The universality of the use of the horse-shoe as a safeguard against evil spirits is indeed noteworthy.
It is the anti-witch charm par excellence, as well as the approved symbol of good luck, and, used for these purposes, it is to be seen throughout a large portion of the world. The horse-shoe is most commonly placed over the entrance-doors of dwellings; but stables likewise are thought to be effectually protected by it, for "witches were dreadful harriers of horse-flesh." In William Henderson's "Folk-Lore of the Northern Countries of England" we read of a Durham farmer who was convinced that one of his horses had been ridden by hags, as he had found it bathed in sweat of a morning. But after he took the precaution to nail a horse-shoe over the stable-door, and also to hang some broom above the manger, the witches had not been able to indulge in clandestine rides on his horses. While many an honest fellow in England and elsewhere is a firm believer in witches and magical horse-shoes, very few of them can give plausible reasons therefor.
The Lancashire farmer thinks that mischievous fairies not only ride horses by night, but drive cows out of the barn, steal the butter, and eat up the children's porridge; so he, too, affixes horse-shoes to his buildings.
Any one visiting the hamlets of Oxfordshire can hardly fail to notice the numerous horse-shoes affixed to the picturesque thatched-roofed cottages; and the countryfolk in this neighborhood are not always content with one of these popular safeguards, for two or three of them are often to be seen on the walls of a dwelling, invariably placed with the prongs downward.
In Brand's "Popular Antiquities" (vol. iii. p. 19, 1888) may be found a clipping from the Cambridge (Eng.) "Advertiser," which relates that one Bartingale, a carpenter and resident of Ely, suspected a woman named Gotobed of having bewitched him, and of being the cause of an illness which he had recently had. Thereupon, at a consultation of matrons of the neighborhood held in his chamber, it was decided that the most efficient means of protecting him from the evil influence of the suspected sorceress was to have three horse-shoes fastened to the door. A blacksmith was accordingly summoned, and
"an operation to this effect was performed, much to the anger of the supposed witch, who at first complained to the Dean, but was laughed at by his reverence. She then rushed in wrath to the sick man's room, and, miraculous to tell, passed the Rubicon in spite of the horse-sboes. But this wonder ceased when it was discovered that Vulcan had substituted donkeys' shoes."
Miss Georgiana F. Jackson says, in "Shropshire Folk-Lore," that, in the home of her childhood at Edgmond, the stable-door was decorated with three rows of horseshoes arranged in the form of a triangle; and the grooms used to say that they were placed there to exclude witches.
In this region, too, an old horse-shoe placed above the door of a bedroom is a preventive of the nightmare.
In Shrewsbury, the ancient county town of Shropshire, horse-shoe talismans are to be seen not only above the house-doors, but also on the barges which navigate the river Severn.
In quite recent times a case has been reported of a poor girl of Whatfield, in Suffolk, who had experienced a long illness, during which she was visited daily by an old woman who appeared to be very solicitous as to her welfare. At length the girl's family began to suspect that this old woman was none other than a witch; they therefore caused a horse-shoe to be fastened to the sill of the outer door. The precaution was successful, so runs the tale, for the reputed witch could never thereafter cross the threshold, and the girl speedily recovered her health.
Aubrey, in his "Remains of Gentilisme," describes the horse-shoe as a preservative against the mischief or power of witches, attributing its magical properties to the astrological principle that Mars, the God of War and the War Horse, was an enemy of Saturn, who according to a mediaeval idea was the liege lord of witches.
During the witchcraft excitement in Scotland, one Elizabeth Bathcat was indicted for having a horse-shoe attached to the door of her house "as a devilish means of instruction from the Devil to make her goods and all her other affairs to prosper and succeed well."
According to an old legend St. Dunstan, the versatile English ecclesiastic of the tenth century, who was a skilled farrier and the owner of a forge, was requested by the Devil to shoe his "single hoof." Dunstan, who recognized his customer, acceded, but during the operation he caused the Devil so much pain that the latter begged him to desist. The request was heeded on condition that the Devil should never enter a place where a horse-shoe was displayed. The popular belief is that his Satanic Majesty has always faithfully kept the contract, and quite naturally all lesser evil spirits have followed his example.
In Scotland, even as late as the beginning of the nineteenth century, the peasantry believed that witches were able to draw milk from all the cattle in their neighborhood, by tugging at a hair-rope in imitation of the act of milking. Such a rope was made of hairs from the tails of several cows, whose exact number was indicated by knots in the rope. While tugging at the rope the witches repeated either the following or a similar charm:--
Cow's milk and mare's milk,
And every beast that bears milk,
Between St. Johnstone's and Dundee,
Come a' to me, come a' to me.
The only adequate protection from such mischievous pranks as these was afforded by nailing a horse-shoe to the byre-door and tying sprigs of rowan with a red thread to the cow's tail. If, however, these precautions were neglected, the guilty witch might yet be discovered by placing the "gudeman's breeks" upon the cow's horns, a leg upon either horn; and thereupon the animal, being let loose, was sure to run directly to the witch's house.
In many places, certain houses continue even at the present time to have an evil reputation as harborers of witches and goblins. In these cases it seems probable that the owners or occupants of such dwellings neglected to avail themselves of the immunity afforded by horse-shoes and other safeguards. For no one, we believe, has ever seriously maintained that evil spirits, who are once firmly domiciled, can be easily expelled. Familiarity with their surroundings may breed a contempt for amulets. Certain it is, however, that an ounce or two of iron by way of prevention is worth a pound or more of cure. When a dwelling is demoniacally possessed, the devils must be driven out somehow, and for this purpose recourse is had to exorcisms, and to religious or magical ceremonies. In the words of the poet Dryden ("Wife of Bath's Tale," i. 28):--
And friars that through the wealthy regions run
Resort to farmers rich, and bless their halls,
And exorcise the beds and cross the walls.
In "Antiquitates Vulgares," by Henry Browne (1725), the writer gives elaborate directions as to the proper mode of exorcising a haunted dwelling, and says that the house which is reported to be vexed with spirits shall be visited by a priest daily for a week, appropriate prayers and scriptural selections being read. Sometimes magical procedures supplanted religious exercises, and experts in sorcery were employed to rid a mansion of its undesirable tenants. The following advertisement from a London newspaper of 1777 may be appropriately given here:--
HAUNTED HOUSES.--Whereas there are mansions and castles in England and Wales which for many years have been uninhabited, and are now falling into decay, by their being visited and haunted by evil spirits or the spirits of those who for unknown reasons are rendered miserable, even in the grave, a gentleman who has made the tour of Europe, of a particular turn of mind, and deeply skilled in the abstruse and sacred science of exorcism, hereby offers his assistance to any owner or proprietor of such premises, and undertakes to render the same free from the visitation of such spirits, be their cause what it may, and render them tenantable and useful for the proprietors. Letters addressed to Rev. John Jones, No. 30 St. Martin's Lane, duly answered, and interview given if required.