Following in the vein of recent posts, today I’m looking at another luck charm: the horseshoe. One thing Laine and I discussed in Podcast 13 was that the horseshoe seems to be a rather ubiquitous talisman. It is so ubiquitous, in fact, that many folks may not even realize it has any magical connotation at all. In an article from Western Folklore entitled “Lucky Horseshoes,” Jeannine E. Talley writes:
The horseshoe as a bestower of luck is so frequently encountered that it has become a cliche, but at the same time an isolated belief without a context. Barnet’s comment that the mule has been “pounding it full of luck” provides not only the ‘logic’ explaining why the horseshoe is full of luck but also reveals that luck is ac-cumulative. His insistence that the old nails must be used to hang the shoe is not found in standard collections for folk belief, but is akin to the notion that if the hardware is hung with prongs down, the luck will “run out.” This instance is a prime example that collecting the item is not enough; the contextual background of any item is of equal importance since it often contains the rationale which makes the belief credible. (p. 129)
I like this particular examination of the horseshoe because it details two points: 1) the horseshoe’s luck comes from its association with the horse itself and 2) as Talley states, the luck is accumulative, so the longer a shoe has been on a horse, the luckier it is.
Of course, there are plenty of other theories about why a horseshoe might be lucky. Robert M. Lawrence, in his article, “The Folk-Lore of the Horseshoe” describes the horseshoe as a talismanic emblem with many possible folkloric connections, including:
- The Jewish Passover – like blood spread on doorposts/lintels and rowan trees in Scotland
- Serpent emblem – “In front of a church in Crendi, a town in the southern part of the island of Malta, there is to be seen a statue having at its feet a protective symbol in the shape of a half-moon encircled by a snake”
- Moon emblem – “the brass crescent, an avowed charm against the evil eye, is very commonly attached to the elaborately decorated harnesses of Neapolitan draught horses, and is used in the East to embellish the trappings of elephants.”
- Phallic Emblem of some kind
- Prong-shamed talisman – like protective horns of animals (connected to African symbols)
- Horse as Sacred Animal (as mentioned above)
- Iron as “Virtuous” metal capable of dispelling harmful forces (Journal of American Folklore, v.9, n.35, 1896, p. 288-292)
I hope to get into some of these symbols and ideas in other posts at another time—particularly iron, which shows up a lot in fairy doctoring practices and other magical systems—so for now I think it suffices to say that horseshoes have a lot of lore to build upon and are quite lucky, though no one seems to know exactly why they are so.
So how does one use horseshoes? First of all, the shoe needs to be one which actually has been on a horse at some point (remember all that pounding of luck into it in Jeannine Talley’s article?). Likewise, there are some who say that hanging a horseshoe involves using a spent horseshoe nail, too. That seems to be a slightly less stringent requirement, but if you happen to have a spare horseshoe nail with your horseshoe, why not use it?
The issue of which way the “horns” of the shoe are pointing seems to be hotly contested by those who concern themselves with such things. Both opinions seem to have some sound reasoning behind them, which I mentioned in the most recent podcast. The general idea boils down to whether you think the horns up are “holding in the luck” or whether the horns down are “pouring the luck out on you.” Either way, I think this is where instinct kicks in. If you feel like you’ve hung it the “wrong way,” you probably have and you should switch it. But if you feel like your luck’s in good condition and your horseshoe’s “right,” then leave it be.
As to how specifically a horseshoe might be used, Harry M. Hyatt has a few examples of horseshoes in hoodoo work:
1) From Vol.2,p.1547
NAIL A HORSESHOE UP
OVER YOUR FRONT DOOR.
NAIL A PENNY DOWN IN THE FRONT
DOOR TOO. SCRUB IT ALL THE TIME.*
THESE WILL BRING YOU GOOD LUCK.
Dey kin use a horseshoe. Yo’ take a horseshoe an’ yo’ kin nail it up
ovah yore front do’ an’ take a penny an’ nail it down in de front do’; an’
yo’ jes’ let dat penny stay dere all de time an’ yo’ scrub ovah dat penny
all de time, an’ jes’ leave it dere an’ dat’ll be good luck fo’ yo’.
[Savannah, GA; Madam Pauline; Informant #1274. C575:1-C586:10 = 2136-2167.]
2) From Vol.2,p.1443
A HORSESHOE OVER THE DOOR
KEEPS SPOOKS OUT AND BRINGS LUCK.
& A MULESHOE OVER THE DOOR OF A BUSINESS
BRINGS BUSINESS SUCCESS
Keep a horseshoe – keep it ovah de do’ to keep de spook outa dere an’
fo’ luck, specially a man who does business. He’d have a new [mule] shoe ovah
de do’ – like he do’s a business roun’ in a shop or a restaurant or somepin
lak dat, because a mule is a hard-workin’ thing, hard-workin’. All right.
An’ jes’ lak ah’d have de mule when he hitch out an’ go to his stall to
eat, people be coming to his place and say….
[Sumter, SC; Informant #1387; Cylinders C885:1-C902:4 = 2366-2383]
(Both of these can be found in Hyatt’s book or in the excellent Yahoo! Group “HyattSpells”)
I like the first example because it combines the lucky penny with the lucky horseshoe, and places luck at your head and your feet, so every time you enter a door, you get caught between the two and get a double dose of luck. I also like the rationale for using a mule shoe to boost business (because the mule is so hard-working).
Finally, Vance Randolph describes the Ozark methods of horseshoe deployment in Ozark Magic & Folklore:
- Most hillfolk of my acquaintance use a horseshoe instead of the stone (to protect chickens from hawks), and some think that a muleshoe is even better. It is frequently fastened in the firebox of the stove rather than in the oven. In the old days the muleshoe was hung up in the fireplace, or even set into the mortar at the back of the chimney (p. 43)
- Many hillfolk think that the man who finds a horseshoe with the closed end toward him will do well to “leave it lay.” If the open end is toward the finder, he sometimes spits on it and throws it over his left shoulder, a procedure which is supposed to bring good fortune. Or he may place it in a tree or on a fence,saying: “Hang thar, all my bad luck!” In this case, whoever touches the hanging horseshoe falls heir to the misfortune of the man who placed it there (p. 62)
- Probably the commonest way to keep witches out of the house is to nail a horseshoe over the door; this is regarded as a sort of general prophylactic against witches, bad luck, contagious disease, and other evil influences (p. 283)
So that’s the lucky horseshoe. Another long article, so I apologize for that, but hopefully you aren’t too bored. Skimming is probably a good skill to apply when reading these blogs. At any rate, if you have any questions or comments about horseshoes, please feel free to post them!
As always, thanks for reading!