March 16, 2013

The Blacksmith and the Witch

This week, another witchcraft story from the north. John McNab Currier was a 19th century physician and amateur scientist who lived much of his life in New Hampshire. He also collected folklore, including this little story from an unnamed town in the Granite State.

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The man who served as blacksmith in the town between the years 1845 and 1855 believed strongly in witchcraft. One day a local man came into the smithy and requested that a small job be done. (Dr. Currier doesn't specify what the job was, but I'm guessing it was probably something like a repair to a farm implement.) The man was in a hurry and urged the blacksmith to complete it quickly so he could leave.

Now, the blacksmith had long suspected this man of being a witch, but never had been able to prove it. With the man inside his smithy he had his chance.

It was well-known at the time that witches could not pass through a doorway that had a horseshoe hung above it. While the man sat waiting for him to begin the job, the blacksmith climbed on a ladder and nailed a horseshoe above the door. Then he returned to his forge and quickly completed the job.

A blacksmith shop in Shelby County, Indiana.

The blacksmith handed the repaired item to the man, but although he had said he was in a hurry he didn't depart. When asked why he wasn't leaving, the man nervously said he had just remembered that a friend of his might stop by the smithy today and he wanted to talk with him.

The blacksmith went back to work, and the man sat in a chair, supposedly waiting for a friend to arrive. The man set there for many hours. The friend never arrived.

By the end of the afternoon the blacksmith felt he had his proof. He took down the horseshoe, and the man instantly left the smithy. Clearly, the blacksmith thought, this man was a witch.

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Last year I wrote about how horseshoes were used to keep witches out of houses. For people in the 17th century witchcraft was a matter of life and death and the horseshoe belief was taken quite seriously. When I read this story from Dr. Currier I was surprised to find someone using a horseshoe to keep a witch inside a building. Either people didn't take witchcraft so seriously by the 19th century or the blacksmith was particularly brave. I guess no one was going to mess with a guy who spent all day pounding metal with a hammer!

Smiths have a long folkloric association with magic, both good and evil, going back to at least the ancient Mediterranean world. For example, in Greek mythology semi-divine smiths named the Daktyls rose from the handprint of the goddess Rhea and were invoked as protection against evil magic. Trolls and dwarves labor underground creating magical items in Norse mythology, and in some Christian tales blacksmiths learn their skills from the Devil. There's an interesting overview here.

Dr. Currier writes the name of the town this way: "B____n, N.H." There are only six towns in New Hampshire with names that start with "b" and end in "n": Barrington, Belmont, Bennington, Benton, Berlin, and Boscawen. I'm not sure why he didn't want to reveal the location, because he does for the other stories he collected and published in the July 1891 issue of The Journal of American Folk-lore, which is where I found this one.

3 comments:

C.E. Wolfe said...

Growing up, my sister and I rode horses, so there were always plenty of used horseshoes available. So yes, we had them over doors, and made decorations with them. We knew they were supposed to point up so the luck wouldn't 'run out' but I did not know they were meant to repel witches. I'll have to get some more since my doors are currently horseshoe free...I'm vulnerable! :)

Mark Bonica said...

Enjoyed this post - thanks for sharing.

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for reading, C.E. and Mark. Definitely get some horseshoes for your doors. It's better to be safe than sorry!