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.
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.
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!