Q. Why is, or ought to be, the first stone of any building laid in the northeast corner?
A. The ancients believed that the movements, conjunctions, and position of the heavenly bodies influenced not only the destiny of nations, but of individuals, and regulated all the affairs of life. Their temples were dedicated to the worship of the sun, and the whole process of their erection, from the laying of the first stone up to their completion, as well as all the details of the architecture, had special reference to astrological conditions, and the movement of the sun in the zodiac, or his position at stated periods therein.
In our attempt to account for the reason why the cornerstone was laid in the northeast corner, we will, of course, have, in the first place, to resort somewhat to conjecture, as no record of the reason is left; but if by so doing, we finally arrive at a theory, not only in entire harmony with the facts of astronomy, but also with what is known of the peculiar customs and religious ideas of the ancients, and which, at the same time, gives a reasonable and sufficient cause, according to the same, for the custom itself, we may feel almost certain that the truth has been discovered.
The cornerstone, we know, was always laid by the ancients with impressive ceremonies and solemn religious rites. As an illustration and confirmation of this statement, the following passage is here transcribed from Tacitus, descriptive of the laying of the cornerstone of the Capitol at Rome, when it was rebuilt by the Emperor Vespasian:
The care of rebuilding the Capitol he committed to Lucius Vestinus, a man of equestrian rank, but in credit and dignity among the first men of Rome. The soothsayers, who were convened by him, advised that the ruins of the former shrine should be removed to the marshes, and a temple raised on the old foundation, for the gods would not permit a change in the ancient form.
On the eleventh day before the calends of July, the sky being remarkably serene, the whole space devoted to the sacred structure was encompassed with chaplets of garlands. Such of the soldiers as had names of auspicious import entered within the inclosure with branches from trees emblematic of good fortune. Then the vestal virgins in procession, with a band of boys and girls, whose parents, male and female, were still living, sprinkled the whole place with water drawn from living fountains and rivers. Helvidius Priscus, the praetor, pre-ceeded by Plautius AElianus, the pontiff, after purifying the area by sacrificing a swine, a sheep, and a bull, replacing the entrails upon the turf, invoked Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, and the tutelar deities of the empire, praying that they would prosper the undertaking, and with divine power carry to perfection a work begun by the piety of man; and then Helvidius laid his hands upon the wreaths that bound the foundation stone and were twined about the cords; at the same time the magistrates, the priests, the senators, the knights, and a number of citizens, with simultaneous efforts, prompted by zeal and exultation, haled the ponderous stone along. Contributions of gold and silver, and pieces of other metals, the first that were taken from the mines, that had never been melted in the furnace, but in their native state, were thrown upon the foundations on all hands. The soothsayers enjoined that neither stone nor gold which had been applied to other uses should profane the building. Additional height was given to the edifice, this was the only variation conceded by religion. ("History" of Tacitus, Book IV, c. 53)
From this it appears that the priests and the soothsayers had the whole control and direction of the ceremony, which was itself of a religious character. This custom was derived by the Romans from a more ancient source, and probably from Egypt, where similar solemn rites were celebrated on like occasions. As all ancient temples were dedicated to the sun primarily, under some of his personal names, we may with good reason believe that the day selected for laying the corner-, or foundation-stone, would be on one of the great solar festivals. Such an occasion would present itself on the arrival of the sun at the tropic at the summer solstice, which indeed would not be far from the "eleventh day before the calends of July" mentioned by Tacitus.
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