The theory has been advanced that in ancient idolatrous times the horse-shoe in its primitive form was a symbol in serpent-worship, and that its superstitious use as a charm may have thus originated. This seems plausible enough, inasmuch as there is a resemblance between the horse-shoe and the arched body of the snake, when the latter is so convoluted that its head and tail correspond to the horse-shoe prongs.
Both snakes and horse-shoes were anciently engraved on stones and medals, presumably as amuletic symbols; and in front of a church in Crendi, a town in the southern part of the island of Malta, there is to be seen a statue having at its feet a protective symbol in the shape of a half moon encircled by a snake.
The serpent played an important role in Asiatic and ancient Egyptian symbolism. This has been thought to be due partly to a belief that the sun's path through the heavens formed a serpentine curve, and partly because lightning, or the fertilizing fire, sometimes flashes upon the earth in a snake-like zigzag. The serpent was endowed with the attributes of divinity on account of its graceful and easy movements, the brightness of it's eyes, the function of discarding its skin (a process which was regarded as emblematic of a renewal of its youth), and its instantaneous spring upon its prey. The worship of serpents is of great antiquity, the earliest authentic accounts of the custom being found in Chaldean and Chinese astronomical works. It was nearly universal among the most ancient nations of the world, and this universality has been ascribed to the traditionary remembrance of the serpent in Eden, and has given rise to the opinion of some writers that snake-worship may have been the primitive religion of the human race.
On the walls of houses in Pompeii are to be seen the figures of snakes, which are believed to have been intended as preservative symbols; and we learn from Mr. C. G. Leland's "Etruscan Roman Remains" that the peasants of the mountainous regions in northern Italy, known as the Romagna Toscana, have a custom of painting on the walls of their houses the figures of serpents with the heads and tails pointing upward. These are intended both as amulets to keep away witches, and as luck-bringers, and are therefore exact counterparts of the horse-shoe and the crescent as magical emblems. The more interlaced the snake's coils, the more effective the amulet; the idea being that a witch is obliged to trace out and follow with her eye the interweaving convolutions, and that in attempting to do this she becomes bewildered, and is temporarily rendered incapable of doing harm.
In ancient Roman works of art the serpent is sometimes portrayed as a protective symbol. In some bronze figures of Fortune unearthed at Herculaneum, serpents are represented either as encircling the arm of the goddess, or as entwined about her cornucopia, thus typifying, as it were, the idea of the intimate association of the snake with good luck.
The Phoenicians rendered homage to serpents, and history shows that the Lithuanians, Sarmatians, or inhabitants of ancient Poland, and other nations of central Europe, treated these reptiles with superstitious respect. In Russia, also, domestic snakes were formerly carefully nurtured, for they were thought to bring good fortune to the members of a household.
The worship of serpents is still practiced in Persia, Tibet, Ceylon, and other Eastern lands. In western Africa, also, the serpent is a chief deity, and is appealed to by the natives in seasons of drought and pestilence. A talisman having the form of a snake, and known as la sirena, is in use among the lower classes at Naples.
In the folk-lore of the south Slavonian nations the serpent is regarded as a protective genius, not only of the people, but of domestic animals and houses as well. Every human being has a snake as tutelary divinity, with which his growth and well-being are closely connected, and the killing of one of these sacred creatures was formerly deemed a grave offense. To meet with a snake has long been accounted fortunate in some countries. The south Slav peasant believes that whoever encounters one of these creatures, on first going into the woods in the spring, will be prosperous throughout the year. But on the other hand he regards it as an evil omen if he happens to catch a glimpse of his own tutelary serpent. Fortunately, however, a man never knows which particular ophidian is his special guardian.
The relation of the serpent to sculptured or engraved stones reveals to us the reptile as still the object of veneration, if not of adoration, among widely remote nations. If we search among the tombs of Egypt, Assyria, and Etruria, we shall find innumerable signets, cylinders, and scarabei of gems engraved with serpents; these were proverbially worn as amulets, or used as insignia of authority; and, in the temples and tombs of these and other countries, serpents are engraved or sculptured or painted, either as hieroglyphics or as forming symbolical ornaments of deities or genii. In India they are sculptured twining around all the gods of the cave temples which mark the graves of kings and heroes, and the oldest of the Scandinavian runes are written within the folds of serpents engraved on stones.
In ancient Mexican temples the serpent symbol is frequently seen. The approach to the temple of El Castillo, at Chichen in Yucatan, is guarded by a pair of huge serpent heads, and a second pair protect the entrance to the sanctuary. Figures of serpents also appear in the Mosaic relief designs of the facades, and within on the sanctuary walls. So, too, in the temples of Palenque and other southern Mexican towns, serpents are everywhere plentiful in the decorations and sculptures.
Representations of snakes are to be seen on the walls of houses in many parts of India at the present day, and villages have their special ophite guardians.
The fifth day of the first or bright half of the lunar month S'ravana, which nearly corresponds with August, is celebrated by the Brahmins in honor of the naga or cobra. Some interesting details of the ceremonies on these occasions are given in Balfour's "Cyclopaedia of India." We learn from this source that native women are wont at such times to join in dancing around snake-holes, and also to prostrate themselves and invoke blessings; while others bow down before living cobras at their own homes, or worship figures of serpents.
Visits from snakes are highly appreciated as auspicious events, and the reptiles are sure of a hospitable reception, because they are looked upon as tutelary divinities.
Thus the serpent was held sacred by the nations of antiquity, being a prominent feature in every mythology and symbolizing many pagan divinities.
The Vlach women of European Turkey, who inhabit villages in the mountain ranges of Thessaly and Albania, treat serpents with great respect and even with Veneration. If one of the harmless white snakes which abound in the country chances to enter a cottage, it is provided with food and allowed to depart unharmed, its appearance indoors being accounted a lucky event. Such friendly treatment often results in the snake's becoming domesticated and receiving the title of "house-serpent." The Carinthians, too, are wont to treat snakes as fondlings, for they consider that these reptiles bring good luck proportionate in degree to their bodily diameter; hence they are fed with care and provided with bowls of milk twice a day.
Indeed, in many countries the serpent or dragon, originally a guardian of treasure, is considered a house-protector. The same conception is embodied in the grotesque dragon-headed gargoyles so common in mediaeval architecture.
Dr. Daniel G. Brinton, in speaking of the emblematic significance of the serpent among American aborigines, remarks that this symbol has ever been associated with religious mysteries.
Many derivatives from the Hebrew and Arabic words for serpent signify the practice of sorcery, consultation with familiar spirits, and intercourse with demons.
It would seem, therefore, not improbable that the horse-shoe amulet has acquired some portion of the magical influences ascribed to it through its serpentine form.
The serpent-symbol has furnished a theme for many writers, and sumptuous volumes attest its deep interest.
The chief points which relate to our present subject are briefly: (1) The similarity of form between the horse-shoe and a serpentine coil, and (2) the association of ideas resulting therefrom in the popular mind. The horse-shoe, when allied symbolically to the serpent, represents a creature which has ever been an object of superstition, whether as a deity, household guardian, or embodiment of evil. Hence it suggests magical power, whether good or evil, but chiefly the idea of beneficent, protective influence.