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stdunstanDo you ever wonder about the origin of displaying ‘lucky’ horseshoes near a door?

I always thought it was pagan superstition.

However, the origin lies in a legend about St Dunstan — whose feast day is on May 19 — and the devil.

St Dunstan’s two encounters with the devil are said to have taken place in Mayfield, East Sussex. VillageNet has a detailed description of Mayfield’s history, including the legends about Dunstan (emphases mine):

The saint, formerly a blacksmith, was working at his forge when the Devil paid him a visit, disguised as a beautiful woman, with a view to leading him astray. However St Dunstan spotted the cloven hooves beneath the dress, and grabbed the devil’s nose with his red hot pincers! thus foiling Satan’s evil intentions. According to another legend, Satan returned again as a weary traveller in need of a horseshoe, Dunstan saw through the disguise once again and beat the Devil until he pleaded for mercy, and swore never to enter any house with a horseshoe above the door.

St Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Atlanta has this variation on the legends:

He was the most popular saint in England for nearly two centuries, having gained fame for the many stories of his greatness, not least among which were those concerning his famed cunning in defeating the Devil.

English literature contains many references to him, for example in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and in this folk rhyme:



St Dunstan, as the story goes,
Once pull’d the devil by the nose
With red-hot tongs, which made him roar,
That he was heard three miles or more.

Another story relates how Dunstan nailed a horseshoe to the Devil’s hoof when he was asked to re-shoe the Devil’s horse. This caused the Devil great pain, and Dunstan only agreed to remove the shoe and release the Devil after he promised never to enter a place where a horseshoe is over the door. This is claimed as the origin of the lucky horseshoe.

In 1871, Edward G Flight wrote a humorous poem about the legends with accompanying text, which is equally amusing. The renowned George Cruikshank provided the illustrations (see one on the right, courtesy of CatholicSaints.Info). The Horse Shoe: The True Legend of Saint Dunstan and the Devil, Showing How the Horse-Shoe Came to Be a Charm Against Witchcraft is worth a look. Here is an excerpt of the text (emphases in the original):

To all good folk in Christendom to whom this instrument shall come the Devil sendeth greeting: Know ye that for himself and heirs said Devil covenants and declares, that never at morn or evening prayers at chapel church or meeting, never where concords of sweet sound sacred or social flow around or harmony is woo’d, nor where the Horse-Shoe meets his sight on land or sea by day or night on lowly sill or lofty pinnacle on bowsprit helm mast boom or binnacle, said Devil will intrude.

Flight’s work includes a letter from ‘a friend’ describing the virtues of the noble horse and how the horseshoe repels the devil (emphases mine):

… In proportion as they developed unblemished honour, with undaunted bravery, graceful bearing, and magnanimous generosity, were they deemed worthy to rank among Christendom’s bright chivalry.

The horse-shoe was, no doubt, regarded as typical of the noble qualities of its wearer. These being so hateful to the ugly, sly, intriguing, slandering, malevolent, ill-conditioned, pettifogging, pitiful arch-enemy, it might well be supposed that the mere apparition of that type would scare him away. To this supposition is ascribable the adoption of the horse-shoe, as an infallible charm against the visits of old Iniquity.”

The Drinks Business has a good page on St Dunstan and provides us with a more recent, although doubtful, story concerning the holy man and the devil. This, they say, was popular during the past two centuries. It concerns the frost that occurs in the West Country in England around St Dunstan’s feast day, May 19:

The tale was apparently particularly popular in Devon in the 19th and 20th centuries and goes thus.

Dunstan had bought some barley and made some beer, which he then hoped to sell for a good price. Seeing this the Devil appeared before him and offered to blight the local apple trees with frost (the tale is presumably set in Somerset, perhaps when Dunstan is Abbot of Glastonbury). This would ensure there was no cider and so drive demand for beer. Dunstan accepted the offer but stipulated that the frost should strike from the 17-19 May.

As stories go this comes close to blackening the good name of the saintly man who tweaked the Devil’s nose and the legend likely arose among disgruntled cidermakers who perhaps thought Dunstan wasn’t doing enough to protect their crop on his feast day.

The article also says that, because Dunstan was not only a blacksmith but also a silversmith and jeweller, the London Assay Office used to start its new hallmark year on his feast day:

He was, reputedly, a skilled blacksmith and jeweller and is generally venerated as a patron saint of smiths.

In his various roles as bishop and archbishop he worked hard to restore monastic life in England and reform the English church.

Dying in 988 he was canonised in 1029 and until Thomas Becket’s martyrdom in 1170 he was considered England’s favourite saint.

His association with silversmithing meant that for a good 600 years the London Assay Office hallmarks ran from 19 May (his feast day) to 18 May the following year. This was only changed in 1660 when Charles II moved it to his own birthday, 29 May.

What a fascinating history to a centuries-old legend about the lucky horseshoe.

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