Petrification Myths: Saints, Snakes and Ammonites

ammonite_asteroceras

Asteroceras, a Jurassic ammonite from England – Image by Dlloyd – CC BY-SA 3.0

Petrification Myths

There are many petrification myths where people, or living things, are turned to stone for various reasons.  In legend and folklore this often occurs through the action of some powerful individual such as witches by sorcery, or by saints calling upon God, or by some other form of divine intervention when rules have been transgressed.  In the examples that follow it is divine intervention called down by St Hilda and St Keyne that turn snakes into stone to end their infestation of religious sites. The proof of these miraculous events was seen in the existence of what appears to look like petrified snakes coiled up and found naturally in certain places such as Whitby in Yorkshire that was associated with St. Hilda and Keynsham in Somerset, associated with St. Keyne.   In fact these stone snakes were not snakes at all but fossils known as ammonites.  Presented here is a brief description of ammonites followed by the legends of how Saint Hilda and Saint Keyne cleared their respective religious sites of snakes by turning them to stone.

Ammonites

The name” ammonite” comes from the Egyptian god Ammon, or Amun, who was often represented wearing tightly coiled ram’s horns.  These type of fossils are usually found in tightly coiled spirals, which are indeed,  similar to ram’s horns though usually smaller.  The size of the ammonites varies depending on the period they originated in and with species. Ammonites are extinct marine mollusks that died out millions of years ago and look very much like coiled, headless stone snakes after they became fossilized.  Sometimes they were called Snakestones and there was a belief that if they were broken, inside a headless, coiled snake would be found.

People found them in, or on the ground and along the beaches, in riverbeds and many other places and generally regarded them with superstition.   Sometimes they believed they had magical or healing properties and many strange and wonderful stories were told of their supposed origin.  In the early days of human existence, people did not know where they came from and many myths and legends evolved around them.  Up until the middle of the eighteenth century, the origin of fossils was the subject of myth and conjecture.   It was not until the 19th century that scientific research began to unravel the secret of their origins.

St. Hilda

st_hilda_memorial_ammonites

St. Hilda monument detail in Whitby. Note ammonites at feet – Image by Wilson44691 – CC0

Among fossil collectors, Whitby Beach is a prime site for finding ammonites. A local legend tells how the Saxon abbess named St. Hilda (614-680 A.D.) rid an area of snake infested ground to found an abbey upon.   For the early Christian church the idea of sharing their sacred ground with snakes was abhorrent because of their connection with Satan, so the site had to be purged before the building of the abbey could take place.  According to the legend, after St. Hilda prayed the snakes began to coil up.  She then used a whip she cut their heads off and their coiled up bodies petrified into stone and she threw these over the cliffs where they landed on the beaches of Whitby and can still be found to this day.

For a long time, local people have carved snake heads on the petrified bodies to make them look more realistic.  They have then been sold as mementos, souvenirs or charms and are still sold today. The favorite type of ammonite used for this was Hildoceras named after St. Hilda, and Dactylioceras.

St. Keyne

St. Keyne lived in the 5th century and is known by several names including Keane, Kayane,  Cenau, Cenedion, Ceinwen. She was a daughter of King Brychan of Brycheiniog in South Wales.  Some say King Brychan had twelve daughters while another source claims he had twenty-four, all of whom were said to be saints.

She was said to possess great beauty and was much sought after in marriage but instead decided to pursue her religion and took a vow of virginity.  The Church of St Keyne, in the village of St Keyne in Cornwall, is also associated with her and has a magnificent stained glass window featuring her holding an ammonite.  There is also a holy well that takes its name from her.

She is also associated with Keynsham, near Bristol, which has a legend that St. Keyne turned all the snakes in the area to stone.  Ammonite fossils are often found in the red sandstone of the area.   In Wales, in Brecon cathedral, she is depicted with ammonite-like snakes all around her.

Saints, Snakes, and Ammonites

The idea of ammonites being snakes that were turned to stone by these saints praying to God may be seen as illustrative of Satan, who is often represented by the snake, being defeated by the power of God through his agents on earth, St Hilda and St Keyne. In those days people had no idea where ammonites came from, or what they really were. It may be that using ammonites and their resemblance to coiled snakes as examples that can be found naturally to emphasize the power of God, may have seemed like a good strategy and indeed, it probably was.

© 01/02/2016 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 2nd, 2017 zteve t evans

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3 thoughts on “Petrification Myths: Saints, Snakes and Ammonites

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #25 | Whewell's Ghost

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