Folk-Lore/Volume 32/Snake Stones


Snake Stones.

The belief in snake stones, which have magical properties, particularly the power of curing snake-bite or acting as an antidote to poison, is widely distributed. In tropical climates, where venomous reptiles abound in great variety and man under more primitive conditions of living is less protected against attack, the absorbing terror of snake-bite is intelligible enough. In Western Europe, however, where snakes are less numerous, and poisonous varieties comparatively infrequent, the preoccupation with snake-bite is more surprising. None the less, medieval medicine and modern folklore testify to the deep impression made by terror of the snake upon popular imagination, and it is significant that Pliny gives to snake-bite the place of honour in his list of ills which may be remedied by simples.[1] For this preoccupation the instinctive horror inspired by reptiles, to which classical poets plead guilty,[2] and only the impartial man of science rises superior,[3] may in part account, together with the awe-inspiring disproportion between the size and insignificance of the serpent and the speedy and fatal results of its attack.

Of snake stones various kinds may be distinguished. Stones or marbles, which in their shape or markings suggest a resemblance to snakes, have been thought to have the property of curing snake-bite. Among these may be reckoned various fossils, such as ammonites or the fossil shark's teeth which in the Middle Ages went by the name of "snakes' tongues."[4] Serpentine and ophite, which owe their names to the markings of waving lines or spots with which they are variegated, equally with stones which resembled snakes in shape, were used as antidotes.[5] In Pliny's time varieties of these marbles, which were in secular demand for the purposes of architectural decoration,[6] were worn as amulets and used to cure headache or snake-bite.[7] In the fourth century A.D. the Orphic Lithica recommends the rubbing of ophite into unmixed wine as an infallible potion, and alleges that Philoctetes was thus healed by Machaon.[8] A rival theory suggested that Philoctetes was cured by Lemnian Earth,[9] which already in the time of Pliny was sold in sealed packets and hence called sphragis.[10] It is therefore worth noticing that Pliny remarks of it that in the native mass it is red, but "is spotted on the exterior."[11] This suggests that originally, like ophite, it may have owed its reputation in part to its spotted appearance resembling the markings of a snake. In part, no doubt, the adhesive and absorbent qualities of the earth, which were palpable to the touch,[12] suggested and maintained the belief in its efficacy as an agent which sucked poison out of the patient.

Stones of this type, which by their shape or markings resemble snakes, are naturally thought to be curative in virtue of homoeopathy. Just as the application of the body or fat of a dead snake[13] or a draught of viper wine[14] are sovereign against snake-bite or poison, so the application of a stone resembling a snake or the drinking of a concoction, in which it has been steeped, will produce similarly desirable results. Analogous is the use of the herb dracunculus, which, being spotted like a viper's skin, enjoyed a reputation as a specific against snake-bite.[15]

The jewelled appearance of some of the more venomous species and the phenomenon of fascination, by which snakes paralyze their victims, may have suggested the almost universal belief that snakes possess a jewel or stone, or that a stone is to be found in their head or body which possesses magical properties. The sorcerers of the Roro-speaking peoples of New Guinea get a stone from the black snake which possesses such power that they can kill a man by touching him with it.[16] The Cherokee of North America believe in a great snake of fabulous size, with a blazing crest like a diamond upon its forehead with which it dazzles its victims. This diamond has only once been obtained, but it confers upon the possessor enormous power. It is described as like a large transparent crystal, shaped like a cartridge bullet, with a blood-red streak running through the centre from top to bottom. The owner keeps it hidden in a secret cave, and feeds it every seven days upon the blood of game to prevent its flying out at night and taking the blood of the conjuror or some of his people.[17] In Wales, whenever a snake is found under or near a hazel tree on which the mistletoe grows, the creature has a precious stone in its head.[18] According to the Malays the cobra has a bright jewel on its head which shines at night, and snakes carry a jewel in their mouths for the possession of which they fight.[19] Chinese dragons are said similarly to fight for a pearl.[20] The Sinhalese believe that certain serpents possess a jewel which is sovereign against snake-bite, and that snakes at night vomit up luminous stones which give them light.[21] Certain varieties of snake on the Lower Niger possess similar stones which they vomit up. They are supposed to give a brilliant light, which attracts the snake's prey. Though specific against other poisons, these stones are of no use against snake-bite; they are mainly employed as a charm to attract game by those hunters, who are sufficiently adroit to kill a snake before it has had time to re-swallow the stone.[22]

Major Leonard reports that "the stone is so small or illusory that it has never been found in any of the specimens which have been killed," but although no doubt many of the stones in use are of questionable origin, the phenomenon of "hard and lapideous concretions" actually to be found in the bodies of some snakes may well have contributed to the belief.[23] The Malays obtain calculi of this nature sometimes from snakes, but principally from the red monkey or porcupine, and use them as antidotes to poison or as remedies for various diseases.[24] The stony secretions of the lynx were used in antiquity to cure falling sickness and to alleviate pains in the kidney,[25] and the Byzantine Philes asserts that calculi from the ostrich are an excellent remedy for ophthalmia.[26] To such calculi, which are not in fact of resplendent appearance nor in the least like diamonds, appears to belong the dracontia lapis of Solinus, an authority upon whom the medieval lapidaries drew. It must be cut out of the head of a living snake, for, if the snake dies before it is procured, the stone dissolves. Though much prized by kings of the East, it is of ignoble appearance, does not reflect artificial light, and is too soft to allow of carving or ornament. The perilous task of procuring it is carried out by performing the operation after the serpents have been drugged with medicated herbs.[27] The dragon stone acquired by Dieudonné de Gozon—as the result of his combat with the Rhodian dragon—and still preserved by his descendants as a family heirloom at the end of the sixteenth century, was alleged to have been cut from the forehead of the monster.[28] The doctrine that the stone must be taken from the brain of the dragon while it still lived also persisted through the Middle Ages.[29] The dracontia lapis appears to have reached Rome from the East; the West had also its snake stone, the vogue of which has been perpetuated by the authority of the written text of Pliny, in spite of that author's scornful scepticism as to its virtues. His account of the ovum anguinum Pliny had from the Druids of Gaul,[30] through the Natural History it passed to the medieval lapidaries[31] and thence back, perhaps to reinforce a continuous local tradition, to the popular superstition of France and the British Isles.[32] This adder stone, named a milpreve in Cornwall and Maen Magi or Glain Neidr in Wales, was formed by innumerable snakes meeting together in a kind of congress which was supposed to take place on Midsummer Eve or May Eve.[33] From the general hissing at this meeting of snakes, amicably interlocked, or, in a Welsh version, engaged in a desperate struggle,[34] a kind of bubble of frothy slime was formed which hardened into stone.[35]

The objects which passed for snake stones of this kind seem for the most part to have been fossil sea-urchins, pieces of coral or most frequently of all the glass beads found in barrows of an earlier age.[36] These latter, it may be noticed, were often doubly snake stones, for the lines with which they are sometimes marked suggested a snake imprisoned in the stone.[37] Similarly, in Caithness and the Hebrides ancient spindle whorls are thought to have been made by seven vipers who worked them into shape with their teeth, and as they were finished the king of the vipers carried them off upon his tail.[38] In the north of England almost any kind of perforated stone, such as is suspended as a charm against nightmare or to prevent night-sweating in the stable, is called an adder stone.[39]

The fortunate possessor of a genuine adder stone[40] was assured of success in all his undertakings, particularly, according to Pliny's informants, in law-suits and royal audiences.[41] According to more modern authorities, in addition to the general good fortune which it guarantees to the possessor, the adder stone has specific qualities, among which its use as prophylactic against the attack of snakes or as an antidote against their poison is almost universal. The method of cure is usually to dip the stone in water, which is then given to the patient to drink.

In Wales the curative properties of the adder stone are specially efficacious in diseases of the eye,[42] and Aelian recommends the application of the slough of an adder for such ailments.[43] The origin of this superstition can be explained. Aristotle gave authority for the belief that if the eyes of young swallows or serpents were put out they grew again.[44] In one version the parent swallows effected the cure by the application of celandine (chelidonia), which in consequence was a specific for sore eyes.[45] It is interesting to notice that by an intelligible transference the flesh of swallows[46] and the swallow plant[47] come to be recommended not only for ophthalmia, but also for snake-bite.

Among the magical stones which were catalogued in later classical times there are some which enjoy the reputation of putting serpents to flight or curing the victims of snake-bite, which cannot with certainty be brought under any of the above categories of so-called snake stones.[48] And mention should be made of a class of snake stone which appears to derive its name not from its serpentine shape, markings or origin, but from its function of extracting poison, for which it is qualified by its adhesive properties.[49] Thus among the Malays snake stones are manufactured by magicians out of a mixture of metals. They are described as about an inch long, oval in shape and perforated. They are placed upon the wound, to which they adhere and will not fall off until they have sucked out the poison.[50] In the Eastern Levant a rare kind of yellow porous stone was similarly used to absorb "every particle of venom from the wound."[51] No doubt it was snake-stones of this kind which Paul Lucas brought home, for among the rarities secured by him are catalogued "Plusieurs de ces Pierres, qu'on nomme Pierres de Serpent, parce qu'elles ont la vertu, étant mises sur la morsure des bétes vermineuses, d'attirer tout le venin. Elles s'attachent sur la plaie et ne tombent que quand le venin est evaporé. On les fait ensuite tremper dans du lait, où elles laissent le poison dont elles s'étoient chargées."[52]

  1. Verum et effectus ususque dicendi sunt ordiendumque a malorum omnium pessimo est, serpentium ictu. Pliny, Nat. Hist. xxv. (55), 99. Cf. ib. xxviii. (42), 149.
  2. Homer, Iliad, iii. 33-35; Theocritus, xv. 58.
  3. "I cannot start at the presence of a Serpent, Scorpion, Lizard or Salamander: at the sight of a Toad or Viper I find no desire to take up a stone to destroy them. I feel not in myself those common Antipathies that I can discover in others." Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, ii. 1.
  4. W. Skeat. "Snakestones and Stone Thunderbolts," Folk-Lore. xxiii. pp. 45-80. America may be added to the area over which the belief in the ammonite snake stone is distributed. A fragment of an ammonite presented by a Sioux chief as "good medicine" was exhibited at the Folk-Lore Congress of 1891. International Folk-Lore Congress, 1891. p. 445.
  5. Similarly in Malta pebbles which resemble in colour the eyes, heart, liver, or tongue of snakes are worn as amulets or used for steeping as an antidote. Like Maltese Earth (for which see Hasluck, B.S.A. xvi. p. 228) they are connected with the traditional cave of St. Paul. Skeat, op. cit. p. 48.
  6. Martial, vi. 42. 12-15; Statius, Silvae, i. 5. 35. Cf. Dionysius Periegetes, 1013.
  7. Pliny, Nat. Hist, xxxvi. (11), 55-56.
  8. Orphic, Lithica, x. 335 f., 11. The story that Philoctetes was cured by means of ophite is repeated by Tzetzes, ad Lycophron., 911.
  9. Philostratus, Heroica, vi. 2. For the history of Lemnian Earth see Hasluck, "Terra Lemnia," B.S.A., xvi. pp. 221 foll.
  10. Pliny, Nat. Hist. xxxv. (14), 33-35.
  11. Pliny, Nat, Hist. xxxv. (13), 31. Glaebis suus colos, extra maculosus.
  12. Thus in a letter written between 1603 and 1607 a Yorkshire squire is recommended to put a local earth on the market as a rival to the expensive Terra Silligata. (The revival of the use of Lemnian Earth in sixteenth century was followed by the exploitation of substitutes in many countries of Europe (Hasluck, op. cit. pp. 226 foil.), and they were eagerly sought in the New World. Thomas Heriot, Report of Virginia, 1588, in Hakluyt, Voyages (Glasgow, 1904), viii. p. 354). It "might in my conceyte be imployed in makinge of such red pottes as come from Venice, which are sold very deare, by reason of the vertue ascribed unto them, what secret operatyon is in these pottes I know not, but I am well assured that this earth, both the white and the red, beinge put to one's lippes, will stycke fast to them, even as those pottes doe." "A Description of Cleveland in a Letter addressed by H. Tr. to Sir T. Chaloner," quoted in Gutch, County Folk-Lore, II., The North Riding, etc., p. 176. Cf. Sir Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia, ii. cap. iii. The Palestinian earth from which the body of Adam was supposed to have been formed was exported to the East in the seventeenth century on account of its magical and medicinal qualities. This too was reddish in colour and like wax to handle. Zuallardo, Il Devotissimo Viaggio di Gierusalemme, Rome, 1587, pp. 262-263.
  13. Pliny, Nat. Hist. xxix. (22), 71; Hunt, Romances and Drolls of the West of England, 2nd series, p. 215; Folk-Lore, xxii. p. 305.
  14. Pliny, loc. cit.; Skeat, Folk-Lore, xxxiii. p. 48.
  15. Pliny, Nat. Hist. xxv. (6), 18. Cf. the similar use of Viper's Bugloss (Echium Vulgare), the seed of which resembles a serpent's head. Bilson, County Folk-Lore, III., Leicester and Rutland, p. 33.
  16. Seligmann, The Melanesians of British New Guinea, pp. 282-283. These snake-stones can be rendered innocuous by immersion in a bowl of salt water, which will then hiss and bubble as though boiling. When no more bubbles are to be seen, the stone is "dead."
  17. Mooney, "Myths of the Cherokee," Nineteenth Annual Report of the American Bureau of Ethnology, pp. 297-298. There is record of the existence of this stone in the eighteenth century (Timberlake's Memoirs (1765), quoted in Folk-Lore, i. p. 278).
  18. Trevelyan, Folklore and Folkstories of Wales, p. 171. For the connection of the snake with the hazel cf . below, p. 26S, note 5.
  19. Skeat, Malay Magic, pp. 303-304.
  20. Skeat, loc. cit.
  21. Hildburgh, Journal of R. Anth. Inst, xxxviii. pp. 188-200. These luminous snake-stones, the method of acquiring which is described, have general magical properties and are also specific against snake-bite.
  22. Leonard, The Lower Niger and its Tributaries, p. 192. The stone is described as round and smooth, blue by day and like fire by night.
  23. Cf. Sir Thomas Browne on the Toad Stone, Pseudodoxia, iii. cap. xiii.
  24. Skeat, Malay Magic, pp. 275, 303-304.
  25. Solinus, Collectanea Rerum Mirabilium, ii. 38-39, on the authority of Theophrastus.
  26. Philes (ed. Dübner), 150. I have not traced this in Aelian from whom Philes is mainly derived.
  27. Solinus, XXX. 16-18.
  28. Hasluck, "Dieudonne de Gozon and the Dragon of Rhodes," B.S.A., XX. pp. 75, 79. It was described as a crystal of the size and shape of an olive and of varied colour. Water in which it was placed bubbled violently while absorbing the virtue of the stone (cf. the Melanesian stone above), and was afterwards given to the patient to drink. A sixteenth century witness describes how a patient after this treatment vomited up a serpent 1½ palms long.
  29. Conrad von Megenburg, Buch der Natur (ed. Pfeiffer), 444, §29, cited by Hasluck, op. cit. p. 75, note 4.
  30. Pliny, Nat. Hist. xxix. (12),,52-54.
  31. Cf. the account of the stone Dreconides given by the fourteenth, century Lapidaire of de Mandeville quoted by Hasluck, B.S.A. xx. p. 75.
  32. Sebillot, Traditions et Superstitions de la Haute-Bretagne, ii. 217. Brand, Popular Antiquities of Great Britain (ed. Ellis, London, 1893). iii. pp. 286 and 369 foil.; Hunt, op. cit. pp. 220, 221, 222; Trevelyan, op. cit. pp. 170 foll.; Henderson, Northern Counties of England and the Border, p. 165; Johnson, Folk Memory, p. 148; Dalyell, The Darker Superstitions of Scotland, pp. 131 and 141 foll.; Campbell, Popular Tales of the West Highlands, ii. p. 385.
  33. Some authorities less definitely say spring or summer. Pliny's Druids put the congress of snakes in summer and at a particular phase of the moon.
  34. Trevelyan, loc. cit.
  35. Pliny reports that the stone was projected into the air by the hissing. It had to be caught in a cloak before touching the ground, and the fortunate captor fled on horseback pursued by the snakes until he crossed running water.
  36. Pliny's example seems to be an echinus. Fossil sea urchins are sometimes called "cock knee stones" and used for magical purposes in Scotland (Dalyell, op. cit. p. 141). For echinites as "thunderstones" see Blinkenberg, The Thunder Weapon in Religion and Folklore, pp. 74, 77-83, 95. Pliny's adder-egg may have resembled the early Danish amulet figured by Blinkerberg, op. cit. p. 85. An eye-witness described a milpreve as a piece of coral the size of a pigeon's egg (Hunt, op. cit. p. 220). A Welsh specimen is described as "a perfectly round and highly polished pebble, a soft pink shade blended with lilac. The tints resemble those of an opal; it is very cold to the touch, especially if placed against the eyes, lips or temples." Sometimes these stones are of a pale terra-cotta, sometimes light green and often of a soft azure blue (Trevelyan, op. cit. p. 171).
  37. "They are small glass amulets, commonly about half as wide as our finger rings but much thicker, usually of a green colour, though some are blue and others curiously waved with blue, red and white " (Brand, op. cit. iii. p. 370, quoting Gough's Camden (1789), ii. p. 571). Carew in the seventeenth century says that "snakes by breathing upon a hazel wand doe make a stone ring of blue colour in which there appeareth the yellow figure of a snake" (Survey of Cornwall, quoted Hunt, op. cit. p. 221). Cf. the blood red streak in the Cherokee snake-stone mentioned above.
  38. Folk-Lore, xvi. p. 336. Cf. Sir John Evans, Stone Implements of Great Britain, 2nd ed., p. 437; Johnson, Folk Memory, pp. i, 7. 158. Such whorls are also called "Pixy grindstones," "Pixy wheels" or "Fairy mill-stones" in various parts of England and Ireland.
  39. Denham Tracts (Folk-Lore Society), ii. p. 43; Balfour and Thomas, County Folk-Lore, IV., Northumberland, pp. 51-52. For Perforated Stone Amulets see Elworthy in Man, 1903, No. 8, pp. 17-20.
  40. A genuine adder-stone will float upstream even if set with gold (Pliny, loc. cit.).
  41. Though Pliny tells us that it did not help a Roman equestrian who was put to death by Claudius.
  42. Trevelyan, op. cit. p. 171.
  43. Aelian, Nat. An. ix. 16.
  44. Aristotle, Hist. Nat. ii. 17, vi. 5; De Gen. An. iv. 6. Cf. Antigonus Carystius, Historiarium Mirabilium Collectanea, Ixxviii.; Aelian, Nat. An. ii. 3, xvii. 20; Pliny, Nat. Hist. xi. (55), 153.
  45. Pliny, Nat. Hist. viii. (41), 98, xxv. 89 (50), 89. Lizards similarly cured their blinded young with an unknown herb and hence an agate stone with a lizard carved on it cured ophthalmia (Aelian, Nat. An. v. 47). In modern folk-lore the swallow uses a magic stone which in consequence provides an infallible remedy for ophthalmia. (In Pliny the swallow-stone is used for epilepsy. Cf. "Seventeenth Centuiy Charm," Wright, Folk-Lore, xxiii. p. 235.) Swainson, The Folklore of British Birds, pp. 51-52. Swainson quotes a reference to the use of celandine from Chester's Love's Martyr, but it is possible that this may be derived directly from Pliny rather than from popular belief.
  46. Pliny, Nat. Hist. xxix. (26). 81.
  47. Pliny, Nat. Hist. xxv. (55), 101. It is administered in wine.
  48. E.g. the stone from the river Pontius (Aelian, Nat. An. ix. 20) or the purple stone of Indian origin mentioned by Philes (No. 77, 1. 1424), which like the Scotch adder-stone was remedial in child-birth and also curative of snake-bite.
  49. Cf. Lemnian Earth, above, p. 264.
  50. Skeat, Malay Magic, p. 303.
  51. Kelly, Syria and the Holy Land, p. 127, quoted Henderson, op. cit. p. 165.
  52. Lucas, Voyage en 1714 (edition published at Rouen, 1719), iii. p. 342.