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Cairn is a man-made pile (or stack) of stones. It comes from the Scottish Gaelic: càrn (plural càirn).
Cairns are found all over the world in uplands, on moorland, on mountaintops, near waterways and on sea cliffs, and also in barren desert and tundra areas.
They vary in size from small stone markers to entire artificial hills, and in complexity from loose, conical rock piles to delicately balanced sculptures and elaborate feats of megalithic engineering.
Cairns may be painted or otherwise decorated, e.g. for increased visibility or for religious reasons.
In modern times, cairns are often erected as landmarks, a use they have had since ancient times. Since prehistory, they have also been built as sepulchral monuments, or used for defensive, hunting, ceremonial, astronomical and other purposes.
The word cairn derives from Scots cairn (with the same meaning), in turn from Scottish Gaelic càrn, which is essentially the same as the corresponding words in other native Celtic languages of Britain and Ireland, including Welsh carn (and carnedd), Irish carn, and Cornish karn or carn.
In Scandinavia, cairns have been used for centuries as trail and sea marks, among other purposes.
In Iceland, cairns are often used as markers along the numerous single-file roads or paths that crisscrossed the island; many of these ancient cairns are still standing, although the paths have disappeared.
In Norse Greenland, cairns were used as a hunting implement, a game-driving "lane", used to direct reindeer towards a game jump.
In the mythology of ancient Greece, cairns were associated with Hermes, the god of overland travel.
In Croatia, in areas of ancient Dalmatia, such as Herzegovina and the Krajina, they are known as gromila.
In Portugal a cairn is called moledro. In a legend the stones, moledros, are enchanted soldiers, and if one stone is taken from the pile and put under a pillow in the morning a soldier will appear for a brief moment, then will change back to a stone and magically return to the pile. The cairns that mark the place where someone died or cover the graves alongside the roads where in the past people were buried are called Fiéis de Deus.
Cairns are also common on the Mediterranean island of Corsica.
Cairns (taalo) are a common feature at Elaayo, Haylaan, Qa’ableh and Qombo'ul, among other places.
A traditional and often decorated, heap-formed cairn called an ovoo is made in Mongolia. It primarily serves religious purposes, and finds use in both Tengriist and Buddhist ceremonies.
In Hawaii, cairns are called by the Hawaiian word ahu.[I live on Maui and as far as I understand from my studies this reference from Wikipedia for the Hawaiian word for cairn may be a bit misleading for an Ahu is more like a ceremonial altar and I don't know of a specific Hawaiian translation for the word cairn]
In South Korea cairns are quite prevalent, often found along roadsides and trails, up on mountain peaks, and adjacent to Buddhist temples. Hikers frequently add stones to existing cairns trying to get just one more on top of the pile, to bring good luck. This tradition has its roots in the worship of San-shin, or Mountain Spirit, so often still revered in Korean culture.
Placed at regular intervals, a series of cairns can be used to indicate a path across stony or barren terrain, even across glaciers.
Such cairns are often placed at junctions or in places where the trail direction is not obvious, and may also be used to indicate an obscured danger, such as a sudden drop, or a noteworthy point such as the summit of a mountain.
Most trail cairns are small, a foot or less in height, but may be built taller so as to protrude through a layer of snow.
Hikers passing by often add a stone, as a small bit of maintenance to counteract the erosive effects of severe weather.
North American trail marks are sometimes called "ducks" or "duckies", because they sometimes have a "beak" pointing in the direction of the route.
The expression "two rocks do not make a duck" reminds hikers that just one rock resting upon another could be the result of accident or nature rather than intentional trail marking.
Coastal cairns, or "sea marks", are also common in the northern latitudes, especially in the island-strewn waters of Scandinavia and eastern Canada.
Often indicated on navigation charts, they may be painted white or lit as beacons for greater visibility offshore.
Throughout what today are the mainland United States and Canada, cairns still mark indigenous peoples' game-driving "lanes" leading to buffalo jumps, some of which may date to 12,000 years ago.
Indegenous peoples of arctic North America (i.e. northern Canada, Alaska and indigenous Greenland) have built carefully constructed cairns and stone sculptures, called by names such as inuksuit and inunnguat, as landmarks and directional markers since before contact with Europeans. They are iconic of the region (an inuksuk even features on the flag of the Canadian far-northeastern territory, Nunavut), and are increasingly used as a symbol of Canadian national identity.
In North America, cairns are often petroforms in the shapes of turtles or other animals.
Cairns are sometimes referred to by their anthropomorphic qualities. In German and Dutch, a cairn is known as steinmann and steenman respectively, meaning literally "stone man".
A form of the Inuit inuksuk is also meant to represent a human figure, and is called an inunguak ("imitation of a person").
In Italy, especially the Italian Alps, a cairn is an ometto, or a "small man".
Cairns have been used since pre-Columbian times throughout Latin America to mark trails. Even today in the Andes of South America, the Quechuan peoples use cairns as religious shrines to the indigenous Inca goddess Pachamama
Information Source: Wikipedia
Etymology From Scots cairn, from Scottish Gaelic carn (“heap of stones”); compare Old Irish carn, Welsh carn, probably from a Proto-Celtic word meaning ‘horn’.
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