The fossilised remains of ammonites were given the name snakestones in England because they resemble coiled snakes turned to stone. The myth about snakestones came mainly from two places where ammonites are very common and easy to find: Whitby in Yorkshire and Keynsham in Somerset
William Camden, an early cartographer (map maker) mentioned what we now call ammonites in his 1586 book Britannia,’If you break them you find within stony serpents, wreathed up in circles, but eternally without heads.’
During the Victorian era some collectors and dealers played on this legend by carving snake heads on ammonite fossils and selling them for a premium.
Saint Hilda’s spell
Whitby has a strong link with fossils especially ammonites and jet. This link extends back to the 7th CE and the story of the Saxon Abbess, Saint Hilda (614-680). The legend states that St Hilda was ordered to build an Abbey in Whitby. However, the ground was infested with snakes. In the early Christian times, preaching always referred to snakes as being of the Devil (e.g. Adam and Eve and the apple). Naturally, before the Abbey could be built the ground had be cleared and sanctified.
Oddly for a Saint she cast a spell (not a prayer!) that turned all the snakes to stone and she threw them off the cliff tops.
Named in honour of St Hilda, Hildoceras bifrons is one of the most common ammonites present at Whitby. This example has a carved snake’s head.
St Hilda’s miraculous work was immortalised in the poem Marmion, by Sir Walter Scott:
When Whitby’s nuns exalting told,
Of thousand snakes, each one
Was changed into a coil of stone,
When Holy Hilda pray’d:
Themselves, without their holy ground,
Their stony folds had often found.
St Cuthbert’s Curse
Whitby’s snakestones sometimes involve St Cuthbert who was a monk in the 7th century CE. Allegedly his rosary was made of fossil crinoids (St Cuthbert’s beads).
St Cuthbert curse is an alternative to St Hilda as ‘He is said to have cast a powerful beheading curse on all of the snakes.’
St Keyna’s prayers and fossil fairies
According to legend, Saint Ceyna (Keyne) one of the daughters of King Brychan of Brycheiniog (Brecon) having decided to become the equivalent of a modern nun and live the life of celibacy, she wanted to find a deserted place to follow her lifestyle and dedicate her time her religion. She travelled across the Severn to a wooded place and asked the local Prince for permission to stay and practice her religion. The Prince gave her permission but warned her that the area was so infested with snakes that nothing could life there. She said that with her beliefs it would be resolved and lay down dedicating the ground to the Holy Virgin. The serpents and vipers were then turned into stones. The place mentioned is Camden, near Keynsham, Bristol .
Horns of Ammon
The Ancient Greeks saw ammonites as sacred symbols associated with their horned god, Jupiter Ammon. They called them Cornu Ammonis (horns of Ammon). This is naturally the stem of the name “ammonite”
They believed Ammonites provided protection from snakebites and cures for blindness, barrenness and impotence.
The Ancient Romans believed that sleeping with a golden (pyritised) ammonite from Ethiopia under their pillow could help the dreamer predict the future.
In Hindu culture, black limestone containing ammonites are known as saligrams (or shaligrams or salagramas) and considered extremely precious for their resemblance to the disc (chakra) held by the god Vishnu.
The stones are kept in temples, monasteries and households as natural symbols of the god Vishnu and are used during marriages, funerals and housewarmings.
Vishnu’s chakra is a Hindu symbol of absolute completeness. The eight spokes are believed to represent the eightfold path of deliverance. The radial chakra markings in saligrams are formed by the ribs of the ammonites.
Saligrams are mentioned in Sanskrit texts dating back to just over 2,200 years ago. Some Sanskrit poetical works identify them as fossils created by a kind of worm. True saligrams are found only in the valley of the Gandaki River in Nepal and northern India. Typically spherical, they contain black-coloured ammonite fossils from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Light coloured, broken or sharp specimens are regarded as unlucky.
In Chinese folklore, ammonites were called Jiaoshih or horn stones, as they resemble coiled rams’ horns. Eleventh-century Chinese scientist and stateman Su Sung wrote in Pen Tshao Thu Ching:
‘The stone-serpent appears in rocks which are found beside the rivers flowing into the southern seas. Its shape is like a coiled snake with no head or tail-tip. Inside it is empty. Its colour is reddish-purple. The best ones are those which coil to the left. It also looks like the spiral shell of a conch. We do not know what animal it was which was thus changed into stone.’