North American history has a funny relationship with iron. On the one hand, iron is largely behind the early expansion that allowed Europeans to dominate the continent so completely with weapons, locomotives, and durable goods and architecture. On the other hand, it has also been a curse used to inflict injury and death on undeserving people and leading others to rip the very soil of the land apart in search of it. So maybe it’s not so much of a “funny” relationship as it is one fraught with difficulty and complexity.
American folklore, however, has largely good things to say about iron. It’s a powerful anti-witchcraft charm and can be used to repel things like wicked fairies attempting to replace a baby with a changeling. It can come in the form of nails, railroad spikes, horseshoes, or even just random flakes falling as refuse from a blacksmith’s anvil.
Today I thought I’d look at a few of the bits of folklore regarding iron. Before we look at the New World side of things, though, let’s look at iron in a slightly older context: Roman superstition.
“The taboo on iron dates from the beginning of the Iron Age when religious conservatism forbade the use of the strange new material in place of the usual bronze. It has been suggested that the magic significance of iron arose from its susceptibility to magnetism which, as the superstitious Romans often believed, it derived from witchcraft” (from Taboo, Magic, Spirits, by E.E. Burriss)
Here we see that iron is associated with witchcraft and has a somewhat negative reputation. Even the Romans, though, were not averse to using witchcraft to fight witchcraft, and so iron became a de facto tool for combating wicked witchery, and by extension, any other harmful supernatural force (ghosts, demons, fairies, etc.).
Other cultures picked up the thread (or started their own threads), seeing iron as a powerful magical tool. African, pan-Celtic, and Northern European cultures all had particular beliefs about iron and its more enchanted properties, so it probably surprises no one that the Old World traditions regarding iron became the standard beliefs in the New World.
So what are those New World beliefs? Let’s look at some examples from a few different areas:
From the Colonial Period, South Carolina
In the Joshua Gordon “Witchcraft Book,” (also sometimes called a Commonplace Book) dated from 1784, there is an example of the type of charm typically imported to the colonies from places like England and Ireland in which a heated iron is used to scald milk from a bewitched cow in order to undo witchcraft:
“A cow losing milk could be cured if its owners would ‘take a heather belonging to a box Iron, put it in the fire, and make it Red hot [and then] take the milk of the cows thats hurt [and] power [i.e., pour] on the hot iron repeating the names of the blessed trinity’” (from “ Magic, Astrology, and the Early American Religious Heritage, 1600-1760,” by Jon Butler in The American Historical Review).
This method is commonly found in folktales from Appalachia, such as the next entry.
From the late 19th- or early 20th-century, Tennessee (Appalachian foothills)
Again, a hot iron is used to scald milk and thus undo bewitchment:
“Another case of the use of heat, combined with iron and steel, is shown in the following account, also resulting in injury to the witch and her exorcism. Lewis Hopkins, formerly of Big Creek just beyond the park bounds [The Great Smoky Mountains National Park] told this unusual tale:
My grandmother’s folk had a cow and she give bloody milk. An old lady, a Phillips, was accused of being a witch. So they got to talkin’ to Sam Evans who said he was a witch doctor and knowed about witches. The witch doctor told the folks to put a baker lid [i.e., the lid of a Dutch oven] in the fire. So they pecked it on with a reap hook [like a scythe or sickle]. So this old women Phillips come to this old man Evans and raised a fuss with him about tellin’ him what to do. They got into a fight and this old man pulled her dress up and they saw the pecks where they was a reap hook a-hackin’ at her. [But] she jumped out and got away from him” (from A Tennessee Folklore Sampler, by Ted Olson, et al).
Other cases of heated irons being used to procure magical results also abound, as we shall see momentarily.
From the 19th-century, Mississippi
In some places, iron implements are not so much valued as remnants of iron from a blacksmith’s shop. Here is one account of “anvil dust” as it relates to Southern conjure practices:
“Anvil dust is also greatly valued as conjure material. One educated blacksmith of Columbus, Miss., tells me that people are constantly coming into his shop to get the black flakes that fall from the hot iron when it is pounded, although they always look ashamed and give a fictitious reason as to why they want it” (from Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro by Newbell N. Puckett).
This anvil dust is basically iron filings or flakes, and can be found in hoodoo practice as food for magically empowered lodestones. Or it can be used to help create a cursing formula known as War Water (I’ll hopefully address the creation of this product in a separate post). Interestingly, these two uses would seem diametrically opposed, with one being the food for an attracting magical fetish, and the other being an ingredient in a banishing potion. I would assert, however, that in these cases the iron serves a similar function on a magical level—with the lodestone it helps broaden the field of attraction for the stone while simultaneously running bad luck away, and in the War Water it’s repelling evil. So in both cases, there is an element of something being turned away. That is simply a way for me to reconcile these differences, however, and my come down to rationalization.
From the 19th– or 20th– Century, Ozark Mountains
Old favorite of New World Witchery, Vance Randolph, lists several methods for using iron as a magical tool (I omit the horseshoe lore which I have previously covered in another post, however):
- “Nails taken from a gallows are supposed to protect a man against venereal disease and death by violence. Country blacksmiths used to secure these nails and hammer them out into finger rings”
- “A little iron wire worn as a necklace, according to some power doctors, will protect a child from whooping cough”
- “The water in which a blacksmith cools his irons is supposed to be good for witched cattle and is sometimes given to human beings also, particularly children” (from Ozark Magic & Folklore, by Vance Randolph)
The last method mentioned is one I found repeated in several sources. The power and provenance of “anvil water” or “slack water” seems to be well known across several cultures.
From the 20th-century, Illinois
To illustrate my point from the last section, I thought I’d share a bit of folklore from the Midwest, collected by ethnographer Harry M. Hyatt (who famously collected much of the lore about Southern conjure and hoodoo practices):
- “A piece of old iron hung over the front and back door prevents the spirit of the recent dead from haunting you”
- “Five nails driven into the trunk prevent the fruit from falling off the tree. ‘My father did this when fruit was dropping off: drive those old- fashion square iron nails in the tree to hold the fruit on the tree. Never use wire nails; it must be the old iron nails’”
- “Water from the tub in which a blacksmith cools hot iron is a good wash for the sore udders of a cow”
- “A broken-winded horse (a horse with heaves) becomes well, if given water in which a blacksmith cools hot iron”
- “Your looks will be improved if you wash your face frequently with the water in which a blacksmith cools hot iron”
- “Slack-water, the water in which a blacksmith cools hot iron, is a good wash for poison ivy” (from Folklore of Adams County, by Harry M. Hyatt).
The first two bits are interesting, especially with the death connection, but the last four show that the slack water was considered a sort of cure-all magical formula. I don’t know about you, but I think I need to make friends with a blacksmith, and quickly!
That’s it for iron, for now at least. What I’ve written here is only the tip of a very large and ferrous iceberg. As I said, I didn’t get into the related topic of War Water in the hopes it will appear in another post at a later date. And I also didn’t touch on the lore of blacksmiths, specifically, as I hope to cover that in some depth later (our next podcast will have a bit about them, in fact).
If you have any local or family lore regarding iron and its magical properties, I would love to hear them!
Thanks for reading,