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Legends, Folktales, and Myths About Petrification

Mike Grindle is an online writer who enjoys helping others understand literature.

Petrification stories are pervasive, appearing in ancient Greece, Medieval Europe, and elsewhere

Petrification stories are pervasive, appearing in ancient Greece, Medieval Europe, and elsewhere

Petrification Myths

If there's a weirdly shaped stone or oddly placed rock to be found somewhere, you can bet there's a story or two to go along with it. More often than not, it's a story that involves some poor soul or monster that got turned into stone. That's right: petrification!

In this article, we'll be looking at the following tales of petrification, from ancient myths to medieval folktales:

  1. Gorgons, Titans, and Medusa
  2. Cautionary Tales
  3. Witches: Wookey Hole and Carlin Maggie
  4. Trolls
  5. Animals
Medusa, decapitated

Medusa, decapitated

1. Gorgons, Titans and Medusa

Stories about petrification go a long way back, and you'll undoubtedly find your fair share of such tales in Greek mythology. The most famous tales, though, often relate to Medusa and her two sisters, mythical creatures collectively known as the Gorgons.

Their depictions in ancient literature vary, but they're commonly shown as reptilian-like women, with snakes for hair and gazes that turned those who beheld them to stone.

In later Greek myths, the legendary hero Perseus slays Medusa with the help of a magical mirror (sometimes it's a reflective shield) and a scythe, which he uses to behead her.

In some stories, Perseus then buries Medusa's severed head. But, in others, he uses it to turn another great adversary, the titan Atlas, into stone, creating the Atlas mountains in the process.

Could these stones be petrified people?

Could these stones be petrified people?

2. Cautionary Tales

It's believed that rock formations, standing stones, and stone circles were once sights of Pagan worship. But, as Christianity began to spread across Europe, it became associated with black magic and devilry and more than a few stories of petrification.

The isles of Britain certainly have more than their fair share of such parables. One of the grimmest accounts is the story concerning the Stanton dew stone circles in Somerset, known simply as the wedding.

The story goes like this: years ago, a young couple held their wedding on the spot where the circles now stand. It was a Saturday, and the couple and their guests drank and danced until midnight when the piper they had hired refused to play anymore because the sabbath had begun.

The bride was furious and declared she would find another piper even if she had to go to hell to get one. At that point, an older man appeared and offered to play instead.

The reception was ecstatic and continued their reveling but found that they could not stop as they began to grow tired of dancing. The older man, it turned out, was, in fact, the Devil, and he had cast a spell over the wedding party. Unable to break the spell, the party continued to dance until there was nothing left but their skeletons. The only survivor was the original piper.

When the villagers inspected the wedding party's fate in the morning, though, in place of their skeletons, stood an array of stones.

This man appears to have met a horrible fate

This man appears to have met a horrible fate

3. Witches: Wookey Hole and Carlin Maggie

Witches, it seems, are always getting themselves turned into stone. Sometimes this is by forces of a benevolent hero. Such is said to be the case with the witch of Wookey hole, England, turned into stone by a monk from Glastonbury.

Other times it's the very evil they supposedly worship that's turning them to stone. Take the rock pillar known as Carlin Maggie in Scotland, for example. This rock pillar looks artificial, but it is, in fact, naturally formed. Although the folktale that it is a witch struck by lightning, lightning sent by the Devil no less, is perhaps a more exciting tale.

Are these rocks, or trolls?

Are these rocks, or trolls?

4. Trolls

According to Icelandic folklore, Trolls don't much care for the sun, as it has the nasty habit of turning them into stone. So instead, they only come out at night to forage for food. However, now and then, a hapless Troll gets caught.

The result, accordingly, is some interesting-looking rock formations. One famous example is the volcanic rock columns at Reynisdrangar, where three trolls stayed out too late (or early, depending on how you look at it).

Another impressive formation said to be a troll can be found at Hvítserkur, where an impressive 15m basalt rock protrudes from Húnaflói Bay.

The story goes that an enraged troll from the peninsula was determined to rip down the bells from the Þingeyraklaustur convent in a show of defiance against the spread of Christianity. So angry was he that he didn't notice the sun coming up and subsequently got turned to stone.

5. Animals

So far, we've seen tales concerning mythological creatures, magic users, and defiers of God's being turned into stone. However, in many legends, the victims of petrification are just regular animals.

Such is the case with the tale of the Cap-Chat cat, for which the Canadian town of Cap-Chat (supposedly) gets its name. This hungry cat killed and ate many animals but, as chance would have it, made the mistake of eating the offspring of a "Cat-Fairy." As punishment, the enraged Cat-fairy turned the cat into a rock for all eternity. The stone in the shape of a cat is still there today.

Other tales concern more ferocious animals, such as the crocodile of Pasig River in China. The story goes that a Chinese man who didn't believe in the Catholic God was plying the river one day when he saw a huge crocodile coming toward him. In desperation, the man cried out to San Nicolas (a.k.a. Saint Nicolas. Yes, that saint Nic). Suddenly, the crocodile turned into stone, and the man became a believer.

Another story, once again concerning an animal and a Saint, is of Saint Hilda of Whitby and the snakes. The story goes that the Northern English town was once rife with snakes. That is until Saint Hilda cast a spell on the snakes, turning them into stone before she flung them from the cliffs. In truth, the story is likely a medieval explanation for the many ammonite fossils in the area.

Further Reading and References

  • Fry, S. (2017). Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold. Michael Joseph
  • Lindow, J. (2015). Trolls: An Unnatural History. Reaktion Books
  • Reader's Digest. (1977). Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain (2nd ed.). Reader's Digest Association

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Mike Grindle