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The Lucky Horseshoe


Anyone who has travelled to the charming little Scottish town of Gretna Greene, once famous for runaway weddings, will remember the Old Smithy’s entrance arch made of multiple horseshoes. Here, under this luckiest of archways, happy newlyweds pose for their wedding photos, the horseshoe, of course, being one of the most popular good luck charms still used. It adorns wedding cakes and greeting and good luck cards and features prominently in twenty-first birthday decorations. Even confetti is often made in horseshoe shapes these days. 

As the horse was domesticated thousands of years ago, humans began protecting the animal’s feet to have their horses as serviceable as possible. Hence, the ancient Romans strapped leather and metal sandals to their horses’ feet, and by the sixth century, horsemen began nailing the metal shoes on their animals’ feet. Formerly, horseshoes as well as coins were made of iron, and there was a time when horseshoes were more valuable than coinage, which is why, during the twelfth century, horseshoes were frequently used to pay taxes. This factor, however, never distracted from the object’s function as a good luck charm.

The origins of the many beliefs surrounding the horseshoe as a good luck symbol are uncertain. Such beliefs might be linked to ancient horse worship or alternatively to iron, considered the most magical of metals, from which the horseshoe is made. A further explanation for the horseshoe’s assumed powers originated with the spread of Christianity in Europe, which postulated that the horseshoe resembled the letter ‘C’, symbolising Christ. However, the likeliest explanation for the special properties linked to this good luck charm is connected to its shape – the shape of the crescent. The crescent, symbolising pagan moon-deities, was enshrouded in superstitious awe and worn as a protective amulet in ancient cultures, long before the advent of Christianity.

Universally, the crescent was depicted as horns, specific to many deities in various mythologies. The notion that horns exercised a potent and evil-averting influence is very ancient and is evidenced in some of the earliest human societies, which seem to have revered horns as symbols of supernatural power and protection. Prehistoric cave drawings discovered in France show numerous figures of men, in all likelihood shamans, clad as stags with enormous antlers. The wearing of horned helmets might have originated from the early custom of wearing a headdress of animal skin with the animal’s horns still attached. 

There is a proliferation of horned gods and goddesses in the ancient world. The Sumerian gods Anu, Enlil, and Marduk are shown with horned headdresses. Similarly, Egyptian deities such as Isis, Nut, Seth, Amun, and Hathor and many deities in the Indian and Greek pantheon are depicted as wearing a headdress comprising of the crescent, elongated to assume the appearance of cow horns. The gods distinguished with the crescent and disc headdress were mostly moon-deities, although the disc might also have represented the sun. In ancient times, animals with parted hooves were dedicated to moon deities, as hoof prints were seen to resemble two half moons. Because these deities were revered for protection and well-being, their symbol, the crescent, later found replicated in the shape of the horseshoe, developed into amulets worn against evil influences.

Contributing to the mystery surrounding the horseshoe was undoubtedly the once inexplicable fact that this piece of metal could be nailed to a horse’s hoof without causing any visible signs of pain. Hence, to the medieval person’s mind, the horseshoe became an object of powerful influence and superstitious awe, not something to simply be discarded after it had become worn and served its purpose. In countries as far apart as Turkey, Italy, Spain, Greece, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia, amongst Christians and Muslims alike, a common custom still found in rural areas is that of fixing old horseshoes and cow horns on doors, doorways, and above barn doors. The horseshoe is not only believed to bring good luck, but also to avert the evil eye and to protect against spells, witches, and the devil. In England it was firmly believed in the past that the devil, thought to always travel in circles, was interrupted when he arrived at one of the two points or heels of the horseshoe, and was consequently forced to take a retrograde course. Witches were also believed unable to cross any threshold with a horseshoe nailed above the door. 

Opinions are divided over which way around the horseshoe should be fixed. Most people hold that the points should face upward for the luck to ‘hold out’ or to ‘catch the good luck’. Luck was seen to disappear into the ground, literally ‘dripping out’, if the shoe was hung with the ends facing downwards. Yet horseshoes have been known to be pointed downwards, as the good luck might then be directed towards anyone walking beneath it. Among good wishes common during the seventeenth century in England, it was customary to say: ‘May the horseshoe never be pulled from your threshold’. 

Doubly strong was the luck of finding a horseshoe on the road or by the wayside, instead of using a horseshoe removed from a horse’s hoof. To keep a sailing vessel safe at sea and to protect against storms and misfortune, horseshoes were in the past nailed to the main mast by many naval commanders. If popular legend is believed, Horatio Nelson’s ship Victory is but one example.48 

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