THE APOTROPAIC USE OF IRON
This article was posted in 2001 on my old site, panikon.com, which is now dedicated only to my design work. The article has been plagiarized extensively since then, sometimes rewritten to sound like it was written by a woman, or with the personal bits wiped out and other comments inserted. I had originally decided not to post this article because it does not meet my current writing standards, particularly when it comes to source citations. An even larger problem was that the original form was lost in a computer crash. I decided to republish it when I found it verbatim on a site, spelling errors and all, with only the introduction deleted, credited to a "Jennifer". The introduction speaks of ceremonial magic, as the original article was addressed to an audience concerned with such practices. This is no doubt why the plagiarist deleted the introduction even though they retained the closing, which returns to that subject. Though I have been working extensively since the writing of this article to expand it into a much larger book form, I am leaving the article as it was, with only minor corrections and a rewritten introduction. For example, I attributed the door full of iron nails to the House of Seven Gables. After returning to Salem as an adult, I did not find that door on display there and I am therefore not certain where in Salem I may have seen the door. My decision to republish the article stems from noticing both online and published citations of the article which up until now, lead only to 404 messages and the annoyance of finding it plagiarized. The article represented over five years of research, and it is still annoying to see it plagiarized and misattributed. I have also set up redirection pages from the original url as well as the misprinted ones.
In Western Ceremonial Magic, one often encounters the idea that a ceremonial knife should be made of cold iron. Many authors have attributed this to the connection of iron and the planetary force of Mars. Looking at apotropaism (the combat against demons), however, we see that iron is used, in almost every major cultural group that we have information on, as a deterrent against demons and spirits. This holds even in India, where the metal is not connected with Mars. Shiva, for instance, carries an iron trident as his weapon. The iron obviously hurts the lesser entities he chooses to use it on. Many other Hindu examples will follow.
Iron, either refined or in an ore form such as hematite, is traditionally used for amulets against demons. In some Hebrew practices, it is said that such an amulet should be entirely of iron or the power is lost. Not all metal Hebrew amulets, it should be pointed out, are iron. Most are silver or gold.
If we walk down the streets, in a relatively old city like Philadelphia, we will see old iron fences around all of the old cemeteries or a topping of iron spikes on a brick or stone wall. This iron wall is much like the knives of the magicians. To be blunt, they are both iron. Spirits cannot approach iron, as it will hurt them, so they can be backed off with an iron knife or fenced in with an iron ring. I remember, when visiting Salem Massachusetts as a child, seeing a door on display into which numerous iron pegs were driven into the wood for much the same reason. The iron kept spirits from coming through the door.
The lucky horseshoe found nailed over doorways is a remnant of the same idea as the nails in the door at Salem. We find that such diverse cultures as the Islamic Indians and the Gaels both fastened iron horseshoes over their doors for protection.
There is also a practice, attested to in England around the sixteenth or seventeenth century, of sealing knives, made completely from one piece of iron, into walls near the doors. This was said by some to be a charm against witchcraft or a good luck charm, but the same is said about the horseshoe in later sources. We can only assume that the specific purpose, to keep out demons, was forgotten over time. As cultural viewpoint moves away from a belief in demons, the old practices against those demons are often carried on just for "good luck."
C.F. Tebbutt, in a short article in the 1980 issue of "Folklore," gives three examples of large iron slabs used as thresholds in old houses in an article "Iron Thresholds as Protection." The first is a 1m x 35cm slab in the doorway of a 15th century priest's house is Sussex. The second slab measures 50cm x 30cm x 4cm, from the doorway of a house in Danehill, which goes back to at least 1662. The threshold itself was there at least at the turn of the last century. The third example is also in Danebury, from the 16th century, where a threshold is composed of five pieces of iron ore.
The world of ancient medicine is rife with the use of iron for what seem like superstitious "miracle cure" medicine. We will see, in many cases, that it appears that iron carried over into early medicine some of the same functions it held in relation to apotropaism. The reason for this is because demons or spirits were thought to be the primary cause of disease. For example, Islamic people in Morocco have been known to put iron knives under the pillows of the sick, presumably to ward off the spirit causing the illness. In India, we see women drinking water, in which iron has been soaked, to alleviate fever, cholera, plague and epilepsy.
A look at Pliny's Historia Naturalis gives us a glimpse of how the Romans of the first century viewed iron, and how completely superstitious it sounds to a modern materialist mind. This excerpt is from Philemon Holland translation.
"As touching the use of iron and steel, in physic it serveth otherwise than to lance cut and dismember withal: for take a knife or dagger and make an imaginary circle two or three times with the point thereof, upon a child, or an elder body, and then go round withal about the party as often, it is a singular preservative against all poisons, sorceries, or enchantments. Also to take any iron nail out of the coffin or sepulchre wherein man or woman lieth buried, and to stick the same fast to the lintel or side post of a door, leading either into the house or bed-chamber where any doth lie who is haunted with spirits in the night, he or she shall be delivered and secured from such fantastical illusions. Moreover, it is said, that if one be lightly pricked with the point of sword or dagger which hath been the death of a man, it is an excellent remedy against the pain of sides or breast, which come with sudden pricks and stitches. An actual cautery of iron red hot, cureth many diseases, and especially the biting of a mad dog; in which case it is so effectual, that if the poison inflicted by that wound, have prevailed so far, that the patient be fallen into an hydrothermia thereby, and cannot abide drink or water, let the sore be seared therewith, and party shall find help presently."
Pliny forms an interesting case, as we can easily see from the above paragraph. He definitely considers himself a scientific mind, as he sees hauntings as "fantastical illusions." He is really not as scientific or rational as he would like to think himself. He does not escape the superstition that an iron nail from a used sepulcher nailed into a lintel will miraculously cure the victim of these illusions or delusions. Pliny is a perfect example of the survival of iron's role against demons carried over into the superstitions of medicine. The original cause and effect behind the action is long forgotten even to Pliny. The magical operation remained while the explanation for the cause changed with new mindsets. We shall see and discuss many examples of this through the work, as we discuss some different uses of iron.
Cato, a Roman only slightly later than Pliny, recorded, in his On Agriculture, a magical rite for healing a dislocation. The rite involves reading an incantation while men hold reeds to the dislocated hips. A piece of iron is waved over the dislocation. More is done with the reeds, but it is only the iron that concerns us here. The waiving of the iron would seem to be another remnant from apotropaic practices carried over into early medicinal magic.
Interestingly, iron is used today in medicinal practice. It is a common mineral supplement. It is used, for instance, as a treatment of anaemia.
We shall now return to the idea of iron warding off demons and spirits. The idea of using an iron knife against demons is not a new one. The Moroccans have a succubi type demoness they call Aisha Qandisha. She is said to be driven away by plunging an iron knife into the ground.
R.C. Thompson relates in Semitic Magic that, in Arabia, when a person is murdered, it is customary to drive an unused nail into the spot where he was murdered. This nail "locks down" the spirit and prevents it from haunting the spot. It can only be assumed that the nail was of iron or steel. What we see here is obviously the ritual action behind Pliny's cure for illusions of phantasm.
Another case of the Arabs using nails to pin spirits involves headache causing demons. The magician lays hands on the inflicted head, presumably to pull out the spirit. Once he has done this, he drives a nail into a wall, effectively pinning it there where it can do no harm. This is similar to the Indian practice of exorcising demons by waving iron over the possessed and then beating the iron on the ground, but even more similar to the Indian idea of waiving an iron nail around a sick person and then nailing it into a tree to transfer the evil into the tree.
Islamic Indians were known to drive nails into the spot where a guest first places his right foot on the threshold of their house. This action would probably "nail down the spirit" or influence of that person in the house.
Iron is commonly used to keep spirits away from their dead bodies, especially in India. There is an Indian practice where iron arrowheads are driven into the ground at the foot and head of a deceased body to prevent his ghost from returning. We also note the Hindu practice of putting a piece of iron on the chest of a woman who dies in childbirth to prevent the return of her ghost. There are also examples of iron being buried at the spot for the same purpose.
We shall see that iron is also commonly used around childbirth in India, from nails driven into the four corners of the bed to iron pieces being left near the cradle or putting a child's cradle on an iron tripod. As J. Abbott relates to us in Keys of Power, when several of a mother's children die young, she takes the precautions of wearing an iron anklet and affixing an iron nose-ring to later children.
George F. Kunz relates, in The Magic of Jewels and Charms, that Trotula, an Italian woman physician of the Middle Ages, prescribed that a mother at childbirth hold a piece of lodestone (iron ore) in her right hand. She also added that wearing a coral necklace would aid in the beneficial properties of the lodestone. Kunz also relates that the Oxford teacher John Gadesen, also medieval, prescribed the use of both lodestone and coral for the same purpose, in his book Rosa Anglica. Gadesen, however, prescribed that the lodestone be held in the left hand. Kunz tells us of yet another medieval prescription, though this one sounds even more superstitious than the others. Francisco Piemontese of Naples, prescribes that the lodestone be strewn with the ashes of an donkey or horses hoof and held in the left hand. These cases are all obviously related, and nowhere does Kunz tell us what rationale, if any, was given for such an act.
In fact, we are given no direct clues as to what the rationale was behind any of the Indian uses of iron around childbirth. From what we know of iron's uses in other cultures, we can infer the reasoning. We only need to consider that most of our specifically apotropaic amulets from Near Eastern cultures were designed for childbirth. Childbirth caused an unclean state. The Babylonian Talmud, to illustrate, had an entire book about the laws of spiritual cleanliness surrounding childbirth called the Niddah. Uncleanliness left a person open to attack by demons or spirits, as we shall see soon with the Mandaeans. The time of childbirth was a primary opportunity for a demon. It was not only a time of spiritual impurity, but it was the time of a new soul's entry into the world. This soul is born defenseless, and must be provided for and protected by the parents, who were often entirely incapable of dealing with demons themselves. There is a widespread folk archetype of the child-stealing demon, usually seen as the spirit of a mother who died in childbirth. We see her in the Greek lamia, the Arabic Ummus Subyan, the Hebrew lilin and the Babylonian lilitu. All of these factors, of course, led to that enormously high infant mortality rate and the numerous deaths of birthing mothers, both of which we now attribute to a material uncleanliness and germs.
It remains unseen whether those who practiced these iron childbirth remedies was aware of the cause-effect rationale for their actions, or if this degenerated to superstition and "luck," as with our horse-shoes, waiving of iron and other former apotropaic ritual actions. Either way, we can still confidently assume the origins of such practices.
The Mandaeans, a Semitic cult of Mesopotamia, believed that marriage caused an unclean state, in which a man was subject to attack from a species of demons called liliatas. We may presume that this is at least partially due to wedding night and the honeymoon. The bridegroom must be given a new baptism and purification on the Sunday within seven days after his marriage. During the time before this, he is given an iron ring and iron knife which he wears until his purification ceremony. This practice is similar to the many Islamic and Hindu practices concerning iron knives and rings protecting brides, grooms and newlyweds given in Keys of Power. These are too numerous to list. In fact, the totality of known Indian practices concerning iron in apotropaism is too much to elaborate in full thanks to Keys of Power, from which we obtained most of our Indian references. We have omitted many examples of Hindu practices concerning iron because the material is so expansive that it would dwarf most everything else.
European folk practices used iron and steel to protect against fairies and elves. It was said that you should always carry iron or steel if you enter a fairy dwelling, because they will be unable to shut the door if iron is in their dwelling. Nails or other pieces of iron were used around beds to protect the sleeping, just as people believing in demons do the same against their demons. Knives and nails were stuck into hunted animal carcasses to protect them from fairies.
We also find the practice of keeping iron with food in Sri Lanka, where an iron nail is put on the food so that demons cannot get into it and be ingested by the consumer. We also find the Sri Lankans carrying iron keys or knives while sick to ward off demons. Frazer tells us that on the Esthonian island of Oesel, many people would not eat bread baked from the corn of a new harvest until they have bitten a piece of iron to render the spirit in the corn harmless. Similarly, the Talmud says that you should use an iron cup when drinking from a river or pond at night so that demons can not enter you through your drinking water.
In the European traditions, we also see that iron is the only way to bind a fairy. Interestingly, in a Greek oracle of Apollo at Claros, one is instructed to make an image of Ares and bind it in the "iron bonds of Hermes." This seems to suggest that iron is even capable of binding gods. Another example of Greeks binding effigy statues relates to the ghost of Actaeon, who was slaughtered by his own 50 hounds after Artemis discovered him peeping on her. Apparently, his ghost was restless and caused the locals some troubles. They went to the oracle of Delphi, who told them to bury his remains, then make a bronze effigy of the ghost and bind it to a rock with iron.
Quite a few Aramaic incantation bowl texts and fragments collaborate the use of iron for protection. We see in one text fragment "...in the house of iron..." "...of iron spread over..." and "...a door of iron for my gate, standing and being closed with a little hard bolt..." In another fragment we also hear of someone protected by a "house of iron," and find an obscured reference to an iron wall, which it seems to say keeps out Samael. In the third text, we see again the same basic formula of "...a house of iron..." and "...a doorway of iron for my gate..." and again mentions of Samael. A Mandaic bowl specifically refers to the use of iron to bind a lilita. "...bound is the bewitching lilita who haunts the house of Zakoy, with a belt of iron on her pate; bound is the bewitching lilita with a peg of iron in her nose; bound is the bewitching lilita with pinchers of iron in her mouth; bound is the bewitching lilita who haunts the house of Zakoy with a chain of iron around her neck; bound is the bewitching lilita with with fetters of iron on her hands; bound is the bewitching lilita with stocks of stone on her feet..." (all translations based on Cyrus H. Gordon's) Further, text two in Montgomery's Aramaic Incantation Texts from Nippur, a text against demons and other entities, begins with: "Again I come ... in my own might, on my person polished armor of iron, my head of iron, my figure of pure fire..." Text fifteen of the same source mentions binding demons with bonds of brass and iron.
We also see mention of iron being used in two of the three Roumanian oral charms given by Moses Gaster in "Two Thousand Years of a Charm Against the Child-Stealing Witch." (Folk-Lore, v.11, #2, 1900) In the second charm, it is said that the angel Michael casts a demon into a furnace and then rakes it out with an iron rake and then pounds it with an iron mortar and pestle, then sifts it through an iron sieve. In the third charm, Michael binds a female demon with an iron chain around her neck then sticks his (presumably iron) sword into her side. He then proceeded to make her reveal all the secrets of her magic arts.
We see that when iron is mentioned, it is usually mentioned often. It would almost seem from these texts and oral charms that even the mention of the substance iron was enough to ward off spirits. It may also have been purely that the threat of the iron was enough to keep them at bay.
Indeed, we also know that sound of iron causes pain to demons. The Siberian Yakut shamans wore lots of iron on their clothes, partially because the sound of the iron drove away evil spirits. The music composed on the Jew's harp was inimical to demons for the very reason that it was created by the instrument's iron tongue. In West Africa, the ringing of iron bells is used against demons. It is an Irish superstition to bang on iron pots to scare ghosts out of houses. Often, we see the clanking or ringing of any metal used against spirits. Though the Irish mostly used an iron skillet, any pot or pan would do for some now. The Tibetan Buddhists use brass bells to ward off demons.
Theocritus relates a story to us, where a sorceress interrupts her ritual, when the goddess Hecate appears, to ring a gong. The gong is supposed to keep Hecate away. We are not, unfortunately, told what the metallic composition of the gong was.
In Golden Bough, Frazer presents us with examples of objects and incidents that are taboo to a divine king. One of the major taboos over a widespread cultural range, was iron. He also presents us with examples of similar taboos on iron. Roman and Sabine priests, for example, could not shave with iron. Pawnees used stone arrowheads for sacrifices long after adopting metal for the hunt. Most importantly, we see that iron could not be brought into Greek sanctuaries and that no iron was used in the temple at Jerusalem. Another example not given by Frazer is that iron may not be taken into the interior portions of Hindu temples either, with the exception of Shiva's trident. We also hear of many Hindu temples being built without the use of iron. It should be obvious from all this that iron can be detrimental to what is thought of as "good spirit" as much as "bad spirit."
Looking at the Keys of Power, Abbott gives us vivid details of iron as it is seen in Indian life. The following paragraph shows our point here so well that I have decided to quote it almost in full.
"Iron is inimical to barkat, for it militates against the working of power from which comes all barkat. It must therefore be strictly avoided on all occasions when action is taken, in the hope of obtaining an increase of power, with its concomitant barkat. In all rites of religion, in every form of worship or prayer it is absolutely tabooed. An image of a deity after the invocation of sakti becomes the abiding place of power; whenever, in fact, power is invoked it is given a temporary and localized residence. As iron drives away sakti it follows naturally that no invocation of power can be made into any entity of iron. No image of a god is made of iron save the image of Sani or Saturn with whom iron is associated, and this image cannot be taken into the shrine of the family gods, kul devata. No yantra or charm into which divine power is invoked can be made of iron, and this not the less because a yantra is taken into a shrine or temple."
Many anthropologists and other researchers, when discovering this usage of iron against spirits or as a detriment to gods, kings and sacred things, usually in a confined set of examples, theorize that the power of the iron lay in its novelty, that it was seen as something with power purely through the novelty of it as a substance. This explanation is completely unsatisfactory and fails to explain the broad universality of iron in apotropaism, of which I am sure we have only scratched the surface. The view only takes into account the fear of iron, as a substance which may cause harm, not the accounts of medicinal use against spirits, such as drinking water with iron soaked in it or the wearing of iron rings to drive away spirits. We can see no reason, if the novelty theory is correct, why iron should be cherished as an apotropaic charm to keep around the bed at night and especially around infants. The iron is not generally seen as being outright hurtful to the average human, though one possessing a high amount of spirit risks it hurting his spirit. The iron is, however not considered lucky in of itself. Bodily contact with iron is mostly in cases of extreme need, otherwise it is often avoided. Many cultures refrain from picking up iron or touching it altogether as much as possible. It is often kept in close proximity without direct contact. To the spirit, however, the substance is extremely hurtful even by proximity. Novelty does not explain this difference in reaction or account for the near universality of this difference.
An interesting common theory as to why iron is inimical to demons centers around the oxidation process. It is thought of as being a slow fire, which can cause burns to entities of a non-material nature. It is interesting to note, however, that the iron on the Yakut Shaman's costume, which we mentioned earlier, is said to "have a soul," and not rust. It is also possible that the effects are caused by the electro-magnetic properties of iron. This connects to the rust theory, as oxidation is also an electrical process. It is beyond the scope of this essay, however, to enter fully the debate as to why iron has the properties that it does, merely to show the universality of this property.
I have, in my collection, a phurba (pictured below) which displays an interesting way of solving the problem that no doubt arises from this, "How do I use the iron without it harming my own spirit energies." It has an iron blade to affect the demon, but a brass and bronze handle to not harm the practitioner. If a magician does not want to have the metal affect their energies, we suggest an iron knife with a handle of wood or other such materials.
- B.R. Gendler.