In a building, the cornerstone might be a different material from the rest of the walls, might have the year of construction embossed on it, or might have little bas relief images. It’s a part of the building with great symbolic significance. And symbols require sacrifice.

In ancient times, lasting right up till the 19th century in Greece, it was custom to kill an animal to lend its essence to the building. People would kill a ram or a rooster and pour its blood over the cornerstone, then bury the animal in the building’s foundations. 

They’d also sometimes add a human’s essence to the building. This would take a little more finesse, however, than simply butchering a human victim. What they’d do was take someone’s shadow and bury it under the cornerstone. You might realize that shadows, unless you're in Peter Pan, can’t easily detach from a person, but they accomplished the same thing by measuring a man’s shadow and then burying the measurements while constructing the building.

The problem with this, said the superstition, was that with your shadow captured this way, you yourself would soon die. The shadow-takers were therefore murderers. “Beware lest they take thy shadow!” said people at building sites, just in case shadow-takers still lingered, looking to measure your shadow. Burying these measurements was the equivalent of immurement (walling away a living person). Lose your shadow this way, and you would have just 40 days to live. 

It's a step up from the earlier legendary tradition of actually immuring victims, like the “human pillars” buried in Japanese castles, or the women drowned in rivers where they built bridges. But it still resulted (people believed) in tying your ghost to the building ... which was good for the building, because enlisting an innocent ghost was a great way or guarding against all the evil ghosts that might otherwise haunt the place. 

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For more old superstitions, check out:

The Black Cat Superstition Kills Droves of Adorable Kitties (and Puppies)

5 Idiotic Superstitions (With Logical Explanations)

The Indian Government Declares Astrology to Be Legit

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Top image: Norbert Schnitzler

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