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Superstition Of The Horseshoe

( Originally Published 1851 )

The horseshoe was, of old, held to be of especial service as a security against the attacks of evil spirits. This virtue may have been assigned, perhaps, by the rule of contraries, from its being a thing incompatible with the cloven foot of the Evil One; or from the rude resemblance which the horseshoe bears to the rays of glory which, in ancient pictures, are made to surround the heads of saints and angels; or, finally, from some notion of its purity acquired in passing through the fire. This latter supposition receives some countenance from the method resorted to for the cure of horses that had become vicious, or afflicted by any distemper which village farriery did not understand; such disease was invariably attributed to witchcraft, and the mode of cure seems to imply the belief that the imperfect purification by fire of the shoes which the animal wore, had afforded an inlet to malevolent influences. Accordingly, the horse was led into the smithy; the door was closed and barred; the shoes were taken off, and placed in the fire, and the witch or warlock was speedily under the necessity of removing the spell under which the animal suffered.

We have a farther proof that the efficacy of fire constituted a part of the virtues inherent in the horseshoe, in the manner of reclaiming bewitched milk. All who have the management of a dairy know that at certain seasons of the year butter will not " come " from cream, nor milk be converted into curd, with the sanie ease as at others. The modern reasoners on the causes of things look upon this as being occasioned by the sort of food the cattle take; but all the farmers' wives of last century knew perfectly well that it was the effect of nothing else but some envious person's evil eye; and they took their measures accordingly. On the r 'turn of the milkmaids with their milking pails upon their heads, when the foremost took down her vessel in order to pass under the door-way, the mistress was ready to drop a horseshoe heated redhot into the milk. It was necessary that the ceremony should be performed at the instant when the young woman was lowering the pail; and as it was farther required that no one should be aware of the good dame's intention, the troop of milk-maids was often thrown into the utmost dismay by the sudden bubbling and hissing, and the screams of their companion more immediately concerned. The loss of the whole meal of milk was the usual consequence, to say nothing of the work created for the cooper; but these were matters of inferior importance, the future productiveness of the milk being an ample set-off against lesser mischances and that, it need scarcely be added, was invariably secured.

A horseshoe was commonly nailed upon the doors of the cow-houses; but this was not at all times a sufficient protection, as in summer the cows were not driven home at night, but milked a-field, and shut up in an open enclosure. When people began to be half ashamed of superstition, instead of nailing the horseshoe on the outside, they fixed it to the inside of the doors both of dwelling-houses and farm-offices; and in that situation it may at this day be detected in many parts of the country. Thus the devil, though not openly defied, might come to burn his fingers if he were to attempt an entrance.

Sailors are, or were, for the most part, careful to have a horseshoe nailed to the mizzen-mast, or somewhere on deck near midships, for the protection of the vessel.

The Chinese have their tombs built in the shape of the horseshoe, as we are informed by Captain Hall, in his voyage to Loo Choo; which custom is very curious, as it may be fairly regarded as a branch of the superstition prevalent among ourselves.

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