Stones are perhaps some of humanity’s oldest friends. They provided building materials and became simple tools. But they also vary in size, making some of them very portable as amulets. It’s no wonder that they’ve accrued both lore and superstition alike.
For example, the heaviness and general permanence of stone slabs led to their use as boundary markers. In Brittany, it was a crime to move a boundary stone. If caught, you were expected to carry the stone on your head until you met someone who would tell you to put it back in its rightful place (Rose 1924: 196).
We won’t be looking at precious or semi-precious stones for one simple reason. Folklore is often about the beliefs and customs of ordinary people. What we now consider crystals would largely be beyond their reach, both to find and afford them. Instead, we’ll be looking at the superstitions and beliefs attached to regular stones that you might stumble across.
And if you’re interested in stone circles, the 19th exclusive episode of the podcast for Patreon supporters covered standing stones, burial mounds, caves, and more…
Stones and Superstitions
In Fladda, Scotland, there was a church dedicated to St. Columba. A round blue stone once sat on the altar. If a fisherman couldn’t leave the island because of the wind, he would wet the stone, which would apparently bring favouring winds. According to tradition, the practice always worked (Guthrie 1889: 45).
There were other ways you could change your fortune by wetting a stone. The Folklore journal reported a superstition recorded in North Wales in the 1890s. A schoolboy used a stone to bring himself luck. He’d find a white stone in the road and then spit on it. He’d throw it over his head while saying,
“Lucky stone, lucky stone,(Folklore 1914: 372)
Bring me luck when I go home”.
This isn’t as odd an idea as it might sound. In Brighton, one tradition saw people spitting on holed stones found on the beach. Having spat on the stone (or sometimes through the hole), they threw them over their left shoulder or into the sea for luck (Duffin 2011: 89). The thrower would pray for better luck before spitting.
Stones with holes in them had a range of names, including hag stones and witch stones (Simpson 2003: 182). In the north of England, people called these stones adder stones (Halliday 1921: 269). This is a little confusing since adder stones also referred to snake stones, which we’ll get to soon! The stones were believed to ward off witchcraft and any diseases sent by witches.
In the late 19th century, people hung holed flints from bedsteads to cure attacks of ague, which some think was actually a form of malarial fever (Duffin 2011: 90). Elsewhere, people wore holed flints to guard against backache.
People found many uses for their holed flints. Some hung them over their table to ensure they always had plenty to eat. Others hung them behind their front door to protect the home from lightning strikes. One person even hung it over a staircase to stop anyone from falling down the stairs (Duffin 2011: 91). In an interesting twist, many people preferred hanging their stones using copper wire. Adding one to a bunch of keys would bring prosperity to everyone in the house (Simpson 2003: 182).
Hanging a holed stone above your bed would prevent you from being hagridden (Simpson 2003: 161). Nowadays, we recognise this as sleep paralysis, but in earlier times, people feared nocturnal attacks by witches. They also believed that supernatural creatures might steal their horses during the night and ride them to the point of exhaustion. This was also called hagriding, and again, hanging a holed stone above the animal in the barn warded off harm.
Healing Stones (or Fossils)
A plethora of fossils were given quaint names to suit their status as charms. Ammonites were snakestones, gryphaeas were Devil’s toe-nails, belemnites were thunderbolts of St Peter’s fingers, and fossil encrinites were St. Cuthbert’s beads (Skeat 1912: 45).
People in Scotland used Devil’s toe-nails to ease joint pain (Skeat 1912: 46). Meanwhile, people in Gloucestershire ground up belemnites and blew the dust into a horse’s eyes if they watered too much (Skeat 1912: 62).
People in Whitstable carried ‘cramp stones’ as amulets to ward off cramp. They were actually fossilised shark’s teeth, rather than actual stones (Lovett 1909: 65). Henry III apparently had a snake’s tongue set into gold, and it’s possible because of the forked nature of the stone that it was actually a shark’s tooth (Skeat 1912: 48). He apparently wore it to ward off poison.
Ammonites were often referred to as snake stones since they resembled curled-up snakes. Others thought they were carried in a serpent’s mouth (Skeat 1912: 46). One Welsh belief claimed snakes found near hazel trees that hosted mistletoe would have precious stones in their heads (Halliday 1921: 265). Some writers did note that no stones had actually been found in any snakes, though there’s a caveat in the lore. You had to remove the stone from the head while the snake was still alive. If the snake died first, the stone dissolved (Halliday 1921: 266). How convenient.
In Whitby, people believed ammonites were actual snakes turned into stone by St. Hilda (Skeat 1912: 50). Obviously the problem with this one is that if they’re petrified snakes, they don’t have heads, but various legends tried to explain that St. Cuthbert somehow caused the snakes to be beheaded before St. Hilda petrified them. Some people did claim to have the heads of the snakes, though this is unlikely.
Keynsham in Somersetshire has a similar legend, where St. Keyna apparently turned venomous snakes into stone through prayer (Skeat 1912: 53).
Other people called ammonites ‘the Horns of Ammon’. Their coiled shape resembled the horn of a ram, and the Egyptian god Ammon (also Amun) had a ram’s head.
Various birds were associated with stones that seemingly had magical or medicinal powers. You either found the stones in their nest or inside the bird itself. There are a lot of birds with their own stones, but eagles and swallows are perhaps two of the best known.
Eagle stones only appeared in eagles’ nests, if you believed our old friend Pliny. These were prescribed to pregnant people who wanted to protect themselves and their baby. The eagle stone was a small, brown, hollow rock. It contained pebbles or sand, so it rattled when shaken. The rattling meant people thought the eagle stone seemed to be pregnant. That’s why they became amulets for pregnant women. The advice directed women to wear them around the neck, or around their left arm (Simpson 2003: 102). If you want to learn more about the folklore of eagles, I’ve got an exclusive podcast episode on them! Get access by becoming a Patreon supporter for £3.50 a month.
Swallows also had their own stones, known unsurprisingly as swallow stones. According to Pliny the Elder, tying one to the left arm of an epileptic patient would relieve the condition (Duffin 2013: 82). Others swore by the stones for their powers to cure eye diseases (Duffin 2013: 93).
Earlier writers thought swallows would swallow small stones to help with digestion. These end up in the gizzard, and it seems to be these stones people prized so highly (Duffin 2013: 82). Collecting them was an arduous task since some writers recommended you collect them while the parents were absent. You also couldn’t let the stones touch the earth, or they’d lose their powers (Duffin 2013: 85). The folklore of these stones persisted for the longest in France, continuing into the 19th century (Duffin 2013: 97).
Repurposing Old Tools
Flint made a good choice for stone axe heads or arrowheads. Yet when people found them in earlier centuries, they assumed they were fairy weapons. ‘Elf bolts’ or ‘elf shot’ are common names for them. People believed that these elves lived in a shadowy Otherworld alongside our own. They could cause illness by firing these elf shots at people. You can read my article about them here.
Despite that, these flints still had some connection with healing. People would pop them in water while it boiled, and use the water both for eye complaints and childbirth pains (Skeat 1912: 64). In Cornwall, people used this water to treat rheumatism (Skeat 1912: 65).
People set them into frames and wore them as amulets. One man in Scotland still had one in the 1880s to guard against witchcraft (Skeat 1912: 64). Ironically, Scottish witches apparently used these stone arrowheads to cut clay or wax images as part of their witchcraft (Skeat 1912: 65).
Stones and the Supernatural
Plenty of contemporary accounts of paranormal activity involve stones thrown at those involved, and people usually assign the activity to poltergeists. Though if you’ve seen The Haunting (1963), you’ll know Dr Markway chooses Nell to be in his experiment after it rained rocks on her house. The assumption is that Nell caused this stony shower herself through a form of telekinesis.
There is a possibility the idea of supernatural stone throwing comes from accounts of witches and demons throwing stones in early literature, but it’s not common (Davidson 2012: 99). Rather, people believed witches would throw stones as part of their spell casting. Demons threw them to scare people (Davidson 2012: 100).
One 1698 pamphlet recounted an instance of lithobolia or stone throwing. Stones apparently fell both inside the afflicted home, as well as outside (Davidson 2012: 101). Even Sir Walter Scott recounted a tale of poltergeist activity that saw a sailor pelted with stones on a road. That said, he only admitted this after confessing to the murder of the youth whose ghost apparently threw the stones (Davidson 2012: 102). While Scott was dubious about the phenomenon, it has become a common staple in ghost hunting TV shows.
Stone Tape Theory
A persistent belief in paranormal circles in the so-called ‘stone tape theory’. In its most basic form, it claims that the energy around traumatic events becomes imprinted on the surrounding stones. This then ‘replays’ at certain times, turning hauntings into repeat performances.
Various 19th-century writers liked the idea that human activity could imprint on the environment. Members of the Society for Psychical Research, such as Eleanor Sidgwick, proposed theories that certain materials were better recording media than others.
One problem with the stone tape theory is that it doesn’t explain why people can interact with spectral entities in some hauntings. If it was only a replay, that would be like thinking you could change the course of events in a TV show that was filmed four years ago. It also doesn’t explain hauntings where ghosts seem to simply wander about locations.
Contemporary writers have also noted that it’s almost impossible to test, meaning it doesn’t qualify as a theory (Hill 2017). They also note that no one has identified how anyone would play back such information, even if it could be imprinted onto the stone (Schick 2013: 326). Remember, its name largely derives from The Stone Tape (aff link), an excellent if slightly hammy 1972 film. I highly recommend Sharon A. Hill’s blog post detailing why the theory doesn’t work from a geological perspective, linked below!
What do we make of the folklore of stones?
You’ll see a common thread through these examples. Stones are hard-wearing, plentiful, and very portable. They’re easy to use as amulets to ward off illness and disease. Yet fossils in particular also play their part in folk medicine. These fragments of the prehistoric world become imbued with healing properties.
I think this is what makes it difficult to take supernatural stone throwing seriously. Why would witches be able to throw stones… if stones were able to ward off witchcraft? I’ll leave that one to you to ponder!
Which is your favourite folklore of stones?
Davidson, Jane P., Duffin, Christopher John (2012), ‘Stones and Spirits’, Folklore, 123:1, pp. 99-109.
Duffin, Christopher J. (2011), ‘Herbert Toms (1874-1940), Witch Stones, and ‘Porosphaera’ Beads’, Folklore, 122: 1, pp. 84–101.
Duffin, Christopher J. (2013), ‘Chelidonius: The Swallow Stone’, Folklore, 124:1, pp. 81–103.
Folklore (1914), ‘The Saliva Superstition’, Folklore, 25:3, pp. 372–372.
Guthrie, Ellen E. (1889), ‘Superstitions of the Scottish Fishermen’, The Folk-Lore Journal, 7:1, pp. 44–47.
Halliday, W. R. (1921), ‘Snake Stones’, Folklore, 32:4, pp. 262–71.
Hill, Sharon A. (2017), ‘The “Stone Tape Theory” of hauntings: A geological perspective’, Sharon A. Hill, http://sharonahill.com/2017/05/11/the-stone-tape-theory-of-hauntings-a-geological-perspective/.
Lovett, E. (1909), ‘Superstitions and Survivals amongst Shepherds’, Folklore, 20:1, pp. 64–70.
Rose, H. A. (1924), ‘Boundary-Stones in Jersey’, Folklore, 35: 2, pp. 195–201.
Schick, Theodore, Vaughn, Lewis (2013), How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age, seventh edition, New York: McGraw-Hill.
Simpson, Jacqueline and Steve Roud (2003), A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Skeat, Walter W. (1912), ‘‘Snakestones’ and Stone Thunderbolts as Subjects for Systematic Investigation’, Folklore, 23:1, pp. 45–80.
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