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