Many fossil fables have developed to explain the existence of fossils. Before the mid eighteenth century the origin of fossils was generally regarded in terms of superstition and myth. Different cultures explained the formation of fossils in differing ways.
People have been intrigued by petrified creatures for centuries. Skulls, bones or shells preserved in stone fired people’s imagination and captured their thirst for knowledge. Interesting folklore traditions developed and people frequently attributed magical or medicinal properties to fossils. Here are a few significant fossil fables:
Belemnites are common all over the world and are known by many other names in folklore: Chinese people called them ‘Sword stones’. Scandinavian folklore regards belemnites as candles belonging to elves, gnomes and pixies.
A term widely used across Europe is ‘Thunderbolt’. People believed that the pointy fossils were cast down from the heavens during thunderstorms. Regional variations like Devil’s Fingers or Saint Peter’s Fingers existed across England.
Legend in England has it that ammonites are petrified snakes that once infested the Whitby area in North Yorkshire. After years of suffering the Saxon Abbess St Hilda (614-680 AD) turned all snakes into stones and brought the infestation to an end.
Ancient Greeks regarded ammonites as sacred symbols because of their resemblance to coiled goat horns. Their god Jupiter Ammon was often pictures with horns and played a major role in Greek mythology. The scientific name ‘ammonite’ was derived from the Greek name Cornu Ammonis – horns of Ammon.
Toad stones are the button-shaped teeth of the fossil fish Lepidotes. In folklore they were once thought to originate from the heads of living toads.
Toads were of particular interest to medical practitioners in the past. People believed that concoction made from pulverised toads protected against plagues since the toad’s warty skin resembled spots that are developed by plague victims. The toad powder was placed in amulets and worn around the neck or wrists.
Some people thought that the fossil fish teeth are petrified eyes of serpents and hoped they would protect them from anything evil.
Nummulites are disc-shaped skeletons of single-celled organisms. They can reach up to 6 cm in diameter.
Most Nummulites are round and flat like coins and have been dubbed ‘angel’s money’ in European Folklore. Strabo, a geographer from the first-century BC, was told a different story. People believed that the lentil-shaped fossils were leftovers of food that was once consumed by slaves during the construction of pyramids in Giza/Egypt.
The fossils Lepidodendron, Sigillaria and Calamites are extinct tree-like plants that are related to modern day club mosses. They grew to heights of up to 30 metres.
Diamond-shaped leaf scars covered the thick trunks of these plants which made them look like the skin of snakes or alligators.
For a long time people believed that the robust, curved valves of the oyster-like shell Gryphaea are toenails of the Devil.
Internal stone moulds of bivalves are also known as Bulls’ hearts.
When fossilised shark teeth were first discovered somewhere high up in the mountains and far from the sea, their origin was a complete enigma. Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), a great Roman naturalist, believed that they fell from the sky during lunar eclipses. A later tale tells that Saint Paul turned the tongues of serpents into stone while visiting the islands of Malta.
An entirely different legend developed in Japan, where the teeth of the giant shark Carcharadon megalodon are thought to be the thumbnails of Tengu Man, a mythical mountain goblin with a Pinnochio-like long nose.
Revealing their true origin
If one day in history had to be picked as the birth of paleontology, it might be the day in 1666 when two fishermen caught a giant shark off the coast of Livorno in Italy. The local duke ordered that this curiosity be sent to Niels Stensen (better known as Nicolaus Steno), a Danish anatomist working at the time in Florence. As Steno dissected the shark, he was struck by how much the shark teeth resembled ‘tongue stones’, triangular pieces of rock that had been known since ancient times.
Today, most people would instantly wonder whether the tongue stones were giant petrified shark teeth, but in 1666 such a presumption was a tremendous leap. Few could imagine how living matter could be turned to stone, and beyond that, encased in solid rock – especially if the rock were well above sea level and contained remnants of a marine organism. Fossils were instead thought to have fallen from the sky, or to be ‘sports of nature’ peculiar geometrical shapes impressed on the rocks themselves.
‘Tongue stones’ were widely believed to have magical properties, most notably the ability to counter-act toxins of many kinds. To work their magic, they needed only to be held against a snake-bitten body part or plunked into a suspect glass of wine and any poisons would be quickly and irreversibly detoxified. Due to these marvelous supposed capabilities, many nobles and statesmen of the Middle Ages retained these ‘tongue stones’ as amulets worn about the neck as a pendant or kept secreted away in special pockets.
Some rock layers contain hundreds and thousands of tiny stone discs. They can be as big as an English penny and often have a little hole in the middle. These discs were once stuck on top of each other, like beads on a string, and formed the stems of ancient sea lilies.
Given the abundance and characteristic shape of the stone discs it is not surprising that they found their way into folklore. People called round discs ‘Fairy money’ or ‘St. Cuthbert’s beads’. Discs with with five pointy corners were known as ‘Star stones’.
Who would have thought that there are royal headdresses for shepherds? English folklore describes the internal moulds of fossil sea urchins as ‘Shepherd’s crowns’. Sea urchins have a characteristic conical shape and five decorative ridges that meet at the top of the shell like the ribs of a crown. Notably the Cretaceous sea urchin species Micraster, Echinocorys and Conulus have found their way into English folklore.
Shepherds may have come across petrified sea urchins while caring for their sheep on the chalky downlands of southern England.
An interesting folklore originates from Suffolk in eastern England where fossil sea urchins are known as ‘Fairy loaves’. The loaf-like shape of some sea urchins inspired people to placed them by the hearth as charms.
Some legends refer to sea urchins as ‘Snake eggs’. People believed that snakes created stony eggs from their froth on midsummer nights. The froth, shaped into a ball, was believed to have the power to protect one from deadly poisons.
Sea urchins were also known as ‘Pixies’ helmets’ or ‘Heart urchins’.