EPISODE 1: HORSESHOE
Poem beginsDunstan the saying called to mind
"The devil through his paw behind
For Dunstan, now become implacable
Horseshoes have a long and interesting history of being protection symbols, and this is where their luck is rooted. Our medieval counterparts had a lot of things to worry about, famine, disease and war to name a few.
Since becoming domesticated, Horses have played an integral role in our lives, and we have searched for ways to protect their feet, which are vulnerable to injury due to the environment they are in, or sometimes genetic problems.
In parts of ancient Asia special plants were mixed with animals hides and used to cover the hooves.
The romans had their own solution as well, which was called the Hipposandal. If you’ve ever seen gladiator sandals, they sort of look like that, but with less straps, and for a horse. The bottoms would have different terrain supports, such as metal spikes for snow and ice.
It is speculated that the first group to use metal for horseshoes were the Gauls. These Celtic people occupied continental western Europe, which today are the areas of France, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Switzerland, parts of Northern Italy, Netherland, and Germany.
The romans actually went on the conquer the Gauls and there was a period of overlap where both metal shoes and hipposandals were used, with the superior metal ones eventually taking over.
By the 10th century, horseshoes were standard practice throughout Europe, and this is when Blacksmithing became the career of choice.
Having a good profession meant you would always have money for food and shelter, and this was about as lucky as it gets.
Shoes were made of iron by this time and it was thought to be a magical metal. It was resistant to fire and heat, and this was so impressive to the English, that they even made their money out of it.
Now if you know anything about the modern concepts of Heaven and Hell, you know that the latter is depicted as a fiery place where you burn for eternity, ruled by the Devil. So naturally the English people adopted Iron as a sort of a…Satan repellent. Which we will talk about more in just a little bit.
By the 16th century, the process of hot-shoeing was being used in England and this is the process of heating the shoe so it fits exactly to the hoof.
It was also around this time that the term “ferrier” became mainstream for a blacksmith who’s only job was to shoe.
Legends and folklore began to spring up and one of these stories, is that of an invisible Ferrier named Wayland the Smith.
At a stone burial chamber near White Horse Hill, in Berkshire, it is said a ghostly Ferrier will re-shoe your horse, if you place a coin as an offering, and turn your back while the process takes place. If you turn around or try and catch a glimpse of Wayland, the magic will be undone.
In the 1800s, the first horseshoe production machine was invented, which actually actually helped the Northern forces defeat the South in the American Civil War because they utilized this technology.
Today being a Ferrier is not the profession of the rich or financially secure, but the symbol remains rooted in the concept of protection, wealth and luck. Now a days we see the evidence of this most commonly in gambling.
Horseshoes adorn slot machines and other gambling propaganda, and are sometimes on charm bracelets worn by people hoping to strike it rich.
A common type of gambling in medieval Europe was the game Horseshoes. While nobody really knows when it was invented, it is thought to be as old as the shoes themselves, and at one point was so enticing and distracting to soldiers, it was outlawed.
At the start of the episode we heard a excerpt from the poem called: “The True Legend of St. Dunstan and The Devil.” Written by Edward G. Flight and published in London in 1871.
Dunstan was born sometime during the year 909 AD in Baltonsborough, Somerset, which at the time was part of the Kingdom of Wessex (this was an area of southwest England).
He was the son of a nobleman named Heorstan and a pious woman named Cynethryth. It is actually believed that his mother was told she would give birth to a future saint. Now, as we know, the Catholic Church tends to rewrite history to fit its narrative so whether that is true we will never know.
As a child, Dunstan studied extensively with Irish monks who were living in a place called Glastonbury Abbey, which we can assume was at the encouragement of his mother. It’s no surprise that because of the relationship he had with the monks, that Ireland also claims Dunstan as one of their own.
Learning was very important to young Dunstan and soon he worked his way up the ranks of the local church and the royal court. He was so well liked, that his peers became rivals and devised a plot to get rid of him.
The King Athelstan was told that Dunstan was involved in black magic, and he was ousted immediately from the court. Upon his departure he was attacked by a mob and beaten viciously. Miraculously he was able to escape and fled to Winchester to aid his uncle, who happened to be a bishop of the area, with his duties.
After being plagued with sudden disfiguring sores all over his body, Dunstan took his holy orders in 943 AD and became somewhat of a recluse. He returned to his love of studying and it is presumably here where Dunstan became a blacksmith, and had his infamous run-in with the devil himself.
There are a few different versions of this story, but this one is the most well known.
One day, there was a knock at the door of Dunstan’s shop, and a man with cloven hooves asked to be re-shoed.
Knowing that no human man would have feet such as those, Dunstan realized it was the Devil upon his doorstep.
Amazingly, Dunstan agreed to help him out, and prepared his equipment. The unsuspecting Devil, lay his hoof out for the shoe, and Dunstan hammered a red hot horseshoe nail made of iron in the centre of his sole.
The devil was in agony and begged the man to remove the nail, and he agreed, on one condition: that the Devil never pass through a door that had a horseshoe hanging upon it.
Dunstan continued his pious and impressive life, and even regained favour with the royal court, until his death on May 19th 988. It is said that he received a divine message on May 16th that he would die in three days time, and he did. His last words were: "He hath made a remembrance of his wonderful works, being a merciful and gracious Lord: He hath given food to them that fear Him.”
Around the world where Catholicism is the dominant (or at least practiced) religion, May 19th is the Feast of St. Dunstan.
It’s safe to assume that St. Dunstan was a real man, who ranked high in the church, but we know that the story of the horseshoe is fiction and likely a metaphor for the triumph of good over evil. But of course that didn’t stop people from nailing horseshoes to their doors or to the coffins of suspected witches to prevent them from escaping after death.
This legend was probably also used as propaganda in its early days to dissuade people from paganism and bring them into christianity. We know that the Church routinely took symbols that were tied to the Goddess and twisted them into anti-woman sentiments to fit the patriarchal beliefs of the religion.
It is most likely that the horseshoes original divine association was that of the Mother Goddess Archetype and represented a vulva.
the Goddess Epona would've definitely been represented by the horseshoe. She was the Roman protector of Horses and Donkeys (and was probably blended with Gaul mythology), and her main characteristic was fertility. The romans understood that without horses, there would be no abundant crops or fertile soil, and so she was revered.
Epona would eventually become the protector of cavalry, and statues and divinatory items of her are still being discovered all around Roman Europe.
And of course, we can't discuss the Memento Mori Horseshoe without touching on the monuments that are interwoven with death.
In Otterbein Cemetery, just outside of Somerset, Ohio, one grave in particular stands out from the others. Nestled in one of the original 553 plots, is the resting place of a Mrs. Mary Henry (nee Angle). Her gravestone has seen significant damage over the years, and is now surrounded by a small wrought iron fence, that was brought in to deter vandals hoping to collect a piece of the mysterious marker for themselves. So what makes Mary’s grave so special? A ghost story, a faithful equine companion, and a rusty coloured imprint on the back of the stone in the shape of horseshoe.
In 1843, a bachelor by the name of James Henry, felt ready to settle down and get married. He was a farmer, and in the 1800s, having your own plot of land in rural Ohio was sure to attract a few women. Which of course it did, two in fact: a Miss Mary Angle and a Miss Rachel Hodge.
Unable to decide between the two women, James began courting them both. Which, I am sure provoked quite a bit of jealousy amongst the threesome.
One evening as James was heading home in his carriage, led by his favourite horse Bob (yes that was his name), James fell asleep.
Bob, instead of returning to the farm, brought James back to the home of Mary Angle and that is when the philandering prince awoke. Taking his arrival as a sign, James decided the woman he would wed would be Mary. And wed they did, On January 11th 1844, where Rachel surprisingly acted as a bridesmaid.
During their marriage, Mary loved to go riding around the town in the carriage pulled by Bob, and her affection was so deep for the horse that her new husband gifted him to her.
Unfortunately, a year later, in 1845, Mary died while delivering a stillborn child. James lost both his wife and his son in one foul sweep.
After what I am sure was an “appropriate” mourning period, James once again began seeing Rachel, and of course, he fell asleep on his way home after a night out. Bob, who was often bringing James to the home of his lover, naturally brought him back there.
James, keeping with tradition, took this unscheduled stop as another sign and married Rachel, with the ceremony taking place at none other than the grave of his first wife. We really couldn’t expect less from James could we?
Mary was not as easy-going as Rachel was about being a bridesmaid, and after the wedding, weird phenomena began to take place at her burial site.
The groundskeeper of the cemetery was doing his rounds one evening and immediately noticed the strange horseshoe stain upon Mary’s grave. And if that wasn’t enough, the mark was accompanied by distant wails of a woman, and a mysterious ball of light floated above the stone, taunting him.
The day after being informed of the strange occurrences, James went to the barn to attend to Bob and the other animals. When he hadn’t returned for a few hours, Rachel went out to look for him, which is when she discovered a most horrible scene.
James lay dead on the straw covered floor, with a horseshoe imprint, that perfectly matched the one on Mary’s grave, imbedded into his forehead.
Had it been Mary’s ghost who spooked Bob, causing him to kick in fear, killing James instantly?
Perhaps, though I think we can chalk this story up to more urban legend, than stone cold fact.
Not all graves associated with horseshoes are as sinister as Mary Henry’s.
In Hartford’s Cedar Hill Cemetery, which is a town in the centre of Connecticut, lays a man by the name of Mr. George Capewell.
His monument is adorned with a horseshoe crossed by a nail. This is a perfectly fitting ornament for the man, as he was the inventor of a machine that manufactured horseshoe nails.
Before Mr. Capewell, the nails were individually crafted by a blacksmith one by one. It’s important to state here, that other sources claim such machines were already in existence, but he had perfected the process which allowed for a steady stream of manufacturing with less defects.
Naturally, being able to produce nails at a higher speed than the competition, Capewell’s Nails grew quickly, and Hartford became known as the horseshoe nail capital of the world.
Though the company eventually moved to the nearby town of Bloomfield, CT, Mr. Capewell is forever resting in the town where he invented the machine that launched him to great success.
Despite being such a popular symbol in history and in modern times, horseshoes are actually not that common on gravestones. Occasionally they adorn the ones of avid horse lovers and jockeys, but otherwise they remain a symbol of the living.
So next time you’re in a graveyard, take a look around for a horseshoe, as you will have discovered something very special.
This has been the Memento Mori Oracle Podcast. Join me here next week when we will be heading into Irish lore and talking about the Clover.
Special thanks to: Esther, Logan, Holly, Codi and Tim.
St. Dunstan Poem: Edward G. Flight, read by JP Wright
Writer and Producer: Claire Goodchild
Script Supervisor: Genrys Goodchild
Sound editor: Esther
A nice illumination into the background of the horseshoe as a symbol!