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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.

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.

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 1. 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.

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Image 2. 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 3. 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.

moerasijzererts volksgeloof
Image 4. 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?

magic of bog iron
Image 5. 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.

Text: Jan Weertz
Pictures: Jan en Els Weertz
© De Belemniet