Iron in folklore

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Iron has a long and varied tradition in the mythology and folklore of the world. As human blood smells of the iron which its cells contain, and blood in many traditions is equated with the life-force, so iron and minerals have been considered to be the blood or life-force of the Earth. This relationship is charted further in literature on geomancy, ley lines and songlines.


In Plutarch's mystical writings, iron and lodestone is referred to as the "bone" or "core" of the gods. Symbolically, iron is the bone, the foundation or the mineral core of both blood and red ochre.

Cold iron[edit]

"Cold Iron" redirects here. For the poem by Rudyard Kipling, see Cold Iron (poem).

Cold iron is a poetic and archaic term for iron.

Francis Grose's 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defines cold iron as "A sword, or any other weapon for cutting or stabbing." This usage often appears as "cold steel" in modern parlance.

Rudyard Kipling's poem "Cold Iron", found in his 1910 collection of stories Rewards and Fairies, used the term poetically to mean "weapon".

"Cold iron" is historically believed to repel, contain, or harm ghosts, fairies, witches, and/or other malevolent supernatural creatures. This belief continued into later superstitions in a number of forms:

In his novel Redgauntlet, the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott wrote, "Your wife's a witch, man; you should nail a horse-shoe on your chamber-door."

The original belief, that cold iron literally hurts otherworldly creatures such as fairies and spirits, has been taken up again in modern times by authors of modern fantasy, including novels, role-playing games, et cetera.

A horseshoe wind chime, used as a good luck charm.


A horseshoe on a door is regarded as a protective talisman in some cultures.

Horseshoes are considered a good luck charm in many cultures, including those of England, Denmark,[1] Lithuania, and Estonia, and its shape, fabrication, placement and manner of sourcing are all important. A common tradition is that if a horseshoe is hung on a door with the two ends pointing up (as shown here) then good luck will occur. However, if the two ends point downwards then bad luck will occur. Traditions do differ on this point, though. In some cultures, the horseshoe is hung points down (so the luck pours onto you); in others, it is hung points up (so the luck does not fall out); still in others it does not matter so long as the horseshoe has been used (not new), was found (not purchased), and can be touched. In all traditions, luck is contained in the shoe and can pour out through the ends.

In some traditions, any good or bad luck achieved will only occur to the owner of the horseshoe, not the person who hangs it up. Therefore, if the horseshoe was stolen, borrowed or even just found then the owner, not the person who found or stole the horseshoe will get any good or bad luck. Other traditions require that the horseshoe be found to be effective.

Illustration by George Cruikshank for The True Legend of St. Dunstan and the Devil

One reputed origin of the tradition of lucky horseshoes is the story of Saint Dunstan and the Devil. Dunstan, who would become the Archbishop of Canterbury in AD 959, was a blacksmith by trade. The story relates that he once nailed a horseshoe to the Devil's hoof when he was asked to reshoe the Devil's horse. This caused the Devil great pain, and Dunstan only agreed to remove the shoe and release the Devil after the Devil promised never to enter a place where a horseshoe is hung over the door.[2]

Another theory concerning the placing of horseshoes above doorways is to ward off Faeries; the theory being that supernatural beings are repelled by iron and as horseshoes were an easily available source of iron, they could be nailed above a door to prevent any unwanted, otherworldly guests.

Meteoric Iron in Tibet[edit]

Thogcha (Tibetan: ཐོག་ལྕགསWylie: thog lcags)[3] means 'sky-iron' in Tibetan. Meteoric iron was highly prized throughout the Himalayas where it was included in sophisticated polymetallic alloys for ritual implements such as the singing bowl (Jansen, 1992) and phurba (Müller-Ebeling, et al., 2002).

Beer (1999: p. 234) holds that:

Meteoric iron or "sky-iron" (Tib. gnam lcags) is the supreme substance for forging the physical representation of the vajra or other iron weapons, since it has already been tempered by the celestial gods in its passage across the heavens. The indivisibility of form and emptiness is a perfect metaphor for the image of a meteorite or "stone fallen from the sky", manifesting out of the voidness of space as a shooting star or fireball, and depositing a chunk of fused "sky iron" on the earth below. Many vajras held by deities as weapons are described as being forged from meteorite iron, and Tibet, with its high altitude, thin atmosphere and desolate landscape, received an abundance of meteorite fragments. Tibetan vajras were often cast from meteorite iron, and as an act of sympathetic magic a piece of the meteoric iron was often returned to its original site.

— [4]

Blood and ochre[edit]

In many indigenous Australian Aboriginal peoples' traditions ochre and blood, both high in iron content and considered Maban, are applied to the bodies of dancers for ritual. As Lawlor states:[5]

In many Aboriginal rituals and ceremonies, red ochre is rubbed all over the naked bodies of the dancers. In secret, sacred male ceremonies, blood extracted from the veins of the participant's arms is exchanged and rubbed on their bodies. Red ochre is used in similar ways in less secret ceremonies. Blood is also used to fasten the feathers of birds onto people's bodies. Bird feathers contain a protein that is highly magnetically sensitive.

Lawlor comments that blood employed in this fashion is held by these peoples to attune the dancers to the invisible energetic realm of the Dreamtime. Lawlor then draws information from different disciplines charting a relationship between these invisible energetic realms and magnetic fields. Iron and magnetism having a marked relationship.

Songlines, magnetic fields and wayfinding[edit]

Lawlor[6] quotes the biophysicists F. A. Brown and F. H. Barnwell who have conducted research on the biological effects of the Earth's magnetic field (and particularly how it relates with directionality and wayfinding):

There remains no reasonable doubt that living systems are extraordinarily sensitive to magnetic fields. By extremely simple experiments it is shown that highly diverse plants and animals may have their orientation modified by artificial fields of the order of strength of the geo-magnetic field...The nature of the response properties suggest that the organism is normally integrated with its geo-magnetic environment to a striking degree.

— [7]

Lawlor then builds on this with citing research conducted on homing pigeons which has pinpointed a tiny crystal in their brain. This crystal which is supersensitive to the Earth's magnetic fields or geomagnetic currents, works in tandem with the birds other wayfinding propensities. As Mathrani (2002) states:

Many animals have the ability to sense the geomagnetic field and utilize it as a source of directional (compass) information. Studies have shown that salamanders and frogs use magnetic fields for orientation when they have to find a way to escape from danger, such as from predators. Other animals that have been known to migrate via the detection of the Earth's magnetic field include sparrows, pigeons, bobolinks, yellow fin tuna fish, honeybees, and bacteria. Magnetite has been found in the tissues of all these organisms.

Crystals of magnetite have been found in some bacteria (e.g., Magnetospirillum magnetotacticum) and in the brains of bees, of termites, of some birds (e.g., the pigeon), and of humans. These crystals are thought to be involved in magnetoreception, the ability to sense the polarity or the inclination of the Earth's magnetic field, and to be involved in navigation. Also, chitons have teeth made of magnetite on their radula making them unique among animals. This means they have an exceptionally abrasive tongue with which to scrape food from rocks.

The study of biomagnetism began with the discoveries of Caltech paleoecologist Heinz Lowenstam in the 1960s.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Thorpe, Benjamin (1851). Northern Mythology: Comprising the Principal Popular Traditions and Superstitions of Scandinavia, North Germany, and the Netherlands. E. Lumley.
  2. ^ Edward G. Flight (1871). The True Legend of St. Dunstan and the Devil: Showing How the Horse-Shoe Came to Be a Charm Against Witchcraft (Third ed.). London. 
  3. ^ Bellezza, John Vincent (March, 1999). Thogchags: The Ancient Amulets of Tibet. Source: [1] (accessed: Wednesday April 14, 2010)
  4. ^ Beer, Robert (1999). The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs (Hardcover). Shambhala. ISBN 1-57062-416-X, ISBN 978-1-57062-416-2. Source: [2] (accessed: Thursday April 15, 2010), p.234.
  5. ^ Lawlor 1991: p. 102–103
  6. ^ Lawlor1991: p. 105
  7. ^ Quotation cited from p.91 of: Beasley, Victor (1978). Your Electro-Vibratory Body. Boulder Creek, Ca.: University of the Trees.

Further reading[edit]