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Something superstitious

Author: Rachel

Sometimes you read something and wish you had written it — when the author so perfectly captures your thoughts and ideas and elucidates them in a way far better than you ever could.

For me, one of these was Alex Woodcock’s In the Eye of the Hagstone, which featured in edition two of the Elementum journal. Here, Woodcock considers hagstones — stones with natural holes through the core — and writes poetically about their magical properties:

'The hagstone tells the more human side of history perhaps. Of fear, superstition, disease and its healing, of countering dark magic, of minding the gap between the living and the dead, natural and supernatural. Its very form is the negotiation of visible and invisible, a combination of stone and air, presence and absence ...' 1

Depending on where you are, you might call stones like this a witch stone, ring stone, adder stone, snake egg, hex stone, fairy stone, holy stone, eye stone … the list goes on. But the fascination with stones that you can peer through isn’t restricted to England. In Wales, they’re known as glain neidr (snake bead) and in northern Scotland, gloine nan Druidh (Druids’ glass). They appear in some form or other in the mythologies of Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, Italy, Russia and Egypt, to name but a few.

The stones became amulets, and were believed to repel evil spells and spirits; they were hung from stables to protect livestock, from boats to protect sailors, tied to beds to capture bad dreams, and were even used in medieval medicine.

St John the Baptist’s church at Allington near Salisbury is a Norman church that had a thorough going-over by the Victorians. From the 12th century, all that remains are a couple of moulded corbels on the chancel arch and a fragment of a beaded arch on the north side.

When I first visited the church, it was the north side that commanded my attention. You might wonder why — the elevation is plain and pretty uneventful — until you look a little closer and begin to see that the wall is peppered with hagstones. Glassy flints with knobbly holes through the centre.

The association of the north side of churches and churchyards with spiritual darkness is a popular and enduring perception. It’s perhaps derived from 'Isaiah 14:12-20, where the ‘Shining One, the Son of the Morning/Dawn’ has been taken in Christian exegesis to refer [to] Lucifer, and the passage to refer to his fall from heaven. Verse 13 refers in some translations to setting up his throne ‘in the north’'.(Allan Barton)2

And of course, in more mundane terms, north sides are generally a bit cooler and shadier.

So, would it be too great a leap, knowing that hagstones were used as protective charms, to think that they were specifically placed on this wall to ward off evil spirits lurking around the north side?

However, bedded into the wall, the hole becomes filled in. Does this nullify the magical powers? Or were they thought to be disfigured and less likely to be seen on the north side?