Without a doubt, the most commonly encountered lucky charm in modern North America is the horseshoe and its representative models in the form of jewelry, wall hangings, and printed images.
This little horseshoe, shown here life-size, is actually a hand-forged pony shoe that my daughter Althaea and i discovered and dug out of the ground one day in 1976 while we were walking an old logging trail through the woods in the Missouri Ozarks. It probably dates from the 1910s to 1930s.
The use of worn-out horseshoes as magically protective amulets -- especially hung above or next to doorways -- originated in Europe, where one can still find them nailed onto houses, barns, and stables from Italy through Germany and up into Britain and Scandinavia. Additionally, wall hangins made in the form of horseshoes are common. In the Middle-East, one finds the terra cotta blue-glazed horseshoe plaque. In Turkey small metal or blue glass horseshoes are blended with the protective all-seeing eye to form a unique apotropaic charm i call the horseshoe-and-eyes that is believed to ward off the evil eye.
There is good reason to suppose that the crescent form of the horseshoe links the symbol to pagan Moon goddesses of ancient Europe such as Artemis and Diana, and that the protection invoked is that of the goddess herself, or, more particularly, of her sacred vulva. As such, the horseshoe is related to other magically protective doorway-goddesses, such as the Irish sheela-na-gig, and to lunar protectresses such as the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is often shown standing on a crescent moon and placed within a vulval mandorla or vesica pisces.
In most of Europe, the Middle-East, and Spanish-colonial Latin America protective horseshoes are placed in a downward facing or vulval position, as shown here, but in some parts of Ireland and Britain people believe that the shoes must be turned upward or "the luck will run out." Americans of English and Irish descent prefer to display horseshoes upward; those of German, Austrian, Italian, Spanish, and Balkan descent generally hang them downward.
In regions where the horseshoe is placed facing upward, folks believe the horseshoe must point up "or the luck runs out." In places where it is hung facing downward they say exactly the opposite -- "it must point down so the luck can pour onto you." However, in its function as an amulet for magical protection, especially over the doorways of barns and stables, the horseshoe usually points downward and it is said that "no witch will pass under it." The "Good Luck" horseshoe image i use on my web pages came from a 1940s American printer's stock cut book, probably drawn and engraved by a German-American, hence the horseshoe points downward.
What does the difference in directionality mean? I think that in most of the world it is the horseshoe ITSELF that is lucky and protective -- whereas in England and Ireland the horseshoe is seen as a mere "collector" of luck from above. There are other regional and cultural differences in horseshoe beliefs, too:
In Italy, for instance, when a horseshoe is nailed by the side of the door (not above it), directionality is not considered important, but what IS important is that the horseshoe was actually used -- worn and discarded by a horse -- that it was found in the road or in a field, not purchased, and that the person who enters the door can touch it.
In Mexico, used horseshoes are also prized, but instead of being touched for luck or protection, they are wrapped in colourful rayon thread, decorated with sequins and holy prints of the horseback-riding San Martin Caballero, wrapped in vinyl, and backed with a prayer or a magical incantation called El Secreto de la Virtuoso Herradura.
The distinctions between luck, protection, religion, and magic are nowhere more ambiguous than in the uses of the horseshoe amulet. Although actual horseshoes still serve a magically protective function when nailed above a door, modern horseshoe jewelry is worn not for its protective aspects but for its "lucky" power. In particular, due to a natural association with horse-racing, the miniature horseshoe has become something of a gambler's lucky charm. Furthermore, because horseshoes resemble horseshoe magnets, printed images of horseshoes -- especially on magical or spiritual product labels aimed at African-American hoodoo practitioners -- are often shown "drawing" money to themselves as if they partook of the powers usually ascribed to lodestones.
For representations of horseshoes in various lucky and protective contexts, see the following pages:
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