From serpent to salamander

From the serpent stones of Arbor Low, we headed to the village of Youlgreave in search of tea and salamanders. There is a pub that provides the former and a church that provides a superb glimpse into the history of the area. Youlgreave is an odd place… a village with a memory of grandeur. Once upon a time, judging by the scale of the church, the residential architecture and the faded names of businesses that linger above doorways, it must have been a bustling little town. Like many such places though, industry changed and moved on, taking its wealth with it and leaving the only ghosts of former glories behind.

Youlgreave church bears witness to past times, but not just to the lead mines that made the sleepy village once a centre of industry. It contains relics of a long history dating back to the time of the Domesday book and beyond. There are fabulous stained glass windows by Burne-Jones, alabaster screens, medieval knights in armour, Norman carvings and a strange figure with cloven appendages hidden in the shadows of the rafters.

One of the most striking features is the salamander on the font. It has curled around the Norman font to support the stoup for the past eight hundred years. In the symbolic language of Christianity of the time, it represented rebirth and, although it seems odd to our modern eyes, it would have made perfect sense at the time it was carved by the stonemason.

Such symbols form a language that is as clear, and yet evolves as much, as any other language. What our eyes and minds find intriguing or puzzling made more sense to our forefathers than words on paper. At a time when literacy was a skill limited to the few, the fantastic beasts and visual stories held far deeper meaning for the many. Images such as the ‘mooning men‘ and the sheela-na-gig that we had seen at Kilpeck, may seem to our eyes to be grotesque or indecent…or both. Perhaps we might just be amused by such crude and primitive wit. Then again, much of Shakespeare’s work would discomfit the discerning prude. Our earlier forefathers were less repressed about bodily functions than our society has become; the Victorians sent Nature underground and divorced body from spirit.

Most of these enigmatic figures feature on the outside of churches and can be explained away as depictions of temptation or sin that is left behind when entering the embrace of the Church. I have a feeling that is far too simplistic and it does not explain the figure in the rafters.

Usually the roof of the church is carved with angels or other heavenly beings that symbolise the aspiration and raising of Man to a higher realm. Instead, we have the cloven hooves of beast or demon, the body and head of a man… and what appears to be a depiction of a palm leaf in place of a penis. They don’t teach you about this stuff in Sunday School, but oddly enough, they do in magical schools.

Looked at from the esoteric perspective, the hooves could represent the ‘animal’ nature of humankind. The Bible tells us that Man was given ‘dominion’ over the beasts. The human aspects of the figure, especially the serene head, represent the intellect as opposed to our animal instincts. By taking control of our bodies, not suppressing them but allowing the ‘higher’ aspects of ourselves to guide our lives, we open ourselves to that dominion. The genitals are the source of physical life… the palm branch in Christian iconography is a symbol of the victory of the faith of the martyrs and of rebirth. By laying the egoic self on the altar of a higher service, we open ourselves to a spiritual rebirth.  So the cloven hoofed demon becomes, instead, a symbolic guidebook to spiritual growth.. worthy of aspiration and a place amongst the more usual angels.

It is easy to dismiss or misunderstand when you look simply at the surface…not just symbols, but life and events too. The time had come for the parting of the ways. We had spent far too little time with our American friends… but the time we had spent had been meaningful, to all of us. Coming straight from the workshop to the land that had inspired it, we were open to the gifts of each moment and friendship had more time to grow than can be measured by a clock. We waved the girls goodbye in Bakewell and returned Nick to his hostel, taking a very long way round to show him some of the places there would not be time to visit on this trip north, though he and I still had a morning left before his train and my drive south… and I had plans for that….


About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She writes alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. Find out more at France and Vincent. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at and on Twitter @SCVincent. Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email:
This entry was posted in albion, Ancient sites, Churches, Photography, symbolism and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to From serpent to salamander

  1. Helen Jones says:

    This country is just stuffed with wonderful churches, small and large, each with their own symbols and magic, isn’t it? It would take several lifetimes to see them all, I think. And I love Burne-Jones – the windows are beautiful. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    Sue Vincent with another of her detailed posts on the origins of pagan and Christian symbols in our places of worship that we might see but not understand.. fascinating and #recommended

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Jean Reiland says:

    Reblogged this on 307.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. paulandruss says:

    Such as stupendous post Sue bringing together so many fascinating elements from the pre-raphaelites to christian & pre-christian symbology. I love churches and your explanation of this was fascinating and erudite

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s funny because we basically live in a town that was once bustling. Not so many centuries ago, but now at least 100 years — and eventually the years will pile on. Lacking stone buildings, who will remember us?

    I love your social history of times past. Give me that sense of reliving those times. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      Even the homes we now build are made of plasterboard and will not survive in the same way as stone. Then again, with rising populations, it makes future demolition less controversial… a sad thought that we can consign our own times to be forgotten so easily and their lessons lost.


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