Monday, May 19, 2014

St Dunstan and the Devil: Why We Hang Horseshoes Over Doors

A French painting by Antoine St Aubert seems to illustrate one version of the St Dunstan legend, or a French legend like it. Religious history seems to be full of blacksmith and farrier saints!

Today is celebrated as the feast day of St Dunstan, a 10th Century saint who lived a quiet life as a smith and a musician in Sussex, England, until one night the devil paid him a visit and one of the great traditions of folklore was born: the nailing of a horseshoe over a door.
The modern version of Dunstan's story was published in 1871 in the old and very long lyric poem, The Horse Shoe: The True Legend of St Dunstan and the Devil by Edward G. Flight, beautifully illustrated by George Cruikshank.

St. Dunstan was a very quiet and humble hermit who worked at his anvil and played the harp.

But one night, there was the sound of howling outside Dunstan's hut. The Devil had come by. Always wanting to play some mischief, the Devil began howling discordantly out-of-tune with the lovely harp music.

Well, so it chanced, this tramping vagrant

Intent on villanies most flagrant

Ranged by Saint Dunstan's gate;

And hearing music so delicious

Like hooded snake, his spleen malicious

Swelled up with envious hate

What happened next? There are many versions of St Dunstan's story. One is that,

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.

In another version, the Devil comes to the hut as a woman, but Dunstan sees his cloven hooves beneath the dress he wears.

In the version illustrated here, the Devil sees Dunstan shoe a lame horse and make him sound. Then, Dunstan notices that the Devil is limping on one of his cloven hooves. He offers to make a shoe to help the Devil, too. The Devil envisions a satin slipper, but instead, Dunstan nails a red hot horseshoe very tightly onto the split hoof.

The Devil screamed and begged him to take it off. But Dunstan was in no hurry to do that.

Dunstan's solution was to make the Devil promise that he would always respect the symbol of the horseshoe and never enter a building that is protected by the sign of a shoe.

Then do not fail, great architect

Assembled wisdom to protect

From Satan's visitation

With horse-shoe fortify each gate

Each lion's paw; and then the State

Is safe from ruination

To this day, people still hang horseshoes over the doors of their buildings and still tell the story of Saint Dunstan. Especially today, May 19, St Dunstan's Day around the world.

This sign marks the entrance to the village of Mayfield in Sussex, England where the confrontation between the saintly farrier and the devil allegedly took place around 960 AD. Dunstan is chasing the Devil with his tongs! The village has a tradition of being a home to ironworkers of all kinds; inside the old church are iron gravemarkers to commemorate them.

Note: The illustrations and indeed the entire book of The Horseshoe: The True Legend of St Dunstan is available online through Project Gutenberg and you can download it. The text interpretation written here may or may not agree with various historical sources.

Thanks to Pennsylvania farrier and good-friend-of-the-Hoof-Blog George Geist for reminding me this morning that it was St Dunstan's Day.