Appalachia Folklore

Hanging Horseshoes: Up or Down?

Today’s guest post was written by Ed Karshner. It’s the second in a series of three. Go here to read the first post.

Horseshoe Nail

As I mentioned in my previous post, the horseshoe is one of our most powerful and common good luck charm. Just today (as I write this), my daughter, Alex, packed a horseshoe nail, worked by a blacksmith into the shape of a horseshoe, in her book bag for luck as she took her state tests. While we can all agree that the horseshoe is lucky, there has always been the great debate over how to hang a horseshoe. Conventional wisdom states that a horseshoe should be hung pointing up to keep the luck from running out. Yet, there is always some ornery character who insists it should be hung pointing down. The question is, who’s right? Well from a folklore perspective, they both are. 

I was surprised to learn that the oldest “correct” way to hang a horseshoe was pointing down—the way most of us see as irregular. But, why pointing down? According to folklorist JW Hoffman, writing in 1888, the horseshoe pointing down was connected to the story of the Passover. He writes “the blood smeared over the doorways in such a manner as to form a small arch…superstition later blended with the Passover story and the association of luck and protection with the horseshoe was born.” However, that is not the only layer that gives this orientation of the horseshoe its meaning. 

Still within the Jewish mystical tradition, when the horseshoe is hung pointing down, it resembles the Hebrew letter “tav,” ת. In Jewish magical practices, each letter of the Hebrew alphabet carries a deeper meaning. Tav represents the qualities of faith and faithfulness. The Kabbalist tradition, a mystical Jewish practice, takes it even further stating that tav reminds us that we were created “to do” as God “does.” This means rectifying ourselves with the Creation and, thereby, consecrating both Creation and ourselves through our faithful doings. 

Borrowing from this same Kabbalist tradition, the Greeks also had a mystical/magical layer to their alphabet. For the Greeks, the inverted horseshoe resembled the letter “omega,” Ω. Omega is the last letter of the Greek alphabet and represents the boundary of what exists. It’s a symbol of our essence, those characteristics that make us uniquely who we are. Omega serves as a reminder that we exist uniquely in our own reality. In other words, omega is a symbol of the wholeness of who we are. 

If you put tav and omega in the context of the blacksmith story from last time, this emphasis on faithfulness, doing, and talents makes sense. The horseshoe is a powerful tool against chaos, disorder, and evil because it reminds us that we were created with a very special set of skills and the capacity to learn how to apply those skills, faithfully, in order to consecrate this wonderful Creation. 

All that aside, we know that it is far more common to see the horseshoe hanging the other way, pointed up. Unlike the inverted tradition that has its roots in the Middle East and Mediterranean area, folklorist Robert Chapman ties the “up” orientation to the English Cunning Magic tradition. This magical practice was less concerned with luck and more focused on “frustrating the power of the witch.” Chapman believes that horseshoes were hung this way to recall the waxing moon. Hanging a horseshoe “up” was a symbolic calling for growth, stability, and renewal. Here, the horseshoe has a clear association with the moon, itself. In fact, this association with the moon is even more obvious, according to Robert Means Lawrence, when we learn that an early name for a horseshoe was “selene,” the Greek goddess of the Moon. 

So, this all begs the question, which way is right? Up or down? Like I said to start, they both are. Placing the horseshoe’s orientation within the lunar cycle, a horseshoe pointing down represents the waxing cycle from new moon to full were the horseshoe is charging or filling itself up with luck. Then, the horseshoe is pointed up during the waning phase from full to the next new moon, to hold the full power of luck and protection. At the start of the new cycle, you turn the horseshoe over, dump out all the stale luck and start all over again. In essence, what you end up with is a lunar calendar where the month is divided roughly in half. 

Almanac

I think the horseshoe’s orientation reveals a unique Appalachian trait. Jack Welch writes that Appalachian have a “natural orientation” where we seek to put ourselves “in harmony with the natural rhythms of the land.” Tipper gives us a taste of this in her regular updates “Planting by the Signs.” The Farmer’s Almanac we pick up at the checkout counter is full of better and worse days to do something based on nature’s rhythms. And, if you are lucky enough to still get an almanac calendar from a bank or general store (Mast General still puts one out), every day is linked to a Zodiac sign or moon phase. We are a people who can’t quit the land. 

Besides luck, the horseshoe expresses a cyclical idea of time, a natural rhythm of ebb and flow, of favorable and unfavorable time that Appalachians live within. The horseshoe is a reminder that “evil” will “pass over” us in time. And that all endings are, at the same time, new beginnings. 

Next time, I’ll pull all this together to give you my two cents on what I feel the real power of the horseshoe is for Appalachian people fully situated in time and place. 


I hope you enjoyed Ed’s post as much as I did! The history behind the horseshoe and luck is downright fascinating!

Tipper

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10 Comments

  • Reply
    John Burton
    May 19, 2021 at 3:41 pm

    My grandfather (1876-1970)( born and raised on the Kentucky – West Virginia border) told me the horseshoe was for “good luck” and hung points “up” to keep the luck from “running out!”

  • Reply
    Chris
    May 19, 2021 at 12:26 pm

    If a horse tried to kick you, the shoe would be pointing up. Hanging it in that direction shows you were lucky to be out of his way.

  • Reply
    Wendy Paige
    May 18, 2021 at 1:50 pm

    Here is the answer about how to hang a horse shoe: on the bottom of a horse. That’s the way I like mine! When I’m cleaning the hoof, I see U.

  • Reply
    Tamela
    May 18, 2021 at 11:37 am

    Just read Ed Karshner’s first two “devilish” installments – fascinating. I’m looking forward to the third – .

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    May 18, 2021 at 10:54 am

    I am a bit confused by all this. I look at a horseshoe from the prospective of the horse. The Ω does indeed look like a horseshoe and indicative of the direction of travel of the horse. The round part of the shoe is the toe while the two ends are the heel. On a draft horse the ends of the heel are bent over in order to pierce the ground and and provide traction. Often a cleat is welded to the toe (the rounded part) which provides additional traction.

    So, wouldn’t a horseshoe with the toe up (Ω) serve as an indication that I am willing to exert effort to advance myself in a positive direction? Wouldn’t one hung with the heel up imply that I am relying on luck to provide my progress?

    I see no correlation between planting by the signs and the orientation of a horse. Planting by the signs requires effort on my part to accomplish a goal. It’s a matter of when, not how or why. Hanging a horseshoe requires little effort and is expected to provide unearned benefits. Ain’t gonna happen! (“That’s all I’ve got to say about that!”- Forrest Gump)

    I do enjoy reading Mr. Karshner’s writings though!

  • Reply
    Sallie the apple doll lady
    May 18, 2021 at 9:46 am

    How fascinating! I appreciate Mr Karshner sharing his knowledge. Now I’ll have to wait to read the next post before deciding which way to hand a big old worn horseshoe I have.

  • Reply
    Shirl
    May 18, 2021 at 8:48 am

    My horseshoes will remain on the well box and sheds where I found them over thirty years ago. I can’t take a chance on my luck running out.

  • Reply
    Linda
    May 18, 2021 at 8:01 am

    When we were digging our house and barn foundations, a small shoe turned up, probably from a mule. We hung it on a tilt, not fully up nor fully down. Our reasoning was to not hoard all the good “luck” and if some bad did come, it might flow out.

  • Reply
    Ray Presley
    May 18, 2021 at 7:54 am

    Concerning the hanging of horseshoes….In my opinion, it’s a matter of personal interpretation and perhaps what we wish to convey to others. A horseshoe might be hung over one’s doorway to signify good fortune to all who therein enter or abide. I prefer to see them hung with the arc on top. How the Hebrews or Greeks might interpret it means little to most of us. As with omens (good or not so good,) we can let our imaginations run wild, but that doesn’t mean that everyone shares those beliefs. The same holds true with poetry or Bible verses. Different people interpret them differently.

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    May 18, 2021 at 7:13 am

    Maybe we should hang two horseshoes. One up and one down or one up on the front door and one down on the back door.

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