Horses and Witches

In the days before the coming of the motor-car, when nearly all transport depended upon the horse, the importance of horses to man was such that they were certain to come within the sphere of magic.

The horse is notoriously a highly sensitive animal, and will seem to react to presences invisible to humans. Hence witches were often accused of bewitching horses, and making them stand still and refuse to move or refuse to pass a certain place.

Witches were also believed to borrow horses at night, and take them on wild rides through the darkness, returning them by day-break with tangled manes ·and their hides lathered with sweat. The expression ‘hag-ridden’, used of someone strangely oppressed, derives from this belief.

Naturally, there were charms used by farmers and carters, to prevent their horses from being molested by witches. One of the most popular was to hang up a holed stone in the stables; and such stones came to be called hag stones, for this reason. Sometimes, such a stone was tied to the key of the stables also. (See HOLED STONES.)

The handsome ornaments called horse brasses were originally not only for decoration. They were amulets to protect the horse from bewitchment and from the Evil Eye. Their shining would reflect the baleful glance away from the animal; and the pattern of the horse brass itself often contained some fortunate and magical figure. Such, for instance, were the sun, the crescent moon, a sprig of oak leaves with acorns, or a single acorn, a star, a trefoil, a heart, and so on.

Horse brasses display an amazing and delightful variety of subjects and designs, which make them today much sought after by collectors; but their original purpose was to ward off evil magic. The purely decorative, commemorative or heraldic designs came later.

Closely allied to witchcraft, in the popular mind at any rate, were the secret fraternities among horsemen, such as the Society of the Horseman’s Word. These fraternities had jealously guarded secrets of how to tame and govern horses by means which certainly appeared to be magical; and they had regular ceremonies of initiation, by means of which new members were admitted.

If the description given to me of how men used to be initiated into the Society of the Horseman’s Word is correct, then there is an evident relationship between this society and the beliefs of the witches. This fraternity flourished particularly in Scotland; and l was told that when a horseman was felt to have earned the privilege of being admitted, which was by no means easily come by, he was taken one night, blindfolded, to some lonely spot. This would probably be some old,  remote barn or stable, where other members would be assembled.

l was not given a full description of what ensued, save that everything was done with the utmost seriousness, to instill suitable awe and terror into the novice. The climax of the ceremony consisted of requiring him to take a solemn oath of secrecy, and to seal this he was told, being still blindfolded, to “tak’ a grip o’ the Old Chiel’s hand”.

The novice held out his hand; and into it was thrust the end of a kind of ceremonial staff, which consisted of an actual cloven hoof of some animal, dried and preserved. The effect of such an experience, in a strange, dimly-lit place by night, must have been well-remembered, even after the man had attained sufficient status in the guild to know how it was worked.

The ceremony ended, l was told, with the newly-admitted member paying for drinks for the whole company, and being told some of the secrets which the society preserved. These secrets were far from being mere mumbo-jumbo.

On the contrary, they consisted of a very thorough and practical knowledge of herbs and other substances which would enable a man to influence horses, if he knew how to use this knowledge. The men sometimes committed these matters to paper; but if they did, something essential, either an ingredient or some trick of using the recipe, had to be left out, and communicated only by word of mouth; so that no outsider could profit by it even if it fell into his hands.

These recipes were mainly of two kinds; substances which were ‘drawing’ and substances which were ‘jading’. The former attracted and pleased horses; the latter repelled and alarmed them. In the light of this knowledge, one can understand the many tales of witches who were able apparently to bewitch horses belonging to someone who had offended them, and cause them to stop still until released from the spell, or else to become wild and unmanageable. Like most other beliefs about witches, this story has a basis of fact, if one seeks deep enough to find it.

A good deal of very valuable research about the secret fraternities among old-time horsemen, especially in East Anglia, has been done by George Ewart Evans; and much interesting information on this subject may be found in Mr Evans’ book, The Pattern Under the Plough (Faber and Faber, London, 1966).

The Society of the Horseman’s Word took its name from the story that its members were taught a secret word, which when whispered into a horse’s ear, would give the whisperer immediate command over the animal. Popular legend embroidered this tale by saying that in return for this mysterious power over horses, the horseman sold his soul to the Devil. Such horse-whisperers, as they were called, undoubtedly existed.

Probably the most famous one was an Irishman called Sullivan, who flourished around the beginning of the nineteenth century. He became well known as a result of taming a fine but very intractable racehorse belonging to Colonel Westenra, afterwards Lord Rosmore.

Sullivan asked to be shut in alone with the animal and this was done. After about a quarter of an hour, he called for those outside to come into the stable. When they entered, they found the erstwhile savage horse lying down quite happily, and letting Sullivan sit beside him. Both horse and man, however, seemed very tired, and Sullivan had to be revived with brandy; but the cure of the horse was lasting.

Sullivan would never reveal how he accomplished his taming of horses, declaring that in fact the best horse-whisperers could not explain the source of their power, it was an innate gift. Similar mysterious powers over horses are believed in and practiced among the gypsies of Europe, and in North and South America.

horseshoe photoOne of the most popular of lucky charms continues to be the horseshoe. In may places in Britain, actual horseshoes can still be seen, nailed up over doorways.

It is said that a horseshoe found accidentally upon the road is the luckiest one, and that it should always be hung with the ends of the shoe upwards, or ‘the luck will run out’. In this position, it is an upward-pointing crescent, and hence a symbol of the moon, from which it derives its magic. Some old representations of the moon goddesses Diana and Hecate show them as having the heads of mares.

According to old John Aubrey in his Miscellanies, “it is a thing very common to nail horseshoes on the thresholds of doors; which is to hinder the power of witches that enter the house”. Whether or not Lord Nelson believed in witches is not known; but the great admiral had a horseshoe nailed to the mast of his ship Victory. It may seem strange that a symbol associated with the witch goddess of the moon should be regarded as a protection against witchcraft. Perhaps, however, the display of the horseshoe derives from a kind of propitiation of the moon goddess, and thus a protection against the powers of her darker aspect.

The only exception to the rule of hanging the horseshoe with its ends pointing upwards is made in the case of the blacksmith. Smiths have always been regarded as natural magicians; and the.smith hangs his lucky horseshoe with the points downwards, ‘to pour out the luck upon the forge’. The three horseshoes which are displayed upon the coat of arms of the Worshipful Company of Farriers (founded in 1356) are shown in this position.

By Dorren Valiente


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