It has been supposed that the horse-shoe is placed at the outer entrance to a building because of an ancient Saxon superstition that witches were unable successfully to practice their wiles upon persons in the open air. The horse-shoe effectively bars the ingress of witches and evil spirits, but an entrance once obtained by these creatures, it is powerless to expel them. Therefore the horse-shoe within doors loses much of its efficacy, but is still an emblem of good luck.
Placed on the outside of the door, or above the entrance of a dwelling, or upon the threshold, the horseshoe is easily first among the inveterate foes of witches and devils generally.
Laugh if you will, who imps nor devils fear,
Whom death appals not, phantoms come not near;
Along whose nerves no quick vibrations dart,
As teeming twilight's shadowy offspring start;
Not yours to feel the joy with which I flew
To snatch the rusty, worn, but lucky shoe.
Oft have I heard them chattering at my door,
The hags whose dances beat the shrinking moor;
Oft have I sprung from nightmare-haunted rest,
And gasped an oro from my panting breast,
As forms that vanished ere the half-shut eye
With fright could open, from their revels fly.
Henceforth, good horse-shoe, vain shall be their ride
Their spells are baffled and their rage defied.
Edward Moor, in his "Oriental Fragments" (p. 455, London, 1834), relates having once, in company with a gang of urchins, nailed a donkey-shoe under the threshold of a poor woman in Suffolk who was suspected of sorcery. He and his youthful companions endeavored thus to keep her all night within doors, as witches cannot cross iron.
An English writer tells of having heard an animated discussion in the parlor of a London beer-shop as to whether it were preferable to nail a horse-shoe behind the door or upon the first doorstep; and instances of extraordinary good luck were mentioned as the direct result of the potency of the amulet in each position.
But there are weighty reasons for the selection of the front door, or the parts immediately connected with it, as the proper place for the display of horse-shoes as household guardians.
In the earliest historic times, and in primitive communities, the entrance of a dwelling was considered a sacred place; and in the opinion of eminent scholars who have made a study of the subject, the threshold was the first family altar. A peculiar reverence for the doorway and threshold prevails to-day in many parts of the world, as is evident from the numerous ceremonial rites in vogue among widely separated savage tribes and uncivilized peoples. Indeed, the custom of placing amulets and charms in and about the entrance-doors of houses, stables, and other buildings is almost universal. In Russia a cross is marked on the threshold to keep witches away. In Lithuania, when a house is being built, a wooden cross, or some article which has been handed down from past generations, is placed under the threshold. There, also, when a newly baptized child is being brought back from church, it is customary for its father to hold it for a while over the threshold, "so as to place the new member of the family under the protection of the domestic divinities." Sick children who are supposed to have been afflicted by an evil eye are washed on the threshold of their cottage, in order that with the help of the Penates who reside there, the malady may be driven out of doors.
Under the threshold of the Assyrian palaces at Nineveh were found certain images of grotesque monsters, as, for example, a human form with the head of a lynx, and a lion's body with a man's head, which were intended as tutelary deities.
John Netten Radcliffe, in his "Fiends, Ghosts, and Sprites" (p. 43, London, 1854), says that the horse-shoe superstition is a remnant or relic of the worship of household guardians or divinities,--a practice still in vogue among the natives of Ashantee, and also among the Bhutas of Hindostan. In some English counties, naturally perforated stones are hung behind the door; and in Glamorganshire the walls of the houses are whitewashed in order to terrify wandering spirits of evil. Whether successful or not for this purpose, the custom is certainly effective as a destroyer of the demoniac germs of certain diseases.
The French Canadians are not the least superstitious of mankind, neither do they wholly neglect to take due precautions against the admittance to their homes of evil spirits.
They do not answer "Entrez!" when a knock is heard at the door, but call out "Ouvrez!" This custom is said to have originated from a current tradition regarding a young woman who once answered "Entrez!" in response to a knock, whereupon the Devil promptly came in and carried her away. Where such legends find open-mouthed credence, it does not appear strange that horse-shoes and other talismans should be at a premium.
In Tuscany magical medicines are taken upon the threshold, which also plays an important part in sorcery. One reason assigned for this fact is that the threshold forms the line separating the outer world, where demons are rampant, from the domestic precincts, where human beings dwell.
One writer affirms it to be a fixed law in demonology that spirits cannot cross the threshold and enter a house unless previously invited to do so, but adds that there are many exceptions to this rule. The weight of evidence does not support this view, for mischievous fairies and witches are known to rudely disregard the laws of etiquette, and do not wait for an invitation to enter dwellings. This fact is, indeed, a chief raison d'être for the use of talismans at the entrance of habitations.
The residents of the beautiful Thuringian Forest region, in whose neighborhood these lines chanced to be penned, are wont to affix horse-shoes to the thresholds of their chamber-doors, lest some rude goblin enter and disturb their slumbers. But the fastidiousness of these sylvan folk is not content with an ordinary shoe, even though found on the road and venerable with rust; in order to serve its purpose as a talisman, a Thuringian horse-shoe must have been forged by a bachelor of wholesome life and good character, on Saint John's Eve.
In German households, the horse-shoe over the door is believed to afford protection against divers apparitions, as well as against the Devil, witchcraft, lightning, sickness, and evils of every sort.
The cross, symbol of the Christian faith, is the most potent of all talismans, but is seldom seen at the entrance of dwellings. In some Roman Catholic countries the crucifix is, indeed, everywhere conspicuous, not only in churches and shrines, but by the roadside, in fields, and on the outer ways of houses, but it is rarely placed at the front door. In Hungary, however, the Magyars mark with black chalk the figure of a cross upon their stable-doors, and also brand anew thereon the sacred emblem each year at Christmas time.
The respect paid by the inhabitants of Tibet to their household divinities somewhat resembles the worship of their Lares by the Romans of old, and finds a parallel in the honor accorded to the favorite amulet of Western civiezation, the horse-shoe.
The Tibetans set up above the entrances of their houses complex talismans, composed of various mystical objects, such as a ram's skull with horns attached, having displayed along the base of the skull pieces of carved wood representing a man and woman, a house, and other symbols; the idea being to deceive the demons, and to make them believe that these objects are the real dwelling and its inmates. The Tibetans believe that the demons are thus tricked, and that the wooden images are the victims of their mischievous designs.
Far away among the nomadic tribes of Turkestan, horse-shoes are occasionally seen nailed to the thresholds of dwellings in the vicinity of the ancient city of Merv; and within doors, near the entrances of these peculiar habitations, which resemble mammoth parrot cages, pieces of linen or calico, four or five inches square, are seen upon the felt wall-lining, to serve as receptacles for the free-will offerings of such wandering spirits as may pass the magic barriers of the horse-shoes.
In some regions there still prevails a time-honored custom of placing over the chief entrances of dwellings inscriptions, embodying usually a religious thought or exhortation. Sometimes, however, the sentence commends the house and its occupants to the care of the goddess Fortune, thus having a significance akin to that of the horse-shoe symbol. In the year 1892 the writer copied many inscriptions found above the doors of houses in northern Italy and Switzerland, some of them being written in Latin, others in German, French, Italian, and the Romansch dialect, current in the Engadine. Here, for example, is one from a house in the Swiss village of Bergun, the original being in German: "This house is in God's hand; May Good Luck come in, and Bad Luck stay out! 1673."
Many of these inscriptions are Biblical verses, which are here used as talismans, just as the pious Moslem employs sentences from the Koran.
Here, again, is the translation of a German sentence over the door of a dwelling in the village of Ober-Schönberg, near Innsbruck, Tyrol, copied in 1897:
All persons entering this house are recommended to Divine protection. God and the Virgin Mary guard all such, even though powerful enemies threaten, and lightnings and thunder rage without!
Above the door of a house in the village of Welschnofen, near Botzen, the wayfarer may read the following sentence: "Pray for us, holy Florian, that fire may not harm our dwelling." Above the inscription an eye is painted, while below is a realistic picture of Saint Florian, the protector of buildings against fire, engaged in pouring water on a burning roof.
The Bassamese, inhabitants of the Gold Coast of Africa, west of Ashantee, use certain fetich objects for the protection of their dwellings. These amulets, which are often merely pieces of wood painted red, or fragments of pottery, are placed upon the doors of their huts, and are believed to afford ample protection against thieves. Such a fetich is probably intended to exclude evil spirits as well, and is, therefore, a substitute for both the horse-shoe and the watch-dog, those guardians of the household so popular in civilized communities.
When a modern Egyptian returns from a pilgrimage to Mecca, he fastens above the entrance of his house a branch of the aloe, which is not only a proof of his religious zeal in having accomplished the holy journey, but is also reckoned a protection against objectionable spiritual intruders, and is, therefore, seen in Cairo over the doors of the houses both of Christians and Jews.
In northern Scotland, formerly, a branch of the rowantree was placed over a farmhouse door, after having been waved while the words "Avaunt, Satan!" were solemnly pronounced.
About the year 1850 the Rev. Andrew A. Bonar, who was then assistant minister in Collace Parish, Perthshire, Scotland, found the custom of displaying horseshoes on the doors of farm buildings so prevalent that he thought it his duty to remonstrate against a practice savoring of paganism. But his efforts in this direction, though hardly crowned with success, were yet not wholly without avail, for his superstitious parishioners removed the guardian horse-shoes from the outsides of the doors, and nailed them up on the insides.
The raison d'être of the horse-shoe at the entrance of shops and other frequented buildings has been attributed to a belief that, among the many people continually passing through the doorway, some one might, unobserved, bring in ill-luck or work mischief. But these safeguards not only form a sufficient barrier against obnoxious hags and sorcerers, but are potent against ghosts and all manner of evil creatures. When the Oxford undergraduate "sports his oak" to prevent the untimely entrance of dunning tradespeople, he shuts out friendly visitors as well; but the faithful horseshoe, by a process of natural selection, debars only objectionable spirits, and is a formidable obstacle to the demon of ill-luck.