Probably the most famous story about Ammonite is the origin of their name. The distinctive coiling of the shell suggested to the ancient Greeks a resemblance to the coiled horns of the ram, they were regarded with special sacred significance due to the Ram-god Ammon who had been adopted from the earlier Egyptian oracle-god Amun. Specimens were known as Cornu Ammonis, or literally ‘Horns of Ammon’, eventually passing into scientific terminology as Ammonites. In China, coiled Cephalopods also tended to be compared with horns and were called Jiao-shih, or horn stones.
Certainly in England Ammonites were frequently interpreted as being coiled snakes that had been turned to rock and had somehow lost their heads, and were often known as Snakestones. Most of the legends surrounding Snakestones centred around Whitby in Yorkshire. In 1586 William Camden in his Britannia recorded stones that ‘if you break them you will find within stony serpents, wreathed up in circles, but generally without heads’. Sir Walter Scott records in his Marmion in 1808 the classic legend of how these Snakestones came to be:
When Whitby’s nuns exhalting told…,
…Of thousand snakes each one
Was changed into a coil of stone.
When holy Hilda pray’d:
Themselves, within their holy ground.
Their stony folds had often found.