One of the most widespread magic devices to protect both man and beast was a pebble with a natural hole in it, also called ‘hagstone’, ‘witch-stone’, or (in the north-east) ‘adder-stones’. They were believed to repel witchcraft, and consequently any disease caused by spells or the evil eye; in particular, they prevented hag-riding. The earliest allusion is in a 15th-century charm against nightmares (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 199, 378–9).
Small ones could be carried in the pocket or hung up over the bed; larger ones were used in stables, as described by Aubrey: ‘in the West of England (& I beleeve, almost everywhere in this nation), the Carters, & Groomes, & Hostlers doe hang a flint (that has a hole in it) over Horses that are hagge-ridden for a Preservative against it’ (Aubrey, 1686/1880: 28). A variation, still known in the mid-20th century, was to hang the stone on the stable door; usually the doorkey or a bit of old chain would be attached to it, reinforcing its power with that of iron. The cowshed could be protected in the same way. A correspondent to N&Q in July 1894 said that in Whit by (Yorkshire) small stones were tied to front-door keys ‘to ensure prosperity to the house and its inmates’, and in August another said boatmen in Weymouth fastened them to the bows as charms to keep their boats safe. Small fossil sponges of the species Porosphaera are commonly found with natural holes in them; in Victorian times, necklaces of them were sold ‘for luck’ in Brighton (Sussex), and were much worn by women of fishing families.
One megalithic monument, Mên-an-Tol at Madron in Cornwall, consists of a disk-like holed stone about four feet in diameter, set up on edge between two standing stones, which has long been credited with healing powers. W. C. Borlase wrote:When I was last at this Monument, in the year 1749, a very intelligent farmer of the neighbourhood assur'd me, that he had known many persons who had crept through this holed Stone for pains in their back and limbs, and that fanciful parents, at certain times of the year, do customarily draw their young Children thro', in order to cure them of the Rickets. (Borlase, 1754: 178–9)
When I was last at this Monument, in the year 1749, a very intelligent farmer of the neighbourhood assur'd me, that he had known many persons who had crept through this holed Stone for pains in their back and limbs, and that fanciful parents, at certain times of the year, do customarily draw their young Children thro', in order to cure them of the Rickets. (Borlase, 1754: 178–9)
Later Cornish writers add further details current in their own times, e.g. that the stone cured scrofula and a crick in the neck or back (and hence was called the Crick Stone), that those using it must pass through it three or nine times, that the children must be naked.
Such beliefs were more often linked to natural features, there being no other megaliths with suitable holes in:In various parts of (Cornwall) there are, amongst the granitic masses, rocks which have fallen across each other, leaving small openings, or there are holes, low and narrow, extending under a pile of rocks. In nearly every case of this kind we find it popularly stated, that anyone suffering from rheumatism or lumbago would be cured if the crawled through the openings. (Hunt, 1865: 177)