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Scottish Charms and Amulets

The belief that the imperforate axes of the Stone Age are thunder-bolts which have fallen from the clouds during thunderstorms, is spread throughout almost the whole world. Marbodus, Bishop of Rennes, in the eleventh century, ascribes the following origin and virtues to the stone axe or ceraunius:

“Ventorum rabie cum turbidus æstuat aër,
Cum tonat horrendum, cum fulgurat igneus æther,
Nubibus illisus, coelo cadit iste lapillus,
Cujus apud Græcos extat de fulmine nomen.
Illis quippe locis quos constat fulmine tactos,
Iste lapis tantum repiriri posse putatur;
Unde Ceraunius est Græco sermone vocatus:
Nam quod nos fulmen, Græci dixere kepaôvov.
Qui caste gerit hunc, a fulmine non ferietur;
Nec domus, aut villæ, quibus assuerit lapis ille.
Sed neque navigio per flumen vel mare vectus,
Turbine mergetur, vel fulmine percutietur.
Ad causas etiam vincendaque prælia prodest,
Et dulces sonmos, et dulcia somnia præstat.”

In Sweden stone axes were believed to be a protection against light-ning, and “in some districts they were formerly placed in the bed beside women near their confinement, in order to lighten the pains of labour. They are still occasionally used by the peasantry against a cutaneous disease in children called the ‘white fire.’ With the aid of a piece of steel, sparks are emitted from them which are made to fall upon the head of the child.” In Germany during a thunderstorm a black wedge is believed to dart out of the clouds and to bury “itself in the earth as deep as the highest church-tower is high. But every time it thunders again, it begins to rise nearer to the surface, and after seven years you may find it above ground. Any house in which it is preserved is proof against damage by lightning; when a thunderstorm is coming on, it begins to sweat.” Sir John Evans mentions an instance which came under his own observation in Ireland, “where a stone celt was lent among neighbours to place in the troughs from which cattle drank, on account of its healing powers.” In Cornwall water in which stone axes were boiled for some hours was given to people suffering from rheumatism.

The name “Thunderbolt” was also given in Scotland to stone axes until within recent years. A finely formed axe of aphanite found in Berwickshire, and presented to the Museum in 1876, was obtained about twenty years before from a blacksmith in whose smithy it had long lain. It was known in the district as “the thunderbolt,” and had probably been preserved in the belief that it had fallen from the sky. In Shetland stone axes were said to protect from thunder the houses in which they were preserved. One found at Tingwall was acquired from an old woman in Scalloway, who believed it to be a “thunderbolt “ and “of efficacy in averting evil from the dwelling in which it was kept;“ while another, believed to have “fallen from the skies during a thunder-storm,” was preserved in the belief that “it brought good luck to the house.” In the North-East of Scotland they “were coveted as the sure bringers of success, provided they were not allowed to fall to the ground.” In the British Museum there is a very fine axe of polished green quartz, mounted in silver, which is stated to have been sewed to a belt which was worn round the waist by a Scottish officer as a cure for kidney. The late Sir Daniel Wilson mentions an interesting tradition regarding the large perforated stone hammers, which he says were popularly known in Scotland almost till the close of last century as “Purgatory Hammers,” for the dead to knock with at the gates of Purgatory.’

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