Fossil folklore: some myths, monsters, swallows and butterflies

Myths are traditional stories embodying ancient yet false ideas. At the root of many myths lie unusual events, for example, extreme floods, or mysterious objects such as fossils. Numerous myths about different kinds of fossils can be found in the folklore of many countries around the world. Indeed, some ‘monsters’ or mythical creatures of legend – such as the Cyclops, griffins and dragons – may have their roots in findings of fossil bones.

Angels’ Money and Slaves’ Lentils

The Greek traveller and writer known as Strabo the Geographer (c. 63BC–21AD) visited the pyramids of Gizeh in Egypt, which were then some 2,500 years old (Fig. 1). The pyramids are constructed of Middle Eocene nummulitic limestone. Nummulites are a type of foraminifera. These single-celled protists lived on the seabed and secreted disc-like chambered shells up to 4cm in diameter (Fig. 2), the large size for animals having only one cell reflecting the presence of symbiotic algae in their tissues.

Fig 1 pyramids
Fig. 1. The pyramids of Gizeh, constructed of Eocene nummulitic limestone.

Fossil nummulites drop out of the limestone at Gizeh after weathering. Picking up examples of these fossils, Strabo was informed that they were the petrified remains of the food belonging to the workers who built the pyramids. Strabo wrote in Chapter 1 of his Geography Book 17:

One of the marvellous things I saw at the pyramids should not be omitted: there are heaps of stone-chips lying in front of the pyramids; and among these are found chips that are like lentils in both form and size… They say that what was left of the food of the workmen has petrified; and this is not improbable.

Fig 2 Nummulites
Fig. 2. Eocene nummulites from Gizeh, Egypt. The block on the left contains both large and small specimens, ‘Angels’ Money’ and ‘Slaves’ Lentils, respectively. On the right are three specimens of ‘Angels’ Money’, weathered out of the limestone matrix.

The main nummulite found in the limestones of the pyramids is a species called Nummulites gizehensis. This exists in two different forms, large and small, representing respectively the diploid (with two sets of chromosomes) and haploid (with one set of chromosomes) stages of the life cycle. The large form has become known as ‘Angels’ Money’ and the small form ‘Slaves’ Lentils’.

The name ‘nummulites’ derives from the Latin nummulus meaning small coin. Indeed, elsewhere in the world, they are associated in folklore with money (Duffin and Davidson, 2011), for example, as St Peter’s money in Belgium and Ladislaus’ pennies in Hungary.

Fig 3 protoceratops
Fig. 3. Cast of the skull of the Cretaceous dinosaur, Protoceratops, associated with the myth of griffins.

Monsters

Several myths about monsters can be traced back to the discovery of fossil bones, as explained in great detail by Mayor (2000) in her fascinating book The First Fossil Hunters. The Cyclops of Homeric legend may have had its origin in the discovery of fossil bones of dwarf elephants in caves around the Mediterranean. The skulls of these Pleistocene mammals possess a large hole that looks like a socket for the single eye of the Cyclops.

Fig 4 Exeter Cathedral Griffin
Fig. 4. Metalwork griffin from Exeter Cathedral.
Fig 5 Vienna Griffins
Fig. 5. Pair of heraldic griffins, in the Hofburg Imperial Palace in Vienna.

Griffins

Skulls of the Cretaceous dinosaur, Protoceratops (Fig. 3), a forerunner of the more familiar Triceratops, resemble the head of the mythical griffin (Figs. 4 and 5). As argued by Mayor (2000), such skulls may have been the basis for the legend of this ferocious creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. Significantly, bones of Protoceratops are found in the region where the griffin was reputed to have lived, the Gobi Desert of Mongolia (Fig. 6). Those wishing to safeguard the goldfields of central Asia against unwanted intruders may well have advocated the existence of these ferocious creatures.

Fig 6 Flaming Cliffs, Gobi Desert
Fig. 6. Late Cretaceous Djadochta Formation exposed at the Flaming Cliffs in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. This is the type locality of Protoceratops andrewsi (photo by Di Clements).

Dragons

Some believe that the supposed existence of dragons has its foundations in fossils of the woolly rhinoceros, Coelodonta antiquitatis (Fig. 7), which has a dragon-like elongated skull (Fig. 8). One skull of this Pleistocene mammal was formerly kept in the town hall at Klagenfurt in Austria, where it was considered to come from a winged, two-legged dragon – the ‘Lindwurm’ – that was slain by two brave men before the foundation of the city in the thirteenth century. This skull was found in a gravel pit in 1335 and the city of Klagenfurt still has a monument of the dragon dating from 1590. The occurrence of fossil bones of woolly mammoths in caves matched ideas about dragons inhabiting caves, while the geographical distribution of these fossils in Europe and Asia corresponds with regions where dragon myths are prevalent (Figs. 9 and 10).

Woolly rhinoceros
Fig. 7. Reconstruction of a woolly rhino.

Snakes and serpents

Snakes figure prominently in all kinds of folklore (Pickering, 1999). In Christianity, they are associated with the Devil and the biblical story of Adam and Eve, while in the folklore of other cultures, they feature as creatures to be feared and respected.

Various fossils have been misidentified in folklore as petrified snakes, notably ammonites which can resemble coiled snakes (see my earlier article in this series in the last issue of Deposits), or parts of snakes, as in the case of sharks’ teeth thought to be snakes’ tongues and some other fish teeth to be their eyes (see subsequent articles). Such misidentifications lie at the root of many myths regarding fossils.

One of the most extreme misidentifications concerns a fossil tree, Lepidodendron, which in 1851 was exhibited in Wales as the body of a gigantic fossil serpent (North 1931) (Fig 11). The leaf bases on the trunk of this Carboniferous lycopod tree do bear a passing resemblance to the scales of reptiles and it is easy to see how uninformed members of the public could have been fooled by the showman responsible for the exhibition, long after the true identity of these fossil trees was known to science.

Fig 8 Woolly Rhino skull
Fig. 8. Woolly rhino skull, possibly the inspiration for dragon myths.
Fig 9 dragon (NHM picture library)
Fig. 9. Fire-breathing European dragon.

Swallows and butterflies

Brachiopods are among the most common of all fossils and were especially diverse and abundant in the Palaeozoic. The shells of some fossil brachiopods, such as spiriferines, are extended at the sides into a pair of wing-like structures. During life, the wings accommodated spiral arms of the lophophore, the organ employed by brachiopods for filtering planktonic food.

In China, winged brachiopods are known as Shih-yen or stone swallows (Fig 12). The fifth century Chinese scholar Li Tao-Yuan recorded that, during thunderstorms, the stone swallows flew about as if they were real swallows (Casanova, 1983). A similar myth relating brachiopods to birds also once existed in the European Alps, where certain species are known as ‘Little Doves’ (Oakley, 1965).

Fig 10 Dragon plate Qing Dynasty 1736–96 Wuhan Musm
Fig. 10. Chinese dragon on a plate from the Qing Dynasty (eighteenth century) in Wuhan Museum in China.
Fig 11 serpentposter
Fig. 11. Billboard poster advertising the exhibition of a supposed fossil serpent at Neath in Wales in 1851. For the price of only three pence, members of the working classes could view what was actually a trunk of the Carboniferous tree, Lepidodendron.

The Devonian slates formerly quarried at Delabole in Cornwall, England, contain a brachiopod related to those from China. Here, however, the quarrymen of times past likened the fossils to butterflies, hence the name Delabole Butterfly (Fig. 13).

Fig 12 Swallow stones
Fig. 12. ‘Stone swallows’ (Shih-yen) – spiriferine brachiopods from China.

Another kind of butterfly stone consists of the tails of the Cambrian trilobite, Drepanura (Fig. 14). These Chinese fossils, known as Hu-die-shih, are found in Shantung Province.

Fig 13 Delabole Butterfly
Fig. 13. ‘Delabole butterfly’, a tectonically distorted brachiopod from Devonian slate formerly quarried at Delabole in Cornwall.
Fig 14 trilobite swallows
Fig. 14. ‘Butterfly stone’ (Hu-die-shih) from Shantung Province, China. The ‘butterflies’ in this Cambrian rock are pygidia (tails) of the trilobite, Drepanura.

References

Casanova, R. L. 1983. The Pharaoh’s lentils: how it all began. Fossils Quarterly 2: 6-16.

Duffin, C. J. & Davidson, J. P. 2011. Geology and the dark side. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 122: 7–15.

Mayor, A. 2000. The First Fossil Hunters . Princeton: Princeton University Press.

North, F. J. 1931. Coal, and the coalfields in Wales. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales.

Oakley, K. P. 1965. Folklore of Fossils. Antiquity 39: 9–16, 117–125.

Pickering, D. 1999. The Cassell Dictionary of Folklore . London: Cassell.

 


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