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The magic of iron and of the blacksmith

The magic of iron and of the blacksmith 

Through the ages iron had a special role in popular belief and folk medicine. People believed iron had magical and healing powers. The blacksmith – who created objects from iron by forging the metal - was surrounded by magic and mystery. He was in close contact with the magical iron.

Iron was regarded as a good repellent against different kinds of magic. It provided protection against witches and the devil. In the course of time and in different regions iron was used in various ways for this purpose. But essentially it was all the same. In certain regions people put a piece of iron under the doorstep. Or they put it under the bed of midwives. They also put it in the cradle of newborn children. In all cases this was done as a protection against misfortune and evil. Diseases, bad luck and the evil had to stay outside the door! Often it were those evil entities like demons, witches and the devil himself who brought diseases and misfortune among the people. If they could stop them before they entered the house they were already pretty far. And if you also wanted protection when you were outside of the house, you wore a piece of iron on the body. But the evil was a master in disguise. People believed that witches could change themselves in different kinds of animals. If you touched such an animal with a piece of iron it transformed again in the original witch. It was also believed that whirlwinds were nothing but the dance parties of witches. If you threw a piece of iron in such a whirlwind it died down because the iron wounded the witches. And if a piece of iron was added to the milk during the churning the witches couldn’t screw things up.

moerasijzererts volksgeloof
Image 1. Iron to ward off evil?
 Through the ages iron had a special role in popular belief. Has the use of solitary pieces of bog iron in walls something to do with this? Was it meant to ward off evil? Or was it done to give the building a special power? We found such individual pieces of bog iron on many places in buildings. Here are some examples.
Top left and on top in the middle: in Hauset (Belgium) lies at the corner of the Göhlstraße with the Kirchstraße Auberge zur Geul. This building is made of a grey Carboniferous limestone. The use of this stone for building purposes in common in that region because there this rock nearly surfaces. Remarkable is the presence of just one piece of bog iron between the limestones of the Auberge. In the middle and right: The Dutch Reformed Church at the Vrijthof in Oirschot in the Dutch province North Brabant is made of volcanic tuff. On a few places in the side walls we see pieces of bog iron. Bottom left and bottom in the middle: in the chapel of the Postel Abbey in Postel, Belgium we see a single piece of bog iron in the wall of volcanic tuff. Just a single piece. What is the use of this?

The evil eye 

Iron was also used as a protection against the evil eye. For example witches could have this evil eye. With the evil eye they could make innocent people sick, bring them misfortune or even kill them. If you suspected someone had the evil eye you could protect yourself with iron. In such case you had to hold a piece of it in the hand. Grabbing something made of iron was also good. In some regions people wore an iron ring. In that way you had a 24/7 protection! Also cows and horses wore as protection a piece of iron around the neck. If you were building an new house you needed also to protect it against evil and misfortune. Therefore people hung an iron kettle or pan in the vicinity during the construction time.

magic of bog iron
Image 2. Iron to ward off evil?
Through the ages iron had a special role in popular belief. Has the use of solitary pieces of bog iron in walls something to do with this? Was it meant to ward off evil? Or was it done to give the building a special power? We found such individual pieces of bog iron on many places in buildings. Here are some examples.
Top left and on top in the middle: In the walls of the Domkirche St. Blasii in the German town Braunschweig we found just one piece of  bog iron. Bottom left, bottom in the middle and far right: The Protestant Witte- of Lambertuskerk in Heemse (Hardenberg) in the Dutch province Overijssel. Here we found a few blocks of bog iron : on the left and the right side of the door in the tower and on the left and right corner of the tower. The blocks on the corners are large.

Nails for healing purposes and enchantment


Iron nails often had a relation with magic, healing and enchantment. People hammered nails in trees for healing purposes. They believed it could cure illnesses. They also hammered nails in trees to enchant someone.

The origin of certain (forged) nails could intensify their magic power. If you had a nail that was used to crucify somebody you had something very powerful in your possession. But also nails from a decayed coffin were an excellent repellent against evil and other misfortune. Such nails were hammered in the wooden beams of the stable to protect the animals. If they were hammered in the feeding-through they also gave protection. If you touched somebody with the evil eye with such a nail, he or she couldn’t harm you anymore.

Nail trees 

We call trees in which people hammered nails for the above mentioned purposes nail trees. There weren’t many of them in The Netherlands. Nowadays we only find one in Yde in the province Drenthe. In Belgium the use of these trees was more common. But not many of those trees are left. We can count them on two hands.

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Image 3. Nail Trees
Until recently ’s Gravenvoeren in the Belgian province Limburg had a chestnut tree that was used as nail tree (first and second picture). People hammered nails in it to get rid of toothaches. But first they had to rub the sore spot with the nail. They believed the tree would take over the pain. Already for a long time the chestnut tree was in a bad condition. Finally it died in 2018. Only the trunk was left. In Olne (Saint-Hadelin) in the Belgian Province Liège we also find a nail tree. This time it’s a lime tree (third and fourth picture). Here people also believe the tree takes over pain if they hammer a nail in it. If you visit the tree you find not only nails hammered in it but also strips of cloth attached to it. This tree is also a clootie tree. These strips of cloth have just like the nails a relation with a healing ritual.

The opposite world 

But at certain times in certain regions it was like the opposite world. Bringing old iron in the house caused bad luck. And for ploughing you better used wooden plowshares because iron plowshares caused crop failure. And dropping a piece of iron on the ground on Good Friday meant bad luck for that day. So in the opposite world it essentially was also all the same: better stay away from iron. 

But one thing is for sure. If iron gave protection against all bad and evil or if just the opposite was the case: in one way or another it had magical power.


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Image 4. The nail trees of Yde
 In Yde in the Dutch province Drenthe we find a couple of nail trees. With hammering nails in these trees people hoped to heal hernias. Today many of those nails are still visible. Some of them form a cross.

spijkeroffer spijkerkapel Esdonk Image 5. Spijkerkapel (Nail Chapel) Esdonk
The chapel of the Holy Maria Magdalena near Esdonk in the Dutch province North Brabant is also known as ‘Spijkerkapel’ (Nail Chapel). In this chapel we see a wooden 17th century statue of Christ. Here people offer rusty nails. The faithful believe that with their sacrifices sores on the skin like ulcers, pimples, furuncles and eczema disappear. Nails can be sacrificed in the chapel. But when the chapel is closed the faithful can also sacrifice the nails from the outside. You can see the statue of Christ from the outside. But here it is protected with plexiglass. In the plexiglass is a fist sized hole (red arrow) to sacrifice the nails. The four forged old nails in the piece of wood represent the nails that were made to crucify Jesus.

Literature

For writing this item about the magic of iron the following literature has been used in part.

  • Das große Handbuch des Aberglaubens was published bij Tosa Verlag in Vienna (Austria) in 2007 by Ulrike Müller-Kaspar.
  • Geschichte des Aberglaubens aller Zeiten und Völker from S. Seligmann appeared in 2012 by Sarastro Verlag in Paderborn (Germany).
  • The Encyclopedia of Superstitions is written by Edward and Mona Radford. In the course of time different editions  appeared from different publishers. Recent editions are from the Philosophical Library and via Open Road Media, in New York (USA). The original edition dates from 1947.
Text: Jan Weertz
Pictures: Jan en Els Weertz
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