Folk-Lore/Volume 16/The Whitby Snake-Ammonite Myth
The Whitby Snake-Ammonite Myth.
(Read at Meeting, 19th April, 1905.)
One of the most interesting features in the study of superstition is the remarkable array of objects which are associated with magic by primitive folk nearly all over the world.
In this catalogue fossils occupy a prominent place, and it really seems only natural that such shapely forms and designs should appeal to the very ignorant as being something beyond their ken, and therefore of course "magical." Most of these were, and even still are, considered to have been "thunder-bolts," as also were the arrowheads and polished celts of neolithic man. Later on, when some advance in civilisation brought about more knowledge, these fossils occupied a somewhat higher position in superstition, so that an ammonite, instead of being a thunderbolt, became, say, a "petrified snake." The segments of encrmite stems were St. Cuthbert's beads: echini = "shepherds' crowns"; nummulites = "fossil money"; and so on.
Among the most interesting of these superstitions is the snake-ammonite myth of Whitby. The geological formation there is the Lias, and in certain zones of this deposit large numbers of the fossil cephalopods, known as ammonites (of many species), occur. The old idea was that these were petrified snakes, turned into stone by the patron saint of Whitby, Saint Hilda. This delightful legend is referred to in Sir Walter Scott's Marmion, Canto ii. 13; when "Whitby's nuns"
"told, how, in their convent cell,
A Saxon Princess once did dwell.
The lovely Edelfled;
And how of thousand snakes, each one
Was changed into a coil of stone.
When holy Hilda prayed;
Themselves within their holy bound,
Their stony folds had often found;
They told how seafowls' pinions fail
As over Whitby's towers they sail.
And, sinking down, with flutterings faint.
They do their homage to the saint."
So strong was the belief, that the town arms of Whitby—three ammonites on a shield—once represented these shells with snakes' heads. An old Whitby copper token of "Flower Gate," dated 1667, also shows them as coiled snakes with heads.
The fact that ammonites were never found with snakes' heads was, of course, always more or less of a stumbling-block, though the workmen and others frequently got over the difficulty by making and fixing heads to the ammonites on their own account. Plate XXV., Fig. 2, shows two specimens with these forged heads. The town arms of Whitby, upon a cake, are also shown in the plate (Fig. 1).
But the glory of the legend has departed. I have met many people even of late years who still believed in it, but if you ask a man or boy in Whitby now if he knows anything about the petrified snakes of Saint Hilda, the chances are that he will say, "It is all rot! "