Every November 5, when the rest of England is lighting bonfires and pretending to burn a long-dead Catholic rebel, at 8 p.m. the bellringers of Shebbear, in Devon, go to the village green and turn the Devil’s Stone.
Because that’s what you do in Shebbear on November 5 if you’re a bellringer.
But first they ring a discordant peal of bells and listen to the minister either tell the tale of the Devil’s Stone or say a short prayer, depending on who you want to believe (or possibly who the minister is that year).
Then they turn the stone.
Some time before all that, someone lets the morris dancers loose, although they’re not part of the ceremony. They’re–oh, think of them as the frosting instead of the cake. They’re decorative but not essential.
Actually, only one website mentions morris dancers. That could be because they’ve gone invisible to everybody else. Hold a festival and the odds of morris dancers showing up are high. Hold an odd one and the odds rise to 106-odd %. After a while, people just stop seeing them.
But that’s fine. You can tell you’re deep into folklore when every source contradicts some other source. In fact, in The English Year Steve Roud says that local people also call the stone the Shebbear Stone. He could be right, but the village website calls it the Devil’s Stone and says it’s also called the Devil’s Boulder. It doesn’t mention the Shebbear Stone.
Be happy with this. Everything is as it should be in this best of all possible worlds.
And I am the queen of Romania. **
Why do they do it?
Because if they don’t, bad things will happen. During World War I and again during World War II, when people had other things on their minds and the village’s hefty young guys were running around in other countries carrying guns, the village let the date pass without turning the stone and bad things happened.
What bad things? No one I’ve found is specific about World War I, but during World War II one source says the war news got so bad that after a few days of bad news some people flipped the stone anyway. They were late, but at least they got the job done, the Allies won the war, and the world has continued on its erratic and weary course. Thank you, Shebbear, for saving us all.
According to another explanation of the ritual, they do it to keep the devil away. Maybe that’s the same thing as keeping bad things from happening. A biblical scholar I’m not. On the Calendar Customs website, someone named Sam left a comment to say, “Your all blooming mad none of this is in the bible….. your all off your trolley.”
Sam is probably not the ritual’s target audience.
Methodists, alcohol, and folk traditions
As far as I can tell–and remember, I’m an immigrant here, so I’m bound to (almost obliged to) get a lot of this stuff wrong–this is the only ancient festival in Britain that doesn’t involve heavy drinking, although I did find a comment involving rain diluting a spectator’s pint, so you can be assured that (a) it rains a fair percentage of the time, as it should, and (b) drinking is accepted as a peripheral activity. Still, even though the stone is between the church and the pub, and even though the pub is called the Devil’s Stone, nothing I’ve read about the event mentions it either starting or ending at the pub. The closest I’ve found is a mention of the pub selling refreshments, but it does that every day of the year, unless a pandemic gets in the way.
Carrying on like that could get a festival kicked out of the Folkloric Society.
It might be relevant that John Wesley–the founder of Methodism–came through Shebbear and that Methodists don’t drink. Or it might not be relevant. The church the bellringers belong to isn’t Methodist, it’s Church of England.
For whatever it’s worth, though, the village had the second oldest Methodist school in the country, founded in 1829 to train boys as ministers. It’s possible that before John Wesley showed up, turning the stone involved getting pie-eyed, but that’s pure speculation. It doesn’t seem to now.
Roud mentions a website that called this the “oldest folk custom in Europe” but he says there’s no evidence of it earlier than the twentieth century. That’s not proof that it doesn’t go back many centuries, it just says there’s no record of it. But he does speculate that it could have started as a prank by bellringers, “or even that it was the result of a drunken conversation in the pub.”
If he’s right, Shebbear can hold its head up at the next meeting of the nonexistent Folkloric Society. The pub will have elbowed its way into the tale.
If you ask Lord Google, he’ll tell you that a Folklore Society does exist, and that it’s a learned society. But since I made up the Folkloric Society, I can assure you that it’s not learned. It involves heavy drinking, some morris dancing, obscure traditions, and disagreements about almost everything.
Why this particular stone?
The stone is notable because it doesn’t match the local stone. Depending on who you want to believe:
- The devil dropped it out of his pocket when he fell from Heaven to Hell.
- The devil dropped it when he was fighting with god and it fell on him and flattened him.
- The devil’s imprisoned underneath it. If you actually believe in the devil, that might make you think twice about turning it, but what do I know?
- St. Michael dropped the stone on the devil.
- The stone was an altar stone belonging to a pre-Christian religion.
- The stone was quarried for the foundation stone of Hanscott Church, which is nearby, and the Devil moved it to Shebbear. Every time someone moved it back to the church, it turned up at Shebbear again.
- The devil threw the stone and the church and missed.
- The stone’s a glacial erratic–something the glaciers picked up in one place and dropped in another. Glaciers were known for their sense of humor. The one carrying the stone said to another glacier, “Watch this. I’m going to set this thing down right here, then we’ll check back in thousands of years. I bet those annoying little hairless creatures will be worshiping it.”
According to various edges of the internet run by people who I suspect know as much about stones as I do, the stone is granite, the stone is quartz, and the stone is “of a composition unknown anywhere in Europe.”
No one claims that it’s of a composition unknown anywhere on this planet and everyone agrees that it weighs about a ton.
Shebbear is pronounced SHEBBeer. I mention that because with English place names you can’t take anything for granted. They’re all glacial erratics–they got picked up in one place and dropped someplace else, and there’s no explaining why they’re either pronounced or spelled the way they are.
My thanks to Bear Humphries for reminding me of the Devil’s Stone, which is more or less local to us both.
** Adapted–or stolen–from a poem by Dorothy Parker:
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania.