The origin of the horse-shoe as a charm has been ascribed to its resemblance to the metallic aureole or meniscus formerly placed over the heads of images of patron saints in churches, and which is also represented in ancient pictures of the Virgin.
This aureole, or more properly nimbus, was probably of pagan origin, for in early times circles of stars frequently ornamented the heads of statues of the gods, as emblematic of divinity. In speaking of certain ancient relics found in Ireland, Mr. W. G. WoodMartin ("Pagan Ireland," p. 492) says:--
Thin crescentic plates, with the extremities terminating in flat circular disks, are the ornaments most frequently discovered. In form they are identical with the half-moon-shaped ornaments in use among the Greeks and Romans, and with the nimbi on carvings of the Byzantine school; and they differ but little from the ring which now is conventionally placed around the head of a saint. Thus this glory can be traced back to pagandom. The crescentic plate appears to have been primarily the badge of some distinguished person, a chief or king; then it became the emblem of one considered to be a very holy person, for in Ireland, in the early days of Christianity, the saints were derived principally from the aristocracy.
In the collection of the Royal Irish Academy is a golden tiara or diadem, said to have been found in County Clare. This relic, which measures about a foot in height and the same in breadth, is thought to have been a head-dress of some pagan or early Christian chieftain.
In the earlier years of the church these crescent symbols were avoided as savoring of heathenism; but without any thought of its significance, it became customary in the Middle Ages to place a circular brass plate upon the heads of statues as a protection from snow or rain. Hence arose the practice of similarly adorning images and paintings in churches.
In later times these crescent-shaped pieces of metal were sometimes nailed up at the entrance of churches, and so came to be regarded as protective emblems. The horse-shoe was an easily available substitute for the halo or glory, and so was often placed upon the doors of churches, especially in the southwest of England, as it was generally believed in olden times that evil spirits could enter even consecrated edifices. Aubrey, in his "Miscellanies," mentions having seen under the porch of Staninfield Church, in Suffolk, an inscription with the device of a horse-shoe, intended to exclude witches, and he naively remarks that one would imagine holy water amply sufficient for the purpose.
On the south door of the parish church of Ashby-Foville, in Leicestershire, were formerly two ancient horse-shoes of great size, one of them measuring 16 by 11-1/2 inches, or more than twice as large as an average modern shoe.
As it does not seem likely that such shoes were made to fit horses' feet, in the absence of traditional information regarding them, it appears probable that they were intended solely to bar the ingress of witches.
In St. Martin's Church, Canterbury, the oldest in England, the sacristan shows visitors the site of an early English door on the south side, and a Norman doorway in the middle of the northern wall, both long since blocked up. Infants to be baptized were formerly brought into the church by the south entrance, and after the ceremony the north door was thrown open to permit the egress of evil spirits expelled by baptism. For in early times demons were believed to come from the north, where the habitations of the Norse gods were also thought to be. The pagans, when worshiping their deities, looked towards the north; but Christians engaged in prayer turned their faces eastward and lifted up their hands; they regarded the north as "the unblessed heathen quarter." The unexplored Arctic regions, where night reigned much of the time, were thought to belong especially to the Devil, or spirit of darkness; and the same idea is conveyed in several passages of Holy Scripture, as, for example, in Jeremiah iv. 6: "I will bring evil from the north, and a great destruction."
In the Middle Ages the rose-windows in the north and south transepts of Lincoln Minster were called the two eyes of the cathedral, the former being known as the Dean's Eye, ever on the watch against the attacks of Lucifer, who had his abode "in the sides of the north" (Isaiah xiv. 13); while the window in the south transept was called the Bishop's Eye, "courting the influence of the Holy Spirit, of which the south wind was a type." Apropos of evil spirits entering consecrated places, there is a quaint legend about a little stone figure yclept the Lincoln Imp, which is to be seen perched upon a corbel of a column on the north side of the Angel Choir of the same cathedral. According to one version of the legend, when Bishop Remigius came to Lincoln, in the year after the Norway Conquest, the Devil was sorely tried; for until that time he had had undisturbed control of affairs in the town and neighborhood. In vain the Evil One sought to hinder the completion of the church, and finally he waylaid the bishop outside the building and attempted to kill him. But the good bishop at this critical time called upon the Blessed Virgin Mary for assistance, and she sent a tempest of wind which so buffeted and distracted the Devil that he sought refuge inside the church, not daring to venture out because of the fierce wind, which prevails a good part of the time even nowadays, and which is still awaiting the Devil's reappearance!
The Bishop, we know, died long ago;
The wind still waits, nor will he go
Till he has a chance of beating his foe;
But the Devil hopp'd up without a limp,
And at once took shape as the Lincoln Imp.
And there he sits atop the column,
And grins at the people who gaze so solemn.
Moreover, he mocks at the wind below,
And says, "You may wait till doomsday, O!"
In southern Germany, Bavaria, and Tyrol, the horseshoe symbol is to be seen on church-doors, as an emblem of St. Leonard, the guardian and protector of horses and travelers; and it is usually associated with some romantic legend, having oftentimes a historic basis. Traditions relating to horse-shoes on churchdoors are, indeed, plentiful in the popular literature of Germany, and a few examples are given later. St. Leonard's Day, November 6, had its special observances. The peasants were wont to bring their horses to some church dedicated to that worthy, and ride them thrice around the sacred building, a procedure which was believed to be highly auspicious. It was, moreover, customary for noblemen, before starting on an equestrian journey, to fasten a horse-shoe on the church-door as a votive offering to St. Leonard.
Especial honor is accorded to this saint on the day of his festival, at Fischhausen, a seaport village in northeastern Prussia. On that occasion the parish church is surrounded by farm wagons and other vehicles drawn by gayly decorated horses, for here the country people have a grand rendezvous; young women in holiday attire drive hither the cows, who have been brought from their summer quarters in the upland pastures, that they, too, may participate in the festivities. A religious service, largely attended by the peasants, is first held in the church, and then follow the outdoor exercises, of which a chief feature consists in driving the horses three times around the building at a rapid pace.
During the prevalence of a severe epizoötic in Würtemberg many years ago, the people removed the shoes from their horses' feet, and hung them on the walls of churches as propitiatory offerings. Various other iron implements, such as chain traces, were thus similarly displayed.
An ancient St. Leonard's Chapel, in the town of Laupheim, is encircled by an iron chain, which is said to have been forged from horse-shoes thus piously contributed. The largest church dedicated to this saint is at Tölz, in upper Bavaria, and its altar is likewise surrounded by an iron chain.
Pictures of St. Leonard are sometimes placed upon stable-doors to bring luck; he is usually represented as holding a pastoral staff, while on one side is seen a colt or filly, on the other a sick ox, and at his feet is a ewe lamb.
In northern Germany, St. George, as a successor of Wodan, is one of the special guardians and protectors of horses. On the festal day of this saint, April 23, the peasants gather in large numbers around some church dedicated to him, and their horses and vehicles, numbering sometimes many hundreds, are drawn up in a circle around the sanctuary. After the parish priest has delivered a sermon in the church, he comes to the door and blesses each horse separately as the animal is led past, meanwhile sprinkling him with holy water.
Then the young men mount their best horses and ride them three times at full speed around the church, shouting lustily meanwhile.
Jhns remarks that this ceremony is doubtless a relic of some pagan rite, and that in many places a venerable tree, instead of a Christian church, is chosen as the place of rendezvous on St. George's Day. During the ride around the tree, an aged peasant standing in its shade throws upon each horse, as it passes, a little moist earth taken from about the roots of the sacred tree, and this insures the animal against sickness until the following spring, especially if some of the earth be placed in a bag and hung up in the stable.
As the hammer was Thor's emblem, so the horse-shoe has been thought to possess a certain mystic significance as a symbol of the heathen god Wodan; and it has been assumed that the ancient churches, upon whose doors horse-shoes are still to be seen, were built upon the sites of pagan temples dedicated to that deity. It has been argued, moreover, that the modern use of a horse-shoe as a talisman, and the placing of horses' heads on peasants' houses, are relics of heathendom, and have a mysterious affinity with the hoof-print legends of Teutonic mythology. Such a theory appears plausible enough in view of the fact that many of the superstitious customs and beliefs of modern times are known to have existed before the Christian era.