But the efficacy of the horse-shoe as a protector of people and buildings depends not solely upon its arched shape, nor on its bifurcated form, nor yet upon its fancied resemblance to a snake. Its relation to the horse also gives it a talismanic value; for in legendary lore this animal was often credited with supernatural qualities. An English myth ascribes to the horse the character of a luck-bringer, and horse-worship was in vogue among the early Celts, Teutons, and Slavs.
In Hindostan, also, the horse is regarded as a lucky animal; and when an equestrian rides into a sugar-cane field in the sowing season, the event is considered auspicious. In the same region the froth from a horse's mouth is thought to repel demons, which are believed to have more fear of a horse than of any other animal. The natives of northern India also believe that the horse was originally a winged creature, and that the horny protuberances on his legs indicate where the wings were attached.
In the Norse mythology almost every deity has his particular steed, as have most of the heroes of antiquity, for the heathen nations regarded the horse as sacred and divine.
Tradition says that when the city of Carthage was founded by Dido, the Phoenician queen, in the ninth century B.C., a priestess of Juno dug in the ground, by command of the oracle, and discovered the head of a bullock. This was considered unsatisfactory, because bullocks and oxen were servile animals under the yoke. Thereupon the priestess again turned up the soil and found a horse's head, which was reckoned auspicious, for the horse, although sometimes yoked to the plough, was also symbolic of war and martial glory. Therefore a temple of Juno was built on the spot, and the figure of a horse's head was adopted as an emblem by the Carthaginians and stamped upon their coins.
Dr. Ludwig Beck, in his "History of Iron," states that in Teutonic legends the horse was sacred to Wodan or Odin, who always rode, while Thor either drove about in his chariot or went afoot. Thence it is, says this writer, that the Devil of the Middle Ages is represented with the hoofs of a horse.
The reputation of the horse as a prophetic and divinatory animal, even among Christian peoples, is shown by various German traditions, of which the following is an example. When the inhabitants of Delve, a village in the Duchy of Holstein, were about to build a church, the choice of a site was determined in this manner: An image of the Virgin was fastened upon the back of a parti-colored mare, which was then allowed to roam at will; and it was agreed that the church should be erected upon the spot where the mare should be found the next morning. This proved to be a neighboring bramble-thicket, and the new edifice was accordingly placed there, and dedicated to "Our beloved Lady on the Horse."
The ancient belief in the oracular powers of the horse is well shown by a custom formerly in vogue among the Pomeranians. On the outbreak of a war a priest laid three spears at equal distances upon the ground in front of the temple. Two other spears were then leaned transversely across them, with their points resting in the earth. After a prayer the high priest led up a sacred horse, and if he stepped with his right foot foremost thrice in succession over the spears without stumbling, it was accounted a good augury, otherwise not.
A dragon-headed horse, emblematic of grandeur, having on its back the civilizing book of the law, is one of the four great mythic animals of the Chinese; and the Tibetans have a like symbol, which they use as a luck-bringing talisman.
The association of the horse with luck is prominent in Indian than myth as well:--
The jewel-horse of the universal monarch, such as Buddha was to have been had he cared for worldly grandeur, carries its rider Pegasus-like through the air in whatever direction wished for, and thus it would become associated with the idea of material wishes, and especially wealth and jewels.
Among the lower classes of the Hindus of Bombay, a notion is prevalent that spirits are frightened by the sound of a horse's hoofs; and this superstition has been thought to explain the custom, in vogue among the Hindus generally, of having a bridegroom ride a horse when on his way to the bride's residence.
In Bokhara, when a horse stumbles in fording a stream, and the rider thereby gets an involuntary wetting, it is considered a most fortunate occurrence instead of a mishap. In the same country it is also accounted lucky to meet an equestrian.
One reason in favor of the theory which ascribes the horse-shoe's weird powers to its connection with a luck-bringing animal is the fact that various portions of the equine frame serve as amulets in different localities. Thus not only the horse-shoe but the hoof, or even a single bone of the foot, may be used for this object.
In the island of Montserrat the two incisor teeth of a horse are carried about as charms. The popular belief of many people credits equine hair with special virtues. "Honor abides in the manes of horses" is a saying of Mohammed, and in Turkey a horse's tail as an emblem is significant of dignity and exalted position.
In certain villages of Brandenburg every new-born boy, before his first bath, is placed upon a horse, the animal being brought into the chamber for the purpose. This is thought to impart to the child manly qualities for life. In other districts small children are allowed to ride a black foal to facilitate the cutting of their teeth; and the neighings of horses are believed to be of favorable import if listened to carefully. The popular belief on this subject is exemplified in the German saying, "He has horse-luck," in reference to a piece of extraordinary good fortune.
The Irish think that the reason for the horse-shoe's magical power is because the horse and the ass were in the stable where Christ was born, and hence are evermore blessed animals.
The romantic literature of Ireland affords evidence of the existence of a species of horse-worship in that country in former ages, and tradition says that in the olden time there were horses endowed with human faculties. We learn from Tacitus, moreover, that the Teutonic peoples "used white horses, as the Romans used chickens, for purposes of augury, and divined future events from different intonations of neighings. Hence it probably is that the discovery of a horse-shoe is so universally thought lucky, some of the feelings that once attached to the aninial itself still surviving around the iron of its hoof. For horses, like dogs and birds, were universally accredited with a greater insight into futurity than man himself."
The horse is seen among the insignia of Kent, the first of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and is displayed at the present time on the shields of the houses of Hanover and Brunswick.
One of the most solemn forms of oath taken on the eve of battle required a warrior to swear "by the shoulder of a horse and the edge of a sword" that he would not flee from the enemy even if the latter should be superior in strength.
At the time of the conquest of Peru, the Indian aborigines were amazed at the sight of the Spanish horse-men, believing that man and horse were one creature. And it is said that Pizarro owed his life to this superstitious belief; for on one occasion, when pursued by the natives, he fell from his horse, and the Peruvians who witnessed the mishap, believing that one animal had by magic divided itself into two, gave up the pursuit in dismay.
M. D. Conway, in his "Demonology and Devil-Lore," asserts that the Scandinavian superstition known as the "demon-mare" is the source of the use of the horseshoe against witches. In Germany there is a saying in reference to the morbid oppression sometimes experienced during sleep or while dreaming, and which is a symptom of indigestion, "The nightmare hath ridden thee."
This elvish mare rides horses also, and in the morning their manes are found all tangled and dripping with sweat.
Grimm says that the traditional idea of the Nightmare seems to waver between the ridden animal and the riding, trampling one, precisely as the Devil is sometimes represented as riding men, and again as taking them on his back after the manner of a horse.
According to a Bavarian popular belief, the Nightmare is a woman, who is wont to appear at the house-door of a morning, invariably requesting the loan of some article. In order to get rid of her at night, one should say: "Come to-morrow and receive the three white gifts." The next morning the woman comes, and is given a handful of flour, a handful of salt, and an egg.
In the north of England, naturally perforated stones are hung up by the side of the manger to prevent the Night Hag from riding the horses. In a rare book of the sixteenth century, entitled "The Fower Chiefest Offices belonging to Horsemanship, by Tho. Blundenill, of Newton Flotman, in Norffolke," the following curious charm is given as a remedy for horses affected with the nightmare:--
Take a Flynt Stone that
hath a hole of hys owne
kynde, and hang it ouer
hym and wryte in a bill:
In nomine patris, etc.
Saint George our Ladyes Knight,
He walked day so did he night
Until he hir found,
He hir beate and hir bounde,
Till truely hir trouth she
That she woulde not come
within the night.
There as Saint George
our Ladyes Knight
Named was three tymes,
And hang this Scripture ouer him, and let him alone. With such proper charmes as thys is, the false Fryers in tymes past were wont to charme the money out of the playne folkes purses.
Drink offerings were anciently poured from vessels made from horses' hoofs; and witches are popularly supposed to drink with avidity the water which collects in equine hoof-tracks. German writers on early traditions and folk-lore agree in ascribing to the horse-shoe divers magical properties, whose origin is vaguely connected with the ancient pagan conception of the horse as a sacrificial animal.
According to a popular poetic fancy of the ancient Teutons, horses, Wodan's favorite and darling animals, were endowed with the gifts of speech and prophecy during the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany. At this holy season they were wont to put their heads together, and impart to each other confidentially their experiences and trials of the past year; and this communion of equine spirits was the sole pleasure vouchsafed to the noble animals, and atoned in a measure for the hard work which was their lot.
Even nowadays many peasants do not venture to harness their horses at Christmas time, and do not even speak of the animals by name, but make use of pet epithets and circumlocutions when they have occasion to refer to them. On Christmas night, hostlers often sleep in the manger or under it, and their dreams at such times are prophetic for the coming year, for in their sleep they can hear what the horses are saying.
In order to impart health and vigor to the animals without incurring the expense of extra fodder, the hostler walks at Epiphany season by night three times around the village church, carrying in his uplifted hands a bundle of hay, which he afterwards feeds to the horses; or on Christmas night he steals some cabbage, which is then mixed with the fodder; or, before going to the midnight Christmas Mass, he lays on the manure-heap a quantity of hay called the "Mass hay," and on his return from church this is given to the horses. Some peasants have a yet more simple method of promoting the welfare of their horses, which consists in laying the cleaning-cloth upon a hedge on the evenings of Christmas, New Year's Day, or Epiphany, and afterwards grooming the animals with the dew-laden cloth.
In the popular mind horses are credited with extraordinarily keen faculties for detecting ghosts and haunted places, which they instinctively scent from afar. The Thuringian peasant does not beat his horse when the latter refuses to proceed along some gloomy forest road; for the whip is useless against spiritual obstacles, whereas a Paternoster devoutly repeated is usually much more effective.
It is a Bohemian superstition that a horse sees everything magnified tenfold, and that this is the reason why the noble animal submits to being led by a little child.
When a Brandenburg rustic has bought a horse in a neighboring town and rides him homeward, he dismounts at the boundary line of his own village, and, gathering a handful of his native soil, he throws it backward over the line to prevent the animal's being bewitched. In Bohemia the chief signs of bewitchment in a horse are thought to be shivering, profuse sweating, and emaciation. A charm against this consists in drawing one's shirt inside out over one's head, and using it as a wherewithal to groom the animal,--a method which may be acceptable to superstitious jockeys and hostlers, but which will hardly commend itself to a fastidious horse-owner.