Sacred Texts  Misc Texts  Index  Previous  Next 


Some writers have maintained that the luck associated with the horse-shoe is due chiefly to the metal, irrespective of its shape, as iron and steel are traditional charms against malevolent spirits and goblins. In their view, a horse-shoe is simply a piece of iron of graceful shape and convenient form, commonly pierced with seven nail-holes (a mystic number), and therefore an altogether suitable talisman to be affixed to the door of dwelling or stable in conformity with a venerable custom sanctioned by centuries of usage. Of the antiquity of the belief in the supernatural properties of iron there can be no doubt.

Among the ancient Gauls this metal was thouoht to be consecrated to the Evil Principle, and, according to a fragment of the writings of the Egyptian historian Manetho (about 275 B.C.), iron was called in Egypt the bone of Typhon, or Devil's bone, for Typhon in the Egyptian mythology was the personification of evil.

Pliny, in his "Natural History," states that iron coffin-nails affixed to the lintel of the door render the inmates of the dwelling secure from the visitations of nocturnal prowling spirits.

According to the same author, iron has valuable attributes as a preservative against harmful witchcrafts and sorceries, and may thus be used with advantage both by adults and children. For this purpose it was only necessary to trace a circle about one's self with a piece of the metal, or thrice to swing a sword around one's body. Moreover, gentle proddings with a sword wherewith a man has been wounded were reputed to alleviate divers aches and pains, and even iron-rust had its own healing powers:--

If a horse be shod with shoes made from a sword wherewith a man has been slain, he will be most swift and fleet, and never, though never so hard rode, tire.

The time-honored belief in the magical power of iron and steel is shown in many traditions of the North.

A young herdswoman was once tending cattle in a forest of Vermaland in Sweden; and the weather being coId and wet, she carried along her tinder-box with flint and steel, as is customary in that country. Presently along came a giantess carrying a casket, which she asked the girl to keep while she went away to invite some friends to attend her daughter's marriage. Quite thoughtlessly the girl laid her fire-steel on the casket, and when the giantess returned for the property she could not touch it, for steel is repellant to trolls, both great and small. So the herdswoman carried home the treasure-box, which was found to contain a golden crown and other valuables.

The heathen Northmen believed in the existence of a race of dwarfish artisans, who were skilled in the working of metals, and who fashioned implements of warfare in their subterranean workshops. These dwarfs were also thought to inhabit isolated rocks; and according to a popular notion, if a man chanced to encounter one of them, and quickly threw a piece of steel between him and his habitation, he could thereby prevent the dwarf from returning home, and could exact of him whatever he desired.

Among French Canadians, fireflies are viewed with superstitious eyes as luminous imps of evil, and iron and steel are the most potent safeguards against them; a knife or needle stuck into the nearest fence is thought to amply protect the belated wayfarer against these insects, for they will either do themselves injury upon the former, or will become so exhausted in endeavoring to pass through the needle's eye as to render them temporarily harmless. Such waifs and strays of popular credulity may seem most trivial, yet they serve to illustrate the ancient and widely diffused belief in the traditional qualities ascribed to certain metals.

One widely prevalent theory ascribed to iron a meteoric origin, but the different nations of antiquity were wont to attribute its discovery or invention to some favorite deity or mythological personage; Osiris was thus honored by the Egyptians, Vulcan by the Romans, and Wodan or Odin by the Teutons.

In early times the employment of iron in the arts was much restricted by reason of its dull exterior and brittleness. There existed, moreover, among the Romans a certain religious prejudice against the metal, whose use in many ceremonies was wholly proscribed. This prejudice appears to have been due to the fact that iron weapons were held jointly responsible with those who wielded them for the shedding of human blood; inasmuch as swords, knives, battle-axes, lance and spear points, and other implements of war were made of iron.

Those mythical demons of Oriental lands known as the Jinn are believed to be exorcised by the mere name of iron; and Arabs when overtaken by a simoom in the desert endeavor to charm away these spirits of evil by erving, "Iron, iron!"

The Jinn being legendary creatures of the Stone Age, the comparatively modern metal is supposed to be obnoxious to them. In Scandinavia and in northern countries generally, iron is a historic charm against the wiles of sorcerers.

The Chinese sometimes wear outside of their clothing a piece of an old iron plough-point as a charm; and they have also a custom of driving long iron nails in certain kinds of trees to exorcise some particularly dangerous female demons which haunt them. The ancient Irish were wont to hang crooked horse-shoe nails about the necks of their children as charms; and in Teutonic folk-lore we find the venerable superstition that a horseshoe nail found by chance and driven into the fireplace will effect the restoration of stolen property to the owner. In Ireland, at the present time, iron is held to be a sacred and luck-bringing metal which thieves hesitate to steal.

A Celtic legend says that the Dame Iron-land or Ireland originated as follows: The Emerald Isle was formerly altogether submerged, except during a brief period every seventh year, and at such times repeated attempts were made by foreigners to land on its soil, but without success, as the advancing waves always swallowed up the bold invaders. Finally a heavenly revelation declared that the island could only be rescued from the sea by throwing a piece of iron upon it during its brief appearance above the waters. Profiting by the information thus vouchsafed, a daring adventurer cast his sword upon the land at the time indicated, thereby dissolving the spell, and Ireland has ever since remained above the water. On account of this tradition the finding of iron is always accounted lucky by the Irish; and when the treasure-trove has the form of a horse-shoe, it is nailed up over the house door. Thus iron is believed to have reclaimed Ireland from the sea, and the talismanic symbol of its reclamation is the iron horse-shoe.

Once upon a time--so runs a tradition of the Ukraine, the border region between Russia and Poland--some men found a piece of iron. After having in vain attempted to eat it, they tried to soften it by boiling it in water; then they roasted it, and afterwards beat it with stones. While thus engaged, the Devil, who had been watching them, inquired, "What are you making there?" and the men replied, "A hammer with which to beat the Devil." Thereupon Satan asked where they had obtained the requisite sand; and from that time men understood that sand was essential for the use of iron-workers; and thus began the manufacture of iron implements.

Among the Scotch fishermen also iron is invested with magical attributes. Thus if, when plying their vocation, one of their number chance to indulge in profanity, the others at once call out, "Cauld airn!" and each grasps a handy piece of the metal as a counter influence to the misfortune which would else pursue them throughout the day. Even nowadays in England, in default of a horse-shoe, the iron plates of the heavy shoes worn by farm laborers are occasionally to be seen fastened at the doors of their cottages.

When in former times a belief in the existence of mischievous elves was current in the Highland districts of Scotland, iron and steel were in high repute as popular safeguards aoainst the visits of these fairy-folk; for they were sometimes bold enough to carry off young mothers, whom they compelled to act as wet-nurses for their own offspring. One evening many years ago a farmer named Ewen Macdonald, of Duldreggan, left his wife and young infant indoors while he went out on an errand; and tradition has it that while crossing a brook, thereafter called in the Gaelic tongue "the streamlet of the knife," he heard a strange rushing sound accompanied with a sigh, and realized at once that fairies were carrying off his wife. Instantly throwing a knife into the air in the name of the Trinity, the fairies' power was annulled, and his wife dropped down before him.

In Scandinavian and Scottish folk-lore, there is a marked affinity between iron and flint. The elf-bolt or flint arrowhead was formerly in great repute as a charm against divers evil influences, whether carried around as an amulet, used as a magical purifier of drinking water for cattle, or to avert fairy spite. It seems possible that iron and steel in superseding flint, which was so useful a material in the rude arts of primitive peoples, inherited its ancient magical qualities.

In the Hebrides a popular charm against the wiles of sorcerers consisted in placing pieces of flint and untempered steel in the milk of cows alleged to have been bewitched. The milk was then boiled, and this process was thought to foil the machinations of the witch or enchantress. The fairies of the Scottish lowlands were supposed to use arrows tipped with white flint, wherewith they shot the cattle of persons obnoxious to them, the wounds thus inflicted being invisible except to certain personages gifted with supernatural sight.

According to a Cornish belief, iron is potent to control the water-fiends, and when thrown overboard enables mariners to land on a rocky coast with safety even in a rough sea. A similar superstition exists in the Orkney Islands with reference to a certain rock on the coast of Westray. It is thought that when any one with a piece of iron about him steps upon this rock, the sea at once becomes turbulent and does not subside until the magical substance is thrown into the water.

The inhabitants of the rocky island of Timor, in the Indian Archipelago, carry about them scraps of iron to preserve themselves from all kinds of mishaps, even as the London cockney cherishes with care his lucky penny, crooked sixpence, or perforated shilling; while in Hindostan iron nails are frequently driven in over a door, or into the legs of a bedstead, as protectives. It was a mediaeval wedding custom in France to place on the bride's finger a ring made from a horse-shoe nail, a superstitious bid, as it were, for happy auspices.

In Sicily, iron amulets are popularly used against the evil eye; indeed iron in any form, especially the horseshoe, is thought to be effective, and in fact talismanic properties are ascribed to all metals. When, therefore, a Sicilian feels that he is being "overlooked," he instantly touches the first available metallic object, such as his watch-chain, keys, or coins. In ancient Babylon and Assyria it was believed that invisible demons might enter the body during the acts of eating and drinking and thus originate disease, and the doctrine of demoniacal possession as the cause of illness is still widely prevalent in uncivilized communities at the present day. Wherever, therefore, such notions exist, talismans are naturally employed to render inert the machinations of these little demons; and of all these safeguards, iron and steel are perhaps the most potent. Quite commonly in Germany, among the lower classes, such articles as knives, hatchets, and cutting instruments generally, as well as fire-irons, harrows, keys, and needles, are considered protectives against disease if placed near or about the sick person.

In Morocco it is customary to place a dagger under the patient's pillow, and in Greece a black-handled knife is similarly used to keep away the nightmare.

In Germany iron implements laid crosswise are considered to be powerful anti-witch safeguards for infants; and in Switzerland two knives, or a knife and fork, are placed in the cradle under the pillow. In Bohemia a knife on which a cross is marked, and in Bavaria a pair of opened scissors, are similarly used. In Westphalia an axe and a broom are laid crosswise on the threshold, the child's nurse being expected to step over these articles on entering the room.

The therapeutic value of iron and its use as a medicament do not properly belong to our subject; and, indeed, neither the iron horse-shoe nor its counterfeit symbol have usually been much employed in folk-medicine. Professor Sepp, in his work on the religion of the early Germans, mentions, however, a popular cure for whooping-cough, which consisted in having the patient eat off of a wooden platter branded with the figure of a horse-shoe.

In France, also, a favorite panacea for children's diseases consists in laying on the child an accidentally found horse-shoe, with the nails remaining in it; and in Mecklenburg gastric affections are thought to be successfully treated by drinking beer which has been poured upon a red-hot horse-shoe.

Pliny ascribed healing power to a cast-off horse-shoe found on the road. The finder was recommended carefully to preserve such a horse-shoe; and should he at any future time be afflicted with the hiccoughs, the mere recollection of the exact spot where the shoe had been placed would serve as a remedy for that sometimes obstinate affection.

In Bavaria a popular alleged cure for hernia in children is as follows: From a horse-shoe wherein all the nails remain, and which has been cast by a horse, a nail is taken; and when next a new moon comes on a Friday, one must go into a field or orchard before sunrise and drive the nail by three blows into an oak-tree or pear-tree, according to the sex of the child, and thrice invoke the name of Christ; after which one must kneel on the ground in front of the tree and repeat a Pater-noster. This is an example of a kind of therapeutic measure not uncommon among peasants in different parts of Germany, a blending of the use of a superstitious charm with religious exercises.

An ingenious theory ascribes the origin of the belief in the magical properties of iron to the early employment of the actual cautery, and to the use of the lancet in surgery. In either case the healing effects of the metal, whether hot or in the form of a knife, have been attributed by superstitious minds to magical properties in the instruments, whereby the demons who caused the disease were put to flight. In northern India the natives believe that evil spirits are so simple-minded as to run against the sharp edge of a knife and thus do themselves injury; and they also make use of iron rings as demon-scarers, such talismans having the double efficacy of the iron and of the sacred circle.

In Bombay, when a child is born, the natives place an iron bar along the threshold of the room of confinement as a guard against the entrance of demons. This practice is derived from the Hindoo superstition that evil spirits keep aloof from iron; and even to-day pieces of horse-shoes are to be seen nailed to the bottom sills of the doors of native houses. In east Bothnia, when the cows leave their winter quarters for the first time, an iron bar is laid before the threshold of the door through which the animals must pass, and the farmers believe that, if this precaution were omitted, the cows would prove troublesome throughout the summer. So, too, in the region of Saalfield, in central Germany, it is customary to place axes, saws, and other iron and steel implements outside the stable door to keep the cattle from bewitchment.

The Scandinavian peasants, when they venture upon the water, are wont to protect themselves against the power of the Neck, or river-spirit, by placing a knife in the bottom of the boat, or by fixing an iron nail in a reed. The following is the translation of a charm used in Norway for this purpose:--

Neck, Neck, nail in water, the Virgin Mary casteth steel in water. Do you sink, I flit.

In Finland there is an evil fairy known as the Alp Nightmare. Its name in the vernacular is Painajainen, which means in English "Presser." This unpleasant being makes people scream, and causes young children to squint; and the popular safeguard is steel, or a broom placed beneath the pillow.

Friedrich remarks that the Moslems look upon iron as a divine gift, and that the Finlanders have their tutelary gods of this metal.

Among the Jews there prevails a popular belief that one should never make use of a knife or other steel instrument for the purpose of more readily following with the eye the pages of the Bible, the Talmud, or other sacred book. Iron should never be permitted to touch any book treating of religion, for the two are incompatible by nature, the one destroying human life and the other prolonging it. The Highlanders of Scotland have a time-honored custom of taking an oath upon cold iron or steel. The dirk, which was formerly an indispensable adjunct to the Highland costume, is a favorite and handy object for the purpose. The faith in the magical power of steel and iron against evil-disposed fairies and ghosts was universal, and this form of oath was more solemn and binding than any other.

Among the Bavarian peasants nails and needles have a reputation the reverse of that of the horse-shoe. A horse-shoe nail stuck into the front door of a house will give the owner a serious illness. A needle, when given to a friend, is sure to prick to death existing friendship, even as such friendship is severed by the gift of a knife or pair of scissors. Such an untoward result may be averted, however, if the recipient smile pleasantly when the gift is made. A curious superstition about iron locks prevails in Styria and Tyrol. If you procure from a locksmith a brand-new lock and carry it to church at the time of a wedding ceremony, and if, while the benediction is being said, you fasten the lock by a turn of the key, then the young couple's love and happiness is destroyed. Mutual aversion will supplant affection until you open the lock again.

Next: VII. Blacksmiths Credited With Supernatural Attributes