Folklore of fossil molluscs

The final article of this series on fossil folklore focuses on molluscs, excluding the ammonites, which were covered earlier (see Fossil folklore: ammonites in Deposits, Issue 46, pp. 20–23). Molluscs are second only to arthropods in the number of species living today and the resistant calcareous skeletons possessed by the majority of species accounts for their extremely rich fossil record. Most fossil molluscs belong to one of three major groups – bivalves (oysters, clams and so on), gastropods (snails and slugs) and cephalopods (ammonites, belemnites and so on). Added to these are a few minor groups, such as the monoplacophorans and scaphopods (tusk shells).

Fossil molluscs are usually recognisable instantly as belonging to this phylum because of their close similarities with the shells of familiar species of modern molluscs. Some, however, are not quite so straightforward. These are more likely to have been the sources of fanciful stories about their origins and significance. Among the more obscure ancient molluscs are those dubbed ‘difficult fossils’ by Martin Rudwick in the context of the early history of palaeontology and doubts over the origin of fossils. They include the solid internal casts (steinkerns) formed by lithification of sediment enclosed by the shell and subsequent loss of the defining shell itself. In addition, there are some mollusc fossils – notably belemnite guards – that bear little resemblance to any living species, adding to their enigmatic nature.

Fig. 1. Five belemnite guards oriented as though they are projectiles flung down from the sky in the manner of ‘thunderbolts’. Belemnitella minor from the Cretaceous Paramoudra Chalk of Norfolk.

Belemnites: thunderbolts and Devil’s Fingers

The first fossils I ever came across were belemnites from the Jurassic Kellaways Rock, collected while on a boyhood adventure following the course of the disused Hull and Barnsley Railway that ran at one point alongside South Cave Station Quarry. I took them home not knowing what they were and was told by my father that they were ‘thunderbolts’. Like many of his generation who had not been educated about fossils, he believed that belemnites were hurled to the ground from the sky during thunderstorms. The streamlined, missile-shape of belemnite guards seems consistent with this idea (Fig. 1). And to add credence to this notion, the heavy rain associated with thunderstorms does occasionally wash away the topsoil and bring fossils such as belemnites to the surface, almost as though they had come from the sky, as recounted by Oakley (1974). Indeed, the name belemnite is derived from the Greek Belemnon, meaning dart or javelin. According to an East Anglian horseman, “As the sun draws up water so the clouds draw up substance from the earth – sulphur and so on. When there’s a clap o’thunder, down all this comes as thunderbolts” (Evans, 1966, p. 131).

The striking shapes of belemnite guards, coupled with their robustness that imparts a high fossilisation potential, has led to a plethora of folkloric names in addition to thunderbolts. In some regions of England, they are known as Fairies’ Fingers, Devil’s Fingers or Saint Peter’s Fingers (Bassett, 1982; Duffin and Davidson, 2011). The earliest mention of belemnites in Scotland dates from 1703, in which they are referred to as botstones (Martin, 1703). Belemnites are known by numerous different names in German folklore, including Alpschoß (nightmare shot), Fingerstein (finger stone), Gespensterkerze (ghostly candle) and Katzenkegel (cat’s skittle) (Hegele, 1997). Scandinavian folklore envisages belemnites as candles belonging to elves, gnomes and pixies, hence the Swedish name Vetteljus (Gnomes’ Lights). They were believed to protect unchristened children from being transformed into changelings by trolls (Duffin, 2008). In Chinese folklore, belemnites are known as Jien-shih (sword stones).

Fig. 2. Longitudinal section of the Early Jurassic belemnite, Acrocoelites, showing the chambered phragmocone (slightly crushed and displaced to the right) above the guard.

There are several records of belemnites recovered from archaeological sites. Oakley (1974) described a Bronze Age burial site in Yorkshire where a belemnite was found with a female skeleton, seemingly a testament to the cult status of these fossils. Fragments of altered amber-coloured belemnites with fine perforations, which may have been used as charms, were found at a 20,000-year-old archaeological site known as Kostenki 17 on the Don River in Russia (Boriskovskii, 1956). Objects resembling belemnites appear in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions symbolising the god Min. According to Newberry (1910), fossil belemnites and certain arrowheads were cult-objects in the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, representing thunderbolts and, by association, Min.

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