Adder Folklore

I’ve always found the contrast of dangerous/harmful vs protective/healing associations with adders in Scotland interesting. There are charms associated with Là Fhèill Brìghde (1st February) & protection against adders due to it being the time of year they usually emerge. Conversely, there are various stones or beads associated with adders used to help people in sickness or childbirth, bring luck or to protect against enchantment year-round. Also, the skin or head of a dead adder could be used to heal people from sickness or even bites from the snakes themselves, for example by being placed in water & having the afflicted person then drink the water 💧

An example of a charm or rann to protect against adders is:

“Early on Bride’s morn
The serpent shall come from the hole,
I will not molest the serpent,
Nor will the serpent molest me.”

Another, more euphemistic one is:

“This is the day of Bride,
The queen will come from the mound,
I will not touch the queen,
Nor will the queen touch me”

The brilliant Scottish Gaelic Polytheist site Tairis has some interesting notes about the original Scottish Gaelic euphemisms used:

“The other verses were not recorded, but the use of the term ‘queen’ (an rìghinn) is interesting. Gregorson Campbell notes that in Argyllshire and Perthshire serpents were often referred to as “the daughter of Edward”, whereas in Skye they were called an rìbhinn (the damsel), “in both cases the name is probably a mere euphemism suggested by the rhyme to avoid giving unnecessary offence to the venomous creature.” Ronald Black quotes a correspondent from Stornoway, writing in 1981, who remembers his grandmother saying “Air latha Fhéill Brìghde/ Thig an rìoghann ás an toll” (On St Brigid’s day/ The rìoghann comes out of the hole). Here the rìoghann means ‘supple one’, which the correspondent took to mean that the snake simply came out of hibernation at the beginning of spring.The similarity of rìoghann, rìbhinn and rìghinn is striking, however.”

What are called hag stones in some countries are occasionally claimed to have been known as adder/serpent stones in Scotland, particularly Lowland Scotland, as it was thought that the holes in them were made by snakes. However, it’s more likely to have been applied to naturally formed glass like sea glass with holes in it or rediscovered human-made old glass beads, or even stone spindle whorls. There were also older Scots terms like etherstane that you may come across in some sources. In the Highlands this term similarly often applied to things like old glass beads, sea glass or colourful stones that had been found with holes through them rather than plainer stone objects – clach nathrach or glaine nathair in Scottish Gaelic, meaning serpent stone or serpent bead/glass. Another term occasionally used for these glass beads is “druidical beads” (gloine nan draoidh), & though in modern times all these terms are becoming quite interchangeable, this doesn’t seem to have been the case historically 📜

In relation to healing, an example of a recording of a story from Shetland about a woman who uses an adder skull she found along with water from a particular well to cure her son can be found on the wonderful Tobar An Dualchais 🎧 Another example is given by John Gregorson Campbell in The Gaelic Otherworld (Black, 2005) of a man who kept a live adder in water so that he could use the water to cure epilepsy. This book also mentions the kinder method of simply putting snake skin that had been naturally shed in water for its healing properties as previously mentioned. George F Black speculates that charms made from snake skin attached to ribbons or girdles may have also been used for healing purposes &/or to aid childbirth – you can read or download the full “SCOTTISH CHARMS AND AMULETS” to read as a free PDF or have a look online at the divided up Electric Scotland version 📑

For more information: Tairis has a good round up of Lá Fhéile Bríde traditions as well as a list of further sources for this info, such as Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica & McNeill’s The Silver Bough Vol 2 📚 Edit: On 1st Feb 2022 The West Highland Free Press published this wonderful article which I highly recommend reading also – plenty in there about Adders, especially with regards to healing, alongside lots of other St Bride’s Day traditions & history 📰

Learn Gaelic & Am Faclair Beag are useful online Scottish Gaelic dictionaries ☺️

⭐️Adder Wildlife Facts

🗓 Quarter Days, Cross-Quarter Days & The “Wheel of the Year” in Scotland may also be of interest

🐍 Wee gallery of photos I managed to take of the adder in the featured photo at the top of the post:

(📸 Featured Photo credit: Me)

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