The Mysterious Turf Mazes


Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions,
via Wikimedia Commons

A common definition of a turf maze is a “convoluted path cut into level areas of short grass” [1]. Sometimes the groove cut into the turf is to be walked but more commonly it is the turf itself which is the path. The maze is cut into level areas of short grass or lawn to create raised paths of turf marked by shallow channels excavated between twists and turns.


There are two types of turf mazes; classical and medieval. The medieval pattern of turf mazes is identical to pavement labyrinths found in Gothic Cathedrals elsewhere in Europe such as the famous example in Chartres Cathedral.

On the other hand, the classical form seems to have taken its inspiration from ancient Greek mythology and history. Coins depicting the minotaur’s labyrinth found in Crete at the site of ancient Knossos confirms this as does the names of three of the surviving English examples; ‘The City of Troy’, ‘Troy’ and ‘Troy Town’. The preference for the name Troy could refer to an ancient Roman equestrian game which re-enacted the battle of Troy played over a maze-like pattern with the grooves separating the pathways representing the walls of the ancient city[2]. The link between the name Troy and the design is taken as evidence of the deliberate decision to connect the mazes to the ancient world but there is another school of thought that asserts that ‘Troy’ is a corruption of the Celtic word to turn, ‘tro’[3]. I personally don’t see any reason why the name ‘Troy’ couldn’t have been chosen precisely because of its double meaning.

Although they are known as mazes, the name itself is misleading. They are actually labyrinths because unlike mazes there is only one route from the entrance to the centre.

Wi1234, CC BY-SA 3.0,
via Wikimedia Commons


Turf mazes come in all sizes and can be found in Britain, Ireland, Germany and Denmark but the practice of constructing mazes from stones and boulders was much more widespread. Most experts believe the tradition of ancient stone mazes predates the creation of the earliest turf mazes. This is more than likely correct but it is nearly impossible to verify because of the nature of turf mazes. In order for turf mazes to keep their shape they need to be constantly re-cut; this destroys any archaeological material which could have helped with the dating process.

Saffron Walden turf maze. Image by Miss Jessel

Evidence from written sources such as W.H. Matthews, who in his 1922 book, Mazes and Labyrinths recorded over 30 mazes[4], and also from local oral folklore reveal that at one time turf mazes existed all over Britain but unfortunately only eight have survived in England. These are: –

  • Alkborough, North Lincolnshire
  • Breamore, Hampshire
  • Dalby North Yorkshire
  • Hilton, Cambridgeshire
  • Saffron Walden, Essex
  • Troy Farm, Somerton, Oxfordshire
  • St Catherine’s Hill, Hampshire
  • Wing, Rutland

So, what was the purpose of these mazes? Many theories have been put forward including those relating to religion and fertility rites. Whatever the reason, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the trend of cutting turf mazes reached its peak. More and more appeared, mainly on village greens but also on estates of wealthy landowners. During Cromwell’s reign the use of turf mazes was forbidden but they regained popularity after the restoration of the monarchy. A memorial obelisk placed at the centre of the Hilton turf maze by 19-year-old William Sparrow who re-cut the turf maze in 1660, commemorates both the return of King Charles II to England and the rededication of the maze [5]. Turf mazes witnessed a revival in interest in the nineteenth century although many on private land were destroyed by Capability Brown, who disliked their unnatural stylised form.


As was mentioned before, turf mazes cut in the medieval pattern are identical in style and shape to the engravings found in the naves of cathedrals in mainland Europe. These labyrinths symbolised the search for redemption. Penitents were encouraged to cleanse their souls by following the path of the labyrinth as it was believed that walking a twisting path would confound the Devil who could only travel in straight lines[6]. Many would do so on their hands and knees[7]. Few of these survive, most were destroyed, seen as a distraction from the religious solemnity of the services. You can sort of picture the scene, a queue of sinners all lined up to walk the labyrinth and so focused on keeping their place that they become oblivious to the words of wisdom coming from the pulpit.

Walking the maze at Wing. SiGarb at English Wikipedia,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are no records of pavement mazes inside English churches but there is evidence that some turf mazes existed just outside as well as close to places of pilgrimage such as Julian’s Bower, the twelve-circuit turf maze in Alkborough which was located next to a thirteenth century Benedictine cell [8]. This has led some to speculate that they fulfilled the same function as their European counterparts. An unsubstantiated but interesting legend recounts how the Alkborough maze was created to force a knight who took part in the murder of Thomas Becket to pay penance[9]. Even if this can explain why turf mazes were first introduced it does not account for the fact that so many mazes were located far from any religious sites. The evidence for a few mazes near churches have also led to some theorising that they actually predated Christianity which is also a possibility as early Christian sites do have strong links to the sacred places of pre-Christian religious practices[10].

If turf mazes were linked to Christian practices it leads to the question of why English churches or cathedrals did not incorporate them into their design? Could it have been due to differences in architectural, cultural or religious preferences or is there another reason that we are just not aware of. Did the early turf mazes have a religious purpose and if not, why was this particular design adopted? Do the origins of the English turf mazes lie in the European pavement labyrinths or were the church versions built upon an earlier tradition? There are so many questions, most of which we will never know the answers to.


A number of stone mazes existed and still survive along the Baltic coast. According to the folklore of this area, these mazes were used by fishermen as a snare to trap evil sprites during tempestuous weather. It was believed that the smagubbar or little people followed fishermen everywhere and brought bad luck [11]. In order to prevent them from wreaking havoc the fishermen would walk the maze calling on the smagubbar to follow them. Once they reached the middle the men would flee and put out to sea, thus confounding the smagubbars’ dastardly plans. It was believed these sprites were unable to turn corners which links back to the Catholic belief about the Devil only being able to walk in straight lines[12].

Studies of labyrinth imagery from Scandinavia has shown that from the earliest times it was asserted that

“walking the stone labyrinths in the proper way gave fortune and protection healing and magical aid – even fishermen used labyrinths in the hope of being able to control the weather and increase the catch, as well as protection against the perils of the sea”[13].

St Agnes Lighthouse by Colin Park, CC BY-SA 2.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

Fishermen and sailors because of the perilous nature of their work and the fact that their lives depend on elements which are beyond their control have some of the most fascinating superstitions of any other group of people. Therefore, considering how so many countries share similar mythologies and practices I can see no reason why this link between fishermen and mazes shouldn’t have also existed in England. Although no examples exist in England, the closest comparison we have comes from St Agnes in the Isles of Scilly where a stone and boulder seven-ring maze can be found on the coast[14]. The present form of the maze was built by the son of a man who worked the local lighthouse in the 1700s[15]. Considering that the role of lighthouses is to keep sailors safe it would be logical to think that the maze was also a form of protection. Excavations of the site have revealed that the current maze was built on top of an earlier one, lending support to the idea that this connection goes back a long way.


As with every ancient countryside ritual or structure sooner or later we get back to the idea of fertility and turf mazes are no exception.

There are many different versions of this practice but they all centre around one particular theme, that of the boy finding his way to the girl and carrying her off. Often the event took place during village fairs. In some places the chosen girl would stand in the centre and a group of young men would run through the maze to reach her and claim her as their prize or the men would race to the middle, the winner able to take his pick of the young women waiting on the edges of the maze[16]. At the turf maze in Saffron Walden a young maiden would have to wait patiently at ‘home’ i.e. the centre of the maze, to be rescued by a boy who had managed to negotiate the twists and turns of the path without stumbling.

Saffron Walden turf maze. Image by Miss Jessel.

Lending credibility to the similarity of uses of the turf mazes and their stone maze cousins is the fact that nearly identical fertility rituals existed in Scandinavia where races would take place and girls saved and ‘freed’ from their imprisonment in the maze. In Finland another strange custom existed called The Virgin Dances, whereby the man who won would be allowed to lead her in a dance[17]. In Sweden even as late as 1985, the folklore department of Abo Akademi recorded how locals from one area would still meet in secret at their stone maze during the summer, choose a girl to stand in the centre and watch the boys race the maze. The girl would belong to the first boy to reach her who had not taken any wrong turns. The rest of the villagers would watch the entertainment clapping and encouraging the participants[18].

In many ways these practices remind me of the rituals surrounding the harvesting the last sheath of corn and the creation of the corn dollies, in that the young men of the villages would run a gauntlet in order to demand a kiss from one of the village girls.


Connecting the mazes back to their classical associations can be seen in the writing of Abraham de la Pryme. Whilst at Alkborough in 1697, he relates how he sat on the hill overlooking the maze and watched two Roman games being played[19]. I would hazard a guess that this must have been an English version of the Battle of Troy re-enactment. From his account the games seemed to have been very popular.

Understandably the mazes became a source of amusement for local children who would make up games and invent rules for playing on the maze. Few details of these games have survived.

The mazes also seem to have been turned into a drinking game where local men would wager beer for walking the maze. In one village a game was played where three men, blindfolded, tried to follow the maze’s path without stepping off [20]. Not sure if they did this sober or drunk!

Saffron Walden turf maze. Image by Miss Jessel.

In Saffron Walden there still survives the largest turf maze in Europe with a circumference of 132 feet, a pathway of one mile, seventeen circuits and enclosed by a bank and ditch. Four bastions are located at equal distances around the perimeter. A notebook owned by the town’s museum records how each part of the maze was named after a local town. During festivals and fairs everyone would come together to watch men race between the different sections of the maze within a set time. An umpire watched over the proceedings to ensure no cheating took place[21].

The cutting of the turf was also an occasion for celebration as the whole village would turn out to help with food being provided and music and dancing taking place. It seems that turf mazes played an important role in village life.


William Barnes in 1879, wrote how the eastern part of Leigh Common was called Witches Corner and that records from Somerset magistrates contain information about the site between 1650 to 1664, being the meeting places of a coven of witches. The turf maze at Leigh has long since disappeared and although there is no evidence of the maze having any association with witchcraft, a local legend has somehow developed which fuses the two together. Personally, I think it would have been a very appropriate place for them to meet except for the fact that it seems that evil beings are unable to traverse the mazes due to their circular design, maybe witches were an exception to this rule! According to sources in the 1990s, Leigh Women’s Institute designed a banner which depicted a witch on a broomstick viewing the six-sided puzzle[22].


Not only does England boast the largest turf maze but we also have the smallest one too. The classical shaped seven-ringed turf maze in Dalby, North Yorkshire is tiny but beautifully preserved. I am not sure if someone was being ironic but it is known as the City of Troy. A sign nearby informs visitors that the maze is a waiting point for trapped lost souls and that they may be consulted at the centre of the maze[23]

Hilton Turf Maze by Alan Simkins via
Wikimedia Commons


Although most documentary evidence suggests that turf mazes sprung up in the sixteenth century, there is no reason to suppose that they had not existed prior to this period. Why they appeared is a mystery, it is possible they originally had a religious purpose whether that was for Christians or Pagans but it is equally as likely that they were simply a form of rural entertainment.

Why they were allowed to overgrow and disappear was probably due to several factors. Maybe over time the reason for their existence disappeared alongside many traditional countryside superstitions, maybe just like many fads they just fell out of popularity or maybe the money and labour needed for their upkeep was seen as an unnecessary expense, for example in 1699, it cost 15 shillings to pay for three men to work for five days to cut the turf at the Saffron Walden maze[24].

I am just really glad that at least a few of them defied the odds and survived. They are a remnant of a bygone age and as such should be cherished and protected because they are just as much a part of our history and culture as the castles, iron age forts and standing stones which decorate the English countryside.

Dalby City of Troy turf maze. User:SiGarb,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Kraft, John: The Goddess in the Labyrinth, Abo Akademi, 1995

Gogerty, Clare: Beyond the Footpath: Mindful Adventures for Modern Pilgrims, Little, Brown Book Club, 2019

Bounford, Dr Julie E: The Curious History of Mazes: 4000 years of Fascinating Twists and Turns, Wellfleet, 2018

Baker, Katherine: The Mizmaze at Leigh,

Saffron Walden,

Saward, Jeff: The Turf Maze on Saffron Walden Common, C41 Saffron Walden.pdf (

Reprinted from: Saffron Walden Historical Journal No 23 Autumn 2017 Saffron Walden Historical Society,

Labyrinths and Ritual in Scandinavia,

Troy Town Maze,

City of Troy, the Dalby turf maze,

The Megalithic Portal,

The Riddle of English Turf Mazes, Karen Warren,

English Turf Mazes in the Regency, Kathryn Kane,


[1] Wikipedia, Turf Mazes

[2] The Riddle of English Turf Mazes

[3] The Curious History of Mazes

[4] Wikipedia, Turf Mazes

[5] The Curious History of Mazes

[6] The Riddle of English Turf Mazes

[7] Wikipedia, Turf Mazes

[8] The Curious History of Mazes

[9] Ibid

[10] English Turf Mazes in the Regency

[11] Wikipedia, Turf Mazes

[12] The Riddle of English Turf Mazes

[13]Labyrinths and Ritual in Scandinavia

[14] Troy Town Maze

[15] Ibid

[16] English Turf Mazes in the Regency

[17] Labyrinths and Ritual in Scandinavia

[18] Ibid

[19] The Curious History of Mazes

[20] English Turf Mazes in the Regency

[21] The Curious History of Mazes

[22] The Mizmaze at Leigh

[23] City of Troy, the Dalby Turf Maze

[24] The Curious History of Mazes

The Lambton Worm: the dragon-slayer and the radical politician



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Image from More English Fairy Tales
by Joseph Jacobs 1894– Illustrated by John D. Batten

‘Whisht! Lads, haad yor gobs,

An Aa’ll tell ye’s aall an aaful story

Whisht! Lads, haad yor gobs,

An’ Aa’ll tell ye ‘boot the worm 1

Anyone who went to school in the North East of England will probably be familiar with the famous chorus from the folk-song The Lambton Worm. The song was written in 1867 by C M Leumane and quickly took on a life of its own in popular culture. My own memories of learning it as an eight-year-old, were that I loved the catchy chorus, but there were way too many verses to memorise! 

Tales of worms or dragons are not uncommon in British folklore, one only has to think of St George and the Dragon to appreciate how entwined dragon-slayers are in national and regional identity.  

But is the tale of the Lambton Worm simply another Dragon Slaying tale, or is there more to it than that?  

The Legend of the Lambton Worm 

The Legend of the Lambton Worm first appeared in print in 1785. Antiquarian William Hutchinson outlined the folk explanations of the formation of Worm Hill, a glacial moraine, in Fatfield, Washington:

“Near this place is an eminence called the Worm Hill, which tradition says once possessed by an enormous serpent, that wound its horrid body round the base; that it destroyed much provision, and used to infest the Lambton estate, till some hero in that family engaged it, cased in armour set with razors…the whole miraculous tale has no other evidence than the memories of old women…” 2

This figure from the distant past was often identified as Sir John Lambton, Knight of Rhodes.3

However, these written accounts draw on older local oral traditions.

Here is my summary of the Legend of the Lambton  Worm, as we know it today:  

Young Lambton, the heir to the Lambton Estate, was fishing in the River Wear one Sunday, when he should have been in church, when he caught a very strange eel-like creature with a dragons head. Unhappy with his scrawny catch, he blithely discarded it down a well, later known as Worm Well, and went on his merry way. Young Lambton grew to repent of his profane ways, and joined a crusade, leaving his home for many years.  The worm, however, did not leave, and was thriving and growing to a prodigious size at the bottom of the well where it was discarded.  So much so, that it had to relocate to a larger habitat, choosing first to wrap itself around a local hill, which became known as Worm Hill, and later favouring a rock in the River Wear.  

Image via Pinterest, source unknown

All would have been well enough, had the worm not also had a very large appetite. Cattle, Sheep, and even the occasional child all made it onto the worm’s menu.  Consequently, the locals lived in terror of the poisonous and very hungry worm that young Lambton had unwittingly set loose amongst them.  Finally, young Lambton returned, a new man, from the crusades and set about righting the wrong he had set in motion in his youth.  His initial skirmishes with the worm were unsuccessful until he consulted with a local witch or wise woman.   

The wise woman gave him some sage advice on how to tackle the slippery beast, which asides from being extremely dangerous, had a habit of being able to pull itself back together if it was ever cut in half. Following her advice almost to the letter (this will be important later) he donned a suite of armour studded with razors and took on the worm on its home territory, the River Wear.  The worm, seeing Lambton as another tasty snack, wrapped itself round the knight, in order to crush him, but was instead sliced and diced, with all of its pieces flowing away in the river, never to reform again.  The Worm was dead, and the local people were saved and there was much rejoicing! 

All would have been well and good, except for one small omission by Lambton, the witch had warned him that once his mission was accomplished, he must kill the first thing that greeted him on his return home, or else the next nine generations of Lambton chiefs would not die in their beds. Despite taking some precautions, Lambton’s father was the first to greet him on his return, and well, young John couldn’t bring himself to kill his own father, so the curse fell upon the Lambton’s and the next nine generations did not die in their beds.  

Dragon Tales 

St George and the Dragon, Newcastle War Memorial, image by Lenora

Tales of Dragon Slayers are common throughout Medieval Britain and Europe.  The Northeast of England (taking in Northumberland, County Durham and Yorkshire) has twenty or so tales of Dragons and their slayers, for example, the Sockburn Worm and The Laidly Worm to name but two.

What has been noted to be different about English, and these Northern tales, is that, unlike many of the European tales, the hero is not seeking to win treasure or maiden fair, but has a more pragmatic aim, often to save the local area from some peril (as in the Sockburn and Lambton stories). 5,6

What is particularly distinctive about the Legend of the Lambton Worm, is that once the hero has slayed the dragon, he does not win maiden fair or treasure, in fact he and his family are cursed for several generations to come.  

Unpacking the Worm 

There are certain elements in the Lambton Worm tale that are worth unpacking. 

Dragons and Worms (terms often used interchangeably in historic texts) can mean different things in different cultures and depending on who is using them (see Miss Jessel’s excellent post for more on Dragons in general).  For the Medieval church, dragons often represented evil, but for many noble families they represented valour in fighting, so appear on many family crests.7 They have also been linked to natural and manmade catastrophes, water spirits, and remnants of ancient nature religions (of which more below).  

Monster theory 

Jeffrey Jerome in Monster Culture considers the monster to be a cultural body.  The device of the monster can be used to present a warning (of lines not to be crossed), to reveal a truth, to represent the ‘other’ (both within society or external to it), or to embody a cultural moment (often a moment of change). In killing the monster, the hero reaffirms group identity and order.  And of course, as any horror fan will know, even if you kill the monster, it may still return.8

The Legend of the Lambton Worm can be seen to contain many of these attributes.  

Toxic Masculinity  

In folklore, fishing on a Sunday can be seen as shorthand for profane behaviour, young Sir John should be in church attending to his Christian duty.  One interpretation of the legend, suggested by Tom Murray and discussed in his interview with James Tehrani, an anthropological folklorist, is that the worm as a metaphor for toxic masculinity.  It is Sir John’s own out of control behaviour that has put the community in danger, and only Sir John can defeat it, by reforming himself through Christian duty (going on a crusade) then defeating the very phallic worm on his return.9

This idea of toxic masculinity has something of a pedigree, in 1823, William Hutchinson suggested that worm tales, such as the Lambton Worm, could represent a folk memory of the disastrous Viking raids on the Northeast coast that took place in the eighth and nineth centuries.  It could perhaps commemorate a local hero who protected his community from them, or more broadly, show the community dealing with the threat itself, without outside assistance. 10 

Water beings and the old religion 

Another interesting interpretation of the Lambton Worm is that the worm is a metaphor for the relationship between man and water, and that this is part of a global tradition. Veronica Strang11 sees the popularity of dragons in the Medieval period as linked to the changing relationship with water and nature, new technologies and new social and political organisation both controlled water (e.g., through irrigation) also commodified it.  

The Lambton worm is set in the Medieval period, at this time Church felt it was facing an existential threat on two fronts: externally in the form of the Islamic world, and internally from lingering nature worship amongst supposedly Christain communities (evident in the churches concerted effort to rededicate pagan holy wells to Christian saints). 

anonymus, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Strang projects that the tale of the Lambton Worm could be read as the story of a local lord who fails in his Christian duty, allows pagan nature worship to flourish in his community, and, metaphorically, poison the well.  Only when he has taken up his Christian duty and defeated another set of ‘pagans’ by joining the crusade against Islam, can he return home and re-assert Christianity in his local community.  Here then, the worm represents the ‘other’ or pagan, which must be defeated in order to restore the established order. [strang]  This potentially also links into the worm’s ability to come back to life, until the wise woman offers her advice to Lambton on how to vanquish it for good, if there was a fear that old nature religion would keep on resurfacing if left unchecked.12   

A Local tales for local people  

Another important factor in the Legend of the Lambton Worm is that it provides a heroic and ancient pedigree for a prominent local family, the Lambton’s, setting up one of their ancestors as the hero of the hour, protecting his community. It also incorporates tangible local landmarks – Worm Hill in Fatfield, Washington – further fixing the legend to the local imagination. 

Lambton Castle, early nineteenth century, public domain

Jamie Beckett13 has identified the Legend of the Sockburn Worm as a potential inspiration for the Lambton Worm.  The Sockburn Worm is attached to the ancient and once powerful Coyners’ family and is a much older tale but running along similar lines.  Sir John Conyer’s defeats the dragon and saves the day with his trusty falchion sword. Visible reminders of Conyers bravery and chivalric pedigree remained for all to see in the ‘greystone’ marking the worm’s burial place and the Conyers’ Falchion, still extant today and held in the Treasury at Durham Cathedral (it forms part of the ceremony of enthroning new Bishop’s of Durham to this day).  

Beckett sees the rise of the Legend of the Lambton Worm growing out of this tale, and coinciding with the declining fortunes of the Conyers family in the seventeenth century, and the rise of the ancient but not previously powerful Lambton’s from that period onwards. 14

The Lambton Worm and the Radical Politician 

Folktales and legends morph and change over time.  The Legend of the Lambton Worm is no different. One element of the tale that I certainly grew up believing, was that the Worm wound its tale around Penshaw’s Monument.  I’d never heard of Worm Hill or Fatfield.  So why is Penshaw’s Monument (or Penshaw’s Folly) come to be intrinsically linked to the Legend of the Lambton Worm? 

The simple answer is that in 1867 C.M. Leumane wrote a very catchy tune about the Lambton Worm, forever linking it with Penshaw: 

This feorful woorm wad often feed
On calves an’ lambs an’ sheep,
An’ swally little bairns alive
When they laid doon to sleep.
An’ when he’d eaten aal he cud
An’ he had has he’s fill,
Away he went an’ lapped his tail
Ten times roond Pensher Hill. [Cj]

John George Lambton Portrait, after Sir Thomas Lawrence. Print after 1850 (author’s collection)

The Penshaw Monument, visible for miles around, is a Greek Temple on a hill in Penshaw Village Co Durham.  It was built by public subscription in 1844/5 in honour of John Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, who died a few years earlier in 1840.   

John Lambton was born in 1792, he was Byronically handsome, rebellious, and had suffered many tragedies in his life (his first wife, Harriet, who he married for love, in 1812, died only three years later, they had three children who all pre-deceased him).  While he was undoubtedly a tragic and romantic figure, what endeared him to the local population was his politics.   

Known as Radical Jack, he was MP for Co Durham from 1812, pursuing radical Whig politics, he was in favour of a number of very progressive reforms such as secret ballots, fixed term parliaments, universal suffrage.  Following the shocking Peterloo Massacre in 1819, where a large crowd of unarmed people, campaigning for parliamentary reform, were violently attacked by the cavalry, resulting in many deaths and injuries, Lambton controversially criticised the actions of the establishment in attacking and killing innocent people.  He was later instrumental in the passing of the 1832 Reform Bill. All of this made him terrifying to the establishment and beloved of the working classes.  

Such was his reputation, that by the 1820’s and 30’s at least three chapbooks existed that told the tale of the Lambton Worm, with the inferred compassion between the contemporary John Lambton defending the poor from political and social oppression, and his Romantic and heroic namesake ancestor, protecting the poor from a dangerous worm, in the distant chivalric past.15 

Such was his popular appeal, that a lasting monument, funded by public subscription, was erected in his honour on Penshaw Hill. Tens of thousands of spectators watched as it’s foundation stone was laid in a Masonic Ceremony by the 2nd Earl of Zetland.16

Penshaw monument by Lenora

In conclusion  

I am drawn to Veronica Strang’s interpretation of the Worm as a metaphor for the church suppressing lingering elements of nature religion in its congregation, whilst fighting off ‘pagan’s abroad. This would seem a good fit if the legend was of Medieval or earlier origin.  However, if the tale was created later, then Jamie Beckett’s view that these type of Legends were used by prominent families to establish their pedigree in the dim and distant past, then the legend of the Worm might be best interpreted as a public relations exercise by a family on the rise.   

Perhaps more likely, is that it may contains elements both these theories, and others, with the most recent and most popular written iterations of the legend, from 1785 and onwards, being designed to give prominence to the powerful Lambtons, and to handsome, radical, John 1st Earl Lambton, in a fashionably Romantic and nostalgic way.   

Perhaps it is appropriate that the worm is still slippery enough to both elude and fascinates us today, like all good folktales, it is alive and well and no doubt, continuing to evolve through the ages with each retelling.  

There is undoubtably a lot more that could be said about the Legend of the Lambton Worm, its origin (ancient or otherwise), and its deeper meanings. For anyone interested in finding out more about the Lambton  Worm (and other worms, dragons, and water spirits), I have provided a list of excellent sources below.

You can hear The Lambton Worm (C.M. Leumane, 1867) arranged and performed by Geordie Wilson on YouTube, via the link below.


  1. The Lambton Worm composed in 1867 by C. M. Leumane
  2. Jamie Beckett, The History of the Lambton Worm and Sockburn Worm
  3. Robert Surtees et al, The history and antiquities of the county palatine of Durham 1816-40
  4. Jamie Beckett, The History of the Lambton Worm and Sockburn Worm
  5. Icy Sedgwick, The Lambton Worm and Penshaw Monument
  6. Jacqueline Simpson and Jennifer Westwood, The Lore of the Land
  7. Icy Sedgwick, The Lambton Worm and Penshaw Monument
  8. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Monster Culture
  9. Tom Murray, Tracing the Cultural History of the Monstrous Lambton Worm
  10. Veronica Strang, Reflecting nature: water beings in history
  11. ibid
  12. ibid
  13. Jamie Beckett, The History of the Lambton Worm and Sockburn Worm
  14. ibid
  15. ibid


Beckett, Jamie, The History of the Lambton Worm and Sockburn Worm,can%20boast%20a%20few%20dragon-slayers%20of%20its%20own. edited by Laura McKenzie.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, Ed.,  1996, Monster Theory: Reading Culture [chapter 1 Monster Culture]

Leumane, CJ, 1867, The Ballad of the Lambton Worm, available at:

Murray, T, 2016, Tracing the Cultural History of the Monstrous Lambton Worm,

Sedgwick, Icy, The Lambton Worm and Penshaw Monument, 13 July 2017

Simpson, Jacqueline, Westwood, Jennifer, 2006, The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends, from Spring-heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys

Strang, Veronica, 2015, Reflecting nature: water beings in history in Waterworlds : anthropology in fluid environments. New York: Berghahn Books, pp. 247-278. Ethnography, theory, experiment. (3).

Surtees, Robert, Taylor, George, Raine, James, pre-1850, The history and antiquities of the county palatine of Durham 1816-40

A Confusion of Dragons



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Chinese Dragon by Sodacan, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;,
via Wikimedia Commons 

There is no mythical creature more enduring in literature, myths and ballads or whose image both fictional or imagined has struck terror in the hearts of so many people from around the world, as that of the dragon.

It is not known when the idea of a ‘dragon’ entered the consciousness of people but texts from both the Sumerians and Ancient Greek civilisations contain references to such a creature[1]. Indeed, the word dragon comes from the Ancient Greek, drakōn and was originally used for any large serpent[2]. Dragons may come in all shapes and sizes but the one thing they have in common is their long serpentine torso.

The way in which the character of the dragon has been represented has changed over time, its appearance and nature adapting to the environment and culture in which it was created. In China, the dragon came to symbolise both imperial power and the emperor whereas in the Middle East, dragons were viewed as evil (transferring the characteristics of the poisonous and deadly snakes common in the region onto its mythical counterpart). In other regions, the feeling towards them was more ambivalent, for example in Ancient Greece, they were sometimes depicted as benevolent towards humans. [3].

In general, in Northern Europe and Britain, dragons were portrayed negatively, a belief which only intensified under Christianity when they came to represent an embodiment of evil, something to be destroyed at all cost. The legend of St George and the dragon typifies this belief, symbolising Christianity’s defeat of paganism and the old beliefs[4]. In stories and ballads, dragon slaying became almost a rite of passage for any brave young man or knight seeking to prove his worth (as well as save some terrified villagers and their livestock). The reward aside from fame, was often wealth and/or the hand of a nobleman/king’s daughter. It is interesting that despite their fearsome reputation, the dragons are nearly always defeated even when it is at the expense of their slayer.

This leads on to the question of what exactly are dragons?

Recognising a dragon!

St George and the Dragon, Newcastle War Memorial, image by Lenora

As has been said before, the traits of dragons varied from country to country, so too do their physical appearance. In Asia, dragons are depicted as more serpentine whereas in Northern Europe, they are often shown as composite beasts i.e. composed of different parts of different animals[5].

If asked for a description, most people (in Europe) would describe a dragon as a gigantic creature with massive fangs, four strong clawed legs, a pair of powerful wings, a ridge of razor-sharp spikes along its entire torso, a barbed tail and a mouth from which deadly fire erupts. Although this is the image that in general people are the most familiar with and the one that commonly appears in heraldry, books and films, it is not the only one that exists in literature and oral traditions. There are a number of variations across countries and regions. Some are not even immediately recognisable as dragons but which do fall under the classification of dragon.

Here is my short guide to the more unusual types of dragons. It is not complete, there are just too many variations to include but if you are like me and find the whole subject daunting then it may just give you some clarity.

Wyverns: A Biped Dragon with Poisonous Breath

There are different views on the origin of the word wyvern. One interpretation is that it came from either the Middle English word wyver or from the Anglo-French word wivre taken from the Latin, vipera – meaning viper, adder or asp. The second school of thought claims that after the word was reintroduced into Medieval Latin, it took on a different meaning, that of light javelin. So, the meaning of viper and light javelin became melded to reflect the shape of the creature, creating a new type of flying biped snake[6].

Wyverns are described as having only two legs which end in eagle’s claws. Their wings extend from where their front legs would have been. Some descriptions have their front limbs forming the wings and in others the limbs are not visible. All descriptions depict the leathery wings similar to those of a bat, with a claw protruding from either the top of the wing or half-way down. Their tail is another distinctive feature, ending in either a diamond or arrow-shaped tip. Often drawn as a knot or turned in on itself, it carries a powerful sting which is fatal to humans. Rarely are they described as breathing fire, rather their breath is said to be poisonous and, in some stories, it is told that they pollute the earth over which they walk, causing fungus to grow (one explanation for fairy rings) and leaving distorted animals such as flounder fish in their wake[7]. They are said to always be hot – images of wyverns and sculptures found on medieval buildings usually show them with their mouths open[8. Wyverns occur in numerous tales. Some people believe, based on imagery, that Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae, was describing wyverns when he spoke of the prophecy that Wales would fall to the Anglo-Saxons[9],

“Woe to the red dragon, for his banishment hasteneth on. His lurking holes shall be seized by the white dragon, which signifies the Saxons whom you invited over; but the red denotes the British nation, which shall be oppressed by the white. Therefore shall its mountains be leveled as the valleys, and the rivers of the valleys shall run with blood.”[10]

Illumination of a 15th-century manuscript of Historia Regum Britanniae showing
king of the Britons Vortigern and Ambros watching the fight between two dragons. 
Lambeth Palace Library MS 6. Vortigern studies,
Public Domain,

Another myth recounts how in the distant past, a “huge, coiling and writhing monster with a humped back and undulating neck”[11], took up residence in Llyn Cynwch in North Wales. People fearful of its presence avoided the lake. This beast (from its description recognisable as as a wyvern), terrorised the surrounding area, eating livestock and on occasion an unlucky villager. Eventually, the locals decided they had had enough and decided to put an end to the wyvern’s reign of terror. Many tried and failed, killed by either the creature’s poisonous green breath or by the deadly sting in its tail. A warlock from Ganllwid decided to use archers who would be positioned at a safe distance. Unfortunately, his plan failed, the wyvern could sense when the archers were close and would hide beneath the water. One morning a young shepherd from Meredydd, noticed the wyvern lying on the bank of the lake, sleeping under the hot morning sun. Seizing the opportunity, he ran to Cymmer Abbey where the monks on hearing the shepherd’s news, gave him a magical axe which they had in their possession. Returning to the lake, he was relieved to see the wyvern still asleep and with a powerful blow, severed its head from its body[12].

Many more stories of wyverns exist in other countries. Often in Northern Europe, no distinction is made between four and two legged dragons.

Lindwurms: A Dragon without Wings

Lindworm carving at Urnes Stave Church  
By Jchancerel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, 

Images of lindwurms can be seen as early as the eleventh century in Sweden, incised on runestones[13]. Although their descriptions can vary, in general they are shown as large wingless creatures with serpentine bodies, a dragon’s head, scaly skin and two clawed forearms. Its limbs used not to bear the weight of its body but to pull itself along the ground. Some believe that its name is derived from the Old High German word for flexible. Their shredded skin was believed to have magical abilities and could increase a person’s knowledge about nature and medicine. They were said to feed on cattle and human corpses, often invading a churchyard in order to eat the remains of those buried there[14].

A tale from Klagenfurt, Austria, in the thirteenth century, recounts how the villagers blamed a lindwurm for the severe flooding they were suffering. A duke offered a reward to anyone who could kill the creature. A group of young men decided to try their luck. Fixing a bull to a chain, they lowered it into the river. The lindwurm taking the bait, grabbed onto the bull, allowing the men to pull it up on to the bank and kill it[15].

Even as late as the nineteenth century, the belief in lindwurms in Sweden persisted, especially in the province of Småland where people claimed to have seen them first-hand. The folklorist, Gunnar Olaf Hyltén-Cavalius in 1884, became a figure of ridicule when he put up a reward for anyone who could bring him a lindwurm, dead or alive[16]. No-one did!

Wyrms: A Wingless and Legless Dragon

The Lambton Worm By Unknown author – English fairy and other folk tales. By Edwin Sidney Hartland, Pforzheimer Bruce Rogers Collection (Library of Congress).Public Domain, 

Wryms (worms) look exactly how they sound. They are simply wingless and legless dragons. Despite the fact that they lack appendages, myths recount their dangerous nature and the terror they inspired.

There are many stories centred around these wyrms including the famous tale of the Lambton Worm.

Set in the county of Durham in the North East of England, it tells the story of John Lambton who one Sunday morning, decided to go fishing in the River Wear. While fishing, instead of a fish he caught to his horror a hideous looking worm-like creature. Thinking he had snared a devil, he dropped it into a well. Years passed and John went off to fight in the Crusades. During this time, the creature presence had poisoned the well. Eventually it had grown to such a size that it slithered out of the well, coiling itself around a local hill (either Worm Hill or Penshaw Hill). It stayed there for awhile, devouring livestock, taking small children and preventing cows from producing milk. Finally, it decided to make its way to Lambton Castle. All those who attempted to kill it were despatched quickly. Its strength residing in the fact that every time a piece of its body was chopped off, it would reattach itself, making it near impossible to kill. On his return, John was horrified to discover what had happened during his absence and was charged with the task of killing the beast. John sought counsel from a local wise woman. She told him to wear armour covered in spikes but warned him that in order to avoid his family being cursed, he needed to kill the first thing he saw afterwards. Making his way to the hill where the wyrm resided, he confronted the creature which coiled itself around him, impaling itself on the spikes, allowing John the opportunity to cut the worm to pieces and float them away in the river – so the worm could not reassemble itself. He then blew a horn alerting his father of his success. His father in his excitement, instead of releasing a dog to be killed, ran to his son. John refused to kill his father and so his family was cursed [17].

Tatzelwurm: A Cat-faced Dragon

Depiction of the cat-faced “mountain dragon” of the Swiss Alps claimed to have been encountered in Sarganserland, c. 1660. By Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (author) – Houghton Library, Public Domain, 

The Tatzelwurm (sometimes called a bergstutz) is a mystical creature found in the Alpine regions. It is said to be a relative of the dragon and lindwurm. Small in size, its physical appearance is rather strange with its snake-like abdomen, two paw-studied forelimbs, a reptile’s body and a head resembling a big cat[18]. The legends say that Tatzelwurms lived in tunnels and caves dug into rock and that although it was in general a shy creature, it could be dangerous and aggressive, preying on both humans and animals. It was believed that when a Tatzelwurm crawled through sand, it turned the sand into glass due to the extreme heat of its body[19].

A Swiss tale tells of how one Tatzelwurm was killed. On Mt Pilatus, a Tatzelwurm caused chaos by burning stables and killing cattle. No-one had the courage to face it. The only person who was willing to risk their life was the convicted killer, Heinrich von Winkelried who had nothing to lose. In return he was promised his freedom if he killed the monster. Using his sword to carve a sharp point at the end of a tree trunk, he confronted the beast. When the Tatzelwurm opened its mouth, Winkelried pushed the point of the thorny trunk into its mouth. With the beast in agony, Winkelried killed it. Unfortunately, when he raised his sword in victory, a drop of the Tatzelwurm’s venomous blood fell onto his hand, killing him instantly[20].

In a similar vein to Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti, sightings of the Tatzelwurm had been reported as recently as the 1980s, in South Tyrol and Aosta in the Italian Alps.

Knuckers: A Sea Serpent with Tiny Wings

Olaus Magnus’s Sea Orm (knucker), 1555 Source: Ellis, R. 1998.

”The Search for the Giant Squid”. The Lyons Press. Public domain.

Knuckers were considered to be a type of water dragon found in Sussex, England. Its habitat were the knuckerholes – a very deep (believed to be infinitely deep) pool. Their name comes from the old English word nicor, meaning ‘water monster’. They are mentioned in the Old English epic poem, Beowulf[21].

Knuckers have been described as possessing a giant slithering sea serpent’s torso, cold eyes, a deadly hissing mouth, four legs, tiny wings[22] and as having a fondness for shiny objects such as glass or marbles.

Legends of knuckers, centre around Lyminster, Lancing, Shoreham and Worthing.

The most well-known story concerns the Knucker of Lyminster. There are two versions of the tale. The first involves a knight-errant who agrees to kill the beast in return for the hand of the King of Sussex’s daughter. He is victorious and returns to claim his wife. In the second version, the Mayor of Arundel offers a reward to anyone who could slay the creature. A local farmer’s boy, Jim Pulk (or Puttock) accepts the challenge. After baking a huge poisonous pie, he transports it on a horse and cart to the knucker’s hole. The greedy knucker eats the pie, horse and cart and while it is dying, the boy cuts off his head (in some versions the boy also dies). A slayer’s slab reputed to be the grave of the knucker’s slayer can be found inside Lyminster Church[23].

Guivres: A Rather Prudish Dragon

Liber Floridus (1448) – Shuker, K. (2006). Draken. Een geïllustreerde geschiedenis. Kerkdriel: Librero. ISBN 9057647044, Public Domain, 

Guivres (also known as vouivres) are a dragon common in the legends of Medieval France. They were described as highly aggressive and dangerous with a breath that causes diseases. Interestingly they have one major weakness – naked humans. It was said that if you confronted the guivre wearing your birthday suit, it would blush and turn away![24]

Guivres were believed to live in woods, forests, lakes and pools, anywhere that was damp and isolated[25]. They were described as a monstrous reptile with the head of a dragon and horns protruding from its forehead. They were also said to be extremely greedy[26].

The book, The Drac: French Tales of Dragons and Demons, contains a tale adapted from a French legend which describes a female vouivre. She is said to have dazzling green scales which emit a sound when she flies and to wear a crown of pearls around her head and a gold ring on her tail. It claims that this vouivre preferred to live in a cave, which she only left for a short period of time, so she could bathe[27].

Amphiptere: Bi-winged Serpent

Stories of amphipteres (also spelt: amphithere, amphitere, phipthere[28]) can be found in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. Although descriptions of them vary considerably, on two-points there is consensus: they have no legs but do have a serpentine shaped body. Some descriptions portray them as scaly; a few as having a body completely covered in feathers; while others state that they had light-coloured feathers, a body similar to a lindwurm’s, feathered bat-like wings and a wyvern-like tail[29]. In Egypt they were believed to guard Frankincense trees, defending them against anyone who wanted to harvest the trees’ precious substance[30].

Amphiptere by Edward Topsell (1608) 

My Concluding Thoughts on Dragons

So, there you have it – my brief guide to dragons. Although, there are many differences between dragon types, they do share a few traits in common, aside from their serpentine bodies – that is their aggressive nature and preference for a solitary life. I hope that this guide will help you to identify them – just in case you happen to come across one! Still, whereas the differences might be important for an observer, I would think for the people in the tales and legends, when you are being eaten by a large serpentine creature, it doesn’t really matter whether it has two or four or no legs!

On a sidenote and just for accuracy sake, Daenerys Targeryen wasn’t actually the Mother of Dragons, but rather the Mother of Wyverns – I guess that didn’t sound quite so catchy!

Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Wyverns! Emilia Clarke in HBO’s Game of Thrones,
created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss for HBO 2011-2019 

Bibliography and Further Reading

Ogden, Daniel: Dragons, Serpents, and Slayers in the Classical and Early Christian Worlds: A Sourcebook, Oxford University Press, 2013

Rose, Carol: Giants, Monsters, & Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth, W. W. Norton & Company, (Reprint) 2001

Shuker, Karl P.N: Dragons: A Natural History, Simon & Schuster, 1995


[1] Dragons: A Brief History of the Mythical, Fire-Breathing Beasts,

[2] Dragon, mythological creature

[3] Ibid

[4] For more information on this subject look at Daniel Ogden’s, Dragons, Serpents, and Slayers in the Classical and Early Christian Worlds: A Sourcebook

[5] Carol Rose, Giants, Monsters, & Dragons: An Encyclopaedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth

[6] Wyvern,

[7] Wyvern,

[8] Ibid

[9] Wyvern,

[10] Geoffrey Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae

[11] The Strange and Ancient Tale of a Welsh Dragon,

[12] Ibid

[13] Lindworm,

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Dragons in Folklore: The Lambton Worm and the Laidly Worm,

[18] Tatzelwurm (mythical animal),

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid

[21] Knucker,

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] Guivre,

[25] Dragon Species

Guivre / Wivre,

[26] Ibid

[27] Guivre

[28] Amphiptere,

[29] Ibid

[30] Time-Life Books, Dragons,

The Hidden History of Shrunken Heads (Tsantsas)



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The hidden history of shrunken heads 

Across Europe and America, if you visit a museum with an Ethnography section, you may come across a display of shrunken heads, or Tsantsas, from South America. The heads are no larger than a man’s fist, with lips and eyes stitched up, threads hanging from them, and framed by long black hair. If you haven’t seen one in a museum, then you’ve likely seen one depicted in popular culture, the movies Beetlejuice and more recently Harry Potter both feature shrunken heads in a horror/comedy setting. 

But how did shrunken heads from the Amazon basin find their way into the museums and collections of Britain, Europe and the USA and how did interaction with western societies influence and change this indigenous tradition? 

Who made them? 

Tsantsas were created by the Shuar, Achuar, Awajun/Aguaruna, Wampis/Huambisa, Candoshi-Shampra, who are now collectively known as SAAWC. Europeans historically referred to this group of peoples as Jivaro, however, this became synonymous with being uncivilized or savage, so is considered offensive in Ecuador [1].  

These groups lived in the Amazon, in small villages often based on family groups. They subsisted primarily from hunting, fishing, raising pigs and gardening. They also traded with other indigenous groups, and later with European settlers.  

The Shuar’s primary claim to fame is that they successfully thew off the yoke of the Spanish Conquistadors in 1599, earning themselves a legendary reputation for fierceness and independence. This love of independence is reflected in the structure of their society, which was based on family groups and existed without any centralised authority [2]. 

Family group c1901. Smithsonian Institution. Bureau of American Ethnology, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

More than just a war trophy 

It is fair to say that even now the popular view in the West is that all headhunting cultures took heads as war trophies. And while some did, this is a reductive view, for the SAAWC peoples the head of an enemy killed in combat was much more than simply a brutal material symbol of victory. The power of Tsantsas came from harnessing the power imbued in them from the dead man’s soul for the benefit of the warrior’s family. The process of obtaining and preparing a Tsantsa was complex, time consuming and resource intensive, it was also fraught with danger. This meant that the practice of headhunting was not taken lightly, nor one practiced frequently by SAAWC peoples.  

SAAWC peoples believed that the soul of a man was made up of separate components the Arutam and the Muisak. The Arutam was the soul-power, the spirit, power, and knowledge of the man. A man became Kakaram through killing and this strengthened his Arutam, this power was obtained through raids on other tribes to obtain Tsantsas. So, the best Tsantsas, the most powerful, came from a man who had killed a lot of people and therefore had strong Arutam. However, taking the head of such a man (and it invariably was a man, as a woman was not thought to be possessed of a strong Arutam), a powerful enemy warrior, possessed of such power, required careful rituals, or else his Muisak, his avenging soul which came into being at the point of death, could wreak havoc on his killer [3] [4].

Objets dAmazonie (réserves visitables du musée national dethnologie).  Dalbera from Paris, France, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How were they made? 

The skills involved would be passed down from father to son [5]. The process was both practical and ritual. To ensure the head could be transported away from the enemy village quickly, the skull, brains, muscle were removed, making it lighter to carry. This skin ‘bag’ was then filled with hot sand and pebbles repeatedly until it shrunk to the size of a man’s fist [6]. Shrinking the head was the beginning of the ritual process of trapping power in the artefact.  

A series of rituals and feasts were held, the first of which was a binding ritual. It was crucial to trap the Muisak in the head before it could escape and seek revenge. The Muisak would try and escape through the mouth, so it was vital to sew up the lips of the decapitated head quickly. Similarly, eyes were sewn shut to prevent it from seeing, and the skin was blackened with charcoal [7] [8]. Once the Muisak was trapped, the owner could begin to use the soul- power of the Tsantsa, and transfer it to others, through a series of ritual feasts.  

The feasts could take place over several years, this allowed the owner and his family to grow enough food to feed the many guests that would be expected to attend. The purpose of the feasts was to harness the power of the individual warrior’s Arutam (his skills and knowledge} and pass them on to the women of the owner’s family, so that they would be more productive. The final ritual would expel the Muisak from the head, rendering the physical head less valuable to the village. Sometimes the warrior would keep the head, but more often than not the head, once divested of its spiritual power, would be discarded, or traded away [9]. As the whole ritual process associated with creating and utilising a Tsantsa was a lengthy one, and required extensive resources, it was not done often. 

The Shuar themselves have emphasised that it is not the head per se that interests them [10], it was the soul-power of the warrior, which was contained in the decapitated head, that was their object in creating Tsantsas. However, by the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century the production of tsantsas escalated rapidly. Now women, even children might find themselves targets of head-hunting raids.  

So, how, and why did this tradition change? 

Guns for heads 

In the late nineteenth century, Europeans began to encroach on Shuar lands in search of rubber and cinchona bark, which was used to make Quinine, and this led to more interactions between the Shuar and neighbouring tribes and westerners. Quickly trade began between the groups, the Shuar providing settlers with much needed pigs, deer, salt and occasional Tsantsas, in return for cloth, machetes and guns. The dynamic changed when the settlers began raising their own livestock, the Shuar still wished to trade for goods such as machetes and guns, which made their lives easier, (they did not make their own metal) but the only thing the settlers wanted now was Tsantsas [11][12]. 

Webley & Scott Mk VI. Caliber .455 Collection Paul Regnier, Lausanne, Switzerland. Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr,

A trade had rapidly grown up around Tsantsas with North American and European Museums, collectors, and souvenir hunters all eager to snap up these curious tribal artefacts. Because the numbers of Tsantsas produced for ritual purposes was so limited, demand soon outstripped supply.  

To meet this demand for Tsantsas, the Shuar and other tribes, massively increase in head-hunting raids, often using the guns they so keenly traded for. Raids involved hundreds of people, and now encompassed the murder of women and even children, who would not have previously been victims as their soul-power was considered lesser than a man’s. Frances Larson notes that the going rate for one gun was one Tsantsa, and commented that the Tsantsas on display in museums show more of the history of “white man’s gun” as an economic incentive for the Shuar to kill [13]. Tsantsas produced for trade would not be ritual Tsantsas, they were produced specifically for the open market.  

This trade in tribal curios led to many fake shrunken heads being created, with some reports of the bodies of the poor-dead in morgues being used to create Tstantsas, along with the heads of countless monkeys and sloths [14]. Some of these fakes even ended up in distinguished museums in North America and Europe.  Charlie Morgan of the Wellcome Collection, estimates that up to 80% of Tsantsas on display could in fact be fakes [15].

The Holy Grail of Ethnography 

From the enlightenment onwards western society has been obsessed with cataloguing everything, from plants and animals to humans. However, in the nineteenth century this drive to understand the world soon became a tool for justifying an ethnocentric world view. The gap created by the end of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in the early nineteenth century, was filled the European Imperial Project. Imperialism often wore a paternalistic face, civilised western nations claimed to be improving the lives of less advanced races who were unable to govern themselves.  

Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, shrunken heads (pre-1946). Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

This Imperialist project was quick to co-opt science to support colonialist expansion. In a similar way that the pseudo-science of phrenology began as a genuine endeavour to understand how the brain worked but ended up being used to justify eugenics and racism, so ethnographic hierarchies of people (with white Europeans at top of the evolutionary tree, and brown and black races at the bottom) were used to promote a race theory which justified the ‘superior’ races colonising less civilised races. The fall-out from this is still being felt today. 

The position of Shuar peoples, never having been colonised meant they fell into that Holy Grail of Victorian Ethnography: the untouched tribe. A tribe in need of being studied and civilised.  

Education, entertainment, exploitation 

In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Human Zoos or ‘ethnological expositions were extremely popular. These exhibits would have people from traditional societies displayed in a ‘natural setting,’ ostensibly for the education of Western spectators, but in reality, as a way contrasting ‘primitive’ peoples and societies unfavourably to the more advanced nations of the West [16].  

By Henri Sicard and Farradesche Lithographers – Jardin zoologique d’acclimatation, Public Domain,

People are still drawn to the exotic and the ‘other.’  Museum visitors today, when faced with Tsantsas, often experience a sense of horror and an underlying feeling of cultural superiority, in that the viewer, is perhaps grateful that they do not belong to a culture that could produce such unnerving artefacts, that they themselves live in a ‘civilized’ culture where these things do not happen [17].  

A review by Peter Gordon in 2003, reinforced this view as he found that visitors to the Pitt Rivers Museum often viewed the Shrunken heads for entertainment purposes, using words like ‘gruesome’ ‘barbaric’ and evoked ‘a freakshow element’ [18]. This led the museum to re-evaluate their display and whether it was achieving its intended aims to teach visitors about how other cultures treated their dead enemies. 

This is in part because Tsantsas have come to represent an entire culture, this is all many people will ever know of the SAAWC peoples. Head-hunters have become synonymous with primitive and savage practices that the march of human progress has suppressed. However, this is a distortion of the rich symbolic meaning behind these sacred ritual objects. 

Should the Tsantsas head home? 

At a time when museums are being challenged to de-colonise their collections and address their imperial past, the history of the trade in shrunken heads is a timely reminder of the impact European colonisation had on the indigenous cultures they encountered.  

Greater involvement and dialogue with indigenous cultures whose artefacts, particularly those that constitute human remains, are in western museums has changed the landscape of many museums. Museums, such as the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, have now removed their displays of Tsantsas, and have reconsidered how they present information about indigenous cultures.  This moved has been a polarising one, with some people welcoming the change and others against it.

The debate over the role of Western museums in curating artefacts from the colonial past, especially human remains, is a highly fraught area, with excellent arguments on both sides. There is a vocal lobby for the for the role of museums as conservators of our shared past, and educators, and equally strong lobby against that, and that the views of other cultures and their struggle to regain control over their own identities and heritage should take precedence.  And of course there is also the problem of identifying real Tsantsas from the many historic fakes on display.

The issues of repatriation of cultural objects is a very controversial area, with genuine fears of great museum collections being broken up and lost forever. Use of modern technologies, such as digitised collections, contextualisation of collections and most importantly, involvement from colonised cultures could be one way to build a bridge between the rights of those cultures that were colonised alongside the valuable role of museums to protect and educate using artefacts from our shared past. I suspect this is an argument that will continue for many years to come, and may never have an outcome that will please everyone.

The last word 

But what of the people whose ancestors made these artefacts, what are their views? Currently SAAWC peoples are engaged in a political and cultural fight for survival against the pressures of mining and the oil industry, sacred objects created by their ancestors, are potent symbol of cultural unity, and many now want them returned.  Federación Interprovincial de Centros Shuar-Achuar now represent the interests of the SAAWC peoples.

The last word should go to Shuar themselves, Indigenous leaders Miguel Puwainchir and Felipe Tsenkush:

“Our ancestors handed over these sacred objects without full realising the implications” [19]

“We don’t want to be thought of as dead people to be exhibited in a museum, described in a book, or recorded on film.” [20]

I would love to hear your views on this topic.  

Modern Shuar dance in Logroño, Ecuador. IJlh249, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


My primary inspiration for writing this article was the chapter on Tsantsas in Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Found, by Frances Larson, a fabulously witty, erudite, and thought provoking book.

Byron, C.D., Kiefer, A.M., Thomas, J. et al. The authentication and repatriation of a ceremonial tsantsa to its country of origin (Ecuador). Herit Sci 9, 50 (2021).

Harner, J, The Jivaro: People of the Sacred Waterfalls, 1984

Houlton,Tobias M.R.and Wilkinson, Caroline M., Recently identified features that help to distinguish ceremonial tsantsa from commercial shrunken heads – ScienceDirect

Larson, Frances, Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, 2015

McGreevy, Nora, Oxford Museum Permanently Removes Controversial Display of Shrunken Heads | Smart News | Smithsonian Magazine

Morgan, Charlie, Shrunken Heads Real and Fake, Wellcome Collection Blog, 27 June 2014

Peers, Laura, Shrunken Heads, (Pitt Rivers Museum publication)

Rubenstein, Steven Lee, Circulation, Accumulation, and the Power of Shuar Shrunken Heads in Cultural Anthropology Vol. 22, No. 3 (Aug., 2007), pp. 357-399 (43 pages)

shrunken « Bizzarro Bazar

Shrunken heads | Pitt Rivers Museum (

The Pitt Rivers Museum and its Shrunken Heads – Sang Bleu

Wikipedia, Shuar

Wikipedia, Human Zoo


[1] Shuar

[2] The Jivaro: People of the Sacred Waterfalls

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] Oxford Museum Permanently Removes Controversial Display of Shrunken Heads

[6] Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found

[7] Shrunken Heads

[8] Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found

[9] ibid

[10] Shuar, Wikipedia

[11] Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found

[12] Shrunken Heads

[13] Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found

[14] ibid

[15] Shrunken heads real and fake

[16] Human Zoo

[17] Shrunken Heads

[18] ibid

[19] Oxford Museum Permanently Removes Controversial Display of Shrunken Heads

[20] The authentication and repatriation of a ceremonial tsantsa to its country of origin (Ecuador)

Spooky Christmas Collaboration with Voices from the North East podcast


Wishing all of the readers of the Haunted Palace Blog a happy holidays, however you celebrate them. If you’re taking it easy this Boxing Day, following a day of over-indulging in festive cheer, why not relax to a spooky tale for Christmas. I’ve been collaborating with Paul from the excellent Voices from the North East podcast again. This time I’m talking about the Legend of the Alnwick Vampire, vampire lore and medieval revenants. And for anyone who listened in to The Wallsend Witches, you’ll be glad to hear I’ve invested in a better mic for this episode!!

Voices from the North East podcast is available free on , spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.


Wood-Wives, the Quarry of the Wild Huntsman



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Wood-wives, Protectors of the Forest

The Dryad By Evelyn De Morgan - 
Public Domain
The Dryad By Evelyn De Morgan –
Public Domain

The wood-wives of folklore are known by many different names depending on the popular local tradition; green woman, skoggra, skogsfru – wood-wife, wish wife, wood maid and wood women. They were believed to fall into the same fairy folk class as elves, dwarves and spirits and to dwell deep in the heart of the ancient forests[1]. They seem to have had a similar role to the dryads of ancient Greek myths, in that their lives were intertwined with the health of the forest. It was said that if the stem of a young tree was twisted until the bark was ripped off a wood-wife would die[2].

As with their name their appearance can change according to which tradition you are reading. In German folklore, the wood-wives are described as beautiful tiny creatures, with pale skin and long flowing gowns of green, red and blue. The appearance of the wood-wife bears close semblance to descriptions given of a female spirit which was believed to haunt the woods and forests of Sweden; the Skogsra. The Skogsra was also of a diminutive stature, beautiful dressed and friendly except towards hunters who regarded a meeting with the Skogsra as bad luck[3]. This is probably down to the fact that in place of fingernails she had claws and disliked hunters in her forest. The only way to placate her was to give her a portion of their catch or kill.

The wood-wives were mainly associated with Southern Germany and it was believed that prior to the introduction of Christianity, they were attendees at the court of the old gods, whose thrones were held between the branches of the trees.

It was said that wood-wives would often be attracted to the smell of baking coming from the houses in and around the forest. They would approach and ask for a cake to be baked for them. Sometimes they would appear with a tiny broken wheelbarrow which they would ask to be fixed. On other occasions, a wood-wife would emerge from deep within the dense forest to eat from the woodcutters’ cooking pot[4]. If met with welcome, she would leave wood chips in payment which would eventually turn into gold coins. These coins would stay in their gold form as long as their source was never revealed[5].

Moss People

There is another group of fairy folk which are often confused with wood-wives: these are the moss people. In many ways their behaviour is very similar to the wood-wives, especially in regards to their connection to the forest. The major difference, as you can imagine from their name, is their appearance, in which they more resemble dwarves. They are also known as wild-folk or forest-folk or in reference to the young females of their race, wood-maidens. In some stories they are portrayed as small, about the size of young child and as “grey and old-looking, with their bodies hideously overgrown with moss, giving them a hairy appearance“[8] and in others as tiny moss-covered creatures, with small wings on their backs. The females are said to wear cocked hats and dresses of green, faced with red[9].

A vivid description can be found in the poem or song The Moss Woman and the Widow in The Fairy Family[10], a collection of German folkloric ballads.

‘A moss-woman I’ the hay-makers cry.
And over the fields in terror they fly.
She is loosely clad from neck to foot.
In a mantle of Moss from the Maple’s root
And like Lichen grey on its stem that grows
Is the hair that over her mantle flows.
Her skin, like the Maple-rind, is hard,
Brown and ridgy, and furrowed and scarred;
And each feature flat, like the bark we see,
Where a bough has been lopped from the bole of a tree,
When the newer bark has crept healingly round,
And laps o’er the edge of the open wound;
Her knotty, root-like feet are bare,
And her height is an ell from heel to hair.

Gnome By Carl Spitzweg 
Public Domain
Gnome By Carl Spitzweg
Public Domain

As with their wood-wife cousins, the moss people would often approach humans for assistance. They might ask for human breast milk for their young or to borrow items but would always leave generous gifts or impart helpful advice in return, getting extremely angry if their gift is refused[11]. They seem to have developed a reputation as healers, tending to sick animals and were also known for helping humans with their tasks for which they were given some form of payment in the shape of a bowl of porridge or bread, but only plain bread. They seem to have had a particular loathing for caraway bread. The leaving of caraway bread would infuriate the moss people who would complain bitterly, “caraway bread, our death” [12]. Confusingly enough they were seen as being responsible for causing plagues whilst also helping people find medicinal herbs to heal the sick during times of extreme suffering.

Their fickleness of behaviour is common to most tales of fairy folk. This duality can be compared to the power of nature, which is sometimes benevolent and sometimes destructive.

Germanic folklore also refers to a certain type of wood-wife known as a Dirne-weibl who lived in the forests of Bavaria. She was usually dressed in white but in one forest was said to wear a red gown and walk the forest carrying a basket of apples which she happily gives away and which if taken, turns to gold. She will often ask that person to accompany her and if she is refused, she returns to the wood weeping. It seems that wood-wives spend a good part of their lives crying, so much so that the phrase ‘you cry like a wood-wife’ became a common saying in Germany. Often used as a rebuke to a anyone who became upset over nothing[6]. Jacob Grim wrote a great deal about fairy folk and included a story about how when he had lost his way, he was helped by a wood-wife who he had discovered wailing beside a stream. [7].


Unfortunately, the lives of both the wood-wives and the moss people could be far from pleasant. There is a German superstition that on Ash Wednesday the Devil hunts wood-wives for sport[13] but it is the Wild Huntsman who is their true enemy. For some reason they seem to have incurred his wrath. The wood-wives could save themselves from the Wild Huntsman if they could find a tree with a cross cut into it. They would then be able to dive into the centre of the tree and sit there secure and safe until the hunt was over. There is evidence that woodcutters in Germany at one time, would also cut three crosses into the bark of felled trees in order to aid the little wood-wives of whom they were fond of. There is one rather gruesome tale of a man who had joined the Wild Hunt and as a reward had found a quarter of a wood-wife hanging on his stable door. [14].

Another story very similar to that of the Wild Huntsman relates to a different spectral hunter known as the Grönjette. He hunted in the wood of Grünewald on the island of Möen and also specialised in tracking and killing wood-wives. A story is told of him having been seen with a dead wood-wife hanging over his horse, to which enquiring look he replied, “Seven years I had chased her, now in Falster, I have slain her” [15].

The Wild Hunt by Peter Nicolai Arbo - Nasjonalmuseet
Public Domain
The Wild Hunt by Peter Nicolai Arbo – Nasjonalmuseet
Public Domain

The Fury of the Wild Hunt

The question then arises, who is this Wild Huntsman who brims with hatred and desires the blood of little fairy folk. The Wild Hunt was first written about by the German folklorist Jacob Grim. In Germany the Wild Hunt is also called the Wild Army or Furious Army. Grim wrote that Wodan, the god of the wind and the dead had originally been credited as the leader of the Wild Hunt. He believed that under the ancient gods the hunt had been viewed by mortals as an act of benevolence on the part of their deities seeking to reward their devotions and accepting their offerings. It was only with the rise of Christianity which aimed to overthrow and disparage any pagan practices which obstructed the control of the Church that the hunt changed from that of a “solemn march of the gods” to being “a pack of horrid spectres dashed with dark and devilish ingredients” [16] and with it Wodan, “lost his sociable character, his near familiar features and assumed the aspect of a dark and dreadful power…a spectre and a devil.” [17].

The association of the hunt with ancient gods survived longer in the Scandinavian countries where the Viking traditions were deeply rooted in its people’s consciousness, here Odin is given the title of Wild Huntsman.

In Germany where the legend of the Wild Hunt was popularised, there are many variations in the folkloric tale of the Hunt and its origins. Here the Wild Huntsman was sometimes referred to as either Wodan; as entities based on the Germanic goddess Freya or Frigg or as undead nobles[18] whose irreligious deeds in life together with their fanatical love of hunting condemned them to hunt forever as souls transformed into demonic spectres.

Cursed By Heaven

In Southern Germany, the main realm of the wood-wives, one of the most popular tales tells of how in 1521, the Chief Master of the Hounds to the Duke of Brunswick, Hans von Hackelnberg lying on his death bed refused to listen to the parson’s speech regarding his entry to heaven. Hackelnberg scoffed and replied “The Lord may keep His Heaven, so he leave me my hunting”. To which the frustrated parson answered “Hunt then to the day of judgement”. Doomed to lead a never-ending hunt in the forests of Lower Saxony, he is accompanied by a night owl which locals called Tutosel. Tutosel was believed to have been a nun who after her death for some reason decided to join Hackelnberg on his infernal rampage. His approach is heralded by the baying of hounds and the sounds of carriages and horses[19].

The Owls by Hannes Bok, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Owls by Hannes Bok, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Another Huntsman’s legend from Saxony concerns a rich and powerful prince who loved hunting beyond all things and punished severely anyone who broke his forest rules. A boy who had taken a piece of bark from one of the trees to make a whistle was on the prince’s orders killed and his entrails wrapped around the tree. On another occasion he had a peasant fastened to a stag that the man had shot at. This cruel prince was finally killed when he broke his neck riding into a beech tree. Now cursed, he can never stop hunting. He has been seen wearing armour, riding a white horse, cracking his whip and followed by a swarm of hounds. His war cry of “Wod, wod, hoho, hallo I” strikes fear into the hearts of all who hear him. He is said to hunt all manner of beasts and humans including witches, thieves, robbers and murderers[20].

Sometimes the Wild Huntsman would stop and speak with passers-by. In one tale, Eberhart, the Count of Wurtenberg heard the sound of the ghastly hunt approach. He then meets the demonic Wild Huntsman who tells him how he came to be damned. He hears how the Huntsman when alive could never satiate his lust for hunting and prayed that when he died, he would be allowed to hunt until the Day of Judgement. His prayer was granted but as with all such wishes that go against the natural order of things, it came at a price and for nearly 500 years, he has been hunting a stag that he can never overtake. Eberhart said that the Huntsman’s face was as “wrinkled as a sponge” [21].

Wood-wives versus The Huntsman

Fairy by Sophie Gengembre Anderson - Art Renewal Center, Public Domain
Fairy by Sophie Gengembre Anderson – Art Renewal Center, Public Domain

There are many such tales about the Huntsman and his Hunt, his origins and the people that crossed his path. Sometimes the encounter ended well and on occasion through either luck or shrewdness they would be rewarded with gold and silver. Sadly, in many cases, they were not so fortunate[22]. The same can be said for the unlucky wood-wives that were unable to reach the safety of a cross engraved tree. Maybe the reason for this antagonism was that they stood for polar opposites beliefs. The wood-wives protected the forest; the animals and the trees. There are even stories of huntsmen found with their throats cut, a gruesome act which was attributed to the anger of the wood-wives towards those who threatened the balance of nature[23]. At the other extreme the Wild Huntsman epitomised the power and the unremitting fury of the hunt and the bloodthirsty need to destroy.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Encyclopaedia of giants and humanoids in myth, legend and folklore, Theresa Bane, 2016

Beware the Vengeful Wood-wives,

Moss People,

The Forest in Folklore and Mythology, Alexander Porteous, 2002 (originally published in 1928)

Teutonic Mythology, Jacob Grim, 2010 (originally published in 1835)

Wild Huntsman Legends, ed. D.L. Ashliman,

The Wild Hunt,

Spirits of the Forest: The Moss People,

Wild Hunt,

Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary between Wilderness and Civilisation, Hans Peter Duerr, 1985

The Wild Hunt and the Witches’ Sabbath, R.E. Hutton, 2014,


[1] The Forest in Folklore and Mythology
[2] Encyclopaedia of giants and humanoids in myth, legend and folklore
[3] The Forest in Folklore and Mythology
[4] ibid
[5] Encyclopaedia of giants and humanoids in myth, legend and folklore
[6] The Forest in Folklore and Mythology
[7] Teutonic Mythology
[8] The Forest in Folklore and Mythology
[9] Encyclopaedia of giants and humanoids in myth, legend and folklore
[10] The Forest in Folklore and Mythology
[11] Spirits of the Forest: The Moss People
[12] Moss People
[13] The Forest in Folklore and Mythology
[14] The Forest in Folklore and Mythology
[15] ibid
[16] Wild Hunt
[17] ibid
[18] ibid
[19] The Forest in Folklore and Mythology
[20] Ibid
[21] ibid
[22] Wild Huntsman Legends
[23] Beware the Vengeful Wood-wives

Halloween news from the Haunted Palace Blog



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Out Now: The Haunted Mirror – Volume 2

Here at the Haunted Palace Blog we’ve been busily preparing for our favourite time of year, Halloween!

The second volume of our Haunted Palace Blog Collection, The Haunted Mirror -Volume 2 is out and is available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon, we’ve also dropped the price of Volume 1, just in case you fancy treating yourself to both volumes.

Cover of The Haunted Mirror volume 2 book

Join us for more dark history and folklore from the Haunted Palace Blog. Discover the tales of rogues and vagabonds, from the romantic to the ruthless, and the downright incompetent. Meet inventors and eccentrics, from the Elizabethan scientist killed by a chicken to the quack doctor who electrified Georgian society with his theories about sex.

Come face to face with vampires, mermaids and pixies and find out what grisly secrets are hidden away in farms and manor houses across England’s green and pleasant land. Rediscover some of history’s forgotten stories, such as the female sheriff of Lincoln who successfully defended a castle against an unrelenting opponent and the mysterious dancing manias that gripped medieval Northern Europe and threw whole communities into turmoil and chaos.

Join us as we explore a past populated by highwaymen, murderers, ghosts and rediscover some of history’s lost souls.

With original art by @igamagination and @chknstyn.

The Haunted Palace Blog Collection available on Amazon now, in paperback and kindle!

A spooky collaboration for Halloween

Voices from the North East Podcast Logo

The Haunted Palace Blog recently had an opportunity to collaborate with the excellent Voices from the North East podcast for one of their two Halloween Specials.

Voices from the North East is a fascinating podcast celebrating and preserving oral social histories from the North East of England. Lenora joined them to chat about the curious tale of the Wallsend Witches and its possible origins and links to the history of witch trials in the North East.

You can find Voices from the North East on or wherever you get your podcasts, and I’ve linked to both episodes pf the Halloween Specials below:

The Wallsend Witches

The mist on Rimside Moor

Halloween pumpkins
Happy Halloween from the Haunted Palace Blog!

The Curious Incident of the Ghost Bear in the Night



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The Tower of London. Photo by Bernard Gagnon, 2007. GNU licence.

The Tower of London is known to be one of the most haunted sites in London. With its grisly past, it is not really surprising that many people have claimed to have seen the traumatized spirits of those who have gasped their last breath behind its grim and imposing walls. Anne Boleyn (with head, not necessarily on her shoulders and without), Margaret Pole, Arabella Stuart, Guy Fawkes, Lady Jane Grey, Sir Walter Raleigh and the two Princes have all been seen at one time or another taking their ghostly constitutionals. There is even a suit of armour, once belonging to Henry VIII, which is believed to be possessed by a malevolent spirit who takes particular pleasure in choking night guards [1]. However, terrifying these experiences would be; crushed by an invisible enemy or watching the figures from your history books come to life (well figuratively at least), nothing would have compared with coming face to face with a ghostly fiend in the shape of an extremely large bear.

A Terrifying Manifestation

On one strange night in 1816, at the same time as Mr George Offer claimed to hear strange noises coming from the Martin Tower, one of the guards on night duty there was alarmed to witness the “figure of a huge bear issuing from underneath the Jewel Room door” [2]. Raising his bayonet to strike the creature, he was horrified to find his weapon went straight through it and lodged in the doorway behind. Scared out of his wits, he collapsed in a fit. On being discovered, all sign of the ghostly grey bear having evaporated, he was carried mumbling to the guard room. On enquiring about the man’s mental state before the incident, Edmund Lenthal Swifte, Keeper of the Crown Jewels was assured that the guard had been perfectly fine and in good spirits. The doctor who had been sent for, dismissed any concerns that the sick man had been drinking on duty, unequivocally stating that he could discern no signs of intoxication. Swifte checking on his guard was shocked to find him “changed almost beyond recognition [3]”. He never fully recovered, only managing to feebly and repeatedly recount what he had seen. He sadly died shortly afterwards. Whatever he had seen had shaken him to the core. It seems very much like he died of fright.

Six bears in an underground cave. Etching by J.E. Ridinger.
Wellcome Collection.

Taking on face value the truth of what happened and ignoring any suspicions of inebriation, what was it that the guard saw? A number of theories have been put forward over the years.

The ‘White Bear’ of the Tower

The Tower of London as well as being a prison for some of the most high-profile prisoners in the country and a safe for the most precious royal jewels, also had for over 600 years another unique function. It was the site of the Royal Menagerie.

Over the years the Royal Menagerie housed a remarkable number of diverse animals, most of which had been gifted to the English Royalty as a token of friendship, loyalty or esteem such as the three leopards and an African Elephant given to Henry III (the first by Frederick II on the occasion of Henry’s wedding to Frederick’s sister, Eleanor of Provence and the second by Louis IX). In the sixteenth century, the menagerie was opened to the eager public. From this period onwards, visitors could gaze in wonder at  lions, tigers, lynxes, porcupines, eagles, tigers, camels, ostriches and even a flying squirrel.

It doesn’t take a lot to imagine that the lives of these animals were dire and many died a miserable and agonising death, such as the ostrich fed iron nails and the Indian elephant given wine instead of water to drink. It was believed water was bad for elephants! How they thought that elephants managed to access alcohol in the jungles of India is anyone’s guess. It is not that they necessarily meant to be cruel but animal welfare was hardly an important topic in a time when human lives mattered so little.

So, back to the bear. In 1251, Henry III was also the recipient of a most unusual prize, a polar bear or ‘white bear’ as it was known then. The bear was a gift from the King of Norway, Haakon the Young. Could it be that this incredible creature had returned from the grave to exact revenge for its poor treatment during its life? Maybe it was angry at the treatment of another bear, Old Martin, which was residing at the Tower at the time. Old Martin had been given to George III by the Hudson’s Bay Company. A present George III was not exactly thrilled with, as he was heard to have commented that he would have much preferred a new tie or socks! [4] Old Martin was believed at the time to be a grizzly bear (later testing revealed he was, in fact, a black bear) and was known for his not so gentle temper “his ferocity; in spite of the length of time during which he has been a prisoner still continues undiminished”. It does seem unlikely that this was the reason behind the apparition as Old Martin was perfectly capable of fighting his own corner without a phantom champion, although, it may explain why the sentry tried to bayonet it, maybe in his confusion he somehow thought Old Martin had escaped.

The Royal Menagerie. Image from University of York.

Animal ghosts are not an unusual occurrence in Britain. Even in the Tower people have attested to hearing the ghostly roar of lions and the sound of hooves pounding the cobbles. There are even other accounts of ghostly bears. For instance, in a house in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, there were regular reports of a phantom bear stumbling around in a frenzy. This haunting could have its seed in the stories of bears savaged to death in the cruel sport of bear-baiting, popular in the seventeenth century (a bear baiting ring was in operation very near Cheyne Walk). Another theory is that it was the spirit of a black bear belonging to Dante Gabriel Rossetti who lived at number 16 in the 1860s (this bear forming part of his collection of exotic pets) [5].

There is also another spooky tale from Nantwich in Cheshire which tells of how the landlord John Seckerton of the Bear Inn kept four bears as a marketing strategy. Unfortunately, in 1583, the inn caught fire and Seckerton released the bears, in order to save them. Those trying to put out the fire must have had a hell of a time trying to avoid these four frightened animals. I don’t know if they were killed soon after but people have claimed to have seen their spectral forms wandering the streets of Nantwich in a confused and distressed state [6].

So, was it the ghost of a mistreated medieval bear, or was it the manifestation of an even earlier incarnation and one which he had even more reason to harbour resentment against its human nemesis?

A Prehistoric Haunting

Elliott O’Donnell, a well-known expert in hauntings and compiler of ghost sightings refers to the incident at the Tower of London in his book Animal Ghosts: Animal Hauntings and the Hereafter. In it, he puts forward a number of theories including his favourite, that the bear was

“…the phantasm of some prehistoric creature whose bones lie interred beneath the Tower; for we know the valley of Thames was infested with giant reptiles and quadrupeds of all kinds”

Cave Bear skeleton. Photo by Benutzer Ra’Ike. View attribution.

This is just as probable a theory as any other. Before the onset of the Ice Age, brown bears were commonly found throughout Britain including London. These herbivorous, prehistoric cave bears (Ursus Spelaeus) were huge, larger than any bear alive today being five feet tall at the shoulder, nearly 10ft long and weighing 400kg [7]. Their population dwindled during the Stone Age, falling to very low numbers in the Iron Age until they were finally hunted to extinction [8].

Whether or not you believe that it was a primeval creature angry about the demise of its race or the revenge of a former captive making a one-off performance for old times’ sake, the odd feature of this haunting was that it did only happen once, all these other ghostly bear appearances have had more than one encore. Could there be a more sinister reason behind the creature’s manifestation and was it really a bear or simply a spirit in the form of a bear?

The Manifestation of a Vice-Elemental

Another theory put forward by O’Donnell was that the manifestation was that of a vice-elemental. According to him there exists in our world a number of ‘elementals’. They can be helpful and benevolent to humans but in general, most are not. O’Donnell believed that these vice-elementals (often used in occult practices) are always with us, whispering in our ear, trying to persuade us to harm ourselves; mentally, morally and physically.

These sinister supernatural entities can take many shapes including beautiful women and manipulative men as well as the “most terrifying creatures of both man and beast” [9]. Other examples given by O’Donnell are the Gwyllgi of Wales, a Welsh version of Old Shuck (see Hell-hounds, hyter-sprites and god-fearing mermaids) and the Mauthe Dog of Peel Castle, Isle of Man.

Peele Castle, Isle of Man. Public domain.

The legend of the Mauthe Dog although diverging in many ways from the Tower’s ghost-bear definitely had the same fatal outcome for one unlucky soul. The tale goes that in the time of Charles II when the castle was garrisoned, a large black dog appeared suddenly one night. Every evening it would make its way to the guard room and sit down at the hearth, where it would remain until morning when it would vanish. The guards initially frightened by its presence gradually became used to it, although they would always remain sober and were careful never to speak bad words in its hearing. One of the routine duties of the soldiers involved taking the keys to the Captain of the Guard Room after the castle was locked up for the night. The captain’s quarters lay at the end of a dark narrow passage. Ever since the dog’s arrival the guards had preferred to do this walk in pairs, that is until one night when one of them, brave due to drink, bragged that he was unafraid and would go alone. He refused to be dissuaded, challenging the beast with the words “Let him come, I’ll see if he is dog or devil”. As he left, the dog stood up and followed. Five minutes later, the men heard soul-wrenching screams and unnatural howls coming from the passage. Terrified, they found the guard unconscious. Three days later he was dead. He was never able to reveal what he had witnessed. The hound was never seen again [10].

In both the cases of the Mauthe Dog and the Tower Bear, the men saw something that frightened them to death. What it was we will never know. Was it an evil spirit or was it the Devil itself?

The Devil as a Bear

The Devil was believed to have the ability to transform into any creature, his favourite forms seem to have been cats, dogs, wolves and goats. He was also known to on occasion take the form of a bear.

Medieval image, source unknown.

In a pamphlet produced by the Rev. John Davenport in 1646, he includes a morality tale set twenty-four years earlier concerning the ‘witch’ John Winnick. Winnick was angry, he had lost seven shillings and was convinced that a member of his family had stolen his money. In a moment of rage, he declared that he would accept help from anyone even a ‘wizzard’ [sic]. Just then the spirit of a black, shaggy creature appeared before him with the paws of a big bear. The bear-like spirit agreed to help Winnick, if he would in return worship him. Winnick, his greed taking over, assented to this condition and as promised his money was returned. Unfortunately, Winnick had made a terrible mistake. The bear revealed itself to also be Satan in disguise, so not only did Winnick have to bow down to a bear spirit but he had forfeited his soul to the Devil, all for a few coins [11].

So, perhaps the guard in the tower saw the face of the Devil or perhaps not. There is one last theory which if you believe in ghosts might seem the most likely and would link itself to the history of the Tower. This is the idea that the ghost was the spirit of a man or woman who had taken the form of a bear.

 A Phantasm of a Human Being

The history of the Tower is a gruesome one, to put it mildly. Countless numbers of people were imprisoned there. Their suffering would have been immense. Most of them would have been interrogated and many tortured. In a way, worse than the physical abuse would have been the mental agony; not knowing what was happening or if they would ever be released. Often this anguish would last for years. If you believe that ghosts are echoes of the past and that walls of buildings can absorb negative energy than it is perfectly possible to accept that maybe the ghost bear was either a manifestation of this pain or the anger of one particular soul whose nature in life was already hardened and violent or became so during their incarceration. Maybe in death, they associated themselves with the ferocity of the bear and so for one night only, manifested as such.

Hallucination, Demonic Entity or Spirit?

No-one will ever know what the guard really saw if in fact, he saw anything at all. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. The legend of the Tower of London’s ghost-bear will continue to fascinate visitors and locals for years to come, as does the grim beauty of the Tower itself.

A word of warning, if you happen to see a bear-like form start to manifest itself in front of you whilst taking a tour of the Tower…run!

Scooby doo and Shaggy by Scooby Cool at DeviantArt


McCann. Erin, These are the all the ghosts haunting the Tower of London,

Redfern. Nick, The Ghostly Bear-Monster of London, 2017

Underwood. Peter, Haunted London, 2013

Old Martin,

O’Donnell, Elliott, Animal Ghosts: Animal Hauntings and the Hereafter (1913), Reprinted 2012

Briggs. Helen, Lost History of brown bears in Britain revealed,, 2018

Henriques, Martha, The lost beasts that roamed Britain during the Ice Age,, 2015

O’Donnell. Elliott, The Elliott O’Donnell Supernatural Megapack: 8 classic books of the supernatural, E-book Series, 2016

The Myth of the Moddey Dhoo,

Rennison. Nick, The Book of Lists, 2006

Gater. Paul, The Secret Lives of Ghosts, 2013

Miller. Charlotte-Rose, Witchcraft, the Devil and Emotions in Early Modern Britain, 2017

The Tower of London Ghosts: Headless Haunts, Suffocating Sensations and Wandering White Women,

Stuart. Julia, The polar bear who lived at the Tower… along with a grumpy lion and a baboon who threw cannon balls: Britain’s first (and most bizarre) zoo,–grumpy-lion-baboon-threw-cannon-balls-Britains-bizarre-zoo.html, 2010

[1] These are all the ghosts and ghouls haunting the Tower of London
[2] The Ghostly Bear-Monster of London
[3] Ibid
[4] Old Martin
[5] The Book of Lists
[6] The Secret Lives of Ghosts
[7] The lost beasts that roamed Britain during the Ice Age
[8] Lost history of brown bears in Britain revealed
[9] The Elliott O’Donnell Supernatural Megapack: 8 classic books of the supernatural
[10] The Myth of the Moddey Dhoo
[11] Witchcraft, the Devil and Emotions in Early Modern Britain

The Art of the Pickpocket and Cutpurse: Thief-trainers – Part 2


Child criminals. Image courtesy of Dorset History Centre.

Although many children were arrested again and again for stealing, a few were never caught, moving silently amongst crowds like ghosts and melting away into thin air. Those that were trained by a thief trainer possibly had a better chance of survival than those working alone or in small groups, but not by much. Even though the names of fences of goods such as Ikey Solomon and child thieves have come down to us through the public criminal records not many of the thief trainers were ever caught, maybe due to lack or proof or because many members of the gangs were too afraid to rat out their bosses.

Despite the fact that there were lots of thief-trainers both male and female in all the big cities in England most are shadowy nameless figures. Even those that are known such as Thomas Duggin of St Giles and Jemima Matthews of Upper Keate Street in the Flower and Dean Street rookery, who sent eight children out daily to steal in 1820[1], little is known of their background.

Cabbage Ann of Angel Meadow

There are some exceptions for example Cabbage Ann (real name Ann Powell) who lived in the infamous slum of Angel Meadow in Manchester. A widow aged 42, she ran a grocery shop and lodging house and was acquainted with criminals from across England. She was also well-known for regularly giving shelter to thieves. Despite her obvious fishy and underground activities she seems to have been a slippery character. The police to their frustration never seemed to have enough evidence to arrest her.

Angel Meadows slums. Courtesy of Manchester Libraries.

Finally in 1867, she was arrested after a stolen coat belonging to a milkman was found in her cellar. She denied all knowledge and accused 13 year old Michael Crane. Crane admitted to the theft and having left it without permission – whether he was truly responsible or taking the fall for Ann we will never know. To the authorities dismay she was let go but not before the Judge, Mr Fowler issued a damning statement “you are a regular trainer of young thieves – one of the worst women in Manchester – and I will take care to help the police in every possible way to get you transported as soon as possible[2].

Grassing up the Boss

Although as said before most young thieves refused to dob in their leaders, some did – maybe hoping for a reduced sentence. One such case was reported in the Manchester Guardian on 28 May 1821, when a boy arrested on the charge of petty felony led the beadles to the lair of a 50 year old thief-trainer or fence who was with three other boys trying to melt down and disfigure a brass cock. The group was arrested and the man condemned to 14 years transportation[3].

Transportation to Australia. Courtesy of Hall of Names website.

Another famous story of a young thief turning against his master was the case of John Reeves and Charles King.

The Fall of Charles King

Charles King is for me a fascinating character because he managed to successfully work both sides of the law and reap awards – both as a thief-trainer and as a policeman remaining undetected for years.

During the heyday of his shady activities King was employed as a Metropolitan police detective and was considered a worthy man and who regularly received praise from his superiors for his “extraordinary vigilance”. In his other life he visited daily, the Prig’s Haunt in Tyndal’s Building, Gray’s Inn Lane where he would train ‘outcast’ boys to become efficient burglars. He demonstrated how to use various instruments and tools which would help them in their work and taught them how to pickpocket without being noticed. He would swing a coat on a line and get the boys to practice their skills both singly or in twos and threes. Possibly if the boys got out of hand King could punish them by arranging their arrest and conviction as he knew where and when they would be.[4].

Eventually King’s luck ran out when one of his most successful boys, 13 year old John Reeves turned against him. Reeves had been in and out of prison for years. He had started thieving from a young age. His first arrest had been for stealing bread from Newport market for which he was imprisoned for seven days; his other charges included stealing a bunch of cigars and pinching bacon from shops. According to Reeves he started on his career as a pickpocket after his 6th arrest (maybe it was around this time he first met King). Despite being caught numerous times he was considered a successful thief and must have brought King a tidy sum, for instance one week he managed to steal £100 worth of goods. It was even reported that he could afford “to keep a pony and to ride in the parks”[5].

It seems strange that all of a sudden Reeves agreed to testify against King since by his own admission King always watched over and protected him; trying to get him off charges and never giving evidence against him. Maybe Reeves was threatened or promised a lighter sentence (he was at the time serving a two year sentence for theft at Bridewell) or maybe he was just fed up with being controlled by King.

Image Courtesy of

King was arrested and tried on the charge of ‘larceny from a person’ on the 9 April 1855[6]. The account of the proceedings can be read on the Old Bailey online records. The crime had taken place on the 31 December 1853, at the Serpentine where crowds of people had gathered to skate on the frozen lake. He was accused of having planned and orchestrated the theft. Reeves stated that he had known King for three years having first met him in Soho. Their association was confirmed by other witnesses seeing them together at other locations.

Reeves described what happened that day; how he met King at a public house in Pulteney Street, Soho, how they met up with other thieves many of whom he recognised at Hyde Park, how he was instructed to steal from a lady watching the skaters from a bridge, how King removed the money and placed the empty purse in the hollow of a tree and how the money was divided up. He also stated that King tried to obstruct another boy from being arrested by tripping a man up. Unluckily for King, Benjamin Sims, a Park Keeper had noticed King and his group acting shifty around the tree. After the party had moved on he found and handed the purse into the police. Other police on duty also recognised King including Police Sergeant Hubbersley who spoke to him and noticed some boys close by who seemed to be following King’s instructions[7].

At the time of the trial King was 32 and married with four children. He had left the police and was running a coffee shop possibly in Soho where he also lodged. He was arrested on the 3 January 1855, and was taken to Bow Street Station. Based on the evidence he was found guilty and sentenced to 14 years transportation to be served in Western Australia.

So the incredible criminal career of corrupt policeman-cum-thief trainer King came to a sudden end. When the full extent of his crimes was revealed it must have been a shock to many who had worked with him. Their feelings were summed up by a fellow policeman who said that he “had never heard a whisper against his character up to the time this charge was made against him[8].

Concluding Thoughts

Society changed as more people began to campaign to eradicate poverty. The rise of orphanages and free schools together with the razing of slums and their replacement with housing associations such as the Peabody Trust ended much of the need for schools of thievery. Unfortunately, even though the image of a man wearing a long coat with a handkerchief in his pocket teaching urchins to remove it silently is no longer relevant, criminals taking advantage of neglected children and leading them into a life of crime will never disappear completely.

Victorian children. Image courtesy of


Thomson, J & Smith, Adolphe: Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – Street Life in London, 1877,

Garwood, John: Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – The Million-Peopled City, 1853,

White, Jerry: London in the Nineteenth Century: ‘a Human Awful Wonder of God’, Bodley Head, 2016

Hindley, Charles (ed.): Curiosities of Street Literature: Comprising ‘Cocks,’ Or ‘Catchpennies’, 2012 (digital version)

Old Bailey Online Records: Charles King,

Mayhew, Henry: The London Underworld in the Victorian Period: Authentic First-person accounts by beggars, thieves and prostitutes, Dover Publications, 2005

Gilfillan, Ross: Crime and Punishment in Victorian London: A Street-Level of the City’s Underworld, 2014

Kirby, Dean: Angel Meadow: Victorian Britain’s Most Savage Slum, Pen & Sword History, 2016

Day, Samuel Phillips: Juvenile Crime: Its Causes, Character, and Cure, (original published in 1858), Sagwan Press, 2018

The Cornhill Magazine, Volume 2; Volume 6, October 1862

Vaughan, Robert: The British Quarterly Review, Volume 35, January and April 1862

Duckworth, Jeannie: Fagin’s Children: Criminal Children in Victorian England, Bloomsbury Academic, 2003


[1] London in the Nineteenth Century: ‘a Human Awful Wonder of God’

[2] Angel Meadow

[3] Fagin’s Children

[4] Curiosities of Street Literature: Comprising ‘Cocks,’ Or ‘Catchpennies’

[5] London in the Nineteenth Century: ‘a Human Awful Wonder of God’

[6] Old Bailey Online Records – full account of the proceedings

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibi

Reading a headstone – popular graveyard symbols and their meanings


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Popular graveyard images explained

This is the companion piece to my stroll through a graveyard post, which covered a very brief history of British cemeteries and headstones. In this post, I’ll be looking at the meaning of some of the common images and symbols that can be found on historic headstones up and down the UK. It’s important to be aware that because the topic of graveyard iconography is so vast, and can vary widely depending upon locality and beliefs, this article is not intended to be comprehensive. Instead I will focus on some popular eighteenth and nineteenth century memorial styles, many of which I have come across during coronavirus inspired rambles around my local area.


Anchors have Christian symbolism as well as a more prosaic meaning denoting sailors or the Royal Navy. In Christian tradition they go back to the catacombs of the early Christians, and were secrete symbols of Christianity, like the fish. Anchors symbolise hope[1]. The example below is from a war grave and denotes a member of the Royal Navy, the other from an earlier grave, possibly of a mariner.


Cemeteries are often filled with sculpted angels casting their benign gaze over the graves of the Victorian departed. There are several popular types of angel with different meanings. Grieving angels drape themselves in mourning over the dismantled altar of life, angels clutching flowers rue the fleeting nature of life, praying angels emphasise religious faith. Other angels are more judgemental – the recording angel with their book and the angel Gabriel with his horn, a sentinel waiting to call the Christian dead to rise of the day of the last judgement. and some angel images are unique, such as in the monument to Mary Nichols in Highgate Cemetery, which depicts an angel sleeping on a bed of clouds.


Arches symbolise victory of life or victory in death [2] or the gateway to heaven [3]. This would send a reassuring message to the mourners as they passed under the grand arched entrance to All Saints Cemetery in Jesmond.

All Saints Cemetery entrance, Jesmond, Newcastle.


Arrows are memento mori, symbolising the dart of death piercing life, and can sometimes be found wielded by skeletons, to drive home the link to mortality. The arrow below is linked with a pick, symbolising mortality, and a knot which was often used to symbolise eternal life.


Books can appear in a variety of forms, open, closed, piled up. They can represent the Bible or word of God, the book of life, learning. A closed book might symbolise a long life, an open or draped book can symbolise a life cut short (4). The example below acts as a Memento Mori, reminding the living that they too will die, and is augmented with a skull and bones rising up through the earth.

Chest tombs

Chest tombs were popular from the seventeenth century, the leger stone on top, with details of the deceased, was raised up on a chest-like structure. The body is not buried in the chest, but beneath the structure. The example below is from St Lawrence’s church, Eyam, Derbyshire, and incorporates the skull and crossbones iconography (the essential remains that Christians believed were required in order to rise on Judgement Day).


Cherubs often symbolise innocence and are popular on the tombs of children. The cherub below left is from Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, and rests its elbow on a skull, an obvious symbol of death and mortality. The example on the right, from Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle, the cherub holds arose and flower bud, the rose can symbolise heavenly perfection or mother, while the broken bud could represent the fleeting nature of the young lives commemorated by the monument [5].


Clouds represent the heavens, below, an angel peeks out from behind the clouds, which are pierced by the rays of the sun.

Columns/broken columns

Columns again hark back to a classical tradition. A broken column represents a life cut short, often the head of the family. The example on the left is from Jesmond Old Cemtetery, Newcastle, while the one on the right, with the addition of a wreath for remembrance is from Highgate Cemetery, London.

Coats of arms

Usually designates a family or individual or location. The example below seems to be from a proud Novocastrian, as it was erected in St Andrew’s church in Newcastle and the crest bears some similarity to the coast of arms of Newcastle (three towers), rather than to the family name of the deceased. It also shows a mason’s compass and set square.


The kingdom of heaven.


Doves can be seen flying downwards and upwards, with broken wings and carrying olive branches. Broadly speaking a dove flying up is the soul flying up to heaven, flying down, the holy spirit coming from heaven.

Flying faces

As discussed in my previous post A stroll through a graveyard a flying faces developed out of the Memento Mori image of the flying skull, reminding the living that they too would die. Winged skulls gradually morphed into flying faces during the eighteenth century, representing the soul flying up to heaven. Later the face became cherubic and represented innocence. The Three examples below are, from left to right, from All Saints Churchyard, Newcastle and Holy Trinity, Washington Tyne & Wear.


See world, below.


Hands are popular motifs on headstones and can have a variety of meanings, from the hand of god coming out of the clouds, to the offering of prayers in blessings. Hands can also indicate that the deceased is going to heaven (pointing upwards) or may have died suddenly (pointing downwards). The example below left shows a handshake, which can be between a married couple or fraternal, alternatively, if one hand appears limp, it can indicate God taking the hand of the departed [6]. The example on the right shows a hand with a heart, this can indicate charity and generosity, but it can also indicate the deceased was a member of the Oddfellows fraternity [7].


Hourglasses are memento mori, reminders of mortality and that life on earth passes quickly. They can appear with wings, to symbolise how ‘time flies’ and on their side, to demonstrate how time has stopped for the deceased. Below left, from an eighteenth century headstone from St Andrews, Newcastle, on the right, a more pointed link between the hour glass and mortality, from Holy Trinity, Washington, Tyne and Wear.

Ledger stones

Ledger stones are flat against the ground and often cover family plots, the stones filling up as the graves receive more burials.

Memento Mori Scenes

Many early headstones from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries combine a variety of memento mori images into scenes designed to remind the living of their own mortality and the importance of living a good life in order to go to heaven. The examples below are from various graveyards around Newcastle and show that some masons had seemed to have a particular flair for the macabre!


Obelisks are an ancient Egyptian symbol that represented life and health, and/or a ray of the sun. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, Europe was gripped by a passion for all things Egyptian. Obelisks became popular as funerary monuments, particularly in the Victorian era. On the left, obelisks in an overgrown patch of St Peters, Wallsend, and on the right, from Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle.


Many headstones list the occupation of the deceased, but some go further, below left is an example of an artist’s paint palette and to the right, a classical scene depicting a physician, naturally enough, on the side of the monument to a doctor.


Funerary portraiture can be found on monuments and tombs from ancient times and isn’t always restricted to those of historical importance or aristocratic lineage. In the Victorian period, photography became more widespread and trends such as post mortem photography were embraced, photographs can even found on some headstones from the period. Preston Cemetery in North Shields has a rare surviving example, I viewed it once many years ago, but I’ve not been able to locate it since.

The example below left, is that of Dr James Milne at St Peter’s churchyard Wallsend (the above classical scene is also from his monument) a man well respected locally, the monument was erected by his friends. The other example shows renowned renaissance humanist scholar, and one-time tutor to Mary Queen of Scots, George Buchanan, and can be found in Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.


Memento mori symbols, carried by Death or the grim reaper, symbolising the cutting off of life. The example below, from Grey Friars Kirkyard incorporates the hourglass to emphasise the fleetingness of time.

Sexton’s tools

Sexton’s are the church officials who look after the churchyard and dig graves. Their tools can appear on gravestones as an indication of their occupation, or more generally as a symbol of mortality. This example is from the Covenanters Prison, in Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.


Shells can be used as a decorative motif, but also have a Christian origin, in particular scallop shells are associated with pilgrimages (still popular today on the Camino Trail). After the Jacobite rebellions in the eighteenth century, they could also be a political gesture, indicating allegiance with the king over the water. The example below is from the seventeenth century mausoleum of the infamous Bloody Mackenzie in Grey Friars Kirkyard.


Whether winged or floating above cross bones, skulls represent mortality and act as Memento Mori. Trevor Yorke notes that from the medieval period onwards, it was believed that the skull and crossbones were the bare minimum bodily parts required to ensure resurrection on the day of judgement.


Originally an ancient Egyptian symbol for health that entered the western tradition via the Greek Ouroboros, a snake swallowing it’s own tail, symbolises eternal life. This example is from All Saints Cemetery, Jesmond, Newcastle.

Here the Ouroboros symbol for eternal life is coupled with the scythe symbolic of death.

Square and compass (Masonic/Freemasons)

The square and compass is a found on the funerary monuments of members of the Freemasons, often accompanied by a ‘G’ representing God and Geometry. The Square and compass are a reminder to Freemasons to keep their actions within the tenets of Freemasonry [8].

Table tombs

Table tombs have the ledger stone on top, supported by legs and forming a table structure. The burial is beneath. The examples below are from Tynemouth Priory in Tyne and Wear.


Torches represent human life, death, and eternal life. If they are pointing down and have no flame they represent a life extinguished, whereas if they are pointing down but still alight the represent the eternal life of the soul. The example below symbolises bodily death but the eternal life of the soul.


Urns hark back to the funerary urns of ancient Greece, in which cremated remains would be interred. They became popular from the eighteenth century and endured into the Victorian period, possibly because they denote the body being cast off in preparation for the souls journey to heaven [9]. They could also appear with flames atop – symbolising the eternal flame of friendship or religious fervour. Other urns appear are covered with drapery, which can symbolised the curtain between life and death or the casting off of worldly garments[10] and often denoted the death of an older person [11] (and when coupled with a weeper, became a popular classical image).


Wheatsheaves are most often associated with a long life, although where only few stalks are found, this can indicate that the deceased was young. The example below, from Grey Friars Kirkyard, is combined with a skull and crossbones.

Women in mourning (weepers)

The image of a woman, with loose flowing hair, mourning over a tomb or an urn, was very popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In this example from Jesmond, the weeper holds a wreath (see below for meaning).

World (globe)

The world or globe image represents worldly pleasure and is often coupled with death in order to emphasis the wages of worldly pleasure (and sin) are death, as shown in these examples from Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.


Wreaths are classical in origin, being awarded to athletes in the ancient Olympic games. In funerary art their circular shape represents eternal memory. Wreaths of bay leaves represent triumph over death, while wreaths of roses, like the example below, from Highgate Cemetery, London, can represent virtue and heavenly bliss (12).

This list represents only a snippet of the cemetery symbols that can be found. I hope this encourages you to go out and explore your local historic cemeteries and graveyards and to be able to read some of the richly symbolic funerary language used by our ancestors. Please remember to be quiet and respectful when you visit your local historic cemeteries, some may still be in use, and many monuments may be fragile.

Happy headstone hunting!


BBC – London – History – Victorian Memorial Symbols

Snider, Tui, 2017, Understanding Cemetery Symbols

Symbolism Meaning: Animals – Art of Mourning

Symbols –

The Symbolism of Victorian Funerary Art – Undercliffe Cemetery

Yorke, Trevor, 2017, Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials


  1. The Cemetery Club, Symbols
  2. ibid
  3. BBC, Victorian Memorial Symbols
  4. Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
  5. ibid
  6. ibid
  7. ibid
  8. ibid
  9. ibid
  10. ibid
  11. The Cemetery Club, Symbols