By Phil Eyden, 2004
Before the mid eighteenth century the
origin of fossils was generally regarded in terms of superstition and myth.
Many differing accounts across different cultures explained how these fossils
came to be and interesting folklore traditions developed regarding these
stones. Frequently fossils were ascribed to have magical or medicinal
properties. Here is a quick look at some of the better known and some of the
more obscure folklore traditions regarding cephalopod fossils.
Probably the most famous story
about ammonites is the origin of their name. The distinctive coiling of the
shell suggested to the ancient Greeks a resemblance to the coiled horns of the
ram, they were regarded with special sacred significance due to the Ram-god Ammon
who had been adopted from the earlier Egyptian oracle-god Amun.
Specimens were known as Cornu Ammonis, or literally 'Horns of Ammon',
eventually passing into scientific terminology as ammonites. In China, coiled cephalopods also tended to be
compared with horns and were called Jiao-shih, or horn stones.
Certainly in England
ammonites were frequently interpreted as being coiled snakes that had been
turned to rock and had somehow lost their heads, and were often known as snakestones.
Most of the legends surrounding snakestones centred around
Whitby in Yorkshire. In 1586 William Camden in his Britannia recorded stones
that 'if you break them you will find within stony serpents, wreathed up in
circles, but generally without heads'. Sir Walter Scott records in his Marmion
in 1808 the classic legend of how these snakestones came to be:
nuns exhalting told...,
...Of thousand snakes each one
Was changed into a
coil of stone.
When holy Hilda pray'd:
their holy ground.
Their stony folds had often found.
St. Hilda was a Saxon abbess (614-680AD)
and Queen of the ancient Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.
Bede records that she hosted
the Synod of Whitby, at which Celtic and Roman Christians met to decide on
liturgical matters in 664, consequently she is an important character in the
history of the early development of Christianity in Britain. Legend has it that she turned all the snakes to stone in Whitby in order to
clear the ground for the building of a new convent. After a bout of devout
praying the snakes coiled up, turned to stone and fell off the edge of the
cliffs after she had cut their heads off with a whip. The absence of heads in
these fossils is sometimes attributed to a further curse by St. Cuthbert. It
has become a tradition in Whitby to carve snakeheads onto ammonites, this
tradition has continued to the present day and these snakestones can frequently
be found being sold by fossil dealers. Usually specimens of Hildoceras
and Dactylioceras are used for this purpose, Hildoceras being
named in honour of St. Hilda. Some of the Whitby specimens
are preserved in jet, which has a beautiful appearance when carved and
polished, certainly at least one example of a carved jet Whitby snakestone
has been known from Norway, clearly traded or transported by Norse settlers. In Elizabethan
England snakestone brooches of jet were highly prized.
Sometime in the sixteenth or seventeenth
centuries the ammonite became a symbol of Whitby. Tradesmen's
tokens bearing three ammonites within a shield design are recoded as far back
as 1667 and in 1935 the ammonite was officially adopted onto the towns coat-of-arms where it still resides to the present
day. These ammonites became known as the 'Arms of Whitby' and can be found on
symbols of local heraldry. The local parish church, St. Hilda's (1888) has
three ammonites on the pulpit borne in the arms of angels. Even the current Whitby football
team, Whitby Town FC, has the ammonite design on its crest!
There are variations in the theme of the
snakestone-ammonite legend in other parts of England.
For example at Keynsham near Bristol the legend is attributed to St. Keyna as
she turned all the snakes to stone in the local woodlands, ammonite fossils in
the red sandstones in that area are not uncommon. A depiction of St. Keyne at
Brecon cathedral in Wales depicts her surrounded by many snakes including one that looks very
much like an ammonite. Similarly, at St. Keyne in Cornwall a
depiction of her holding an ammonite can apparently be seen in one of the
church windows. Elsewhere in southern England
it was believed that these snakestones were once fairies '...once inhabitants of
these parts, who for their crimes were changed, first into snakes, and then
In parts of Scotland
ammonites were once referred to as Crampstones and were given medicinal
properties. M. Martin in his 1703 Description of the Western Island of
Scotland recorded that 'These Stones are by the Natives called Crampstones,
because they say cure the Cramp in Cows, by washing the part affected with
Water in which this Stone has been steep'd for some Hours'. A similar tradition
existed in Germany; Georg Henning Behrens described in 1703 how farmers from
Gandersheim used as witchbane'... a fossile shaped like a Rams Horn call'd Drake (Dragon)
stone...for when the Cows lose their milk, or void Blood instead of it, they put
these Stones into the Milk-pail, and by that means expect a due quantity of Milk
from the Cows again'.
Other parts of the world have legends
involving ammonites too. It was popular belief in Greece that ammonites were a
useful remedy to insomnia and it was believed that to put an ammonite under the
pillow would help, in the words of a coin dated 480BC: 'The horn of Ammon which
makes beautiful dreams'. These fossils were known as Ophites and were
kept as charms, protection against snakebites and as a cure for impotence,
blindness and barrenness. Australian aborigines often carry ammonites as they
believe the fossils contain magic powers and frequently make them into amulets.
In India they are often used to represent the God Vishnu in Hindu temples.
Similarly, some Himalayan tribes had traditions of carrying ammonites up
mountains to venerate them, these were known as "Wheels of God'.
America medicine men of the Navajo and
other Plains Indians carried ammonites in their bags; these were known as wanisugna
or 'life within seed, seed within shell'. The Blackfoot Indians called them iniskim
or buffalo stones and were used in spiritual ceremonies prior to the
hunting and corralling of bison herds. To the Blackfeet ammonites were
especially favoured as journey stones, if one was found prior to setting
out on a long journey it was seen to be good omen by the spirits for the
journey ahead. Similarly in Ethiopia
it was believed that possession of an ammonite would lead to prophetic dreams.
In Viking period Scandinavia allegedly ammonites were regarded as sacred as they represented
spawn of the World Serpent, slain by Thor's lightning bolts. Very rarely
ammonites have been found in Anglo-Saxon graves in England
with a hole bored into them and probably used as a pendant.
There are fewer legends about nautiloid
fossils than ammonites. In China
orthoconic nautiloids were often referred to as Bao-ta-shih or Pagoda
Stones due to a similarity in the tapering internal chambered structure to
the outward appearance of a pagoda. On the island of Oland in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Sweden,
straight nautiloid fossils were traditionally referred to as Olandsspikar, literally
Oland spikes or Oland nails. These Ordovician period fossils were first recorded in 1741 by
Linnaeus in the limestone deposits around Boda.
traditionally associated with thunderstorms and have many differing traditional
names usually along the lines of thunderbolts, thunder-arrows or thunderstones.
It was common folklore throughout Europe that these cylindrical bullet shaped fossils were cast
down from the heavens as lightning, hit the ground and turned to stone. If one
was struck by lightning it was believed that one had been struck with a thunderbolt.
This belief was probably heightened by the unusual translucent quality of
belemnite fossils; they are frequently preserved in a pale yellowish-brown
colour, possibly reminiscent of a lightning flash. The word belemnon
stems from the Greek and literally means dart. In Russia belemnites are referred to as thunder-arrows, or gromovye
strelki. Similarly in Lithuanian mythology belemnites are referred to as Pekuno
akmu or Pekunas' stone, Pekunas being the Thunder God and often
compared to the Norse god Thor. It was also a traditional Germanic belief that
to keep these thunderstones at home would afford the owners home from
protection from lightning, in parts of the Netherlands these donderstenen
(Donar's stones, Donar being the Thunder god) were
kept in the roof.
Like the ammonite the
belemnite was believed to have magical healing properties. In Lithuania a traditional magic charm reveals the method to
treat a snakebite, by rubbing a belemnite over the
wound whilst uttering the words:
Three times nine times comes Perkunas'
thunder from the sea
Three times nine times bullets strike the swelling
under the stone.
This man regains the health he enjoyed before!
In parts of
western Scotland they were known as Bat Stones and
were put in water fed to horses to cure them from distemper. Similarly in Southern England it was widely believed that belemnites
could be used to cure rheumatism and sore eyes in both men and horses, the
treatment of which was to grind the fossil into powder and produce a dust that
would be blown into the eyes.
In some parts
of England belemnites were known as Devil's
Fingers or St. Peter's Fingers.
In Scandinavia belemnites were also regarded as
belonging to elves, pixies or gnomes and in some areas are still known as vatteljus,
literally gnomes' candles in Swedish. Another
popular belief throughout Europe was that belemnites were the points of pixie-arrows
and were sometimes referred to as elf-bolts. In Dorset in England local fairies went by the
name of colpexies and belemnites were known as colpexies fingers.
Bassett, M, 1982 'Formed Stones', Folklore and Fossils. National Museum of Wales.
Nordic Magical Healing:
Ammonites: Myths and
Donar (Thor) in Dutch
Snakestones from www.twoguysfossils.com
Thanks to David Nash-Ford for the St. Hilda image. http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/index.html
Thor sculpture image
donated Jacob Rose, thanks! http://www.whiteshell.com/~jrose/photos/
Thanks to Craig James
at Whitby Town Football Club. Good luck for the season! http://www.whitbytownfc.co.uk/
Thanks to Jean Mckinnon
for the Journey stone image.
the permission of the Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Orthoceras from authors' own collection.
Although the majority of the information in this article was taken
from Michael Bassetts' book, further information has been compiled from
numerous websites. I apologise to anyone if I have left their website out of
the references and acknowledgements.