version of the Prometheus legend in Ovid's 'Metamorphoses'


On the following morning the master called his son-in-law and his favorite pupil and acquainted them with the instruction he had received from Heaven. He also asked the two to help him in the work he was about to undertake.

"Four elements," he said, "are required for the creation of the golem or homunculus, namely, earth, water, fire and air."

"I myself," thought the holy man, "possess the power of the wind; my son-in-law embodies fire, while my favorite pupil is the symbol of water, and between the three of us we are bound to succeed in our work." He urged on his companions the necessity of great secrecy and asked them to spend seven days in preparing for the work.

On the twentieth day of the month of Adar, in the year five thousand three hundred and forty after the creation of the world, in the fourth hour after midnight, the three men betook themselves to a river on the outskirts of the city on the banks of which they found a loam pit. Here they kneaded the soft clay and fashioned the figure of a man three ells high. They fashioned the features, hands and feet, and then placed the figure of clay on its back upon the ground.

In the 16th Century, Rabbi Loew creates a golem who will protect the Jews from persecution (from Angelo S. Rappoport, The Folklore of the Jews, London, Soncino Press, 1937).


According to the Torah ( Genesis 2:7), Adam is said to have been formed by God from "dust from the earth"; in the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 38b) of the first centuries of the Christian era he is, more specifically, described as having initially been a golem kneaded from mud .



The early Islamic commentator Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari adds a number of details to the Torah, based on claimed hadith as well as specific Jewish traditions (so-called isra'iliyyat )[15] . Tabari records that when it came time to create Adam, God sent Gabriel (Jibril), then Michael (Mika'il), to fetch clay from the earth; but the earth complained, saying I take refuge in God from you, if you have come to diminish or deform me , so the angels returned empty-handed. Tabari goes on to state that God responded by sending the Angel of Death , who took clay from all regions, hence providing an explanation for the variety of appearances of the different races of mankind.



The natives in their wild state have no covering for their bodies and are perfectly nude, possessing no shame. As ornament they fasten rats' tails, or twist and spin up their relatives' hair, with which they dress their own, binding it together at the back of the head to prevent it from falling over their eyes, as they wear their hair long and greasy, rubbing emu fat, etc., on it. This hair dress is not at all picturesque. For, owing to continual grease and dirt it forms into knots, each often matted into five pounds weight, as they have no substitute for a comb. They also dress their beard in a similar manner. They spin hair into belts, in which they hang small game, coyleys, etc., when hunting. They are particularly fond of greasing their bodies and rubbing on decayed ironstone (ochre), white chalk, and charcoal. They also use these in painting their shields, and as colouring for all purposes.

(from John G. Withnell, The Customs and Traditions of the Aboriginal Natives of North Western Australia, 1901).


Describing the Wilgie Mia aborigine mine of Western Australia from which thousands of tonnes of ochre (iron ores of haematite, goethite and limonite) have been mined by generations of aboriginal people, Josephine Flood relates the aborigine tradition:

"The ochre was formed by the death of a great kangaroo, who was speared by the spirit being called Mondong. the kangaroo leapt in his death agony to Wilgie Mia, where the red ochre represents his blood, the yellow his liver, and the green his gall. The last leap took the kangaroo to another hill, called Little Wilgie, which marks his grave."

information from 'Lost Civilisations of the Stone Age' by Richard Rudgley (Century, 1998).


According to Encyclopedia Mythica all of the following deities created humans from clay:

  • Arebati, god of the pygmies of Zaire.
  • Dohit, god of the Mosetene Indians.
  • Esaugetuh Emissee, in the Muskogean (Creek) tradition.
  • Zanahary, supreme god of the Madagascan pantheon.
  • Chnum, Egyptian ram god who makes the Nile delta fertile and forms children from clay before placing them in their mother's womb.
  • Es, supreme god of the Siberian Ket people.
  • Mbere, supreme creator in Fens (western Bantu) mythology.
  • Khonvoum, supreme god and creator or the pygmy people of Central Africa. He created black and white people from black and white clay, and the Pygmies from red clay.
  • Kane, god of creation in Hawaiian mythology created mankind from red clay.
  • Mawu-Lisa is the Dahomey god of the Fon people.


clare said...

Another fascinating post, Jonathan, thank you. Such weird wonderful rock - amazing to think of fossils in something so old, and as for that colour - there is something quite unsettling about it, it is so much like blood. Then that catalogue of man from clay myths is so interesting too - it is so widespread - I wonder if it comes from some common ancient source.

Dick said...

Extraordinary stuff, Jonathan. This stops just short of a PhD thesis! A fascinating read.

Jonathan said...

Thanks very much for your comments. I suppose the physical properties of clay are rather similar to human flesh: both are water based, maleable and and a wide range of similar tones; also they both have smoothness, drying to become wrinkled or cracked; then weight, clamminess etc. This may explain why the myth is so widespread.