Sacred Texts  Misc Texts  Index  Previous  Next 


He laughs like a boor who has found a horse-shoe.
--Dutch proverb.

Throughout Germany the belief obtains that a horseshoe found on the road, and nailed on the threshold of a house with the points directed outward, is a mighty protection not only against hags and fiends, but also against fire and lightning; but, reversed, it brings misfortune. In eastern Pennsylvania, however, even in recent times, the horse-shoe is often placed with the prongs pointing inward, so that the luck may be spilled into the house. The horse-shoe retains its potency as a charm on the sea as well as on land, and it has long been a practice among sailors to nail this favorite amulet against the mast of a vessel, whether fishing-boat or large sea-going craft, as a protection against the Evil One. The shoe of a "wraith-horse," the mythical off spring of a water-stallion, is especially esteemed by Scotch mariners for this purpose.

In Bohemia only exists the superstition exactly opposite to that elsewhere prevalent, namely, that whoever picks up a horse-shoe thereby ipso facto picks up ill-luck for himself,--a notable example in folk-lore of the exception which proves the rule. The Bohemians, however, believe a nailed-up horse-shoe to be a cure for lunacy.

As a general rule, the degree of luck pertaining to a horse-shoe found by chance has been thought to depend on the number of nails remaining in it: the more nails the more luck.

In Northumberland the holes free of nails are carefully counted, as these indicate, presumably in years, how soon the finder of the shoe may expect to be married. The peasants of northern Portugal prefer mule-shoes having an uneven number of nail-holes, as counteractives of the evil influences of the dreaded, omnipresent witches known as the Bruxas.

In Derbyshire it is customary to drive a horseshoe, prongs upward, between two flagstones near the door of a dwelling. This position is sometimes explained by saying that, so placed, the luck cannot spill out.

In a short poem called "The Lucky Horse-Shoe," by James T. Fields, an amusing account is given of a farmer who picked up an old horse-shoe from the road, and nailed it upon the door of his barn with the prongs downward. But, far from bringing him luck, Fortune thereafter frowned upon him; his hay crop failed, a drought blighted his vegetables, and his hens refused to lay.

The good farmer, discouraged and perplexed, confided his woes to the sympathetic ear of an aged wayfarer who chanced to pass by, relating how misfortunes had pursued him since he had fastened up the old horse-shoe.

The stranger asked to see the shoe;
The farmer brought it into view;
But when the old man raised his head,
He laughed outright and quickly said:
"No wonder skies upon you frown,
You've nailed the horse-shoe upside down;
Just turn it round, and soon you'll see
How you and Fortune will agree."

The farmer profited by the friendly suggestion and reversed his luck-token, whereupon the capricious goddess fairly beamed upon him. His barn was soon filled with hay, his storehouses were packed with the kindly fruits of the earth, while his wife presented him with twins.

Farmers may well take heed how they nail up horseshoes over the doors of their barns. To obtain the best results, it would seem advisable to place a pair of these useful articles on each farm building, one with the points upward, the other reversed; for in this way they may not only hope to win Fortune's smiles, but also to keep all witches and unfriendly spirits at a respectful distance.

In an interesting story for children in "St. Nicholas," April, 1897, by Rudolph F. Bunner, entitled "The Horse-Shoe of Luck," the writer introduces Luck in the character and garb of a wandering clown or jester, mounted upon a white horse. This jovial traveler seeks a night's lodging at a wayside farmhouse, and when he has almost reached its hospitable door, his steed casts a shoe, which the farmer hastens to pick up and carefully hangs on a hook above the door. Luck proved to be a most amusing fellow, and after supper he entertained the children of the household in a royal manner, showing them, among other things, how to drop china and glass without breaking them, and how to tumble down stairs without getting hurt. So the evening passed merrily enough, and all retired for the night in a happy frame of mind. Early in the morning the farmer was awakened by the splash of raindrops upon his face, and, hastily arising, he discovered that the roof had sprung a leak, and that his guest had unceremoniously departed. Nettled by such conduct, the farmer and his family hastened in pursuit of the fleeing stranger, guided by the hoof-prints of his white horse; and when they had overtaken him, the farmer reproached his late guest for having left his house so abruptly. Whereupon Luck repied: "I left you, not because you could not even nail my horse-shoe over your door, but hung it upside down, so the luck ran out at the ends, but because of your own mistake. You trusted to me; you trusted to Luck. Ah ha! "

In the northernmost districts of Scotland exists a belief that if the first shoe put on the foot of a stallion be hung on the byre door, no harm will come near the cows; and in the same region, if a horse-shoe be placed between the houses of quarrelsome neighbors, neither incurs any risk of evil as a result of the other's illwishes.

As a means of warding off impending sickness from cattle, and in order that they may thrive during the summer, the Transylvanian peasants place broken horseshoes in the animals' drinking-troughs on St. John's Day, June 24.

In Lincolnshire, not many years ago, there prevailed a custom of "charming" ash-trees by burying horseshoes under them. Twigs from a tree thus magically endowed were believed to be efficacious in curing cattle over which a shrewmouse had run, or which had been exposed to the glance of an evil eye. To effect a cure in such cases, it was only necessary to gently stroke the affected animal with one of these twigs.

Some years ago, a Golspie fisherman who owned a small boat was favored with an extraordinary run of luck in his fishing, and as a result of his good fortune was enabled to buy a larger vessel, selling the old one to a neighbor. From that time, however, his lucky star seemed to wane, and good "catches" were infrequent. Casting about in his mind for the reason of this, he bethought him of a stallion's shoe which was fastened inside his former boat, and which had been given him by a "wise person." But both boat and horseshoe were now in the hands of his neighbor, who maintained with reason that the lucky token was now his property, as he had purchased "the boat and its gear." And ever thereafter the disconsolate fisherman attributed his lack of success in that season to his own folly in having parted with the stallion's shoe.

The horse-shoe figures often in traditions of the sea as a protection to sailors. When the ghostly ship of the Flying Dutchman meets another vessel, some of its uncanny crew approach the latter in a boat and beg them to take charge of a packet of letters.

These letters must be nailed to the mast, else some misfortune will overtake the ship; especially if there be no Bible on board, nor any horse-shoe fastened to the foremast.

In the month of September, 1825, lightning struck a brigantine which lay at anchor in the Bay of Armiso, in the Adriatic. A sailor was killed by the bolt, and tradition says that on one of his hips was seen the perfect representation of a horse-shoe, a counterpart of one nailed to the vessel's foremast in accordance with the custom in vogue on the Mediterranean.

The same custom is common in German inland waters, as, for example, on the river craft which ply on the Elbe below Hamburg, and on those which navigate the Trave, at Lubec. On the latter vessels horse-shoes are usually fastened to the stern-post, instead of to the mast.

In a German work, entitled "Seespuk," by P. G. Heims, page 138, the writer remarks that, among seafaring people, the old pagan emblem, the horse-shoe, whose talismanic origin is so closely associated with horse-sacrifice and the use of horse-flesh as food among the heathen nations of the North, is even now the most powerful safeguard aboard ship against lightning and the powers of evil.

There are comparatively few small vessels laden with wood, fruit, vegetables, or other merchandise, sailing between Baltic Sea ports, upon whose foremast, or elsewhere upon deck, horse-shoes are not nailed.

Indeed, continues the same writer, this symbol has a notable significance in German art as well, a fact attributable less to its graceful curving shape than to the deeply rooted superstitions, relics of barbaric times, which yet cling to it.

Whether we regard the horse-shoe as a symbol of Wodan, the chief deity of the northern nations, as deriving magical power from its half-moon shape, as a product of supernatural skill in dealing with iron and fire, or as appertaining to the favorite sacrificial animal of antiquity, the pagan source of its superstitious use is equally evident.

The horse-shoe, whether as an amulet or as a sign of good luck, has nothing to do with the Christian religion. In either case it is a wholly superstitious symbol, and savors of paganism; it is in fact an inheritance from our heathen ancestors, a barbaric token, unworthy even to be named in connection with the sacred cross. Yet throughout many centuries it has captivated the popular fancy, and its emblematic use appears to be as firmly established to-day as ever in many parts of the world.

It is popularly believed that the chance finding of a horse-shoe greatly enhances its magical power; and it is claimed, moreover, by some writers, to be an axiom in folk-lore that talismanic objects thrust upon one's notice, as it were, are direct gifts from the goddess Fortune, and hence possessed of a special value for the finder. Such a notion is as clearly of pagan origin as the custom of bowing to the new moon, or of fixing representations of horses' heads upon the gables of houses in order to terrify wandering spirits of evil.

In "Curiosities of Popular Customs," by William S. Walsh (p. 665, 1898), it is stated that the Northern peoples were wont to offer sacrifices to Wodan after the harvest, and that the little cakes still baked on St. Martin's Day, November 11, throughout Germany, are shaped like a horn or horse-shoe, which was a token of the pagan god. Although not susceptible of proof, it seems highly probable that we have here another relic of idolatry. It is a point worthy of note, moreover, that Wodan was not only an all-powerful deity, corresponding to the Greek Zeus and Roman Jupiter, but that he was also a great magician, and hence quite naturally the horse-shoe, as one of his symbols, inherits magical attributes.

In Tuscany a horse-shoe when found is placed in a small red bag with some hay, which the Tuscans consider also a luck-bringing article, and the twofold charm is kept in its owner's bed.

Dr. Robert James, an English physician of the eighteenth century, and the inventor of a well-known feverpowder, ascribed his success in acquiring a fortune to his good luck in having once found a horse-shoe on Westminster Bridge. The sincerity of his faith was attested by the adoption of the horse-shoe as his family crest.

Brand quotes from John Bell's MS. " Discourse on Witchcraft" (1705) as follows:--

Guard against devilish charms for Men or Beasts. There are many sorceries practiced in our day, against which I would on this occasion bear my testimony, and do therefore seriously ask you, what is it you mean by your observation of Times and Seasons as lucky or unlucky? What mean you by your many Spells, Verses, Words, so often repeated, said fasting or going backward? How mean you to have success by carrying about with you certain Herbs, Plants, and branches of Trees? Why is it that, fearing certain events, you do use such superstitious means to prevent them, by laying bits of Timber at Doors, carrying a Bible merely for a Charm, without any farther use of it? What intend ye by opposing Witchcraft to Witchcraft, in such sort that, when ye suppose one to be bewitched, ye endeavour his Relief by Burnings, Bottles, Horse-shoes, and such like magical ceremonies?

In some Roman Catholic countries the priests are wont to brand cows and pigs on the forehead with the mark of a horse-shoe, to insure them against disease. It was, moreover, an old Scotch superstition, or freet, to pass a horse-shoe thrice beneath the belly and over the back of a cow that was considered elf-shot.

Among the Wendish inhabitants of the Spreewald, in North Germany, the lucky finder of a horse-shoe is careful not to tell any neighbor of his good fortune, but proceeds at once to fasten the shoe over the door of his house, or on the threshold, with three nails, and by three blows of a hammer, so that evil spirits may not enter.

We have seen that a horse-shoe picked up on the road is often prized as no mean acquisition by the finder thereof. It may not be out of place to give here a literal translation of a spell for the protection of a horse's hoof when a shoe has been lost. The original appeared in Mone's "Anzeiger" in 1834, and is written in the dialect known as "Middle High German," which was in vogue from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries:--

When a horse has lost one of its iron shoes, take a breadknife and incise the hoof at the edge from one heel to the other, and lay the knife crosswise on the sole and say: "I command thee, hoof and horn, that thou breakest as little as God the Lord broke his Word, when he created heaven and earth." And thou shalt say these words three hours in succession, and five Paternosters and five Ave Marias to the praise of the Virgin. Then the horse will not walk lame until thou happenest to reach a smithy.

The Germans have a saying in regard to a young girl who has been led astray,-- "She has lost a horseshoe." This saying has been associated with the shoe as a symbol of marriage, an idea found both in the northern and Indian mythologies. But the phrase has been also thought to refer to the horse-shoe shaped gloria which crowns the head of the Virgin, the horse-shoe thus becoming the symbol of maidenly chastity. Again, it has been suggested, in reference to the same phrase, that the horse-shoe is a symbol of the V (or first letter of the word Virgo), which is used in church records to designate the unmarried state, just as the word "spinster" is used in legal documents.

The ancient Irish were wont to hang up in their houses the feet and legs of their deceased steeds, setting an especial value upon the hoofs; and with the Chinese of to-day a horse's hoof hung up indoors is supposed to have the same protective influence over a dwelling that a horse-shoe has elsewhere. In southwestern Germany it is still a common practice to nail a hoof over the stable-door; and in the Netherlands a horse's foot placed in a stable is thought to keep the horses from being bewitched.

Burton, in his "Anatomy of Melancholy," admits a belief in the virtues of a ring made from the hoof of the right foot of an ass, when carried about as an amulet.

Occasionally, though rarely, the horse-shoe is thought to have been employed by the witches themselves in furtherance of their mischievous designs.

In the "Revue des traditions populaires," vol. ii. 1887, an anecdote is related of a veteran Polish cavalryman who had served under Napoleon I. While bivouacking with a detachment of lancers in a village of eastern Prussia, he and several others lodged in the house of an old peasant woman, and their horses were accommodated in her barn. It was shortly noticed that the animals appeared depressed and refused the hay and grain provided for them, whereupon the soldiers concluded that they were under some spell and began a search for the cause. They soon found an old horseshoe with three nails remaining in it, and one of these was quickly driven out with a hammer. Instantly the horses began to snort and exhibited signs of restlessness. On the removal of the second nail they held up their I-leads proudly, and when the third nail was hammered out they fell upon their provender and devoured it voraciously. The cavalrymen were now convinced that their horses had been the victims of some deviltry at the hands of their hostess, whom they believed to be a sorceress. Before their departure, therefore, they gave her a good beating with their sabre scabbards to teach her not to practice her nefarious arts upon the horses of honest people.

Next: XVI. The Horse-shoe As A Phallic Symbol