Welcome to Folklore in Museums! After the success of our Crafts Month Special in August last year, we decided to continue looking at objects found in museum collections all over the world, in this new and ongoing segment of our Blog! Today, we shall discover the superstitions related to two lucky items: the Horse Brass and the Horseshoe.
Horse Brass History
Horse Brasses were ornamental plaques made of brass used to decorate horses and their harnesses in parades, shows and competitions, where they could also be awarded as prizes. According to the National Horse Brass Society, they were introduced in England by migrant Romani people in the 18th century, who were said to “decorate their horses with a shiny object to protect them from evil”. Horse Brasses reached the height of their popularity in the 19th century, when farmers such as Beatrix Potter often participated in endless rural fairs just so that they could obtain one. Around 1920, Horse Brass usage began to decline – turning these once beautiful and symbolical ornaments into collector’s items, which can be seen in some Museums today.
Horse Brasses came in a variety of shapes and sizes, such as commemorative plaques of royalty crownings and jubilees, as well as family crests and other heraldic symbols for local Country Fairs. Most often though, they would have a symbology behind them—containing elements that were thought to bring luck to horses and their riders, as well as to protect them from witchcraft and the evil eye. Superstitious designs included hearts, the sun and the moon; like this crescent moon Horse Brass below, housed in the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall. As for the second image, note the lucky ‘inception’, where three horse shoes are contained within a horse brass housed by the Museum of Magic & Folklore in Falmouth.
Where To See Them
One of the best places to see these lucky 19th century horse charms is Hill Top – Beatrix Potter’s Historical House in Cumbria, England – where a number of Horse Brasses is currently on display above her kitchen’s fireplace. Won by Beatrix herself in local county fairs, you will spot a range of Horse Brass examples there such as: a commemmorative plaque of King Edward’s coronation in August 1902, animal depictions like swans, dogs and, of course, horses – as well as crescent moons and stars.
There is also an extensive Horse Brass collection that once belonged to Miss Dorothy Betty Simpson housed in the Museum of English Rural Life, which you can find here.
“But now it is necessarie to shew you how to prevent and cure all mischeefes wrought by these charmes & witchcrafts… One principall waie is to naile a horsse shoo at the inside of the outmost threshhold of your house, and so you shall be sure no witch shall have power to enter thereinto.”(Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, 1584)
The history of the horseshoe begins when horses were first domesticated around 6,000 years ago, on the plains of western Eurasia. Requiring horses for agriculture, as well as warfare, the ancient peoples of this region are said to have been the first to make a sort of boot or sock for their horses, made from natural wrappings of fibres, rawhide or leather. According to Robert Lawrence in the book The Magic of the Horse-shoe, the first mention of a metal horse shoe was registered later in the 1st Century BCE, when the poet Catullus described the unfortunate accident of a mule stuck in a mire—but by this point, it still would have been a fitted metal plate called hipposandal. The horse shoe as we know it today seems to have been developed well into the 5th century, as proposed by unearthed horse remains at the burial site of Roman Gaul leader Childeric I, who died in 481 AD. As for its lucky connotations, Lawrence proposes several theories: one, that superstition began with Mediterranean beliefs in Italy, Spain and Portugal—where horn-shaped charms such as the mano cornuta looked similar to the horseshoe; and two, the iron object’s similarity with the crescent moon. Additionally, as horseshoes relied on nails to be affixed, further supernatural powers came to be attributed to it, with another theory suggesting that this belief evolved from Pliny’s Natural History where, for instance, “nails extracted from a tomb” and fastened to a door were described as talismans against nightmares. Quite similar to horse shoes nailed above doors, then!
Yet, in Britain it is also said that the reason horseshoes are lucky is because of St Dunstan: a holy man who is believed to have been born in Glastonbury and went on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, where he died in 988. To be canonized as a saint, one of the miracles attributed to him was that of an encounter with the Devil, where St Dunstan outwitted the dark lord. Legend says that St Dunstan (whose feast day falls on May 19th) was a skilled blacksmith, and one day the Devil just strolled into his forge requesting to have shoes for his cloven hooves. Having recognised the Devil straight away, St Dunstan agreed to the job but caused the Devil great agony in the process. As such, the Devil ended up agreeing to the blacksmith’s blackmail that he should never set foot (or rather, hoof) in any house that had an iron horseshoe hanging above its door. However, there is another version of the tale that doesn’t involve any horseshoes. In that one, it is said that St Dunstan was crafting a chalice when the Devil appeared behind his back. Startled, the saintly man picked up his tongs and grabbed him by the nose! The tale, recorded by William Hone in 1825, has an accompanying rhyme that goes like this:
“St Dunstan, as the story goes,(William Hone, The Every-Day Book, 1825)
Once pull’d the devil by the nose
With red-hot tongs, which made him roar,
That he was heard three miles or more.”
Seems like there is no agreement as to the origin of the horseshoe’s luck, and as if that wasn’t enough—the correct direction that a horseshoe should be facing is generally considered a hot topic for folklore academics as well! In countries such as England, it is said that the horse shoe should have its tips pointing upwards, so that luck may fall inside it much like a cup. However, in my native Portugal (and as you can see from the image below depicting a china clay horse shoe displayed at the Gwithti An Pystri), the horseshoe is typically placed downwards, so as to act as a doorway into which luck flows easily. Curiously, it was only when I visited the Museum of Magic & Folklore that curator Steve Patterson discovered this china clay horse shoe was Portuguese. I happily translated it for him, and made sure to perpetuate its blessings in the Museum’s visitor log book!
Where To See Them
Unsurprisingly, my recommendation of the best place to see a collection of horse shoes is the Gwithti An Pystri Museum of Magic & Folklore, in Falmouth, Cornwall. It just had to be, especially since their logo is a horse shoe! Too far away to visit? No worries! I did a virtual tour of this recently opened space a few months ago, on a Folklore Friends Promo article which you can read here.
Thank you for reading!
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting me on Ko-fi by clicking the button below—so that I can visit more Museums and find all the superstitions!
Horse Brasses Up Chimneybreasts, by Ceri Houlbrook.
Horse Brasses in The Dictionary of English Folklore.
The Magic of the Horse Shoe, by Robert Lawrence.
Beatrix Potter’s Collection:
Heart Shaped Horse Brasses, via National Trust Collections.
Assortment of Horse Brasses, via National Trust Collections.
You must be logged in to post a comment.