Thunderstone (folklore)

Last updated

A thunderstone is a prehistoric hand axe, stone tool, or fossil which was used as an amulet to protect a person or a building. The name derives from the ancient understanding that the object was found at a place where lightning had struck. [1]


Thunderstone folklore

Picture of two Lower Paleolithic bifaces Bifaz de Atapuerca (TG10).jpg
Picture of two Lower Paleolithic bifaces

European tradition

Classical world

The Greeks and Romans, at least from the Hellenistic period onwards, used Neolithic stone axeheads for the apotropaic protection of buildings. [2] A 1985 survey of the use of prehistoric axes in Romano-British contexts found forty examples, of which twenty-nine were associated with buildings (including villas, military structures such as barracks, temples, and kilns. [3]

Middle ages

During the Middle Ages many of these well-wrought stones were venerated as weapons, which during the "war in heaven" had been used in driving forth Satan and his hosts. Hence, in the 11th century the Byzantine emperor sent to the Holy Roman emperor a "heaven axe"; and in the 12th century a Bishop of Rennes asserted the value of thunderstones as a divinely appointed means of securing success in battle, safety on the sea, security against thunder, and immunity from unpleasant dreams.

European folklore

Axe heads found at a 2700 BC Neolithic manufacture site in Switzerland, arranged in the various stages of production from left to right. HMB Steinaxtmanufaktur Vinelz Jungsteinzeit 2700 BC.jpg
Axe heads found at a 2700 BC Neolithic manufacture site in Switzerland, arranged in the various stages of production from left to right.

In Scandinavia thunderstones were frequently worshiped as family gods who kept off spells and witchcraft. Beer was poured over them as an offering and they were sometimes anointed with butter. In Switzerland the owner of a thunderstone whirls it, on the end of a thong, three times round his head, and throws it at the door of his dwelling at the approach of a storm to prevent lightning from striking the house. In Italy they are hung around children's necks to protect them from illness and to ward off the Evil eye. In Roman times they were sewn inside dog-collars along with a little piece of coral to keep the dogs from going mad. In Sweden they offer protection from elves. In the French Alps they protect sheep, while elsewhere in France they are thought to ease childbirth. Among the Slavs they cure warts on man and beast, and during Passion Week they have the property to reveal hidden treasure. [4]

Asian tradition

In Burma they are used as a cure and preventative for appendicitis. In Japan they cure boils and ulcers. In Malaysia and Sumatra they are used to sharpen the kris, are considered very lucky objects, and have been credited with being touchstones for gold. [4]

North American tradition

In North Carolina and Alabama there is a belief that flint stones placed in the fire will keep hawks from molesting the chickens, a belief which probably stems from the European idea that elf arrows protect domestic animals. In Brazil, flint is used as a divining stone for gold, treasure and water. [4]

Native American folklore

The flint was an object of veneration by most American Indian tribes. According to the Pawnee origin myth, stone weapons and implements were given to man by the Morning Star. Among the K'iche' people of Guatemala, there is a myth that a flint fell from the sky and broke into 1600 pieces, each of which became a god. Tohil, the god who gave them fire, is still represented as flint. This myth provides a parallel to the almost universal belief in the thunderstone, and is reminiscent of how the Roman god Jupiter was worshipped in the form of a flint stone. The Cherokee shaman invokes a flint when he is about to scarify a patient prior to applying his medicine. Among the Pueblos there were flint societies which, in most tribes, were primarily concerned with weather and witchcraft, but sometimes had to do with war and medicine. [4]

Fossils as thunderstones

In many parts of southern England until the middle of the nineteenth century, another name commonly used for fossil Echinoids was 'thunderstone', though other fossils such as belemnites and (rarely) ammonites were also used for this purpose. [1]

In 1677 Dr. Robert Plot, the first keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, published his classic book The Natural History of Oxfordshire. Plot recorded that in Oxfordshire what are now known as fossil echinoids were called thunderstones, as they were thought to have descended from the heavens during a thunderstorm. The St. Peter's Church in Linkenholt, England, was built in 1871 near the location of the old St. Peter's, which had stood for nearly 700 years. The 1871 version of the church included fossil echinoids built into the walls surrounding the windows, a style adopted from the original. This implies that Thunderstone folklore was retained for at least 700 years in England, and had its roots in pagan folklore. [5]

In Sussex in the early 20th century fossil echinoids were also used on the outside windowsills of kitchens and dairies to stop milk going off (because thunder was believed to be able to sour milk). [1]

Decline of thunderstone mythology

Boucher de Perthes Boucher de Perthes.jpg
Boucher de Perthes

Even as late as the 17th century, a French ambassador brought a stone hatchet, which still exists in the museum at Nancy, as a present to the Prince-Bishop of Verdun, and claimed that it had healing properties. [5]

Andrew Dickson White described the discovery of the true origin of thunderstones as a "line of observation and thought ... fatal to the theological view". In the last years of the sixteenth century Michael Mercati tried to prove that the "thunder-stones" were weapons or implements of early races of men; but for some reason his book was not published until the following century, when other thinkers had begun to take up the same idea.

In 1723 Antoine Laurent de Jussieu addressed the French Academy on "The Origin and Uses of Thunder-stones". He showed that recent travellers from various parts of the world had brought a number of weapons and other implements of stone to France, and that they were essentially similar to what in Europe had been known as "thunderstones". A year later this fact was firmly embedded in the minds of French scientists by the Jesuit Joseph-Francois Lafitau, who published a work showing the similarity between the customs of aborigines then existing in other lands and those of the early inhabitants of Europe. So began, in these works of Jussieu and Lafitau, the science of ethnology.

It was only after the French Revolution of 1830, more than a century later, that the political climate in Europe was free enough of religious sentiment for archaeological discoveries to be dispassionately investigated and the conclusion reached that human existence spanned a much greater period of time than any Christian theologian had dreamt of. [6]

Boucher de Perthes

In 1847, a man previously unknown to the world at large, Boucher de Perthes, published in Paris the first volume of work on Celtic and Antediluvian Antiquities, and in this he showed engravings of typical flint implements and weapons, of which he had discovered thousands upon thousands in the high drift beds near Abbeville, in northern France. So far as France was concerned, he was met at first by what he calls "a conspiracy of silence", and then by a contemptuous opposition among orthodox scientists, led by Elie de Beaumont.

In 1863 the thunderstone myth was further discredited by Charles Lyell in his book Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man . Lyell had previously opposed the new ideas about human antiquity, and his changing sides gave further force to the scientific evidence. [6] [ unreliable source? ]

See also

Related Research Articles

Three-age system System for categorizing history

The three-age system is the periodization of human pre-history into three time-periods: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age; although the concept may also refer to other tripartite divisions of historic time-periods. In history, archaeology and physical anthropology, the three-age system is a methodological concept adopted during the 19th century according to which artefacts and events of late prehistory and early history could be broadly ordered into a recognizable chronology. C. J. Thomsen (1788-1865), director of the Royal Museum of Nordic Antiquities in Copenhagen, initially developed this categorization in the period 1816 to 1825 as a result of classifying the museum's collections chronologically - there resulted broad sequences with artefacts made successively of stone, bronze, and iron.

Mace (bludgeon) Blunt striking weapon

A mace is a blunt weapon, a type of club or virge that uses a heavy head on the end of a handle to deliver powerful strikes. A mace typically consists of a strong, heavy, wooden or metal shaft, often reinforced with metal, featuring a head made of stone, bone, copper, bronze, iron, or steel.

Ukko God of the sky, weather, harvest and thunder in Finnish mythology

Ukko, Äijä[ˈæi̯jæ] or Äijö[ˈæi̯jø], parallel to Uku in Estonian mythology, is the god of the sky, weather, harvest and thunder in Finnish mythology.

Thunderbolt Symbolic representation of lightning

A thunderbolt or lightning bolt is a symbolic representation of lightning when accompanied by a loud thunderclap. In Indo-European mythology, the thunderbolt was identified with the 'Sky Father'; this association is also found in later Hellenic representations of Zeus and Vedic descriptions of the vajra wielded by the god Indra. It may have been a symbol of cosmic order, as expressed in the fragment from Heraclitus describing "the Thunderbolt that steers the course of all things".

Stone tool Any tool, partially or entirely, made out of stone

A stone tool is, in the most general sense, any tool made either partially or entirely out of stone. Although stone tool-dependent societies and cultures still exist today, most stone tools are associated with prehistoric cultures that have become extinct. Archaeologists often study such prehistoric societies, and refer to the study of stone tools as lithic analysis. Ethnoarchaeology has been a valuable research field in order to further the understanding and cultural implications of stone tool use and manufacture.

Finnish mythology is a commonly applied description of the folklore of Finnish paganism, of which a modern revival is practiced by a small percentage of the Finnish people. It has many features shared with Estonian and other Finnic mythologies, but also shares some similarities with neighbouring Baltic, Slavic and, to a lesser extent, Norse mythologies.

Hand axe Stone tool

A hand axe is a prehistoric stone tool with two faces that is the longest-used tool in human history. It is usually made from flint or chert. It is characteristic of the lower Acheulean and middle Palaeolithic (Mousterian) periods. Its technical name (biface) comes from the fact that the archetypical model is a generally bifacial and almond-shaped (amygdaloidal) lithic flake. Hand axes tend to be symmetrical along their longitudinal axis and formed by pressure or percussion. The most common hand axes have a pointed end and rounded base, which gives them their characteristic shape, and both faces have been knapped to remove the natural cortex, at least partially. Hand axes are a type of the somewhat wider biface group of two-faced tools or weapons.

Michele Mercati

Michele Mercati was a physician who was superintendent of the Vatican Botanical Garden under Popes Pius V, Gregory XIII, Sixtus V, and Clement VIII. He was one of the first scholars to recognise prehistoric stone tools as human-made rather than natural or mythologically created thunderstones.

Jacques Boucher de Crèvecœur de Perthes

Jacques Boucher de Crèvecœur de Perthes, sometimes referred to as Boucher de Perthes, was a French archaeologist and antiquary notable for his discovery, in about 1830, of flint tools in the gravels of the Somme valley.

Perkūnas was the common Baltic god of thunder, and the second most important deity in the Baltic pantheon after Dievas. In both Lithuanian and Latvian mythology, he is documented as the god of sky, thunder, lightning, storms, rain, fire, war, law, order, fertility, mountains, and oak trees.


Ukonvasara, or Ukonkirves, is the symbol and magical weapon of the Finnish thunder god Ukko, similar to Thor's Mjölnir. Ukonvasara means hammer of Ukko; similarly, Ukonkirves means axe of Ukko. It was said that Ukko created lightning with Ukonvasara.

Joseph-François Lafitau

Joseph-François Lafitau was a French Jesuit missionary, ethnologist, and naturalist who worked in Canada. He is best known for his use of the comparative method in the field of scientific anthropology, the discovery of ginseng, and his writings on the Iroquois. Lafitau was the first of the Jesuit missionaries in Canada to have a scientific point of view. Francis Parkman praises Lafitau, stating, "none of the old writers are so satisfactory as Lafitau."

Toadstone Mythical gemstone, actually a fossilized fish tooth

The toadstone, also known as bufonite, is a mythical stone or gem that was thought to be found in the head of a toad. It was supposed to be an antidote to poison and in this it is like batrachite, supposedly formed in the heads of frogs. Toadstones were actually the button-like fossilized teeth of Lepidotes, an extinct genus of ray-finned fish from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. They appeared to be "stones that are perfect in form" and were set by European jewellers into magical rings and amulets from Medieval times until the 18th century.

Axe Weapon or tool used for chopping, splitting, or shaping wood

An axe is an implement that has been used for millennia to shape, split and cut wood, to harvest timber, as a weapon, and as a ceremonial or heraldic symbol. The axe has many forms and specialised uses but generally consists of an axe head with a handle, or helve.

History of weapons Aspect of history

People have used weapons in warfare, hunting, self-defense, law enforcement, and criminal activity. Weapons also serve many other purposes in society including use in sports, collections for display, and historical displays and demonstrations. As technology has developed throughout history, weapons have changed with it.

Perun Slavic supreme god of the sky and war

In Slavic mythology, Perun is the highest god of the pantheon and the god of sky, thunder, lightning, storms, rain, law, war, fertility and oak trees. His other attributes were fire, mountains, wind, iris, eagle, firmament, horses and carts, weapons, and war. He was first associated with weapons made of stone and later with those of metal.

The discovery of human antiquity was a major achievement of science in the middle of the 19th century, and the foundation of scientific paleoanthropology. The antiquity of man, human antiquity, or in simpler language the age of the human race, are names given to the series of scientific debates it involved, which with modifications continue in the 21st century. These debates have clarified and given scientific evidence, from a number of disciplines, towards solving the basic question of dating the first human being.

<i>Anglo-Saxon Amulets and Curing Stones</i>

Anglo-Saxon Amulets and Curing Stones is an archaeological study of amulets, talismans and curing stones in the burial record of Anglo-Saxon England. Written by the Australian archaeologist Audrey Meaney, it was published by the company British Archaeological Reports as the 96th monograph in their BAR British Series. Prior to writing the work, Meaney had published several books dealing with Anglo-Saxon burials.

Fossil echinoids Fossilised remains of sea urchins

Echinoid fossils are the fossilised remains of sea urchins, spiny marine invertebrates that live on the seabed. Humans have been interested in these fossils for millennia, have considered them lucky, have imbued them with magical powers and linked them to their deities.


  1. 1 2 3 Jacqueline Simpson; Steve Roud (2003). "Thunderstone". A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford University Press.
  2. C A Faraone (2014). "Inscribed Greek Thunderstones as House- and Body-Amulets in Roman Imperial Times". Kernos. 27: 257–284.
  3. Adkins, L.; Adkins, R. A. (1985). "Neolithic Axes from Roman Sites in Britain". Oxford Journal of Archaeology. 4: 69–76.
  4. 1 2 3 4 Leach, Maria. ""Flint"." Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. 3rd ed. New York, New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1972. Print.
  5. 1 2 McNanamara, Kenneth (2007). "Shepards' crowns, fairy loaves and thunderstones: the mythology of fossil echinoids in England". Myth and Geology. 273: 289–293.
  6. 1 2 White, Andrew D. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. New York: George Braziller, 1955. 266–283