Weird Norfolk: why the strange stones with holes in could protect you from witches
PUBLISHED: 09:00 24 August 2019 | UPDATED: 14:32 27 August 2019
They are the pebble-hunter's Holy Grail, the all-seeing eyes that protect us from nightmares and witches. Weird Norfolk looks at witch stones - the pebbles with holes all the way through them - and finds out the folklore that surrounds them
Witch stones, hag stones, hex stones, adder stones, snake eggs, fairy stones, eye stones, holy stones or holey stones - whatever you call them, small stones with holes all the way through them have captured the imagination of us all for countless centuries.
A porthole to a fairy dimension, protection from witches and nightmares, potent fertility symbols, a solid way to treat ailments, a method of preventing livestock being bewitched, insurance against storms at sea, a snake repellent…witch stones are credited with a huge range of powers.
Born through the violence of nature - crashing waves or burrowing creatures - witch stones are readily found across Norfolk and have been collected for centuries as powerful magical tools, both by witches and, somewhat bizarrely, by those who seek to banish them from their homes.
The innate strangeness of a stone with a hole all the way through it has made witch stones a focus for folk magic where they are used for a wide range of purposes, from protecting households from witches (hang by the front door) to preventing children's nightmares (hang by their bed) to promoting fertility (ditto, although if you find one with a hole big enough to walk through while holding hands, it's said to be far more effective).
It was believed that while good luck and dreams could pass through the hole in the witch stone, bad luck and bad dreams were too big to pass through and would be stuck on the outside of the stone, unable to reach their intended victim. Fishermen and sailors tied strings of witch stones on lengths of rope and hung them on their ships to guarantee safe passage and ward off evil spirits and witches that could attach themselves to both their boat and their catch while some believed they helped to control the winds on the high seas by placing one on a cord and swinging it through the air to break up heavy clouds and dangerous gales.
Small stones worn round the neck are said to heal a range of ailments and to protect the wearer from the evil eye, spirits and the dark arts -
folklore has it that rubbing a stone with a hole in it over a sprain or a painful joint would ease the pain.
In Norfolk, farmers would hang a witch stone outside barns to protect livestock, in particular cows, whose milk was protected against turning sour by the magical stone, bury stone with holes in them under coops to protect their chickens and in George Ewart Evans' classic The Pattern Under the Plough, about East Anglian rural life, he told stories of 'hag stones' hung above horses in their stables to prevent witches taking them for a gallop at night. A German folklore story claims the holes in 'adder stones' are made when snakes gather together and use their venom to create holes and that if you wear one, you will be protected against the adder's bite (as Norfolk walkers regularly have adder encounters, please do not consider this an alternative to vigilance and stout boots).
The romance of the witch stone is created by the most magical force of all: nature. The action of running or moving water creates a hole where there is a weakness in the stone or the holes can be caused by burrowing worms or molluscs or sea sponges - every stone is individual, each is unique.
There is a common belief that magic can't work on moving water and since the holes in witch stones are made by moving water, those who claim the stones have their own special powers think the stones retain the magic which is in the water which cannot be harnessed in any other way.
It is said that for a stone to have any power whatsoever, it must be found by the person who intends to use it and not given to them or bought - although true believers insist that people don't find stones, stones find people.
Weird Norfolk suggests that if a stone DOES find you, ensure it is just one stone at a time and that you leave other stones to find someone else.
*Removing stones from beaches is illegal under the Coast Protection Act 1949.
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