Fossil folklore: ammonites

People have collected fossils since prehistoric times. In pre-scientific times, a remarkable folklore developed about how fossils originated and their usefulness. Folklore refers to the beliefs – usually non-scientific – and customs of ordinary people. Before the true origin of fossils as the remains of once living organisms was firmly established and became universally known, fossils must have been extremely bewildering objects to anyone who found them. Although some fossils resembled living creatures, others looked quite different. For example, the internal moulds – ‘steinkerns’ – of molluscs were unlike anything from the living world. Even for fossils that did match known types of animals and plants, the fact that they came out of the ground was puzzling, as was the finding of fossil shells of sea-creatures far away from the sea and on mountain tops. Therefore, it is not surprising that fossils spawned a myriad of myths. From ancient tales about their alleged magical or medicinal powers, to the uses of fossils for religious and decorative purposes, the folklore of fossils is rich and varied (for example, Bassett, 1982; Gregorová, 2006; Mayor, 2000, 2005; McNamara, 2011; Thenius and Vávra, 1996). This article is the first of a series about fossil folklore, exploring fossil myths from around the world.


Fig. 1. Württemberg snakestone, the ammonite Coroniceras, on display in the galleries of the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna, Austria.

Ammonites in folklore

Ammonites are the most iconic of all fossils. Their strikingly beautiful spiral shells make them greatly valued among fossil collectors and, of course, they play a key role in stratigraphy. They have long attracted the attention of humankind. As no close living analogue to ammonites was known until the discovery of the nautilus, ammonites were particularly mysterious objects and a complex folklore developed around them. There are numerous stories explaining the supposed origin of ammonites and many beliefs about their magical and medicinal properties. They have also acted as an inspiration to builders and architects, who have incorporated real ammonites – or motifs of ammonites – into buildings.

Fig. 2. Detail from a cross in the yard of the Church of St Mary, Whitby, showing St Hild about to cast a petrifying spell on the local snakes.

Snakestones

It was once widely believed that ammonites were coiled snakes turned to stone. Snakestone myths in England are particularly associated with Whitby in Yorkshire and Keynsham in Somerset, but similar petrified snake theories also existed elsewhere in Europe, for example, at Württemberg in southwest Germany (Fig. 1).

Fig. 3. Whitby snakestone made from the ammonite Dactylioceras. NHM, London collection.

Snakestones were referred to in England as early as the 16th century. William Camden, in his book Britannia (1586), mentioned stones which, when broken open, were found to contain “stony serpents, wreathed up in circles, but eternally without heads”. Legend has it that the town of Whitby was once infested by snakes, and that the infestation was brought to an end by the Saxon Abbess St Hild (614–680AD), who turned the snakes into stone to clear a site for the building of an abbey (Fig. 2). St Hild’s actions are immortalised in Sir Walter Scott’s poem Marmion:

And how, of thousand snakes, each one

Was changed into a coil of stone,

When holy Hilda pray’d;

Themselves, within their holy bound,

Their stony folds had often found.

According to Lovett (1905), this explanation for the origin of ammonites held sway among the elderly townsfolk of Whitby even into the early 20th century.

The fact that Whitby snakestones do not have a head is supposedly due to a beheading curse issued by another Christian martyr, St Cuthbert (634–687). However, in Victorian times, to make ammonites more saleable and to reinforce the myth of their origin through St Hild’s spell, serpents’ heads (complete with eyes and mouth) were sometimes carved at the end of the final whorl. The Whitby ammonite most often embellished with a snake’s head was Dactylioceras (Figs. 3 and 4), but another Liassic ammonite, Hildoceras, named after St Hild (Fig. 5), was also occasionally used.

Fig. 4. Box containing small Dactylioceras snakestones on display in the Whitby Museum.

So strong was the snakestone legend at Whitby that ammonites became the mascots for the town. Three ammonites, complete with heads, are used as heraldic devices in the Whitby coat-of-arms (Fig. 6). A similar design also features on the badge of the local football club, Whitby Town FC, while tradesmen’s tokens from as early 1667 contain depictions of the same three snakestones.


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