horseshoes


horseshoes
   Nowadays the horseshoe is a generalized symbol of good luck, used, for instance, on greeting cards and wedding cakes; already in the late 14th century it was believed that to find a horseshoe by chance is a lucky thing. Later references are numerous, and give more details: one should pick it up, spit on it, and toss it over the left shoulder, making a wish. The luck is increased if some nails are still in it.
   Earlier, horseshoes specifically counteracted witchcraft. They were set at the door 'so that no witch shall have power to enter' (Scot, 1584: book 12, chapter 18), and 'to afflict the Witch, causing the evil to return back upon them' (J. Blagrave, Astrological Practice (1671) 138). The early references (16th to mid-19th centuries) usually talk of horseshoes nailed to the threshold or the steps leading to the door; this arrangement can still occasionally be seen, for instance at an old smithy at Burpham (Sussex), where several are set into a concrete threshold. It was also common to nail them behind the door, as hidden protectors; nowadays, it is more usual to display them openly, on or above the door. Horseshoes were also much used on ships, being nailed to the main mast and elsewhere.
   In Lincolnshire in the 1850s, some people would nail them to a bed to prevent ague and alcoholic delirium; one woman, reportedly, tapped them with a hammer, saying:
   Father, Son and Holy Ghost,
   Nail the devil to this post.
   With this mell I thrice do knock,
   One for God, and one for Wod, and one for Lok.
   The clergyman recording this assumed it referred to the Germanic gods Woden and Loki, and capitalized accordingly, but he may have misheard some phrase ending in the more commonplace 'one for luck' (Heanley, Folk-Lore 9 (1898), 186).
   In London in the early 20th century, a horseshoe wrapped in red flannel was hung over the bed to prevent nightmares. As storms, diseases, and nightmares were often blamed on witches, the underlying idea is still that of protection from evil magic. In Somerset, they were used in stables to stop pixies 'riding' the horses. In Yorkshire belief, if a maiden found three horseshoes in one year, threw each over her left shoulder, walked three times round it, and kept it, she and all her children (though not her possessions) would be immune to witchcraft (Blakeborough, 1898: 158-9).
   Using astrological shorthand, Aubrey comments that 'Mars/iron is hostile to Saturn/ lead, and therefore to witches', meaning that it is iron which gives horseshoes their power (Aubrey, 1686/1880: 27). As regards positioning, many accounts from the 16th century till now agree that a horseshoe fixed vertically should have its 'heel', i.e. the points, pointing upwards to catch and hold the good luck, though this rule was not always followed - blacksmiths themselves often preferred them to be pointing down. According to Aubrey, horseshoes laid flat on a threshold had 'the hollow' pointing into the house. Opie and Tatem, 1989: 202-4.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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