Stoned: Petrification in ancient and modern mythology

Written by Kerry E.B. Black


In 1966, Bob Dylan espoused “Everybody must get stoned.” Although the phrase has connotations of intoxication and drug use, Dylan transforms the phrase into a metaphor for the human condition. People who are stoned remain fixated and unable to react in a standard way. Entomologically speaking, though, the origins of the phrase refer more to Shirley Jackson’s amazing short story, “The Lottery.” In nature, however, petrification occurs when silica binds with the cellulose of a living organism, transforming it to stone.

Petrification as a theme recurs in mythology and literature. Some scholars theorize these legends explain ancestral fascination with geology and unusual rock formations such as the Tregeseal Dancing Stones and Stonehenge (sometimes called “giant’s dance”). Others credit petrification as a literary trope, depicting a character frozen with indecision or fear or trapped by their circumstances.


In Greek mythology, a beautiful woman captured the attention of many men and even a god. However, she was sworn to a life of chastity and service to a goddess who punished the girl for the god’s attention by twisting her beauty into a visage so hateful, it turned all who looked upon her into stone. One legend blames Athena for transforming the girl after the sea god Poseidon raped her in Athena’s temple. Some sources claim wings sprouted from her shoulders. Others describe her serpentine body. All agree the luscious hair that once crowned the beautiful daughter of Ceto transformed into hissing venomous snakes as part of her punishment. Even in death, the Gorgon Medusa retained the ability to turn gawkers to stone. Medusa’s depiction in art such as Dali’s Perseus and as an heraldic device (She’s an element in the municipal coat of arms of Dohalice Village and of Sicily’s flag) fascinate many, and fashion designer Versace incorporates her visage to identify his brand. Sigmund Freud’s “Das Medusenhaupt” theory borrows from the legend to explain a child’s confrontation and rejection of maternal sexuality. The character acts as a symbol for feminism. She continues to influence culture, appearing in video games, cartoons, books, and movies such as “The Clash of the Titans.”

Also from ancient Greece, the basilisk or “little king of serpents” caused death with a single glance, either by turning the offenders to stone or by dissolving them into a pool of acid. Pliny the Elder describes the creature from Cyrene as a twelve-fingers-long snake who also left a venomous trail but hated weasels. Some historians point to Pliny’s description for an origin of the myth, noting the venomous King Cobra’s natural enemy is the mongoose. Imagery for the basilisk becomes mottled, and the creature is linked with the cockatrice. In the ancient world, the basilisk is associated with alchemy for its connection to refining base metals into gold. Modern culture uses its image to produce gold of its own. In the second installment of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, a basilisk guards the Chamber of Secrets. The heroes of Cornelia Funke’s “Dragon Rider” encounter a basilisk who smells of rotten eggs. Gary Gygax included the creature in its bestiaries for D&D, and Basillisks appear in several video games such as Dark Souls and Final Fantasy.

The cockatrice is described as possessing a serpent’s body and a rooster’s head. Hatched from an egg laid by a dying cock and incubated by a toad, the snake-like creature is often confused with a basilisk, though cockatrice usually have wings. Historic investigators point to the Egyptian crocodile as a possible origin for this legend, but like the basilisk, the cockatrice could kill with a glance. It features in the heraldry of the Lancashire Langley family and serves as the symbol of a British Royal Air Force Fighter Squadron. It found its way into Gygax’s D&D realm as well.


In the Norse belief system, Svartalfar or dark elves and their cousins the dwarves and trolls connect with the earth and stone. Often they are able to harness its power for their use, and some crafted the ability to petrify those who tried their patience. Snorri Sturluson from the 13th century named the earth dwellers Dokkalfar.

Theron O. Kunz introduced a massive floating orb with a menacing, toothy grin, single eye, and eyestalks to the world of D&D. Among this monster called the Beholder’s many abilities, it could turn flesh into stone. Unlike many other creature appearing in the D&D Monster manual, this evil-intended subterranean dweller does not have a mythological basis. The Weeping Angels from “Dr. Who” not only appear to be stone, but looking into their faces petrifies.


In fairy tales such as “The Water of Life” and “The Singing Apple,” those unsuccessful during a quest are petrified until the hero rescued them. This idea continues in many modern works of fiction. The White Witch from CS Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” wields magic to turn her enemies to stone, and the film “Willow” uses petrification as a defense when the hero throws a magic acorn at a troll. In JRR Tolkien’s interpretation of the troll myth, the creatures turn to stone when exposed to sunlight.


Some authors use petrification to freeze knowledge for a later reveal, such as a character discovering a necessary clue, but becoming incapacitated and rendered mute until a pivotal moment. Others find the symbolism carries a punishment, such as the biblical Lot’s wife who by disobeying the angel’s orders turns to look at the destruction of the cities Sodom and Gomora. Likewise, the story of boastful Niobe who tried to shame Leto for bearing but two children instead of her fourteen concluded with Niobe transformed into a perpetually weeping stone. It is also a popular belief that standing stones are the remains of people who dared dance on the Sabbath. At times, petrification represents the power of a woman’s sexuality to ensnare a man. Greece is a rocky land, but most cultures find their stones fascinating, and the ability of biological components transforming into stone provides a sort of immortality.


*Images not my own.