By Elska á Fjárfella of the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn, 2016
As part of my Viking persona the need for some sort of magical amulet devolved into another research project. I had heard about thunderstones, and straightforward that I am, assumed those would have been made out of fulgurites, which form of melted sand from lightning striking the beach. But just to be on the safe side I looked into these fascinating talismans and found that throughout history many, many objects had been perceived as thunderstones. For a very long time thunderstones were believed to be the physical remains of thunderbolts or lightning strikes endowed with the power to avert evil or bad luck, and to protect the house, property and family against lightning and by association, storms and fire. In the words of 17th century Adrianus Tollius “Thunderstones are generated in the sky by a fulgureous exhalation (whatever that may look like) conglobed in a cloud by a circumfixed humour, and baked hard, as it were, by intense heat”…
As much as that almost seems plausible, what did they expect those exhalations to look like? Most thunderstones seem to fall into one of three categories: they look like weapons (the sky gods used lightning as a weapon, like Thor’s hammer Mjöllnir), they are associated with thunderstorms (for instance resemble hail) or have lightning like properties (spark fire). Preferably they are found in conjunction with lightning storms and lightning strikes: objects that were not there before the storm but were there after – washed out of the ground by heavy rains but attributed to having fallen out of the sky; like stone objects with a peculiar shape, with holes in them or sharp ends, polished, chipped (proof they fell from the sky), perfectly round, smooth, with a projectile shape, like pointed, arrow like etc…
Thunderstone amulets could be categorized in three classes: the minerals, the fossils and the ceraunia. Examples of minerals would be those unusually shaped stones; fire sparking stones like flint, iron pyrite and bog iron; fulgurites (found by digging out the lightning strike site, looking for the magical core) and meteorites, especially those with remaglypts which do kinda look like fingerprints of the gods! Only a couple types of fossils are considered thunderstones: sharks teeth and Belemnites (squid) resemble weapons, and Echinoids are rather round with a, to us, familiar five pointed pattern. But the most interesting are the ceraunia. These stone age tools were crafted by early man, but as this knowledge had been forgotten, the sometimes abundantly found stone weapons became part of thunderstone myths instead!
In archaeology, thunderstones are most often found in grave finds and in house foundations. This is interpreted as a wish to protect the dead and help them into the afterlife, and to protect the house and family from lightning strikes and fire. As thunderstones were seen as the manifestation of lightning strike cores, and throughout history the myth (hope) of “lightning/disaster never strikes twice” prevailed (even today, as shown by the Norse disaster protection rune on our modern day ambulances), having a thunderstone in your house or on your person would, therefore, exempt you from being hit.
The connection between thunderstones and burial could come from their connection to faeries. The Fae were thought to be the inhabitants of a mystical, enchanted world, with plenty of honey and wine, feasts, playing and drinking, and where you’d never grow old (sound familiar?). The Celts believed that this Otherworld could be accessed from the real world through Neolithic and bronze age barrows – which would have stone tools – and thought that Otherworld was the land of the dead. Placing echinoids (called faerie loaves) or stone tools in burial sites would help guide the spirits of the dead on their journey into Otherworld, or the afterlife.
In Norse mythology Thor’s hammer Mjöllnir was thought to have the power to call up the dead to renewed life and placing the sign of Mjöllnir, either as a fossil echinoid or a stone axe, in burials can therefore be seen as an act of symbolizing rebirth after death. Thunderstones were believed to fall from the sky during thunderstorms; missiles hurled by Thor to keep the wandering trolls under control. If a thunderstone struck a troll careless enough to be out in a thunderstorm, instant death followed. If it were not for Thor’s missiles, the Norse believed, the trolls would have spread across the earth like a plague! Thor’s hammer Mjöllnir also represents the lightning as when thrown it magically returns to Thor’s hand, just as natural lightning is seen to strike the earth (leader) and then fly black to the skies (return stroke).
There is also a connection between thunderstones and the use of iron. Revered for its transformative qualities by way of smelting and smithing, the transformation of iron into a new state could be regarded as a parallel for the path of the body and soul through burial rituals and might seem as a good catalyst to assist the dead to do the same, similar to the believe of stone tools and echinoids. According to Norse belief, placing objects of iron in and around the grave site is a most reliable way of ensuring the dead stayed bound to their proper place (the Norse draugr are zombies, apparently risen from the grave due to lack of iron, or thunderstones!). Iron is also used to wire wrap thunderstones to wear as amulets as iron would trap the magic and keep the thunderstone ‘loaded’. Popular myth also mentions faeries can be deterred/trapped or hurt/killed with pure iron, which concurs with thunderstone myths.
Apparently thunderstones were seen as pretty darn useful: tools & echinoids would be included in graves to protect souls, guide travel into the afterlife and keep evil spirits away. They would be placed inside walls, under the floor or the threshold or kept under eaves or staircases of buildings to protect the owner and his house from being struck by lightning, fire and storms, and would be worn to avoid dying at sea, losing in battles, and to guarantee good sleep at night.
Echinoids placed on shelves in the pantry would keep the milk fresh and cause plenty of cream, and were hung around the necks of cattle. They guaranteed good breeding luck and good hunting & fishing luck. And thunderstone echinoids made the beer ferment.
Who finds a thunderstone should not give it away, otherwise he loses his luck. In Norse mythology they were thought to keep trolls and witches (or general evil) away, and bring good luck. They were also thought to protect the unchristened child against being “changed”. And thunderstones were considered to be good protection against elfish malice, the evil eye and especially, the Devil.
Thunderstone echinoids were even assimilated into Christian culture as a protection sign against evil. In some parts of England, openings like doors and windows on the north side of a church, which in medieval and earlier times was known as the Devil’s side of the church, would be rimmed with echinoids (called shepherd’s crowns), all with the five pointed side visible. Echinoids naturally display a five pointed star, the forbearer of the pentagram, which became symbolic of the power of good over evil!
To keep up with demand, objects that looked like magical items became regarded as similar, and were believed to take on the same magic, which is called the Theory of Similars (or Sympathetic Magic). This explains the prevalence of manmade Thor’s hammer amulets in later period, from very crude (as part of iron amulet rings which were believed to keep the spirits of the dead confined to the grave) to elaborate jewelry pieces, all used as protection amulets and talismans. And how the five pointed star of the echinoid likely evolved into the powerful symbol the pentagram, which took with it several of the thunderstones protections, including safeguarding brewing (Scandinavian), protection against witches & general evil and especially protection against the Devil.
Interestingly, the word “urchin” for modern sea urchins likely came by way of thunderstones: fossil echinoids, often called fairy loaves, were associated with the Fae, and another word for these creatures was “urchin”. And ironically, it took until contact with Native American Indians in the 16th CE, who at that time still used stone tool technology, for the European scientific community to realize ceraunia were actually stone tools made by an earlier kind of people!
Over time, the powerful thunderstones devolved into no more than talismans, or lucky stones. But remember, next time you find a stone with a hole in, and you just have to put it in your pocket – you’re just following in your ancestors footsteps and there is nothing superstitious about that! Or is there…
The inspiration amulet, my amulet and part of my Thunderstone Amulet display at the Yule Peace Tournament this December. In the foreground is a striker (to demonstrate how well flint sparks fire) and a piece of naturally found flint from England (shaped like a tube as the flint formed in a prehistoric animal seafloor tunnel). Thank you, Angelika for loaning the striker and the replica stone tools, Edward Harbinger for the real stone arrow point and Artemius of Delftwood for the belemnite. The rest of the collection comes from my personal stash collected during years of wandering all over the place picking up whatever looked unusual!
McGinnis M., Meghan P. Ring Out Your Dead. Stockholm: Stockholms Universitet, 2016
http://www.archaeology.su.se/polopoly_fs/1.288568.1467018819!/menu/standard/file/Mattsson_McGinnis_Meghan_Paalz-Ring_Out_Your_Dead.pdf Fig a & b are attributed to this text.
Johanson, Kristiina. The Changing Meaning of ‘Thunderbolts’.
McNamara, Kenneth J. Shepherds’ crowns, fairy loaves and thunderstones: the mythology of fossil echinoids in England. Myth and Geology. London: Geological Society, 2007. Fig 4 & 8 are attributed to this text.
Report of the U.S National Museum, Part I. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1899.
Ravilious, K. “Thor’s Hammer” Found in Viking Graves. National Geographic News, 2010.
Seigfried, Karl E. H. The Norse Mythology Blog. 2010
Dian-stanes and “Thunderstones”. Orkneyjar, the heritage of the Orkney Islands.
Sibley, Jane The Divine Thunderbolt USA: XLibris, 2009
Extant piece found at http://www.geolsba.dk/echinoids/dan/Galerites-vikingesmykke.html
See Elska’s blog here.
Shauna Branwen said:
I’m building a mini stave church for my Pennsic encampment. Having read this I ordered some of the echinoids on E-Bay to put on the window casings.