Magical Iron

To the ancient Greeks and Romans and to medieval alchemists, all metals and minerals seemed alive and vibrant. They were perceived as growing in the Earth’s bowels and were thought endowed with procreative and other magic powers. Traditionally, the seven planets of old were linked with the seven known metals of antiquity, and each metal was thought to develop in the Earth under its planet’s influence. 

Created from the holy flame of fire, iron has always been regarded as the most magical, supernaturally potent metal. The major technological breakthrough that iron represented to our ancestors cannot be underestimated. As bronze weapons had proved ineffective against invading tribes’ swords, the forging of iron made a huge impact on ancient people’s minds. Iron proved to be the magic agent of transmutation that enhanced the quality of life from brutish to civilised. The first iron known to humans, having descended from heaven as meteors further elevated this metal’s reputation to extraordinary status. Early humans must have seen meteors, coming from outer space, as fiery, heavenly missiles. They must have seemed like divine gifts from the gods, whose abode was thought to be in the heavens. The ancient Egyptians called iron ‘metal from the sky’, and the Aztecs named it ‘gift from heaven’. According to Egyptian tradition, it was at the ancient, holy city of Edfu, dedicated to the god Horus, that Horus established a foundry of ‘divine iron’. The earliest known iron tools date from circa 3000 BCE, but not until the 2nd millennium BCE were weapons forged from iron, the Hittites leading in this industry. 

Several factors contributed to the mystique causing various magic practices and taboos traditionally associated with iron: first, the inexplicable fall of meteorites from heaven, traditionally considered the abode of the gods; second, the magnetic properties of this metal; and third, the impressive process of smelting and forging. The change from solid to liquid state and back again, controlled in casting, must have been seen as an extraordinary feat – the blacksmith in effect tamed and controlled the hardest metal then known. Therefore, throughout history, those associated with the craft of metallurgy have been connected to the magical and the mystical. As knowledge empowers, the mysteries of metalworking were kept as closely guarded secrets in antiquity – secret knowledge in turn has since time immemorial been shrouded in sanctity. Presumably, the craft lore of smiths and metallurgists was transmitted by creed and example and was only divulged to initiate members of the community, smiths keeping their profession’s secrets to themselves. Therefore, blacksmiths were regarded as very important craftsmen, credited with special powers in all societies. 

The magical associations connected with the blacksmith also extended to the tools he used, and in many countries, these implements were venerated. In African countries, where smiths were feared because of their supposed powers of sorcery, the hammer was revered because it forged agricultural tools. Many African tribes similarly esteemed the bellows, and oaths could be sworn before the hammer and anvil.

In England, there is a tradition that eloping couples may be married by the blacksmith of Gretna Greene, just over the border in Scotland. The application of this custom, a by-product of Scottish law, stems from a time when every blacksmith performed a magico-religious role within the community, because he worked with the magic metal iron and was the master of fire, considered sacred throughout the ages. In Europe, communities traditionally gave blacksmiths tributes of corn and donations of food. This was a mark of the special esteem in which the craft was held and done because a blacksmith’s task was perceived as superseding that of growing food. Hence, any slaughtered animal’s head was always given to the local blacksmith.

Since the beginning of the Iron Age, the blacksmith’s fire and the glowing red-hot iron have evoked countless tales of mysterious magic and enchantment. Smiths, dwarfs, and other real or legendary metalworkers are described in many peoples’ myths. In the Roman classical world, Vulcan, the son of Jupiter and Juno, was the god of fire and metalworking. The traditional father of British blacksmiths, Wayland Smith, is an anglicised version of the Norse Volund and the Anglo-Saxon Wieland. In Scandinavian countries, Volund, appearing as a dwarf or troll was a renowned metalworker with supernatural powers, who fashioned magical swords and suits of armour keeping the wearer safe from any harm. Similarly, the Celtic smith, Goibhniu, was noted for his magic healing brew and his skill in producing invincible weapons. 

Myths and legends from various countries abound with magic swords, reputed to never rust or blunt, to cut through stone and iron, to never miss a stroke, and always keep the wearer safe. Usually, dwarves forged these wondrous weapons in their underground domains. Arguably, the most famous magic swords appear in Arthurian Legend, namely the ‘Sword in the Stone’ and the famed ‘Excalibur’. One of Christianity’s most famous metalworkers was St. Dunstan, tenth-century English monk and church reformer, patron saint of goldsmiths, jewellers, and blacksmiths. In the latter part of his life, he became Abbot at Glastonbury and, eventually, the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

Universally, using iron for religious purposes on sacred occasions was once considered taboo. Whether amongst Hottentots, the inhabitants of the African Gold Coast, Jews, Greeks, Druids, Indians, or any other cultures, superstitions regarding the use of iron for religious purposes stay the same. Moses commanded the Israelites not to use any iron tool in the construction of holy places, as God had instructed Moses: ‘If thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it’.’254 Solomon had similarly ordered that no iron tools should be used to cut and dress the many massive stone blocks from which the outer walls and the courtyard of the Temple were built: ‘The house, when it was in building, was built of stone made ready before it was brought thither: so that there was neither hammer, nor axe, nor any tool of iron heard in the house while it was in building’.255 Instead, Solomon had provided the masons with an ancient device dating from Moses’ time. This device was called a shamir or ‘the stone that splits rocks’. It could cut the toughest of materials, even the hardest of diamonds, without using any friction or heat, while working totally without noise.256 With the Temple’s destruction, the shamir vanished.257 In the ancient Greek temples, no iron tools were permitted, and the taboo regarding iron also extended to Roman and Sabine priests, who were not under any circumstances to be shaved with iron, but only with bronze razors or shears. 

Beliefs and superstitions surrounding this metal are charged with ambivalence. On the one hand, iron was regarded with fear and disfavour and disallowed in the rites and rituals of all major religions, which might in part be because of references made to iron in the Old Testament.258 However, iron was also held in awe and respect, believed endowed with the power to ward off all evil, through the notion that the gods gave iron to humankind – any such gift had to be loathsome to all evil entities. The fact that this metal was considered so obnoxious to supernatural forces gave rise to it being used as a charm in banning and repelling all unwanted influences. Evidence of this custom is found universally, throughout the ages, from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome to Scotland, India, Burma, Germany, and Morocco.

The dislike of all ghosts, spirits, witches, and demons for iron was thought so great that they would not approach anything or anyone protected by the metal, which also explains the protective power ascribed to the horseshoe. Already, the ancient Egyptians believed in the shielding powers of ‘the metal from the sky’ referring to it in the Pyramid Texts of King Unas. Amulets of meteoric iron were found in Tutankamen’s tomb to safeguard the sarcophagus from evil. The Romans associated iron’s protective powers with the war god Mars. The metal was also sacred to the Norse God Tyr and was used by the Scandinavians to repel unwanted influences. In India, iron’s shielding powers were also well-known and widespread, this metal being used in certain funeral rites to guard the living and the dead. 

Throughout Europe, iron objects were believed to counteract the influence of witchcraft, fairies, and every kind of evil. Evil spirits were blinded, hence, warded off by the brightness of shiny, new iron. Because old, rusted iron had no such effect, allowing spirits to take up residence wherever they pleased, all rust had to be meticulously removed from iron objects. As witches and all evil entities were thought unable to cross over iron, anything made from this metal – a knife, a nail, or a pair of scissors placed just inside the door, under the doormat, or buried near the front gate – would keep them away. A sword or some other piece of cold iron was laid in an expectant mother’s bed or a piece of iron sewn into a child’s clothes, at least until baptism, to prevent fairies spiriting away mother and child.

Knives and other cutting instruments, which in the past were all made of iron, were especially used extensively as protective agents against witchcraft, fairies, and thieving goblins. For this reason, it was advisable to place a knife in an infant’s cradle to ensure a modicum of safety. However, such cutting instruments were also linked with bad luck and, therefore, handled with caution. It was considered unlucky to receive or present a knife, scissors, or any other sharp, cutting instrument as a gift, as these were thought likely to ‘sever’ the friendship and ‘cut’ love and good fortune; the dropping of a knife meant death or disaster, which could only be warded off by waving the knife around one’s head three times; to lay one’s knife and fork crosswise was thought to bring about crosses and misfortune; and to stir food with a knife was believed to ‘stir up strife’. In many parts of Europe, the use of iron tools was still popular in the second half of the twentieth century to ward off evil, and on November 18, 1968, the London Observer noted: ‘It is still common practise to keep scissors under the doormat to ward off witches and evil spirits’. 

Iron was also highly regarded for its perceived curative powers. Pliny the Elder mentions this specifically: ‘Iron is employed in medicine.... Water in which iron has been plunged at a white heat is useful as a potion, in many diseases.... Rust, too, is classed among the remedial substances ... usually obtained by scraping old nails.... It has the effect of uniting wounds....’.259 Pliny also gives specific instructions on the gathering of medicinal herbs. They were never to be touched by iron or risk contamination and render them ineffectual for healing purposes.260 In northern European countries, an iron ring worn on the fourth finger was considered effective against rheumatism and arthritis, whereas a piece of iron in the bedroom was believed to ward off nightmares and regenerate the body’s ability to reject illness.


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