Fossils In Folklore: Before the mid-18th Century the origin of fossils was generally regarded in terms of superstition.
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Fossils In Folklore

Fossils In Folklore

Fossils in Folklore

Before the mid-18th Century the origin of fossils was generally regarded in terms of superstition. Many magical and medicinal accounts developed across different cultures regarding these weird and wonderful objects, explaining how they came to be. The true nature of fossils only came about with the start of scientific research as recent as the 19th Century. I have always had an interest in collecting fossils. I have many of the ones listed here, but nothing will ever compare to the joy I felt when I found my first carniverous dinosaur tooth.

Fossil Sharks Tooth

Fossil sharks' teeth were popularly known as tongue stones or 'glossopetrae' before their origin became fully understood. An entirely different legend about fossil sharks' teeth developed in Japan. Here teeth of the giant shark Carcharadon megalodon were thought to be the thumbnails of Tengu Man, a mythical mountain goblin with a Pinnochio-like long nose. Mammoth teeth and bones were thought to belong to a race of giants, and dinosaur remains were obviously dragons.

Echinoids - "Fairy Loaves and Snakes' Eggs"

Echinoids

Echinoids are the fossil remains of sea urchins. They can be found al over southern and eastern England. The heart  shaped sea urchin Micraster, along with the helmet urchin Echinocorys , are sometimes known as Fairy Loaves . The fairy loaf in Suffolk wascalled pharisee-loaf which at some point became farcy-loaf. Farcy is a disease in horses and it has been suggested that the fossils were also used as charms by farm horsemen 
The resemblance between these echinoids and round loaves also inspired people to place them as charms by the hearth in the hope that the baking bread would be influenced by the fossil's loaf-like shape. It is said that families who kept fairy loaves in their houses could ensure they would always have bread.

Failure of the weekly bread to be properly formed was attributed to witchcraft against which Fairy Loaves had protective powers. The powers given to these fossils underlines just how vital bread and breadmaking were to daily life and village economy in Suffolk during times gone past.

The fairy loaf in Suffolk was also called pharisee-loaf which at some point became facy-loaf. Farcy is a disease in horses and it has been suggested that the fossils were also used as charms by farm horsemen .They are also known as Shepherds' crowns which bring prosperity and good luck. They can protect the home from all types of misfortune and calamity.

In both Celtic and Norse mythologiesthey played a role in resurrection myths. Finding fossil echinoids in a medieval church is shows where pagan beliefs were still retained in  a Christian context.

Sea urchin fossils were also sometimes referred to as Snake Eggs. It was thought that at midsummer  these magical Snake Eggs were formed by the froth that came from snakes. The froth, shaped into a ball, was believed to have the power to protect one from deadly poisons. If stolen from the snakes during midsummer's eve and kept on a piece of cloth, the ball would retain its magical powers.

They were also called thunderstones, as they were thought to have descended from the heavens during a thunderstorm. The St. Peter's Church in Linkenholt, England, was built in 1871 near the location of the old St. Peter's, which had stood for nearly 700 years. The 1871 version of the church included fossil echinoids built into the walls surrounding the windows, a style adopted from the original. This implies that Thunderstone folklore was retained for at least 700 years in England, and had its roots in pagan folklore.

In Scandinavia they were frequently used to keep away spells and witchcraft. Beer was poured over them as an offering and they were sometimes anointed with butter. They were also thought to offer protection from elves. In Switzerland the owner of a thunderstone would whirl it, on the end of a thong, three times round his head, and throw it at the door of his house at the approach of a storm to prevent lightning from striking the house. In Italy they were hung around children's necks to protect them from illness and to ward off the Evil eye. In Roman times they were sewn inside dog-collars along with a little piece of coral to keep the dogs from going mad.  In the French Alps they were used to protect sheep, while elsewhere in France they were thought to ease the pains of childbirth. In Burma they were used as a cure and preventative for appendicitis. In Japan were thought to  cured boils and ulcers. In Malay and Sumatra they were used to sharpen the kris, a ceremonial dagger, and were considered very lucky objects. Among the Slavs they cured warts on man and beast. They were also thought to be able to reveal hidden treasure if used during Passion Week.

Ammonites - "Snakestones"

Ammonites


 
Ammonites,  have a rich folklore. English folklore recounts them as being coiled snakes  or dragons even, that had been turned to rock and lost their heads. These were often called to  Snakestones,  in William Camden's Britannia (1586) he says, 'if you break them  you find within stony serpents, wreathed up in circles, but eternally without heads'.

Most of the legends surrounding Snakestones centred around Whitby in North Yorkshire. As the legend goes, St. Hilda, the Saxon abbess of Whitby (614-680 A.D.), was given the task of founding an Abbey on the plains of Whitby but the place was so infested with snakes that habitation by humans seemed impossible. Snakes and serpents were seen as devilish, so it was important to cast them out before building a sacred place. So, St. Hilda prayed and after a short period the snakes coiled up and she cut their heads off with a whip, they then turned to stone and St. Hilda threw them off the edge of the cliffs. You can still find these fossils in the cliffs and on the beaches of Whitby today. Sir Walter Scott recorded St. Hilda's actions in his poem Marmion (1808):

"When Whitby's nuns exalting told,
Of thousand snakes, each one
Was changed into a coil of stone,
When Holy Hilda pray'd:
Themselves, within their holy ground,
Their stony folds had often found."

The absence of heads in these Snakestone fossils is also sometimes attributed to a further curse issued by another Christian martyr, St. Cuthbert. To reinforce the legend of the Snakestones' origin, it became common in Whitby in Victorian times to carve snakeheads onto ammonites thus restoring their heads. Usually specimens of Hildoceras and Dactylioceras are used for this purpose, Hildoceras being named in honour of St. Hilda. You can find a carved Snakestone in the natural history section at the Hull and East Riding Museum.

Belemnites - "Thunderbolts"

Belemnites

The bullet-shaped belemnites, found in clays and chalks throughout England, (and in my garden) were once thought to have been created where lightning struck the ground during thunderstorms. This gave rise to their mystical name, Thunderbolts. It was believed that Thunderbolts could keep a person from being struck by lightning or bewitched by demons. In some regions of England belemnites are known as bullets, Devil's Fingers or Saint Peter's Fingers.

Belemnites were once believed to have medicinal qualities and were used as cures for both rheumatism and sore eyes in humans and horses. The treatment for horses involved crushing the fossils into a dust that would then be blown into the animals eyes.

A belemnite was found with a female skeleton in a Bronze Age burial site in Yorkshire - a testament to the cult status of these fossils among prehistoric humans.

Even in modern times, belemnites hold a fascination. In 1947  a local man in Peterborough, a keen bowler, had found belemnites on a bowling green and was convinced that they had fallen from the sky during a thunderstorm the previous day. A local curator assured him otherwise.

There seems to be a general lightning theme running through a lot of the folklore surrounding these fossils. I suppose it was a plausible explanation for where these stones could come from. I am sure there are many more folk tales concerning fossils, but these are some of the most common ones, and the ones my mother told to me when we first went fossil collecting.

By Wychiewoman

Fossils In Folklore Comments And Ratings

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Comments

Thanks for such an informative article, I didn't realise there was so much folklore surrounding fossils. I found some crinoids this year on a nature reserve that used to be a quarry.

Posted by: Ryewolf on 21/12/2014 11:00:00

 

this is really interesting! thank you :-)

Posted by: taranova on 17/01/2015 19:57:00

 

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