Snake Stone Superstitions Through History

mineral serpent stones were worn by Druids and were believed to have legendary magical powers by various other cultures

The serpent-stone, called by Pliny ovum anguinum, or "serpent's egg," is said to have been worn by the Druid priests as a badge of distinction. Pliny relates that he had seen one of them which was as large as a moderate-sized apple, its shell being a cartilaginous substance. It was supposed to be generated in midsummer out of the saliva and slime exuding from a knot of interwined serpents. When the moisture had coagulated and formed into a sphere, this was tossed in the air by the hissing snakes, and, in order to preserve its efficacy as a talisman, the finder had to catch it in a linen cloth before it fell to the ground. Such "serpent's eggs" were in high favor with the Romans, who believed they procured for the wearers success in all disputes and the protection of kings. So great was the faith reposed in their magical virtues that Claudius is said to have condemned to death a Roman knight, one of the Vecontii, simply because he had an ovum anguinum concealed in his bosom when he appeared in court during the trial of a lawsuit in which he was involved. In order to enhance the value of this amulet, the story was circulated that great dangers were incurred in securing it; for the snakes pursued any one who seized the egg and he could only escape by fording a river, across which they could not swim. In later accounts of this amulet it is described as a ring, sometimes composed of a blue stone with an undulating streak or stripe of yellow, thought to represent a snake.

Certain so-called floating-stones have been found in a branch of Mann Creek, a tributary of the Weiser River, which flows into the latter near its confluence with the Snake River in Idaho. These are hollow quartz globes, with a shell so thin that the air in the cavity more than makes up for the specific gravity of the quartz. Some formation similar to this may possibly have been intended by Pliny in his description of the ovum anguinum or serpent's egg of the Druids, which floated if thrown into a stream, although it is perhaps more probable that these "serpent's eggs" were shells of the sea-urchin, as they are figured by De Boot and other writers.

The snake-stone, legends regarding which are met with in so many different parts of the world, is known to the Lapps of northern Europe, and strange to say, some of the elements of Pliny's old recital touching the "serpent's egg" come out in the account given of it by this primitive race, in general so far removed from any notion of classical tradition. Anyone in search of this stone must resort, according to the Lapps, to the pairing place of snakes, for here they throw the stone, which is small and white, back and forth to one another; he must steal along quietly until he is quite near to the snakes and then snatch the stone as it flies through the air, and run away with it as fast as he can to the nearest piece of water. Should he reach the water before the snake does-for the reptile pursues him-he gains the ownership of the stone; if, however, the snake first reaches the water, this is very dangerous for the man. Hence he should carefully search out the nearest water before snatching the stone, and as the snake will not immediately know what has become of it, and will hunt for it awhile before starting in pursuit of the thief, the latter will have time to come first to the water.

Tertullian writes that the wearing of stones taken from the head of a dragon or of a serpent was especially reprehensible in the case of a Christian; for how could a Christian be said to "bruise the head" of the Old Serpent (Gen. iii, 15) while wearing such a stone about his neck or on his head, and thus testifying to a kind of serpent worship?

The Greek poem "Lithica," belonging to the fourth century B.C., also celebrates the virtues of a "snake-stone," which is to be pressed closely on the bitten spot; but besides this application, the drinking of undiluted wine in which the stone ostrites had been pulverized, is recommended. This shows that the therapeutic value of alcohol as a stimulant to revive the nerve-centres, paralyzed by the animal poison, was recognized at this time. An unusually precise description is given of the ostrites; it was round, hard, black and rough, and was marked by many wavy lines or veins. Some one of the many varieties of banded agate seems to answer best to this description.

The legend that St. Patrick drove out all snakes from Ireland sometimes took the form that the saint had transformed them into stones. This belief is noted by Andrew Borde, physician and ecclesiastic, who, writing in 1542, mentions some strange stone he had been shown on that island:

I have sene stones the whiche have had the forme and shape of a snake and other venimous wormes. And the people of the countrie sayth that such stones were wormes, and they were turned into stones by the power of God and the prayers of saynt Patrick. And English merchauntes of England do fetch of the earth of Irlonde to caste in their garden's, to keepe out and to kyll venimous wormes.


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