Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Devil's Hole

Sending off a glancing kiss, to those who claim they know
Below the streets that steam and hiss,
The devil's in his hole

(Led Zeppelin, Achilles Last Stand)

The original of the naming of the "Devil's Hole" came up in a conversation I was having the other night with some friends, and I decided to pursue the matter further. For those who don't know, the "Devil's Hole" is a quite spectacular natural geological formation on the coast of St Mary's Parish. There is a steep path to the top of the "hole", but the very flimsy looking wooden ladders used by Victorian tourists have long since been removed.

Here are a few of my gleanings.

The name Devil's Hole derives from the wrecking of the ship La Josephine in 1851. Or so we are told, in the story which says:

"it is the vast figurehead from this ship, with its eerie green patina and satanic horns, that appears in the middle of a leafy glade. The 'hole' is certainly spectacular, arguably one of Jersey's most scenically dramatic spots - a cavernous blowhole, gouged into the headland by centuries of sea bashing. "(1)

and here is another description of the feature and its name:

"The Devil's Hole is a natural crater in the solid cliff measuring about 100ft across and 200ft deep. The hole is a natural formation probably caused by the sea eroding a cave until the roof of the cave collapsed to form the crater we now see. In 1851 a ship's figurehead washed up inside the Devil's Hole and if that was not strange enough someone decided to create a statue of a devil out of the figurehead and this was then set up above the Hole. The wooden ships figurehead could not last forever exposed to the elements and was replaced by a succession of modern versions in the 20th century." (2)

However, this gives the original name, and suggests the latter name came along later. What is not clear is why the ship's figurehead was transformed into a Devil, but perhaps it was something to do with providing a "feature" for the tourists to come to see:

"The name 'Devil's Hole' is a dramatic one but only invented in the nineteenth century. Formerly it was called 'Le Creux de Vis', 'Le Creux de la Touraille' or Spiral Cave. One possible derivation for its modern name is connected with the shipwreck of a French boat in 1851. Its figurehead was thrust by the tide straight into the hole and someone had the idea of getting a local sculptor to transform the torso into a wooden devil, complete with horns. Today this devil's metal replica stands in a pool on the way down to the crater, to lend atmosphere to the winding - and in one place quite steep - path down to the Devil's Hole itself. The hole can be peered down into from two safe vantage points."

"Today the devil's metal replica stands in a pond on the way down to the crater. There is a winding, slightly spooky and in one place quite steep path down to the Devil's Hole itself. You can look into the otherwise quite dangerous hole from two safe vantage points."(3)

Another source is slightly more skeptical about the whole business, especially the history which seems almost too good to be true:

"Devil's Hole in St Mary is said to refer to the eerie noises of the sea being sucked in and blown out by the rock formation. The devil sculpture may perhaps have come from a wrecked ship, but there is no certainty about this."(4)

Going back to the original names, the explanation for the name as an Anglicized corruption is given on the "Waymark site", which notes that:

"Devil's Hole is also known as Le Creux de Vis which translates as 'the screw-hole'. It has been suggested that the French name 'de Vis' became altered to 'Devil' by English speaking visitors." (5)

Another explanation comes from Sound*Dust's Blog, which says:

"The origin of its name is harder to trace than its formation. There are three ways it could have come about. One source is from its original name 'Le Creux de Vis' (the cave of the bay). But, 'Le Vier Vi' is a Jersiais nickname for the Devil and, as there was certainly a hole through the cave, 'trou du vi' or "Trou du Diable' could eventually have been turned into the English 'Devil's Hole'." (6)

This blog is drawing on Philip Ahier's suggestion but G.J.C Bois, in "Jersey Folklore and Superstitions" points out that while 'Le Vier Vi' may be a Jèrriais expression, "it is not recorded either in the Glossaire du Patois Jersias or in Dr Le Maistre's Dictionnaire", and "vi" is translated in the Glossaire as a form of "vier", old. Bois thinks that this derivation is therefore inherently unlikely, and Ahier was simply trying to find an explanation for how the Devil came to be associated with the site.

Sound Dust gives another suggestion:

"Another reason for it's name is a tale told of how Viking ships got wrecked near by and all that got washed ashore was the grotesque figure on its prow. This so resembled what the superstitious natives thought of as the Devil, that the place was forever called 'Devil's Hole'. Another tale concerned the wrecking of a French ship in 1851. It's figurehead was washed straight into the hole. Someone then had a brain wave and called in Captain John Giffard, (a well-known sculptor in his day) to add the arms, legs etc to the torso and thus the 'Devil' came into existence."

"But lastly, the name may merely have come from the seemingly superhuman and eerie sounds of the water sucking in and surging out of the cave."(6)

So how did the name come to be? A few matters can be stated with relative certainty. One is that the name "Devil's Hole", and the figure of a devil on the site is of recent origin, from around the 1850s. There was a wreck, "La Josephine" in 1851, and the figurehead was retrieved.

Whether the name derived from a ship's figurehead, or whether that was just a story told to credulous visitors, which seems equally plausible is uncertain, but the Victorian era saw a good many inventive and creative tales around localities to provide visitors to the Islands a colourful and memorable experience. The Wolf's Cave is almost certainly another Victorian fictional attribution of this kind. History as a discipline was in its infancy, and a good tale was almost certain to trump any more prosaic explanation. Around the same period, the dolmen at Faldouet also cheerfully appears in guide books as a "Druid's temple".

Whether there was an older Jersey version of the name, or it was a corruption of the original name is also unclear, but the Fisherman's Chapel may also derive from a corruption whereby "pêcheurs" (fishermen) was derived from " pécheurs" (sinners), so that explanation is plausible.

There doesn't seem to be any history of any connection to the Devil until the 1850s, and I suspect the original attraction of the site was in its peculiar architecture, and the sounds the water made. Like Rocqueberg, the supposedly notorious place where witches came, the stories don't appear in any of the witch trial records of much earlier, and as the "confessions" often took the standard form (because of leading questions) of meeting in covens to worship the devil, the absence of both places - the Devil's Hole and Rocqueberg is, I think, most significant. They were not mentioned because at that time, no one had associated them with any folklore.

It is also significant that both sites possess certain geological peculiarities, and we know that the sounds at St Clement gave rise to a story about a spectral bull until it was explained by geologists. The origins of geological oddities can quite easily lend themselves to explanations attributing some kind of supernatural agency to their formation, especially in an age before geology was well established as a science.

But could it have been an ancient pagan site? If it was, then no remains have come to light. The nearest similar example - a natural feature like a giant menhir - is the Pinnacle rock, but as well as the site being of significance to ancient pagans, there is evidence that they were present.

A complex multi period site positioned below an imposing pinnacle of rock. Two earth and rubble ramparts have been attributed to the Neolithic/Chalcolithic periods and a third to the Bronze Age. Iron Age occupation is attributed to 6 pieces of iron. In Roman times a rectangular (11.2m x 9.15m) Gallo-Roman temple was constructed. Amongst the large number of finds from various excavations are flints, hammers, rubbers, polishing stones, a copper arrow head, bronze spear head, wheel turned pottery and a Roman coin (7)

Nothing has, as far as I can discern, ever been found around the Devil's Hole site - no flints, stones, arrow heads or traces of pottery, or even coins. There are no dolmens in the vicinity, or earthworks. If offerings were made, it is likely that at least some of them would be solid objects, or even remains of dried seeds that haven't been washed away - that's certainly what's been found at some other ancient sites. There are also no Neolithic sites in the immediate vicinity.


Other references
G.J.C Bois, "Jersey Folklore and Superstitions" (2 vols)


Anonymous said...

"Sending off a glancing kiss, to those who claim they know
Below the streets that steam and hiss,
The devil's in his hole

(Led Zeppelin, Achilles Last Stand)"

Led Zeppelin were living over here when that song was written. It's time to begin the campaign to remove the bronze devil from the pond and replace him with a bronze of the "golden god", Robert Plant!

L'Office du Jèrriais said...


But Turnkey Giffard wasn't the captain of the Joséphine. His grandson George F. Le Feuvre has some reminiscences (including here:

There are more pictures of the various incarnations of the devil sculpture here:
(also with other works by Turnkey Giffard)

If the "devil" link went back to before the shipwreck, one would have expected some reference to witchcraft in contemporary Jèrriais literature.

TonyTheProf said...

You are quite right; he wasn't actually the Captain of the Josephine.