One day, a dwarf named Alvíss showed up at Bilskírnir, Thor’s hall, to collect his bride (one of Thor’s daughters). Since Thor was away at the time of the betrothal, he took issue with this, saying that he would only allow Alvíss to leave with his daughter (Thrud) if the dwarf could tell him everything he wanted to know. Thor proceeded to ask Alvíss a series of questions, mostly having to do with the names of things and their classifications, running from the cosmic to the mundane. A takeaway from this story might be “don’t engage in contests with the gods,” because after keeping Alvíss busy through the night, daylight shone through the hall, and Thor’s trap was sprung: he declared Alvíss “dayed out” as the sunlight petrified (or possibly shattered) the poor dwarf, whose only mistake was looking in the wrong place for a life partner. So it goes, but why is there so much petrification in mythology, anyway, and what does it mean, to be turned to stone?
Alvíss is far from the only victim of petrification which – in the realm of magical-shit-that-can-happen-to-you – is pretty common. In The Lord of the Rings, Tom, Bert, and William were just trying to have a decent meal (“thirteen dwarves and one hobbit”) when Gandalf (and the dawn) caught them unawares. Who knows how many men and women Medusa turned to stone before Perseus brought an end to her (and then used her head as a weapon. Nice). Jadis, the White Witch, turned her enemies to stone with her wand until Edmund destroyed it (I never quite bought that), and Moaning Myrtle was only the first victim of the basilisk in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Lot’s wife was petrified when she turned her head and looked upon the destruction of Sodom (I’m willing to equate being turned into a pillar of salt with petrification, as the results are similar).
So what does it mean, to be petrified? You lose your ability to act, you lose your will. You’re not dead, exactly, but you can no longer affect the world around you, and are vulnerable to falling apart, or crumbling. Though sometimes petrification can be reversed, most of the time it’s presented as a one-way trip – a living death from which there is no recovery. In some cases, there’s an element of awareness, on the part of the victim: if awakened, a formerly petrified person might remember nothing of what happened during their time as a statue, or they might have been partially or even fully aware, but incapable of action or reaction.
We talk about being petrified with fear, and it’s hard not to see a connection between the idea of a statue, crumbling, and a terrified person “falling apart,” but is petrification always connected to fear? Medusa’s visage is terrifying, as is that of the basilisk, but Tolkien’s trolls weren’t frightened when they were turned to stone, and neither was Alvíss – they were merely surprised by the sun. In all cases, though, there is a confrontation going on, and it’s a common enough thread that I feel comfortable saying that petrification is the result of exposure to something that the viewer shouldn’t see or be in contact with. In the case of Alvíss, his mistake was to attempt a game of wisdom with Thor. In the case of Tom, Bert, and William they were outwitted by Gandalf. Both the dwarf and the trolls were ultimately destroyed by sunlight, something that I would equate with goodness and light which – as creatures of darkness – they couldn’t bear. In the case of Myrtle and Hermione, frozen by the basilisk, or the victims of Medusa, it was horror and darkness that petrified them. Thus, the underlying theme is that evil can be brought low when exposed to goodness, and the power of good can be paralyzed when confronted with evil.
It’s hard not to see a Christian versus pagan motif in some of these stories, possibly carried forward into modern tales involving petrification, despite their seemingly pagan, mythic origins. As Europe converted to Christianity and the Middle Ages approached, pagan magic was often seen as being demonic – as something that could be protected against or even dispelled by the power of God (which wasn’t seen as “magical” per se, though the lines blurred in practice). Thinking about it this way, the day is seen as holy, dispelling something demonic: the power of trolls and evil dwarves is negated by the power of God, in the same way that sunlight destroys a vampire (who also can be turned by the cross). Taken as Christian allegory, The White Queen’s wand (which seems at first glance to not fit with the other examples) becomes analogous to the gaze of the gorgon or basilisk: the wand as used by Jadis to turn her enemies to stone is only the conduit through which her evil passes to take away the ability of good people to act, until the condition is reversed by the breath of Aslan (Jesus Christ).
Ultimately, petrification is about what happens when we confront – or are confronted by – that which we are not meant to see; something that our nature – be it good or evil – can’t abide. The sun shines light on dark things, including the ignorance that a Christian perspective might see in Pagan beliefs, while good people can be paralyzed by overwhelming evil – though in the latter case, the condition may be reversible if the power of good is brought to bear. I can’t think of any examples of monsters or evil people returning from petrification, which again brings up the idea of Christian allegory: evil may stop you in your tracks, but you can still be “saved” by the power of God.
Can you think of an example where an evil creature, once petrified, escapes that state? Or of an undeniably good person who petrifies their enemies as a matter of course?