Hagstones … a magical find for many. A piece of stone with a natural hole through it. Finding a hagstone or witch stone is special. A stone to which all kinds of magical properties are attributed. But what exactly is a hagstone?
What is a hagstone?
Let’s start with the geological part. A hagstone or witch stone is a stone with a naturally formed hole in it. Most hagstones are made of flint. And in old English books about amulets, magic and protection the described stone is usually a ‘flynt stone with hole’. Are other types of stones with a hole not real hagstones? There is no written rule that says that a piece of limestone or sandstone with a natural hole is not a hagstone. It is about the essence of a stone with a hole made by nature. But it has to be a hole that has been worn out during a long stretch of time. Why are most hagstones that you find flint hagstones? Because flint is the most common erratic stone where I live (in the Netherlands) and compared to other types of rock there are more flints with a natural hole than other stones. Flint is the most common type of hagstone found here in Western Europe and those stones have traditionally been seen as the ‘real’ hagstones described in the old books. If you want to know more about how flint originates and where the flint you find comes from, read my blog about flint here.
How did that hole get into the stone? There are different ideas about that. If we look at softer types of rock on beaches, such as limestone and slate, you often see that holes are made by animals. There are certain types of shells and snails (piddocks for example) that, with the help of acids they produce, make a hole in soft rock in which they live. On beaches where these creatures live you will see a lot of stones with holes and you will notice that these stones are often relatively soft. These are not the stones that were
originally regarded as hagstones because it is clear that an animal has made that hole in a relatively short period of time and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of those holes in stones on the same beach. The magic of the hagstone is in the power of nature, that something unseen can make a hole in a stone as hard as, for example, flint. In some flints with a natural hole that hole was once a fossil or burrow. It could have been a sponge or a coral. That part where this fossil was, was softer and more porous than the flint around it and over time that softer fossil was eroded by the sea. It is also possible that the flint had an odd shape (flint concretions can actually have the most amazing shapes), in a way that a part in the middle was relatively thin and was easily worn away by the water. You probably notice that water is a key element in the formation of hagstones. A piece of flint erodes from limestone by water and ends up in that same water. Due to the power of flowing water, storms and tides, the battered stone gets worn and a hole can wear out.
Stones with natural holes play a major role in Western European folklore. That is why they have all kinds of names. In the Netherlands we call them heksenstenen, witch stones. In England they are called hagstones or holey stones (holey because of the hole, later changed to holy, sacred), witch stones, fairy stones, druid stones, dobbie stones, adder stones. In Scotland they call them gloin nan druidh (druid stones) and in Wales glain neidr or glain nadredd. In Cornwall you will find them by the name milpreve, milpref or melpref. They are called Hühnergötter in German.
According to folklore, a hagstone was formed by snakes. When many snakes crawl and stick together with hardened saliva, a hagstone is created. Hence the name adderstone. Another theory is that the hole in the stone was created by the bite of an adder. The Welsh name for hagstones, glain neidr, also indicates the snake’s origin of the stone. Traditionally, on the evening before May 1st, May Eve, there was a gathering of snakes. During this meeting, all the snakes curled together in a ball with a hole, an adder stone or glain neidr (glain y nidir). Another name is maen magi or mân macal. This stone is mentioned several times in the Mabinogion. It helps Peredur to defeat the Afanc, a lake monster. A hagstone also helps Owain, who is trapped in a castle, to become invisible so that he can escape.
There are indeed snakes that hibernate by curling up in a group to keep each other warm. But the adders that are native to Great Britain don’t lay eggs, they give birth to live youngs. Grass snakes do lay eggs.
Not very surprising, hagstones protect you against snake bites and snake venom.
The Scottish name for hagstones, gloin nan druidh, druid stone, indicates that this stone was very important for druids. This Scottish name refers to a piece of flint with a hole in it. It is said to be a glassy stone, so no sandstone or other type of stone. Druids used these stones for protection and healing works. They regarded them as extremely magical objects. The Roman writer and naturalist Pliny the Elder described how the Gauls had a kind of stone, or egg, to which they assigned great magical powers. He described this ‘egg’ as a bundle of snakes ‘glued’ together with saliva of which the druids said that is was thrown into the air and had to be caught on a cloth before it would hit the ground. The man who catches him must flee on a horse for he would be chased by more snakes until he crosses water. The egg, when encased in gold, can float on water and travel upstream. He also describes how druids wear this stone as a badge.
There is some discussion about what this ‘egg’ exactly is, since Pliny did not describe any further. There are three theories. One is that it is a hagstone. A second is that it is a fossil (flint) sea urchin (for more on sea urchin folklore click here, Dutch only) and a third, rather new theory, is that it is a bunch of whelk egg cases, which sometimes wash up on the beach. Whatever it really is, the so-called druid egg is a magical thing with many special properties. A druid’s egg would also help to redirect the outcome of justice in such a way that the verdict was always in favour of the bearer of the stone. This belief was so strong that Romans prohibited the wearing of such a stone in the courtroom and when a suspect was seen with such a stone in a court that was regarded a capital crime.
The name dobbie stones might recall a picture of a little creature with big ears dressed in an old pillowcase. That is not so strange. The term dobbie, sometimes also called dobby or dobbs, is the word used in some areas in England and Scotland for a tiny house spirit. Sometimes it is a gnome-like creature that we all wish to have sometimes, the one who finishes your unfinished jobs at night, provided you welcome them kindly. If not, he will be quite troublesome. In other areas it is a less friendly creature that can cause mayhem or it is a shapeshifter that can take on different shapes, including those of a large black dog, goose or horse. He finds great pleasure in scaring people after which suddenly disappears. Seeing a dobbie can also announce birth or death. J.K. Rowling inspired her house elf Dobby in the Harry Potter books on this creature. A hagstone keeps these tiny spirits at a distance and protects your home and wearer of the stone from the trouble these little ones can cause.
Sometimes you see the term ‘paramoudra‘ when it comes to hagstones. A paramoudra is indeed a flint stone with a hole in it, but is not quite the same as the regular hagstones which you can find on the beach and near rivers. A paramoudra is a piece of flint, often quite large, with a round hole right in the middle. Like a large petrified doughnut. Sometimes they are found in a row. These are actually ichnofossils, trace fossils. Burrows of an unknown animal. They are sometimes found on beaches with limestone and flint. Another name for these stones is ‘pot stones’. The term paramoudra was introduced by the well known English geologist and paleontologist William Buckland. It is probably derived from an older Gaelic name given to these stones in Ireland, padhramoudras (ugly Paddies) or peura muireach (sea pear). A paramoudra is sort of a hagstone, a piece flint with a natural hole, but then very large. The small flint hagstones are not paramoudras.
In Southwest England it was (and for some still is) custom to nail a hagstone to a fishing boat, just below the gunwale. This was to protect the boat and the crew against all kinds of trouble at sea. Sometimes a hagstone was attached to the rope with which the boat was held on the quay. This would prevent witches from coming on board or cursing the boat. A cursed fishing boat could no longer catch fish, even though the waters around the boat held more that enough fish. In that case it was important to check whether the hagstone was still attached to the boat.
A hagstone also offered protection against unwanted visitors at night. It was common believe that the ‘night hag’ came to visit at night. An ugly old hag or sometimes frightingly beautiful woman who could give you nightmares and would paralyze you in your sleep. Another name for this creature is ‘night mare’, that’s where our word nightmare comes from. The phenomenon of sleep paralysis is nowadays described in medical literature, but people used believe that this was caused by this evil (often female) supernatural being. A hagstone under your pillow, at the bedpost or around your neck protected you against her. It was also wise to hang a hagstone on the cradle of a baby.
It has even been described as a remedy in a 16th century book about horse remedies. Farmers were afraid that the ‘night mare’ would ride their horses at night, tiring them so theycould not work during the day. The book describes how a hagstone around the horse’s neck or on a pole in the stable ensures that the horses are safe. Besides that the Holy prayer had to be written down on a piece of paper, which had to be attached to the stone, and St George had to be called upon. In Sussex it was good custom to hang a hagstone with the keys from the stable doors to protect the cattle inside against the fairies.
Crawling through such a hole had a healing effect. Not all holes were large enough for adults, but ill or weak babies were shovelled through or babies of which parents thought the fairies had bonded with. The holes in the stones were seen as a gateway between our normal world and the ‘other’ world. That of the magical creatures. A circle shape confused these spirits, so they were a firm protection against enchantment by these beings. A person suffering from illness who would cralw through the circle could not be followed by the spirit who teased him, so that was why it had to separate himself from the poor man or woman and had to stay behind.
Look through a hagstone or a large stone with a hole and if you are lucky you can see these magical creatures.
A number of old hagstone amulets can be seen at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall. A hagstone with a key attached to it (your house key or another old key) protects your house. A number of hagstones tied together (some say odd number of 3, 5 or 7 stones, others say an even number of stones with an odd number of knots) on a cord at the entrances to your house is also a powerful protection. No witch or fairy can cause harm to your home or family anymore. A hagstone in your pocket or on a cord around your neck protects you from nasty tricks from magical creatures or curses from witches. And if you look through the hagstone hole, you can see the magical world in which these creatures live.
In Scandinavia hagstones are called Odin stones. Odin is the supreme god of Nordic mythology. One theory is that a hagstone looked like the eye that Odin gave in exchange for the wisdom of the runes.
On the Orkney Isles once stood a large standing stone with a hole in it which was also called Odin Stone (The Orkney Isles have a strong Viking influence). This stone was destroyed in 1814 by a newcomer to the islands, a certain captain MacKay, who had bought the piece of land on which the stone stood. He believed that the stone ruined his grounds.
I often get this question. Folklore says that a hagstone has to ‘cross your path’ in order to do its magical work. But you can always give luck a helping hand by searching in the right places. If we look at the flint hagstones, there are a number of places where you can look for them. Of course the places where they erode from the limestone rocks, so the beaches of Normandy, southern England (roughly the coast of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset), Northern Germany and Denmark. Flint is common in the Dutch Limburg ‘mergel’ limestone, so you can find them there too. You can also find them in erratic material in my home country, the Netherlands. On the beach, in Zeeland in particular, but also in North and South Holland. They can be found along the major rivers, Meuse, Rhine, Waal and also the IJssel. That means that you can also find them in the gravel extracted from these rivers. Most gravel in the Netherlands used for paths, roofs, gardens, etc is Rhine or Meuse gravel and in it you can find hagstones with a bit of luck. The larger and coarser the gravel, the more chance. If you are lucky enough to live along the line of pushed moraine, roughly the middle of the Netherlands, a line running from ’t Gooi, Veluwe, Twente, Nijmegen, then you can also find them there, carried here by the glaciers and melt water during the ice age. They can sometomes even be found in the sandy soils of Drente and Twente. This so-called dekzand is used throughout the country in building works and road construction, so when you see yellow sand somewhere, keep your eyes open!