There are a number of mysterious and controversial biblical creatures with potential relevance to cryptozoology, of which the most famous examples are undoubtedly Leviathan and Behemoth (click here and here to see my ShukerNature investigations of them). Much less famous but no less remarkable than those two, however, is the small yet highly intriguing subject of this present ShukerNature post – the shamir.
Also spelled ‘samir’ or ‘schamir’, this is the Hebrew name given to a tiny worm-like creature referred to in certain Jewish holy books, including the Midrashim and the Talmud (particularly the Gemara – the component of the Talmud that consists of rabbinical analysis of, and commentary upon, an earlier work known as the Mishnah).
According to Jewish tradition contained within these and other sources, the shamir was one of ten miraculous items created by God at twilight upon the Sixth Day of the Hexameron (the six days of Creation). Although it was only the size of a single grain of barley corn, the shamir was so incredibly powerful that merely its gaze was sufficient to cut through any material with ease, even through diamond itself, the hardest substance on Earth. Such a wondrous creature needed to be safeguarded, so God entrusted the shamir to the hoopoe (or woodcock or moorhen, depending upon which version of the legend is consulted), commanding this bird to protect the shamir from all harm.
In order to contain this mighty if minuscule worm, the hoopoe placed it among a quantity of barley corns, then wrapped them all up together in a woollen cloth, which in turn was placed inside a box fashioned from lead – the only material strong enough to contain the shamir effectively but without disintegrating from the intensity of its laser-like gaze. So here, safely and comfortably ensconced within its leaden domicile, which was retained by the hoopoe in the Garden of Eden, it passed through all the ages that followed.
Only once did the shamir emerge – during the time of Aaron and Moses, when God commanded the hoopoe to lend this worm to Him for the etching of the names of the 12 tribes of Israel upon the precious stones on 12 special priestly breastplates (the Hoshen), one breastplate for each of the tribes and each breastplate composed of a different stone. The task was a very difficult one, but when these stones were shown in turn to the shamir this astonishing creature accomplished it so expertly that not a single atom of precious stone was lost or destroyed.
After this, the shamir was placed back inside its lead casket, entrusted once more to the hoopoe’s care, and there it remained, in undisturbed obscurity – until the time of King Solomon the Wise. Solomon wished to erect a glorious temple, but he was very mindful of God’s instructions, laid down long ago to Moses, that no place of worship, not even an altar (let alone a temple), should be constructed using any tool made from iron – because iron was a substance of war, and that if anything related to war should ever touch a place of worship, it would be instantly and irrevocably defiled. But if Solomon could not use iron tools, how could the stones needed for constructing his temple be hewn?
In an attempt to solve this riddle, Solomon enquired far and wide, and eventually he learnt about the incredible stone-searing shamir. Determined to utilise its extraordinary power, Solomon dispatched a servant to seek out this wonderful creature and bring it back to him. After a long search, the servant succeeded, and Solomon duly employed the shamir to cut the rocks required for building his celebrated temple – the First Temple in Jerusalem. But that is where the story ends abruptly – because after this magnificent edifice was completed, the shamir allegedly lost its power, then vanished, and has never been heard of again…or has it?
In his engrossing book Sacred Monsters (2nd edit., 2011), Rabbi Natan Slifkin wondered if the shamir might have been based upon a real but not particularly well known creature native to the Negev Desert – the rock-eating snail Euchondrus, represented there by three closely-related species, E. albulus, E. desertorum, and E. ramonensis. Less than half an inch long, these mini-molluscs eat lichens that grow beneath the surface of rocks, and use a toothed tongue-like organ known as the radula to rasp away the intervening rock with great ease and rapidity. However, if such snails were indeed the identity of the shamir, surely the holy books and scriptures would have alluded to their shells? Yet no mention of any such structure possessed by the shamir exists. Also, these sources state categorically that the shamir does not destroy any portion of the rocks or precious stones that it cuts through, unlike the activity of these snails.
Intriguingly, there is an alternative school of thought postulating that the shamir was not a living creature at all, but rather a mineral itself, specifically an exceptionally hard green stone, which could cut through all other substances. Yet this identification fails to explain how the stones needing to be cut could be by merely being shown to the shamir, i.e. without the shamir making any direct contact with the stones, using only its gaze to achieve its appointed task. As noted by Rabbi Slifkin, however, one maverick scientist proposed an extremely ingenious, and plausible, solution to this dilemma. Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979) is best-remembered for his highly controversial theories of global catastrophic events producing profoundly revised datings of major events in ancient history, as propounded in bestselling books such as Worlds in Collision (1950) and Earth in Upheaval (1955). Turning his attention to the shamir enigma, Velikovsky suggested that perhaps it was a radioactive substance, which could certainly explain some of the most notable riddles encompassing it.
For instance: such a substance could produce its effects upon other substances merely by having them placed near (or shown) to it, not requiring direct contact with them. Also, what better container for a radioactive substance to be housed safely inside than a casket of lead, which would very effectively shield its potent effects? And as its radioactivity would diminish with time (i.e. its half-life), this could explain why the shamir’s potency had ultimately faded away by the time that King Solomon’s temple had been completed. If it were truly a living creature, however, the shamir’s abilities could not be explained by any such theory.
In any event, I had always assumed that this incredible entity was entirely mythical – until 28 November 2013, that is, when Facebook friend Robert Schneck very kindly brought to my attention an astonishing but hitherto exceedingly obscure mystery beast that seemed at least on first sight to be a veritable shamir of the Middle Ages. Robert revealed to me two engravings of bizarre-looking beasts known as vermes lapidum or stone worms, and which had appeared in a hefty German tome authored by Eberhard Werner Happel and entitled Relationes Curiosae, oder Denckwürdigkeiten der Welt, which was originally published in five volumes between 1683 and 1691.
According to Happel, the stone worms had originally been brought to public attention by a 17th-Century monk called de la Voye, from a Normandy monastery, who in 1666 had written a letter to a Lord Auzout describing his remarkable discovery. One day, de la Voye had found some of these very small, decidedly odd-looking creatures moving about incessantly inside some holes of their own making in an old wall, much of whose rocky composition had allegedly been eaten away and converted into dust by the devouring nature of the worms. When he pulled out some of them and examined them under a magnifying glass, the monk observed that they were each the size of a single barley corn (the very same description, intriguingly, as used in the Jewish holy books for the shamir) and enclosed in a grey shell, as depicted in the first (labelled Fig. 1) of the two engravings presented above. As quoted by Happel in his book, the monk continued his account of the stone worms in his letter to Lord Azout as follows:
“…on the tip [of the worm’s body] there is a hole, through which the excrements can be excreted. On the other end there is a larger hole, trough which the head can be protruded.
They are entirely black, the body shows various segments, near the head there are three legs, each has two joints, not dissimilar to these of a flea.
When they move their body is suspended in air, the mouth but is still oriented to the rock. The head is bulky, a bit smooth, similar in shape and colour to the shell of a snail…also the mouth is similar large, with four kinds of teeth disposed in cross like manner.”
The second engraving (Fig. 2) presumably shows the stone worm in a more advanced state of development than in Fig. 1, as it is now equipped with three pairs of legs. However, both forms seem only to possess small, primitive, laterally-sited ocellus-like eyes (round and black, according to de la Voye), rather than large, compound eyes, thereby indicating that if the stone worm is an insect, as seems at least remotely possible, it is a larval form rather than an adult (larval insects do not possess compound eyes, only ocelli).
Conversely, some authors have sought to discount the stone worms as (very) fanciful representations of funnel-weaving spiders, three pairs of legs rather than four notwithstanding and the stone worms’ reputed rock-devouring proclivities discounted as apocryphal. Perhaps the presence of multiple ocelli, a characteristic of many spiders (which never possess compound eyes like most adult insects do), influenced their choice of an arachnid identity for these creatures, as there seems little else that would have done so? Certainly, the heavily segmented abdomen of the creature in the second engraving, and the seemingly limbless, shelled form of the creature in the first one, present major problems in reconciling them with any spider.
To be honest, however, the creatures depicted in these two engravings are so bizarre that it is impossible to identify them confidently with any known animal form. If they were indeed real, and not a hoax perpetrated by de la Voye, we can only assume that these engravings are exceedingly fanciful representations, so much so that the worms’ true morphology has been enshrouded in exaggeration or error.
As for their stone-devouring diet, this too is baffling in the extreme. Perhaps de la Joye saw these creatures amid the wall’s crumbling masonry and wrongly presumed that they were responsible? Who can say? All that can be stated is that except for a couple of brief mentions in some early 18th-Century dictionaries of natural science, the stone worm rapidly faded into total scientific oblivion shortly after Happel’s book was published.
Could it be that, as a monk, de la Voye was well-read across a wide spectrum of religious tracts, was therefore familiar with the mythical shamir from Jewish holy books, and had mistakenly thought that the creatures that he had discovered were similar? In reality, however, even his stone worms’ ostensible comparability to the shamir does not stand up to close scrutiny. For whereas the latter beast disintegrated and annihilated rocks using its formidable, basiliskian gaze, the stone worm actually devoured rocks and stones, at least according to de la Voye’s testimony.
Almost 350 years have passed since de la Voye wrote his intriguing letter documenting the stone worms, but its subjects remain as mystifying and as unsatisfactorily ‘explained’ today as they were then. Unless the entire episode of their discovery was indeed a hoax and a nonsense, the stone worms must have been something – but what?