Hag stones, also known as Witch stones – have always been known to me as lucky. As children, we used to search the shore for stones and shells with holes in them to make mobiles, necklaces or charms out of. Little did I know then, that this family tradition is part of a much wider folk tradition with roots in Britain and Ireland, as well as Scandinavia and Germany. In various forms across Northern Europe, hag stones have long been used as a good luck charm or protective amulet: worn on the body, nailed to boats, bedposts and above doors, placed on windowsills.
To me, the name suggests these stones were used by witches, but in fact the more dominant tradition is that they were used to protect against witches. Like with many folk traditions, an ideological battle between traditions can be seen in the Lore behind hag-stones, their supposed uses and origins. However across all of these conflicting narratives, magic is continually attributed to them.
How does their magic work?
- It is often said that only ‘good’ luck can pass through the middle of the stone, bad luck and curses are unable to pass through or are ‘caught’ in the hole in the middle. This is why hag stones are often placed above doorways or on windowsills to guard the boundary of a house or barn where livestock is kept.
- It is also commonly held that magic can’t work on objects that water can run through. Therefore the wearer of a hag-stone amulet can repel the spells of witches as the unique hole formed by water protects them.
- Some say the hole in a hag-stone is a portal to the faery-world, therefore used correctly, the hagstone can bring great luck and magic to the user able to connect with these powerful creatures.
- Watching over you – as the stone’s shape resembles an eye it is believed to act as a talisman to ward off ‘the evil eye’. Talismans shaped like a human eye are thought to avert the curse caused by evil gaze of a witch, sorcerer or vengeful engemy and give protection to the user. The tradition of the ‘evil eye’ is particularly prominent today throughout the Meditterean and West Asia in countries such as Greece, Turkey and Iran (think the blue eye you can buy on holiday) however it can also be traced across Britain, possibly brought over by the Roman Empire as a tradition.
- Across Britain, hag stones were nailed above the doors to, or placed on the windowsills of barns where livestock were kept to protect them from the curses of witches.‘Curses’ on livestock were one of the most common fears about witches, and the most common ‘evidence’ used against them were the sudden death or disease of livestock, bad harvests and the souring of milk. In areas where hag-stones were not commonly found, the stones were sometimes even ‘imported’ from other areas of Britain due to their popularity with farmers.
- Similarly, hag stones were placed above doors or on windowsills of human dwellings to bring good luck or ward off evil.
- Hag stones were attached to ships – either as individual stones tied to the mast or lines of stones tied together with string and nailed to the hull – as protective talismans to ward against the interference of witches or to attract good sailing conditions at sea. This tradition is particularly prominent in the South-West.
- Hag stones were also nailed to bed posts or hung over the bed, to protect the user from bad dreams or visitations from dream-demons.
- If you felt yourself to be a specific target of the dark arts, you could also wear a hag-stone as a pendant to offer you personal protection.
- Another common usage was to tie a hag stone to your keys to prevent them from being lost.
Hag-stones are also apparently known as ‘Adder stones’ in wider Northern European tradition, particularly across the sea in Scandinavia and Germany. I’d never heard of this alternate mythology before conducting the research for this article, and I have to say I’m rather less enamoured with the idea, but perhaps I’m just being biased. Various competing narratives in this vein attribute their mysterious shape to the bite of a snake, or by the tails of a snakes swarming together on May-Day. Another tradition is that the stones are snake’s eggs (adders don’t actually lay eggs – they give birth to live young); or even that when thrown into the water they will transform into a snake or eel.
Where To Find Them
Worldwide, hag-stones are extremely rare, as they only form in unique conditions dependant on the geology and coastal geography of an area. However, this means that once you find an area that is ‘suited’ to hag-stones you can often find quite a few. They are widely reported across the Suffolk coast. I found some of mine in Dungeness, Kent and some on the beach at Lyme Regis, Devon. What both of these beaches have in common is being covered in large pebbles which suggest to me that attrition (stones banging together in the sea) is key to their formation. Most of my hag-stones are made of predominantly of limestone, I’m not sure about the more unusual brown one (pictured above), but I think it could be granite. Please do let me know in the comments if you think you can identify it.
Find Out More About Hag Stones at:
- Pitt Rivers museum, Oxford.
- Roud, Steve. The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland, 2006.
- The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle, Cornwall.