In the village where I grew up, St Hilda is a prominent presence. We have a church, a village hall, a school and a street all named after her. She was reputed to have been an extremely kind and devout woman who devoted her life to teaching and the inclusivity of ‘ordinary folk’. She became the founding abbess of a monastery on the cliff top at Whitby in 657AD and its reputation as a centre for education spread internationally.
Most of what we know about her comes from the the Venerable Bede (672-735AD) who wrote: “All who knew her called her ‘mother’ because of her outstanding devotion and grace.” In fact her reputation was such, that myths and legends grew about the divine powers she possessed.
In my dad’s column from 9th December 1978, he talks about her connection to ‘adder stones’ that can still be found if you look hard enough along Whitby’s beaches. They’re called adder stones because of the pattern of a snake imprinted upon the surface.
The legend went that the town was plagued with poisonous snakes and St Hilda prayed for them to be thrown into the sea. The deadly serpents all gathered on the cliff top by the monastery and Hilda lashed them with her whip, severing their heads, before driving them over the edge with her wooden staff. The snakes coiled themselves up as they fell and, upon landing, were turned into stones.
In the pagan tradition, they use the term ‘adder stones’ for any which have a naturally-formed hole in them, and they are associated with witchcraft. They are also known as hag-stones, witch-stones, holey stones or mare-stones, and people used to hang them around their homes to ward off evil spells.
Of course, thanks to the advances in science, we now know that Whitby’s adder stones are actually ammonites, fossilised remains of long-dead sea creatures. It fascinates me how, in times gone by, we humans created our own explanations for the inexplicable. It was a way of easing our worries against things that we did not have the power or knowledge to yet understand.
As a former student of Ancient History and the Rise of Christianity, I was fascinated how the ancient tales surrounding the Greek and Roman gods came about. Can you imagine what it must have been like to experience an earthquake when you had no understanding of the nature of tectonic plates? Or the eruption of a volcano a couple of thousand years before vulcanology became a thing? Or how do you explain where a terrible hurricane comes from when you don’t even know there’s such a thing as weather?
Well, if you were a Greek living in about 500BC you’d know that if the earth was shaking beneath your feet, then Poseidon, god of the sea, was having an almighty spat with his arch enemy Athena. You’d also know that the volcanic eruption was merely god of the underworld, Hephaestus, forging new weapons for his king Zeus. And Poseidon was at it again when a hurricane came around, as he was also responsible for the wind and in fact most weather-related phenomena.
All the gods and goddesses of the ancient world had associations which allowed people to explain to themselves why mystifying life events occurred, to make sense out of times of confusion.
These ancients beliefs which passed from the Greeks to the Romans actually formed the basis of much of the founding beliefs of Christianity, and you might be surprised at how many of today’s Christian tales and practices actually their have roots in the myths and legends of Ancient Greece. For example, the story of Pandora opening the forbidden box to allow evil to spread into the world is similar to the tale of Eve biting the forbidden fruit, which is the biblical tale of original sin.
Greeks put a lot of time and effort into appeasing their gods, and being brought up Catholic, I knew how important it was to keep our God happy. I went to Mass on a Sunday and I lost count of how many times I had to apologise for fighting with my sisters or not keeping my bedroom tidy at weekly confession.
There may or may not have been worse things I had to confess to, but I think I’ll keep you guessing as to what they were.
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