Saturday, 1 February 2014

Snakes in Celtic Folk-lore

The old book on West Country legend and folk-lore which I bought in Hay on Thursday makes fascinating reading.  In particular, I was drawn to various paragraphs about snakes, which I thought I would share this wet February afternoon, with a Westerley gale just hitting and teeming banks of rain flinging themselves past the window.


"The country people of The Land's End say that in old times no one could live in the low grounds, which were then covered with thickets, and these swarming with adders.  Even at a much later period, in the summer-time, it was not safe to venture amongst the furze (gorse) on the Downs without a milpreve. (I have never seen a milpreve; ut it is described to me as being about the size of a pigeon's eg, and I am told that it is made by the adders when they get in great numbers. Is it not probable that the milpreve may be one of the madrepore corals - millepore - found sometimes on the beaches around Land's End?)

A friend writes me:- "I was once shown a milpreve; it was nothing more than a beautiful ball of coralline lime-stone, the section of coral being thought to be entangled young snakes."

When some old men were streaming (for tin) the "Bottoms" up near Partimey, they were often obliged to leave work on account of the number of adders that would get together as if by agreement, and advance upon them.

One day one of the tin streamers chanced to leave his pot of milk, uncovered, out of the moor-house, when an adder got into it.  The man cut a turf and put over the pot to prevent the reptile from escaping.  In a few minutes the tinners saw "the ugly things crawling and leaping from all quarters towards the pot."  The streamers were obliged to run, and take which way they would, the adders seemed to be coming from every direction, further and further off.

At last "they formed a heap round the pot as large as a pook (cock) of hay."    Towards night all the reptiles were quite still, then the men gathered together, around the mass of adders, a great quantity of furze (being summer, there was plenty cut and dry close at hand), and piled it up like sheaves to make a mow, laying a circle of well-dried turf without it.  They then fired the turf on every side, and when it was well ignited, they fired the furze.  "Oh, it was a sight to see the adders when they felt the smoke and the flame! they began to boil, as it were, all in a heap, and fell back into the flaming furze; those which leaped trough perishing on the brilliant ring of burning peat.  Thus were killed thousands upon thousands of adders, and the moors were clear for a long, long period."

This related nearly as the story was told; but it appears necessary to make some allowance for that spirit of exaggeration which is a characteristic of all Celtic people, ere they have been tutored to know the dignity of truth.

"The country people retaine a conceite, that the snakes, by their breathing upon a hazel-wand, doe make a stone ring of blew colour, in which there appeareth the yellow figure of a snake, and that beasts which are stung, being given to drink of the water wherein this stone hath bene socked, will there-through recover."
This was clearly one of the so-called "Druidic rings," examples of which may be seen in our museums, - which have been found in England and in Ireland.  It is curious that at the glassworks of Murano, near Venice, they still make rings, or beads, precisely resembling the ancient ones, and these are used largely as money in Africa.

Snakes were formerly held in great reverence; and Camden asserts that one of the prevailing superstitions concerning them was that, about midsummer-eve, they all met together in companies and, joining their heads, began a general hiss, which they continued until a kind of bubble was formed, which immediately hardened, and gave to the finder prosperity in all his undertakings.

Lhuyd, in a letter written in 1701, gives a curious account of the then superstitious character of the people in this district.  "The Cornish retain variety of charms, and have still towards the Land's End the amulets of Maen Magal and Glain-neider, which latter they call a Melprer, a thousand worms, and have a charm for the snake to make it, when they have found one asleep, and struck a hazel-wand in the centre of its spirae."  Camden mentions the use of snake-stones as a Cornish superstition.

"The very same story, in fact, is told of the Adder-stane in the popular legends of the Scottish Lowlands (That beat me to it - I was just going to mention them!)   as Pliny records of the origin of the Ovum Anuinum.  The various names by which these relics are designated all point to their estimation as amulets or superstitious charms; and the fact of their occurrence, most frequently singly, in the sepulchral cist or urn, seems to prove that it was as such, and not merely as personal ornaments, that they were deposited with the ashes of the dead.  They are variously known as adder-beads, serpent-stones, Druidical beads; and, amongst the Welsh and Irish, by the synonymous terms of Gleint na Droedh and Glaine nan Druidhe, signifying the magician's or Druid's glass."  (Wilson's Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland).

Welsh to English translation of Gleint na Droedh is rather odd - regeneration I do ced.  So it could be about rebirth?  To do with Adders shedding their skin and apparently being reborn?  Dunno.  What think you?


  1. I woke very early this morning due to the rain and put the radio on and by coincidence they were talking about Edward Thomas ( radio 4 - open country I think) Then I fell asleep again! I thought "how odd" as I hadn't heard of him until coming across your blog. ( apologies for my poetic ignorance!)

  2. Drat - I msised it. I will try and get it on iPlayer, so many thanks for that. If you haven't read any of his poetry, or prose, then have a little dip into it - he wrote SO beautifully (his poetry was sheer genius, and years ahead of his time). I''m glad that at least you have now heard of him through me. I must do regular posts on "his" blog again - I have a walk to write up when it is comfortable to sit here long enough!

  3. Absolutely fascinating folklore, will link it to my bit about ammonites. A friend lives round Bodmin Moor and breeds collies, one of his dogs was stung by an adder out on the moor. Lived to tell the tale but his paw was very sore.

  4. I have quite a few books about Edward Thomas - sadly he seems only to be known for Adlestrop when there is so much more to get out of his work. Sad that his life was cut short.

  5. Thelma - glad you enjoyed it. I thought you would, with the Cornish connection too. We used to see Adders regularly in Dorset, but I think it's too wet for 'em round here!

    Pat - my collection of ET books is fast catching up with my ones by/about Thomas Hardy. I think he is often forgotten in the wake of folk like Rupert Brooke and oter more high-profile WW1 poets, yet he was infinitely superior in my mind and way ahead of his time.