THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE
In ancient Gaul certain glass or paste beads attained great celebrity as amulets under the name of serpents’ eggs; it was believed that serpents, coiling together in a wriggling, writhing mass, generated them from their slaver and shot them into the air from their hissing jaws. If a man was bold and dexterous enough to catch one of these eggs in his cloak before it touched the ground, he rode off on horseback with it at full speed, pursued by the whole pack of serpents, till he was saved by the interposition of a river, which the snakes could not pass. The proof of the egg being genuine was that if it were thrown into a stream it would float up against the current, even though it was hooped in gold.
The Druids held these beads in high esteem; according to them, the precious objects could only be obtained on a certain day of the moon, and the peculiar virtue that resided in them was to secure success in law suits and free access to kings. Pliny knew of a Gaulish knight who was executed by the emperor Claudius for wearing one of these amulets. [Pliny, “Naturalis Historia” xxix. 52-54.] Under the name of Snake Stones (“glain neidr”) or Adder Stones the beads are still known in those parts of our own country where the Celtic population has lingered, with its immemorial superstitions, down to the present or recent times; and the old story of the origin of the beads from the slaver of serpents was believed by the modern peasantry of Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland as by the Druids of ancient Gaul. In Cornwall the time when the serpents united to fashion the beads was commonly said to be at or about Midsummer Eve; in Wales it was usually thought to be spring, especially the Eve of May Day, and even within recent years persons in the Principality have affirmed that they witnessed the great vernal congress of the snakes and saw the magic stone in the midst of the froth. The Welsh peasants believe the beads to possess medicinal virtues of many sorts and to be particularly efficacious for all maladies of the eyes.
In Wales and Ireland the beads sometimes went by the name of the Magician’s or Druid’s Glass (“Gleini na Droedh” and “Glaine nan Druidhe”). Specimens of them may be seen in museums; some have been found in British barrows. They are of glass of various colours, green, blue, pink, red, brown, and so forth, some plain and some ribbed. Some are streaked with brilliant hues. The beads are perforated, and in the Highlands of Scotland the hole is explained by saying that when the bead has just been conflated by the serpents jointly, one of the reptiles sticks his tail through the still viscous glass. An Englishman who visited Scotland in 1699 found many of these beads in use throughout the country. They were hung from children’s necks to protect them from whooping cough and other ailments. Snake Stones were, moreover, a charm to ensure prosperity in general and to repel evil spirits. When one of these priceless treasures was not on active service, the owner kept it in an iron box to guard it against fairies, who, as is well known, cannot abide iron.[see NOTE 1]
[NOTE 1] W. Borlase, “Antiquities, Historical and Monumental, of the County of Cornwall” (London, 1769), pp. 142 “sq.”; J. Brand, “Popular Antiquities of Great Britain” (London, 1882-1883), i. 322; J.G. Dalyell, “Darker Superstitions of Scotland” (Edinburgh, 1834), pp. 140 “sq.”; Daniel Wilson, “The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland” (Edinburgh, 1851), pp. 303 “sqq.”; Lieut.-Col. Forbes Leslie, “The Early Races of Scotland and their Monuments” (Edinburgh, 1866), i. 75 “sqq.”; J.G. Campbell, “Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland” (Glasgow, 1902), pp. 84-88; Marie Trevelyan, “Folk-lore and Folk-stories of Wales” (London, 1909), pp. 170 “sq.”; J.C. Davies, “Folk-lore of West and Mid-Wales” (Aberystwyth, 1911), p. 76. Compare W.W. Skeat, “Snakestones and Stone Thunderbolts,” “Folk-lore,” xxiii. (1912) pp. 45 “sqq.” The superstition is described as follows by Edward Llwyd in a letter quoted by W. Borlase (“op. cit.” p. 142): “In most parts of Wales, and throughout all Scotland, and in Cornwall, we find it a common opinion of the vulgar, that about Midsummer-Eve (though in the time they do not all agree) it is usual for snakes to meet in companies; and that, by joining heads together, and hissing, a kind of bubble is formed, which the rest, by continual hissing, blow on till it passes quite through the body, and then it immediately hardens, and resembles a glass-ring, which whoever finds (as some old women and children are persuaded) shall prosper in all his undertakings. The rings thus generated, are called “Gleineu Nadroeth”; in English, Snake-stones. They are small glass amulets, commonly about half as wide as our finger-rings, but much thicker, of a green colour usually, though sometimes blue, and waved with red and white.”
TITLE: A Study in Magic And Religion (1913)
Author: Sir James George Frazer
CONTRIBUTOR: Jenny Dunnaway