This article appeared in the North Clare Local in May.
In the late, great Terry Pratchett’s novel Lords and Ladies, some very nasty elves slip through the barrier between worlds and into the little mountain kingdom of Lancre. They cannot bear iron, and the formidable witch Granny Weatherwax warns them that they may capture Lancre, but they won’t get further; people in the cities have “iron in the head”.
As usual, Pratchett knew what he was talking about. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that, as we started to encase ourselves in steel buildings and aluminium cars, that traditional belief in magic and fairies faded too.
Iron is special. It’s in our blood, and is essential for good health. The earth’s magnetic fields have a huge bearing on many creatures’ methods of navigation, including birds, amphibians and insects. Iron is one of the few ferromagnetic substances, and the planet itself could be thought of as a giant magnet, with north and south poles.
Probably the best known belief about iron is its ability to ward off the supernatural, especially fairies. I mentioned in a previous article how keeping iron tongs near a baby’s crib could prevent the child from being snatched by the fairies. We all know the horseshoe is a symbol of good luck; they are made of iron, and were in times past, the easiest way to spare some of the metal. Tradition states that the horseshoe hung on the wall must have been previously used, and found, rather than taken directly from the animal. There are conflicting reports about how to hang the shoe; some say that having the ends pointing downwards allows the luck to escape. The English blacksmith St Dunstan, is reported to have shod Satan with a horseshoe, causing the Prince of Darkness such humiliation that he promised never to enter a dwelling where a shoe hung.
Iron was also referred to as “cold iron” and it was believed that, in some cases, cold wrought iron was more effective than the forged kind against fairies. To quote Rudyard Kipling; “But Iron — Cold Iron — is master of them all.”
Blacksmiths themselves were slightly out of the ordinary (even more so nowadays). They were considered lucky, and could even cure the sick in some traditions. There was even an ancient of god of smiths in Ireland, Gobhniu, who, like his Greek counterpart Hephaestus, could drink incredible quantities of liquor and never get drunk. His name lives on in the legendary Gobán Saor, a seventh century smith and architect who reportedly built many of Ireland’s round towers, and the name McGowan, which means Smith. In England, Smith is still the country’s most common surname. While there are Goldsmiths and Greensmiths and Sixsmiths and many other variations, the name itself referred simply to a blacksmith; the most important of the metallurgic professions.
Blacksmiths in Scotland could even perform marriages; such was the looseness of Scottish law on “irregular marriages” thousands of young couples fled from England to be wed in the village of Gretna Green, beginning in the 18th century. One “anvil priest”, Richard Rennison, married over 5,000 couples before a change in the law forced his retirement in 1939. He did not do any actual smithing.
Ochre, which occurs naturally in soil, is liquidised iron oxide. It can vary in colour from yellow to brown. Soil with large amounts of iron bacteria is a vivid, distinctive red; hence Australia’s famous red dirt roads. Many Aboriginal people held ochre in a special regard and used it to paint their art and ornament themselves. Likewise in New Zealand, ochre was used to paint canoes and other items by the Maoris.
In Newfoundland, the Beothuk people used ochre on their bodies. This is why Native American people were referred to as “red Indians” by the colonising Europeans.
Iron too, can come from space. Some meteors contain metal elements, including iron. Along with nickel and the rare element iridium, such compounds do actually make for a superbly strong material. Officially called “meteoric iron”, it’s more romantically referred to as “thunderbolt iron”, and it’s very important in the Tibetan tradition. Naturally, iron is already pretty special. But iron that comes from the heavens? Known in Tibetan as “thokcha” this metal was reserved for the manufacture of sacred items, musical instruments, amulets, and weapons in prehistoric times. Tibet, up high in the mountains, with a thin atmosphere, had an abundance of meteor strikes. There are a number of beautiful ancient artefacts made from thokcha.
For such a sturdy, practical material, iron has a very mystical side. The ancient Greek writer Plutarch saw iron as the bone, or the very essence of the gods themselves. He could not foresee that centuries later, scientists would discover that the earth’s very core is made from molten iron-nickel.
Perhaps that’s why we’ve always suspected that iron is special.