Welcome to our fourth and last blog post in our Crafts Month Special – in partnership with the Folklore Museums Network! Throughout the month of August, we featured charms, amulets and other folklore objects housed in Museum collections, selected by Dr Peter Hewitt from the Folklore Museums Network database. This week (27/08/22), our theme on Twitter was Tailors, Spinners & Weavers – and so, our featured object was the “Spindle Whorl”…
If you have just joined us and missed our previous articles, for the past three weeks we have been on a unique journey in the #SuperstitionSat Blog, exploring museum collections to find objects related to the world of folklore! We began our field work in Boscastle, Cornwall with “The Witch’s Plough” – a bizarre artefact likely put together by the controversial founder of the Museum of Witchcraft, Cecil Williamson – which you can read about here. Then, we sailed all the way to Newbiggin-By-The-Sea in Northumberland to find “The Fisherman’s Lucky Stone” – housed in the Pitt Rivers Museum and discussed by us here; finally, we came to a rest stop in Scotland at Cowane’s Hospital with the help of “Cowan’s Taed Stane” – housed at The Stewartry Museum in Dumfries and Galloway, ready for you to read about here.
This journey would not have been possible without the help of Dr Peter Hewitt, founder of the Folklore Museums Network – a Subject Specialist Network that focuses on promoting folklore collections in museums across Britain and Ireland, as well as worldwide. Dr Hewitt and other members of the FMN are currently working on a digital database of folklore objects from British museums – a database from which the objects we talked about on our Blog were selected, and to which you too can contribute! So, if you work in a museum, or even a library or archive, why not get in touch with the Folklore Museums Network and add your folk items to their repository!
As for this week’s featured museum object, our excursion began in Scotland but came to a conclusion in Wales – as we searched for ancient tools called “Spindle Whorls”. Commonly used as early as the Iron Age, up until the 18th and 19th centuries before the textile industry took over this traditional craft, “Spindle Whorls” were weights fixed on a rod or spindle to help turn wool and other raw materials into yarn. This craft was called Spinning, after the circular motion of transporting the unspun wool gathered on a distaff, onto the spindle as a fine thread. As such, to help keep the thread down and away from the unspun wool, spinners used weights made out of some heavy material like stone or iron – and that’s how we got spindle whorls like these ones below, found on the Island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in 1860, now housed by the National Museum of Scotland.
However, due to their similarity with other holed stones (like the ‘magical’ hagstones we looked at on Week 2 of our Crafts Month Special), when spindle whorls were found by folk who had no knowledge of their original purpose, they also became more than just a simple tool: they became amulets that, due to their circular shape resembling a coiled snake, received the names of “Adderstone” or “Snakestone”. Used as charms against snake bites or as part of the healing process itself to cure one (whether on human or cattle), Adderstones were believed to be snakes turned into stone, wrapped around themselves and biting their own tail like a veritable Ouroboros. As written in a 1923 issue of the Folklore journal:
“Snake bite was cured by putting a snake’s head on the place. It could also be cured by putting to the place what is called a snake stone, a small stone with a hole in the middle, probably a spindle whorl. This, however, was used mostly to keep away snakes and prevent their biting. This stone was a most valued possession, and the only one I knew of in the village was hardly allowed to be shown.”
– from Folk-Lore of the Isle of Skye, in Folklore Volume 34 Issue 1, by Mary Julia MacCulloch (1923).
Spindle whorls, and consequently Adderstones, were not just made of stone or iron, or cast lead like this one from the Portable Antiquities Scheme though – sometimes they were also salvaged and repurposed from other materials such as bone, antler, fossils, or glass. As we travel down to Wales for the last leg of our tour, we can find the following “Adderstone” housed in the collections of the Amgueddfa Cymru – the National Museums of Wales.
This ring-shaped glass bead, possibly merely ornamental with its white wave decoration resembling a serpentine shape, is believed to have been an Adderstone or “Snake Stone”: a magical charm from the Iron Age, capable of curing snake bites as well as cataracts. Well, at least, according to its catalogue entry. As described in another Folklore journal article from 1921: “[t]he objects which passed for snake stones of this kind seem for the most part to have been fossil sea-urchins, pieces of coral, or most frequently of all the glass beads found in barrows of an earlier age. These latter, it may be noticed, were often doubly snake stones, for the lines with which they arc […] suggested a snake imprisoned in the stone.” Along these lines, this bead housed by the Amguedffa Cymru may not even have been an “Adderstone” – but what else can we say, other than quote Prof. Prys Morgan, author of A Welsh Snakestone, Its Tradition and Folklore:
“If an object is found the function of which is unknown,
it is a natural tendency to give the object a magic property.”
This begs the question: were all the objects we featured on our Crafts Month Special really charms, amulets, or related to Folklore at all? The history of some of our featured items was admittedly unclear – but once again, the purpose of the study of folklore shone through to us: to discover what made everyday people keep going, what they shared with each other and where they travelled, when faced with the dangers of life and our world.
Thank you for reading! Please let us know if you enjoyed this series, as we would love to look at more museum collections with you. Until next time!
– Superstition Sam 🐾
Spindle Whorls in Folk-lore of the Isle of Skye, by Mary Julia MacCulloch, Folklore Volume 34 Issue 1 (1923).
Snake Stones, by W. R. Halliday, Folklore Volume 32 Issue 4 (1921).
A Welsh Snakestone, Its Tradition and Folklore, by Prys Morgan, Folklore Volume 94 Issue 2 (1983).
British Amulets in London Museums, by Ellen Ettlinger, Folklore Volume 50 Issue 2 (1939).
A Roman Spindle Whorl from the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
The Folklore Museums Network is a a Subject Specialist Network (SSN) promoting folklore collections in museums world-wide. Founded in 2020 by Dr Peter Hewitt, the FMN works collaboratively with its members to identify, display and disseminate knowledge about the material folklore collections held in museums across Britain and Ireland. For more information, visit: https://folkloremuseumsnetwork.org.uk/