Horseshoe shapes and megaliths

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Avebury, published in a late 19th century edition of the Swedish encyclopedia Nordisk familjebok

In folklore, the horseshoe symbolizes protection. Almost everyone knows the saying that horseshoes with the opening upwards would catch luck. Horseshoes were traditionally held in place with seven nails, this being the luckiest number.

Horseshoe shapes can be associated with the Neolithic Age. The form occurs in stone circles and dolmen, in addition, images of horseshoes can be found on (sacrificial) stones. In this article I will give some examples.

A door knocker
Horseshoe above a door
Horseshoe on a door

But first more about the symbolism of a horseshoe for protection. The belief in the magical powers of horseshoes has its origins in both the ancient Greeks and Christianity. The Greeks believed that iron could drive away evil and that a horseshoe resembles a crescent moon, which they considered a symbol of fertility and good luck. Early Christians adopted this pagan belief and turned a horseshoe into a talisman to protect them from evil, witchcraft and the devil himself.

Opinions are divided about which side the horseshoe should be nailed upwards. Some say that the ends should point upwards so that the horseshoe catches the luck, and that the ends pointing downwards make the luck go to waste; others say to point downwards so that good fortune is poured out on those who enter the house.

Horseshoes are not only mounted on and above doors.

It is also believed that a horseshoe with the points down would be an inverted bowl. When the horseshoe is hung over a door in this way, the house is safely sealed against danger. With the points up, it would be an unfilled cup, attracting wealth and good luck. For greater reliability, some people use two horseshoes. One outside the house to protect it from the intrusion of evil spirits, and the other inside the house, to attract well-being. Superstitious sailors believe that nailing a horseshoe to the mast will help their ship avoid storms.

In Ireland, a horseshoe is hung above the door as protection against fairies. Here it doesn’t really matter if the opening points up or down, it’s about the material. Fairies couldn’t stand iron. They can’t stand it and they can’t even come close.

In Ireland, a bride brought a real horseshoe to her wedding to bring good luck. Greeks still use the horseshoe at their weddings to bestow happiness and many children on the couple. According to a Croatian custom, a horseshoe is placed above a bed to prevent sleeping people from having nightmares.

Horseshoes on a wedding card
Horseshoe at the guest book during a wedding

A blacksmith is a very skilled person. It is a very old profession because forging has been going on since the time that people started using metal. In ancient times there was an air of mystery about the blacksmith who worked with fire and spark-spattering iron. In mythology and legend, dwarves are often portrayed as skilled blacksmiths. Wieland the Blacksmith (Old Norse: Völundr, Old Frisian Weladu) is the mythical demigod blacksmith and leader of the Alven from Germanic mythology. In some other Indo-European traditions there is also a (lame) blacksmith god: the Greek Hephaistos and the Roman Vulcan.

Deze afbeelding heeft een leeg alt-attribuut; de bestandsnaam is titel.jpg
Deze afbeelding heeft een leeg alt-attribuut; de bestandsnaam is Dunstan.jpg

Saint Dunstan is also associated with horseshoes, he was the most popular saint in England for two centuries due to the many stories that circulated about his cleverness in defeating the devil. Dunstan quickly became a favorite of the king as a young blacksmith. This worked the envy of other members of the court. A plot was hatched to disgrace him. Dunstan was accused of involvement in witchcraft and black magic, but he survived the vicious attack. In 943 he took holy orders in the presence of Ælfheah. He started life as a hermit at Glastonbury Abbey.

Against the old church of Saint Mary he built a small cell of 1 meter fifty long and eighty centimeters deep. Here Dunstan studied, worked on his crafts and played his harp. It is at this time that, according to a late 11th century legend, the devil is said to have tried to seduce Dunstan. Saint Dunstan, however, knew right away whom he was dealing with and put one of his clamps on the devil’s nose and then nailed the iron to his feet. Dunstan eventually agreed to remove the horseshoe, but only after the devil made a promise that he would never enter a household with a horseshoe nailed to the door.

Horseshoe shapes can be associated with Neolithic structures. Avebury, one of the largest and most famous henges and stone circles in Britain, has one large circle with a horseshoe-shaped bay in it and two other circles. There is also evidence of a wooden circle. The structure featured two avenues of paired stones, one of which leads to another stone circle known as The Sanctuary. The dating is not accurate, but the site was probably created around 2400 BC. The first image in this article shows the floor plan of this enormous structure.

Excavation at Castilly Henge

A stone circle in the shape of a horseshoe has recently been discovered in Cornwall. Found at a prehistoric ritual site, this form, rare in Cornwall, has seven regularly spaced pits that have been mapped by a team of archaeologists. Some stones had been removed and taken elsewhere, while others were probably pushed face down into the pits in which they once stood. Castilly Henge is believed to have been built during the late Neolithic period, approximately 3,000-2,500 BC. With an external ring rampart and an internal ditch, the henge provided an amphitheater-like setting for gatherings and ritual activities.

Volunteers mark the outline of a newly discovered stone circle in Cornwall

Not all henges contain a stone circle, and only one other example is known in Cornwall: Stripple stones on the slopes of Hawk’s Tor on Bodmin Moor. The circle was first recorded by this name during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and was described by William Lukis as “the most interesting and remarkable monument in the province”. It is surrounded by a circular ditch and vallum, forming a flat platform 53 meters in diameter. The circle is 44.3 meters in diameter with four granite standing stones and several fallen stones. In the center is a gigantic fallen menhir about 3.7 meters high and 1.5 meters at its widest point, it is broken in three places.

Stripple stones

The Stripple stones were excavated in 1905 by H. St. George Gray who found a burnt flint, three flint flakes, an ox bone and some charcoal and oak wood in the surrounding ditch. He also discovered an entrance from the south-west stone circle, directly toward the Trippet Stones (the name of which refers to girls who were punished for lightly stumbling on the Sabbath and being turned to stone).

Gray noted that the Stripple stones were only placed about 0.46 meters deep in the ground. Four postholes were found around the central menhir which was found to have shifted 4.3 meters to the southeast from the center of the circle.

The ring rampart around the circle has three semicircular bulges in the northwest, northeast and east. The fourth in the south is completely destroyed. Aubrey Burl suggested that from the location of the central menhir, when it is upright, alignments with the outcroppings in the outer ring rampart mark the Mayday sunset, Equinox sunrise, and the great north moonrise. He also suggested that the post holes may have been attempts to establish precise orientations for alignments.

Norman Lockyer suggested that seen from the middle menhir, the northeast projection in 1250 BC. would have been in line with Capella. Capella (alpha Aurigae) is a binary star and the brightest star of the constellation Carter (Auriga). Capella is one of the brightest stars in the sky and its name means “little goat”.

Reconstruction of Stonehenge phase 3

Of the approximately 80 blue stones that once stood on Stonehenge, 43 remain. They form an inner ‘horseshoe’ in a circle of much larger sandstone monoliths. Before being placed in the Stonehenge structure, the stones would have been part of another stone circle: Waun Mawn (“peat bog”). This was the third largest stone circle in the UK and had similar features to the Stonehenge monument. For example, the diameter of 110 meters is the same as that of the trench around Stonehenge. And like the iconic structure at Amesbury in Wiltshire, Waun Mawn is aligned with the midsummer solstice sunrise. Waun Mawn was founded 5600 to 5000 years ago, before the construction of Stonehenge, and therefore later (almost completely) dismantled.

Bedd Arthur is a horseshoe-shaped oval stone circle, which has led to speculation that it may have influenced the horseshoe shape of the blue stones of Stonehenge. Bedd Arthur is located on the ‘Golden Road’, which runs through the Presili hills past Carn Menyn (site of the blue stones of Stonehenge). According to local folklore, it is the final resting place of King Arthur. More information about Stonehengen and the horseshoe shape can be found in King Arthur and Stonehenge.

Achavanich

Achavanich (Scottish Gaelic: Achadh a’ Mhanaich) is an unusual megalithic horseshoe-shaped structure near Loch Stemster in Caithness, Scotland. Meaning “field of the stones”, 36 of the original 54 stones are still present, most of them on the western side of the structure. The arrangement of these stones is extremely rare because the plates face the center of the circle, rather than the typical side-by-side arrangement. The angle of the stones themselves is also strange. In most British stone circles, stones face the center with flat sides, but Achavanich’s stones face the row at a 90-degree angle.

The stone circle remains open like a letter U, and there is evidence that it has never been closed. The only other site of similar structure in Scotland is at Broubster, 14 miles away, where 9 stones of a 32 stone setting survive, with the open end of the setting at Broubster to the south-south-west. The open end at Achavanich is to the southeast. More buildings with this structure are known in Brittany.

La Pouquelaye de Faldouet

La Pouquelaye de Faldouet on Jersey has a horseshoe room. Reconstructed c. 4000-3250 BC, this dolmen has a 5m long, slightly curved passageway made of 17 stones leading to a roughly round chamber surrounded by 4 chambers (possibly 8 originally). Behind it is another horseshoe-shaped chamber of 7 supporting stones, covered with a huge capstone estimated to weigh 23 tons. It is likely that the horseshoe room was the original passage tomb whose passage was excavated to make way for a second passage tomb. In 1910 the floor was raised so that the height is lower than it was originally. It is considered unlikely that the passageway and central area were ever covered.

The French statesman and writer Victor Hugo, who was exiled on Jersey and who was interested in prehistory, made a washed pen drawing of the covered part of the dolmen. In March 1855, around midnight, he wrote a religious poem entitled Nomen, Numen, Lumen, dedicated to the seven letters of the name Jehovah.

La Pouquelaye de Faldouet

Horseshoe stones are common, they are seen as sacrificial stones, examples were already mentioned in the article about sacrificial stones. Stones with prints of the fingers, claw or foot of a devil, saint, hero or giant… and in some cases a hoof print. In Germany, stories are told of horses that left hoof prints on a stone. For example, Brunhilde is said to have jumped from the Hexentanzplatz to the Rosstrapp with her horse when she was fleeing from knight (or giant) Bodo. He was killed trying to make the same jump. He still watches in the river, because Brunhilde has lost her crown there. The imprint of the ‘horse’s hoof’ can still be seen on the Rosstrapp. Horseshoe stones have been used as landmarks, execution sites or places of worship. Some horseshoe stones are associated with Charlemagne, as was already told in Charlemagne and (the destruction of) dolmens.

But other heroes are also associated with hoof prints in megaliths. King Arthur’s steed, Llamrei, left a hoofprint, this happened during the battle with a water demon. Visitors can still see this hoof print: now called Carn March Arthur (the stone of Arthur’s horse). The paw print of King Arthur’s dog and the hoof print of his horse have already been mentioned in the article about King Arthur and megaliths.

Deze afbeelding heeft een leeg alt-attribuut; de bestandsnaam is carn.jpg
Carn March Arthur (the stone of Arthur’s horse).

Footprints of hooves can also be seen in dolmens in the Netherlands. About 2 centuries ago, King Lodewijk Napoleon jumped on his horse on top of the hunebed in Emmen, so it is said.

The imprint of the horse’s horseshoe can still be found in it. W.J. de Wilde heard the story about Napoleon’s horse footprints on dolmens D9, D17, D18, D14, D27, D28, D29 and D45. A constable shows him the footprint on D45.

A Karlstein can be found on the Lüneburger Heide. In addition to conquest and plunder, the aim of the years of and sometimes very brutal Saxon wars was submission to Christianity. During these wars, Charlemagne is said to have been defeated by the Saxons on the Lüneburg Heath and, according to legend, lay down on a wooded hill on the so-called Karlstein in the municipality of Rosengarten (Norheide). Today, the horse’s horseshoe and the dog’s paw prints in the stone are reminders of what happened on the Lüneburger Heide.

De hoefijzers zijn nog duidelijk te zien op de Karlstein op de Lüneburger Heide

Horseshoes are also associated with Widukind; he would have reversed it. For example, when he rode back and forth between his castles, his horse’s tracks would not lead to the location he was going to. He was the leader of the Saxon people and opponent of the Frankish king Charlemagne during the Saxon Wars (772-804). According to a German version of the saga, Widukind is said to have ridden over the ridge of the Wiehen Mountains in anticipation of a divine sign. Should he or should he not adopt Christianity and submit to Charlemagne? That would mean the end of the wars between his Saxons and the Franks. Widukind’s (Wittekind) horse is said to have scratched a stone loose with its hoof. Immediately a well sprang up there, the Wittekindsbron (well of Wittekind). Thereupon Widukind, convinced that this was indeed a divine sign, immediately converted to the Christian faith and submitted to Charlemange.

Hoofprint in the Breitenstein
Hoofprints of Eppelein’s horse
Hoofprint at Oppenau

A Breitenstein in Saargau was already mentioned in the article about sacrificial stones. In Marriages and megaliths I told the story about the hoof print in this Breitenstein. Here two men competed for the hand of a woman. The man who lost plunged into the abyss. This would be the reason that the count had a horseshoe and cart track made in the stone, so the story goes. Almost every child in Nuremberg knows the hoofprints that Eppelein’s horse is said to have left in the castle wall when it jumped over the moat. And a hoofprint at Oppenau would refer to a horseman who died after a jump during the Thirty Years’ War.

Horseshoe shapes can also be found in France. The Pierre-aux-Fées (fairy stone) or Pierre des Morts (stone of the dead) in Reignier, twelve kilometers southeast of the Swiss city of Geneva, I mentioned in the article Dolmen and fairies in France. This construction fascinates with its mystical and legendary interpretations, recognizing its energy power. Two large plates have been placed on the floor at the back of the room. Ten blocks are arranged around these slabs and the dolmen, in a horseshoe shape, which may be the crown stones of the cairn that covered the dolmen.

La Pierre aux Fées, Reignier

The dolmens of Volkonsky (the Western Caucasus) belong to the so-called monolithic dolmens. It has a flat platform carved into a huge fragment of sandstone rock at a height of four meters. Above the platform looms a wall with a hole in it. A horseshoe-shaped main room with a bulbous ceiling has been hollowed out through this hole. The dolmen got its name in honor of Princess Volkonskaya, who spent a lot of time there. The structure was built about nine and a half thousand years ago. Volkonsky dolmens are located close to a source of mineral water.

A beautiful legend is connected with the dolmen of Volkonsky. A young man from a rich and noble family fell in love with a beautiful but poor and ordinary girl. However, his brother forbade him to marry her, calling such a marriage a disgrace to the family. Hearing this, the hapless lover exclaimed that it would be better to turn to stone than to live without his beloved and heaven carried out his wish then and there. The elder brother, amazed at what had happened, repented and decided to share his brother’s fate. Thus appeared the two stone statues. The beautiful bride could not live without her beloved and turned into a stream with cool, clear water.

Horseshoe shapes occur in several ways. There are numerous examples of horseshoe shapes on megaliths or horseshoe-shaped megaliths. In various cases there are stories related to (marital) happiness.

Marinda Ruiter


One of Volknsky’s dolmens on a postage stamp of Russia, 2011


This is a translation of a Dutch article, sources can be found in that article: Hoefijzervormen en megalieten

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