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The Magic of the Horse-shoe, with other folk-lore notes

The Magic of the Horse-shoe, with other folk-lore notes
Category: Folklore
Title: The Magic of the Horse-shoe, with other folk-lore notes
Release Date: 2018-06-27
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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Cover image



[From an Old Engraving.]


With Other Folk-Lore Notes


Imprimatur of the Riverside Press

The Riverside Press, Cambridge






The study of the origin and history of popular customsand beliefs affords an insight, otherwise unattainable,into the operations of the human mind in earlytimes. Superstitions, however trivial in themselves,relics of paganism though they be, and oftentimes comparableto baneful weeds, are now considered propersubjects for scientific research. While the ignorantsavage is a slave to many superstitious fancies whichdominate his every action, the educated man strives tobe free from such a bondage, yet recognizes as profitablethe study of those same beliefs. The heterogeneouscharacter of the material drawn from so manysources has rendered it difficult, if not impossible, tofollow any distinctly systematic treatment of the subject.However, the development in recent years ofa widespread interest in all branches of folk-lore warrantsthe hope that any volume devoted to this subject,and representing somewhat diligent research, may[iv]have a certain value, in spite of its imperfections. Theexpert folk-lorist may find much to criticise; but thisbook, treating of popular beliefs, is intended for popularreading. It has been the writer’s aim to make thechapter on the Horse-Shoe as exhaustive as possible,as this attractive symbol of superstition does not appearto have received hitherto the attention which it merits.This chapter is the outgrowth of a paper read at theseventh annual meeting of the American Folk-LoreSociety, at Philadelphia, December 28, 1895, an abstractof which appeared in the Society’s Journal forDecember, 1896.

Extended quotations are indicated by smaller type.

R. M. L.

Boston, September 1, 1898.



The Magic of the Horse-shoe 1
Fortune and Luck 140
The Folk-Lore of Common Salt 154
The Omens of Sneezing 206
Days of Good and Evil Omen 239
Superstitious Dealings with Animals 279
The Luck of Odd Numbers 312
Topical Index 341



And still o’er many a neighboring door
She saw the horse-shoe’s curvèd charm.
Whittier, The Witch’s Daughter.
Happy art thou, as if every day thou hadst picked up a horse-shoe.
Longfellow, Evangeline.


The evolution of the modern horse-shoe from theprimitive foot-gear for draught animals used in ancienttimes furnishes an interesting subject for investigation.Xenophon and other historians recommended variousprocesses for hardening and strengthening the hoofs ofhorses and mules,[1] and from this negative evidencesome writers have inferred that the ancients were ignorantof farriery. It seems indeed certain that thepractice of protecting the feet of horses was not universalamong the Greeks and Romans. Fabretti, anItalian antiquary, examined with care the representationsof horses on many ancient columns and marbles,and found but one instance in which the horse appeared[2]to be shod;[2] and in most specimens of ancient art theiron horse-shoe is conspicuous by its absence. But inthe mosaic portraying the battle of Issus, which wasunearthed at Pompeii in 1831, and which is now in theNaples Museum, is the figure of a horse whose feetappear to be shod with iron shoes similar to those inmodern use;[3] and in an ancient Finnish incantationagainst the plague, quoted in Lenormant’s “ChaldeanMagic and Sorcery,” occur these lines:—

O Scourge depart; Plague, take thy flight … I will givethee a horse with which to escape, whose shoes shall not slideon ice, nor whose feet slip on the rocks.

No allusion to the horse-shoe is made by early writerson veterinary topics. But, on the other hand, there isabundant testimony that the ancients did sometimesprotect the feet of their beasts of burden. Winckelmann,the Prussian art historian, describes an antiqueengraved stone representing a man holding up a horse’sfoot, while an assistant, kneeling, fastens on a shoe.[4]In the works of the Roman poet Catullus occurs thesimile of the iron shoe of a mule sticking in the mire.[5]Contemporary historians relate that the Emperor Nerocaused his mules to be shod with silver,[6] while golden[3]shoes adorned the feet of the mules belonging to thenotorious Empress Poppæa.[7] Mention of an iron horse-shoeis made by Appian,[8] a writer not indeed remarkablefor accuracy; but the phrase “brasen-footedsteeds,” which occurs in Homer’s Iliad, is regarded bycommentators as a metaphorical expression for strengthand endurance. Wrappings of plaited fibre, as hempor broom, were used by the ancients to protect the feetof horses.[9] But the most common form of foot coveringfor animals appears to have been a kind of leathernsock or sandal, which was sometimes provided with aniron sole. This covering was fastened around the fetlocksby means of thongs, and could be easily removed.[10]

Iron horse-shoes of peculiar form, which have beenexhumed in Great Britain of recent years, have beenobjects of much interest to archæologists. In 1878 anumber of such relics shaped for the hoof and piercedfor nails were found at a place called Cæsar’s Camp,near Folkstone, England.[11] In the south of Scotland,also, ancient horse-shoes have been found, consisting ofa solid piece of iron made to cover the whole hoof andvery heavy. In the year 1653 a piece of iron resemblinga horse-shoe, and having nine nail-holes, was[4]found in the grave of Childeric I., king of the Franks,who died A. D. 481. Professor N. S. Shaler believesthat the iron horse-shoe was invented in the fourthcentury, and from the fact that it was first calledselene, the moon, from its somewhat crescent-like shape,he concludes that it originated in Greece.[12] But evenin the ninth century, in France, horses were shod withiron on special occasions only,[13] and the early Britons,Saxons, and Danes do not appear to have had muchknowledge of farriery. The modern art of shoeinghorses is thought to have been generally introduced inEngland by the Normans under William the Conqueror.[14]Henry de Ferrars, who accompanied thatmonarch, is believed to have received his surnamebecause he was intrusted with the inspection of thefarriers; and the coat-of-arms of his descendants stillbears six horse-shoes.[15]

On the gate of Oakham Castle, an ancient Normanmansion in Rutlandshire, built by Wakelin deFerrars, son of the first earl of that name, were formerlyto be seen a number of horse-shoes of differentpatterns.

The estate is famous on account of the tenure of thebarons occupying it. Every nobleman who journeyed[5]through its precincts was obliged as an act of homageto forfeit a shoe of the horse whereon he rode, or elseto redeem it with a sum of money; and the horse-shoesthus obtained were nailed upon the gate, but are nowwithin on the walls of the castle.

These walls are covered by memorials of royal personagesand peers, who have thus paid tribute to thecustom of the county.[16]

Queen Elizabeth was thought to have initiated thispractice, though this opinion is incorrect. Accordingto tradition she was once journeying on a visit to herlord high treasurer, William Cecil, the well-knownLord Burleigh, at his residence near Stamford. Whilepassing through Oakham her horse is said to have casta shoe, and in memory of the mishap the queen ordereda large iron shoe to be made and hung up in the castle,and that every nobleman traveling through the townshould follow her example.

A similar usage prevails to-day, new shoes being providedof shapes and sizes chosen by the donors.[17]

While John of Gaunt (1339-99), son of EdwardIII. of England, was riding through the town ofLancaster, his horse cast a shoe, which was kept asa souvenir by the townspeople, and fastened in themiddle of the street. And in accordance with a time-honored[6]custom a new shoe is placed in the same spotevery seven years by the residents of Horse-ShoeCorner.[18]

The practical value of the horse-shoe is tersely expressedin the old German saying, “A nail preserves acountry;” for the nail keeps in place the horse-shoe,the shoe protects the foot of the horse, the horse carriesthe knight, the knight holds the castle, and thecastle defends the country.

The following story from Grimm’s “Household Tales”(vol. ii. p. 303) may be appropriate in this place, asillustrating the same idea, besides pointing a moral.

The Nail.

A merchant had done a good business at the fair; he hadsold his wares and lined his money-bags with gold and silver.Then he wanted to travel homeward and be in his house beforenightfall. So he packed his trunk with the money onhis horse and rode away. At noon he rested in a town, andwhen he wanted to go farther the stable-boy brought out hishorse and said: “A nail is wanting, sir, in the shoe of its lefthind foot.” “Let it be wanting,” answered the merchant;“the shoe will certainly stay on for the six miles I have stillto go; I am in a hurry.” In the afternoon, when he oncemore alighted and had his horse fed, the stable-boy went tohim and said, “Sir, a shoe is missing from your horse’s lefthind foot; shall I take him to the blacksmith?” “Let itstill be wanting,” answered the man, “the horse can very well[7]hold out for the couple of miles which remain; I am inhaste.” He rode forth, but before long the horse began tolimp. It had not limped long before it began to stumble,and it had not stumbled long before it fell down and brokeits leg. The merchant was forced to leave the horse where itwas, and unbuckle the trunk, take it on his back, and gohome on foot. And there he did not arrive until quite late atnight. “And that unlucky nail,” said he to himself, “hascaused all this disaster.” Hasten slowly.


Your wife’s a witch, man; you should nail a horse-shoe on yourchamber-door.—Sir Walter Scott, Redgauntlet.

As a practical device for the protection of horses’feet, the utility of the iron horse-shoe has long beengenerally recognized; and for centuries, in countrieswidely separated, it has also been popularly used as atalisman for the preservation of buildings or premisesfrom the wiles of witches and fiends.

To the student of folk-lore, a superstition like this,which has exerted so wide an influence over men’sminds in the past, and which is also universally prevalentin our own times, must have a peculiar interest.What, then, were the reasons for the general adoptionof the horse-shoe as a talisman? It is our purpose toconsider the various theories seriatim.

Among the Romans there prevailed a custom of drivingnails into cottage walls as an antidote against the[8]plague. Both this practice and the later one of nailingup horse-shoes have been thought by some tooriginate from the rite of the Passover. The bloodsprinkled upon the door-posts and lintel at the timeof the great Jewish feast formed the chief points ofan arch,

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