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Non-Fluffy Pagans
'Cold Iron' Discussion 
17th-Oct-2005 11:25 am
Dragonfly Moon
Thanks to pierceheart for starting this one in a comment he made in Wicca regarding Cold Iron.

There’s an ongoing discussion of how much Cold Iron influences magic (and the Fey). I’d like to get more opinions on this and welcome further discussions.


Pierceheart made the assertion that the first documented information he could find regarding Cold Iron was Kipling’s Cold Iron story.

I checked Brand’s Observations of Popular Antiquities (1900); it has an extensive section on “Fairy Mythology” but never mentions Cold Iron (or any other type of metal) as a problem for Fairies. Later sources make the statement but provide no citations; e.g., An Encyclopedia of Faries (Briggs, 1976) merely states “Cold iron repels fairies.” Of course, her next line is “A knife, or cross of iron, are sovereign protections against witchcraft and evil magic of all kinds.” (so much for most of my athames *grin*.)

  • Does anyone know of anything older than the Kipling?
  • Does anyone know of a pre-1900 non-fiction reference to Cold Iron and Magic or the Fey?


Lots of problems here.

Many claim it must be “pure” iron, yet early metallurgy skills were primitive; most iron ores were contaminated with other elements and most early iron working had various and sundry containments; non were ‘pure’ iron. The purest iron ore was reserved for weapons; what was left for general use (e.g., in a house, or for the nails that Kipling so roundly denounces) were lower quality with more impurities. See, for example:
De Re Metallica (Hoover & Hoover, 1912, 1950)
The Royal Armoury at Greenwich 1515-1649: A History of its Technology (Williams & de Reuck, 1995)
The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England (Davidson, 1962).

Some claim it was not worked (whilst never really defining the meaning of ‘worked’); yet Kipling states: “‘And what did you see?’ ‘A smith forging something or other out of Cold Iron. When it was finished, he weighed it in his hand (his back was towards me), and tossed it from him a longish quoit-throw down the valley. I saw Cold Iron flash in the sun, but I couldn’t quite make out where it fell.’”

This implies it was Cold Iron both before and after hammer forging – a process that very definitely ‘works’ the iron. And most forging introduces some level of carbon into the iron, making it closer to steel. Kipling doesn’t seem to make a differentiation between forged and unforged; thus, worked metals (and steel) seem to be just as valid.

  • Any other sources?
  • Other differentiators between worked and unworked, or levels of working?


xposted to wiccan
17th-Oct-2005 04:40 pm (UTC)
Myself, I've always held the theory that the tales of the Fae being vulnerable to cold iron stems from stories of the Milesians invading Ireland.

As far as I've been able to figure out, the Tuatha de Danann were a bronze age people, whereas the Milesians were iron age. And invading force wielding Iron/Steel weapons against people with only bronze weapons would have a distinct advantage. The iron would cut through the bronze quite easily. I think perhaps it is this detail that later got wrapped up in stories to become the folklore of the fae being weak to iron.
17th-Oct-2005 04:56 pm (UTC)
17th-Oct-2005 04:42 pm (UTC)
Here is something I found when googling it:

"There was a herd's wife in the Island of Sanntraigh, and she had a kettle. A woman of peace (fairy) would come every day to seek the kettle. She would not say a word when she came, but she would catch hold of the kettle. When she would catch the kettle, the woman of the house would say:

A smith is able to make
Cold iron hot with coal.
The due of a kettle is bones,
And to bring it back again.

The woman of peace would come back every day with the kettle and flesh and bones in it. On a day that was there, the housewife was for going over the ferry to Baile a Chaisteil, and she said to her man, 'If thou wilt say to the woman of peace as I say, I will go to Baile Castle.'
'Oo! I will say it. Surely it's I that will say it.'
He was spinning a heather rope to be set on the house. He saw a woman coming and a shadow from her feet, and he took fear of her. He shut the door. He stopped his work. When she came to the door she did not find the door open, and he did not open it for her. She went above a hole that was in the house. The kettle have two jumps, and at the third leap it went out at the ridge of the house. The night came, and the kettle came not. The wife cam back over the ferry, and she did not see a bit of the kettle within, and she asked, 'Where was the kettle?' 'Well then I don't care where it is,' said the man; 'I never took such a fright as I took at it. I shut the door, and she did not come any more with it.'
'Good-for-nothing wretch, what didst thou do? There are two that will ill off - thyself and I.' 'She will come tomorrow with it.' 'She will
not come.'

She hasted herself and she went away. She reached the knoll, and there was no man within. It was after dinner, and they were out in the mouth of the night. She went in. She saw the kettle, and she lifted it with her. It was heavy for her with the remnants that they lift in it. When the old carle that was within saw her going out, he said,

Silent wife, silent wife,
That come on us from land of chase,
Thou man on the surface of the 'Bruth',
Loose the black, and slip the Fierce.

The two dogs were let loose; and she was not long away when she heard the clatter of the dogs coming. She kept the remnant that was in the kettle, so that if she could get it with her, well, and if the dogs should come that she might throw it at them. She perceived the dogs coming. She put her hand in the kettle. She took the board out of it, and she threw at them a quarter of what was in it. They noticed it there for a while. She perceived them again, and she threw another piece at them when they closed upon her. She went away walking as well as she might; when she came near the farm, she threw the mouth of the pot downwards, and there she left them all that was in it. The dogs of the town struck (up) a barking when they saw the dogs of peace stopping. The woman of peace never came more to seek the kettle."

I have NO idea what the source story is, I found this on an RPG discussion list. http://forum.rpg.net/archive/index.php/t-110456.html
17th-Oct-2005 04:43 pm (UTC)
Okay, source is Campbell, Popular Tales of the West Highlands.
17th-Oct-2005 04:48 pm (UTC) - A metallurgical note
I always sort of assumed that 'cold iron' meant cold-worked iron, i.e. shaped without the use of heat. All metals get harder when they are stretched -- that's why a piece of soft copper wire rapidly develops kinks and hard spots when you bend it. Iron is no different, although the effect is less extreme than with copper, and cold-working it takes a lot more force. If you have the patience and the tools, you can form iron without the use of heat. It will end up stronger and harder than a similar hot-worked item that is not tempered, but won't match a good tempered piece.
17th-Oct-2005 04:53 pm (UTC) - Re: A metallurgical note
but that isn't likely in the lands, and at the time of, the folklore.

I am seeing references for cold iron as meaning wrought iron, as opposed to cast iron.


refers to wrought iron as having a lower carbon content than cast iron, and being tough and malleable, but not good for making blades from.
17th-Oct-2005 04:51 pm (UTC)
I have some really vague remembrances of the concept in the Brother's Grimm, which would pre-date the Kipling by about a hundred years, but as I said, its just a vague remembrance. If I get I chance, in between studying for my Old English midterm I'll browse through my Complete Brother's Grimm and see if I can find something.
17th-Oct-2005 05:02 pm (UTC)
"Hudibras" by Samuel Butler, dates between 1660 and 1680, and has a reference to cold iron, but with no definition.
17th-Oct-2005 04:53 pm (UTC)
Cymru Fu, a selection of Welsh histories, traditions, and tales, published by Hughes & Son contains a story about a Wleshman who marries one of the fey. He is told that if she is touched by iron she will have to return to her people (eventually she touches something Iron and disappears). I don't have an older reference (this one from 1862), but this was supposedly a recording of the much older Welsh mythology.

Other Welsh myths also incloude Iron... one farmer gets told to use an iron plow to till through fairy circles, another mentions in passing that the Fair Folk cannot et to one of their kind because of an Iron bolt on the door.

Dating these myths may be problematic, but I think that we might be able to trace them pre-Kipling (since we definatly have 1862 as a publish date for the first and Kipling was born in 1865) ;-)

17th-Oct-2005 05:08 pm (UTC)
Ha, what an interesting discussion - I'd often wondered about this, although it doesn't really affect what I do personally.
I'd like to share an idea, and I'll just preface by saying it's purely UPG and logical deduction, not based on any amazing new source. But perhaps others here who have studied the subject more could figure out if it holds its weight.

“A knife, or cross of iron, are sovereign protections against witchcraft and evil magic of all kinds.” (so much for most of my athames *grin*.)
Many claim it must be “pure” iron ... The purest iron ore was reserved for weapons; what was left for general use (e.g., in a house, or for the nails that Kipling so roundly denounces) were lower quality with more impurities.

The general idea that I'm getting from all of what you've described so far is that iron was thought to have a sympathetic protective quality - sympathetic because it is the primary substance of weapons, especially if you're talking about 'pure' iron. Even the less pure varieties, such as what's used in nails - was it common practice to avoid using iron nails, or were they (as I'm guessing) pretty common, even desirable?

Perhaps it is incorrect to assume that this concept is based on all forms of magic, good and bad - often the term 'witchcraft' was used in the past to specify a more malevolent type of sorcery (whereas healing spells, etc. would just be called.. healing). It would make no sense to say "iron magically repels magic", right? So I'm guessing it repels malevolent magic specifically - simply, it protects the owner from harm.

That just leaves the fairies. From what I've heard, they were not 100% a peaceful and helpful bunch to people either - is it possible again that this was thought of as a desirable quality, to keep the interference of fairies at bay? Thinking of how desirable iron has been through the ages, and also the high esteem a blacksmith was often held in, I suspect that this could be the case.
17th-Oct-2005 05:14 pm (UTC)
and yet there are also various tales of fairies of sorts who WERE blacksmiths . . .
17th-Oct-2005 05:20 pm (UTC)
Have you checked Child or one of the other collections of ballads? I don't have an indexed copy, but I'll look through the stuff I have and see what turns up.
17th-Oct-2005 05:34 pm (UTC)
There are references to cold iron in a number of the Tam Lin versions - I'm pretty sure I've seen others, too.

(Which is particularly interesting there, because it's the Queen turning him into something that's first a burning iron brand, and then often doused.)
17th-Oct-2005 05:39 pm (UTC)
In speaking about the Volsung Saga, Tolkien says:

"Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give. By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed, by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory… It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine." [p. 78, "On Fairy-Stories", The Tolkien Reader] emphasis mine
17th-Oct-2005 05:52 pm (UTC)
Robert Kirk, author of The Secret Commonwealth says in that book: "The Tramontaines (Highlanders) to this day put bread, the Bible, or a piece of iron,
in women's bed[s] when travailing (that is, in labour) to save them from being thus stolen.
And they commonly report that all uncouth unknown wights are terrified by nothing
earthly so much as by cold iron. They deliver (that is, explain) the reasons to be that Hell,
lying between the chill tempests and fire brands of scalding metal, and the iron of the
North, hence the lodestone causes a tendency to that point, by an antipathy thereto, these
odious far-scenting creatures shrug and (take) fright at all that comes thence, relating to so
abhorred a place whence their torment is either begun or feared to come hereafter."

parenthetical commentary is by RJ Stewart in his book Robert Kirk, Walker Between Worlds.
17th-Oct-2005 05:58 pm (UTC)
Have you checked out the works of John Aubrey (1626-1697)? If he encountered reference to that he'd have made note of it-- he was that kind of guy. He wrote quite a bit on popular superstitions and magic. I'm at work, so I can't check my copy of Three Prose Works.
17th-Oct-2005 06:08 pm (UTC)
he references it in one instance as being a Herefordshire thing, a cold iron bar over a barrel of beer to prevent it from being soured by thunder.
17th-Oct-2005 06:15 pm (UTC)
I'm away from my books sadly, so I googled, and found:
"But there are methods for protecting human beings and animals against Fairies, which are so well known that there is no need to apply to a Charmer before applying them. Thus, salt is very efficacious, and so is iron. It was necessary to take great care of children, especially before baptism, as one of the commonest actions of the malevolent Fairies is to steal children. If a child were taken away, a decrepit and emaciated Fairy would be found in its place, and the prettier the child, the greater the risk of this. One way of preventing this catastrophe was to lay an iron poker, or other iron implement, on the child when left alone"
From the book "Folklore in the Isle of Man" by AW Moore (1891), http://www.qualtrough.org/fairies.htm
17th-Oct-2005 06:19 pm (UTC)
Lots of stuff about protective horseshoes and iron in general in The Magic of the Horse-Shoe With Other Folk-Lore Notes by Robert Means Lawrence[1898]: http://www.sacred-texts.com/etc/mhs/
According to that author, "Pliny, in his "Natural History," states that iron coffin-nails affixed to the lintel of the door render the inmates of the dwelling secure from the visitations of nocturnal prowling spirits."
It appears that the idea of iron offering protection against evil spirits is ancient and widespread.

17th-Oct-2005 06:26 pm (UTC)
Interesting modern article at http://www.panikon.com/phurba/articles/iron.html
"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."
18th-Oct-2005 02:33 pm (UTC)
Wrote John Aubrey in his Miscellanies (1695):

"It is a thing very common to nail Horse-shoes on the Thresholds of Doors: Which is to hinder the power of Witches that enter into the House. Most Houses on the West-end of London have the Horse-shoe on the Threshold. It should be a Horse-shoe that one finds. In the Bermudas, they use to put an Iron into the Fire when a Witch comes in. Mars is enemy to Saturn."

I wonder if a lug nut or a tire iron would serve the same purpose today, since finding a horseshoe is not likely. Aubrey also reproduces a passage in Pliny's Natural History about iron, but I can't read the Latin.
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