A Saint, the Devil, and Why Horseshoes are Lucky

Have you ever seen a horseshoe nailed above a door for good luck?  This superstition is widespread, although with some regional variations.  I’ve always heard that the open end of the horseshoe should be pointed up to hold the luck in, but I recently found out that there’s another school of thought on the matter.  The open end is pointed down to shower luck upon all who enter.  Regardless of its orientation, I wondered about the origin of idea of the lucky horseshoe.  Fortunately I work in a library devoted to all things equine and as luck would have it, we have a book on the subject. 

The Magic Horse-Shoe with Other Folk-Lore Notes (1898) by Robert Means Lawrence.

The Magic Horse-Shoe with Other Folk-Lore Notes by Robert Means Lawrence was published in 1898. As the title suggests the book covers more than just the horseshoe, but about half the volume is devoted to the topic.  Lawrence states in his preface that, “It has been the writer’s aim to make the chapter on the Horse-Shoe as exhaustive as possible, as this attractive symbol of superstition does not appear to have received hiterhto the attention which it merits.  This chapter is the outgrowth of a paper read at the seventh annual meeting of the America Folk-Lore Society, at Philadelphia, December 28, 1895, an abstract of which appeared in the Society’s Journal for December, 1896.”  By the end of the section on horseshoes, he has described no less than 16 sources for the belief in the magical properties of the horseshoe.  Because today is May 19th, I’d like to focus on one origin story specifically, the tale of St. Dunstan and the Devil.

Monastic Chapel 1920, Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, New York. This is the Christian saint Dunstan in stained glass form.   Wikimedia commons

May 19th is the feast day of Saint Dunstan.  He was born in 909 and would begin his life with the church as a young boy, studying with the monks at Glastonbury Abbey.  He excelled in artistic craftsmanship, in particular smithing and illustration, and was devoted to scholarship.  He also became a skilled politician and was able to successfully navigate the turbulent social and political environment.  Over the course of his career he would become successively, Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London, and Archbishop of Canterbury.  He died in 988 and would be canonized in 1029. For 200 years he was the most popular saint in England, largely due to impressive tales of his deeds, especially those in which he personally outfoxed the Devil himself.  It is one such tale that brings us to the lucky horseshoe.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image.png
Dunstan shoes the Devil’s hoof. Illustration by George Cruikshank, from The Horse Shoe: The True Legend of St Dunstan and the Devil (1871) by Edward G. Flight.
Wikimedia Commons

Dunstan is said to have been working at his forge when the Devil appeared disguised as a traveler.  The devil asks to have a horseshoe replaced on his horse.  Dunstan sees through the Devil’s disguise and manages to trick him and nail the horseshoe tightly to the Devil’s hoof rather than the horse’s.  This causes the Devil great pain.  Dunstan forces the Devil to agree not to enter any building with a horseshoe mounted above the door in exchange for the removal of the horseshoe from his foot.

The Devil agrees to Dunstan’s terms. Illustration by George Cruikshank, from The Horse Shoe: The True Legend of St Dunstan and the Devil (1871) by Edward G. Flight.
Wikimedia Commons

The details of this story vary widely, as it’s been told and retold for 1000 years.  Sometimes the Devil appears as a woman to tempt Dunstan but he sees her cloven hooves.  Sometimes the horseshoe is hot and burns the Devil’s foot until he agrees to Dunstan’s terms.  There is a popular related tale in which Dunstan grabs the Devil by the nose with hot tongs.  A relatively recent version of the tale was published in 1871 as a lyric poem called, The Horse Shoe: The True Legend of St Dunstan and the Devil, by Edward G. Flight.  The poem was illustrated by the famous English illustrator, George Cruikshank, two of whose illustrations I’ve shared here.

The Library is currently closed but when we reopen I’d be happy to show you Lawrence’s book in which you may read about an additional 15 sources of the belief in lucky horseshoes.  He also covers some other interesting superstitions such as, the omens of sneezing, the folk-lore of common salt, and superstitious dealings with animals.

Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail.

1 Comment

Leave a Comment

  1. Fascinating! I have never heard the Dunstan derivation. Now I know, and I’m planning to nail a shoe over every door of my house and barn. No devils at Banner Manor!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s