St Hilda and snakestone ammonites

St Hilda (614–680 AD) was the daughter of Hereric and Breguswith and the great niece of Edwin, King of Northumbria (616–633 AD). In 657 AD, Hilda came to Whitby, North Yorkshire to administer the abbey. As the abbess of Whitby, she managed one of the most important religious centres in the Anglo-Saxon world. Today her known feast days are commemorated on the 17th, 18th or 19th of November.

My illustration above was inspired by Hilda’s associations with the ammonite fossils found in the cliffs of Whitby. The legend goes she cast out the serpents in Whitby in order to clear the ground for a new convent. In response to her devout praying the snakes coiled up, turned to stone and fell off the edge of the cliffs after she cut off their heads with a whip. A 15th-century Latin manuscript found in the Durham University library indicates this ammonite legend goes back to at least late medieval times.

Ammonites collected from the cliffs of Whitby were reshaped with snake heads and examples of these snakestones are found in the Whitby Museum (see above). Moreover, Victorian geologists named one of the local species after her – Ammonite hildroceras.

The Whitby town coat of arms features three coiled serpents and they are also depicted underfoot in the stela sculpture of St Hilda found on the cross erected in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church high on the cliffs near the remains of the abbey. You can click to view a 3D model of the stela below.



St Wite’s Feast Day

st_wite_sketch.jpgToday my sketch commemorates St Wite’s feast day which falls on the 1st of June. In the Dorset village of Whitchurch Canonicorum during the 16th-century there was a local custom of offering her cakes and ale on this day.

She is also known as St White, Whyte or Witta. Not much is known about her and she could have been an Anglo-Saxon, Welsh or Breton saint (she is known as Candida or Blanche in Brittany).

She is one of two saints (the other being Edward the Confessor) whose shrines survive the English Reformation intact. Her 13th-century shrine is located in the north transept of St Candida Church, Whitchurch Canonicorum, Dorset (England). It was opened in 1900 and fragments of bones and teeth were found as well as a leaden casket with the inscription Hie Reqeset Reliqe See Witey containing even more bones. The shrine has three oval openings which handkerchiefs and other small articles were traditionally placed to gain healing properties and then given to the sick.

More details are found on the Dorset County Museum website.

A contemporary statue of St Wite has been set high upon the exterior of St Candida Church, Whitchurch Canonicorum, Dorset. And this is 3D photogrammetric model of it is for those who can’t make the pilgramage to west England today.

Midsummer Eve Maydens


When midsomer comes, with bavens and bromes
they do bonefires make,
and swiftly, then, the nimble young men
runne leapinge over the same.
The women and maydens together do couple their handes,
With bagpipes sounde, they daunce a rounde …
—— extract from ‘The Mery Life of the Countriman’ (c. 1585–1603)

My illustration is in part inspired by this quote taken from a Late Elizabethan ballad that refers to some of the folk rites carried out on Midsomer, Midsummer Eve. Celebrations have been historically documented in Britain since at least the 13th century and take place on the 23rd of June, St John’s Eve.

During this liminal time, individuals could receive potents and access powers of divination. If one sat in a church porch on Midsummer Eve, it is possible to have visions of those buried during the year. A maiden who picked St John’s wort on Midsummer Eve and found it still fresh in the morning would be wed soon. Meanwhile, an unmarried girl could also make a special cake on this day and behold a vision of her future husband.

Sources and recommended further readings:

Ronald Hutton 1987 The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford University Press, Oxford)

Nick Groom 2013 The Seasons: A Celebration of the English Year (Atlantic Books, London)

Fox Fire

arctic fox v5-small

Happy Winter Solstice!

As the aurora borealis has been lighting up the skies here in the UK, it is wonderful to find out they are associated with the northern fox in Finland. The northern lights in Finland are called revontulet, ‘Fox Fire’. One Finnish tale tells us that they are the result of a fox up north running through the snow. As it dashes along the fox sweeps it’s tail over the snow which creates sparks that leap into the sky forming the aurora.

The arctic fox also takes on the role of fox wife among the Inuit peoples of Canada and Greenland. Follow this link to a traditional Inuit story about the perils of marrying a fox wife:

Gold Guarding Griffins


I have just posted another guest blog for Words & Pictures and its topic is that of the fabulous griffins who guarded gold at the boundaries of the known Classical world. Above is how I coloured up my griffin for the blog pic.

The oldest written myth about griffins is reiterated by John Milton in Paradise Lost, Book II (1667):

As when a Gryfon through the Wilderness
With winged course ore Hill or moarie Dale,
Pursues the Arimaspian, who by stelth
Had from his wakeful custody purloind
The guarded Gold … (Lines 943–47)

Milton takes this directly from the writings of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who lived around 5th century BCE. In his Histories he draws upon a folktale derived from the forgotten poem by Aristeas. This poem describes a journey to the far north where Aristeas encountered the one-eyed people called Arimaspians, who stole the gold guarded by griffins.

It is also worth noting that Blake had drawn a stocky image of a griffin (above) in his truly visionary illustration, Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car, 1824–7.

The illustration for my Words & Pictures griffin blog, however, was inspired by the following images:


1. The Greco-Persian style griffin preying upon an ibex which decorates a felt saddle cover from the frozen tomb of Pazyryk kurgan 1, Altai Republic, 5th century BCE, as seen on display in the Hermitage, St Petersburg.

2. The golden Scythian griffins in Greco-Persian style dating 5th century BCE from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

3. The 16th-century miniature illustration of a griffin with rainbow coloured wings in the Tierbuch (Animal Book) by Petrus Candidus, written circa 1460 for Ludovico Gonzaga.

For further information go to these links

Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car, 1824–7 at the Tate

Pazyryk kurgan 1 felt saddle at the Hermitage Museum

Gold griffins at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tierbuch (Animal Book) by Petrus Candidus (in German)

Poor Old Horse


We’ve got a poor old horse,
And he’s standing at your door,
And if you’ll only let him in
He’ll please you all, I’m sure.
Poor old horse, poor old horse. 

He once was a young horse,
And, in his youthful prime,
My master used to ride on him,
And thought him very fine.
Poor old horse, poor old horse. 

But now that he’s grown old,
And nature doth decay,
My master frowns upon him,
And these words I’ve heard him say —
Poor old horse, poor old horse.

These are the first three verses of an Old Horse song that was sung at Yule in Sheffield during the winter of 1888. This and the phenomenon of Kentish Hooden Horses were the inspirations for my above illustration. Furthermore, this element makes up part of a scene featured in my guest blog about the Folklore of Yule posted on the Words and Pictures website (see link below).

The Old Horse was a traditional English folk play performed around Yule or the New Year. In East Kent it was known as the Hooden Horse, while it was referred to as the Owd Oss in northern Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire. It entails singing a ballad to an Old Horse by a small troupe. The horse was represented by someone bent over and covered in a blanket while holding a horse’s head (or the representation of one) that was placed upon the end of a stick. At the end of the performance a hat would be passed round for donations of money. The troupe would visit farms, public houses and the houses of the well off.

There is also a humorous historical account of a Hooden Horse recorded in 1859 which cites the dramatic effect of such plays. A German woman, who resided at Lower Hardres, Kent, had been chair-bound for seven years. She witnessed a local Hooden Horse performance and was so frightened by the wooden prop steed that she leapt up from her chair and dashed for safety. This ‘miraculous’ cure impressed her husband so much that he bought the horse costume and took it back to Germany.

My Words and Pictures blog on Yule Folklore is found at

The complete text for the Sheffield Old Horse song is found at

And Hooden Horses galore are found here