Ferrous Friend or Foe? How Iron Became the Enemy of Fairy Folk

Anyone who has seen the 2014 movie Maleficent will know that iron burns fairies and iron chains can hold a dragon captive. Iron frames were once popular for children’s bedsteads, because it was said that fairies could not approach to snatch or swap the infants who slept upon them. Iron bands around the coffin of a witch or a vampire were believed to prevent them from escaping their tombs. Many of the classical texts on Qabalistic ritual warn the magus to keep iron out of their ritual circle, because it ‘earths’ the Magickal powers they attempt to invoke. 

Yet iron has also been the saviour of many a church bell ringer, by ‘magically’ attracting lightning and diverting its path down to the earth outside the church, rather than down the bell pull and to the puller. There is earlier evidence of tall buildings using iron as lightning conductors, though use by the Christian Church was not recorded until the 1750s when they were ‘invented’ by Prokop Diviš, a Bohemian priest in Přímětice. This was around the same time as Benjamin Franklin’s more famous experiments with making lightning rods.

The use of lightning rods caused a furor of conflicting arguments from different factions of the Church. Some priests thought that they demonstrated the Church’s ability to control the elements in the name of God. Others argued that they demonstrated a lack of faith in the power of prayer as a form of protection. Some thought the Church was actually endorsing, and dabbling in, what may be a form of witchcraft! Some believed that their use attracted God’s wrath, causing churches to be struck by lightning much more regularly. Others thought lightning strikes occurred because they frustrated the Devil and his followers, making them lash out angrily, though ineffectually. It was claimed that lightning rods also caused earthquakes. However, it seems that bell ringers all said, ‘Thank God!’

By the use of iron, the early church was seen to have tamed and controlled the power of pagan gods, typified by the Viking Thor, or the bolt-throwing Greek god Zeus. Iron became symbolic of the power of the Christian church over older, ‘heathen’ belief systems, and the apparent chaos of the natural world. If iron could tame great old gods such as Thor and Zeus, then certainly it could defuse the pagan powers of witches and pesky demons.

Many properties of iron, as we now understand in scientific terms, must have seemed magical when first observed. An iron needle floating in a bowl of water could tell you which way to steer your ship at sea, even when the stars were obscured by cloud. An electric spark, thought by some to be analogous with life energy, could disappear into an iron filament and come out at the other end, seemingly unchanged. Of course, even today, iron still seems magical in many respects. It is the most plentiful metal in the universe. All iron was initially forged in the hearts of stars, and only gifted to the cosmos when they exploded in supernovae. This stardust is in each of us; it is what makes our blood red.

The earliest iron artefacts were made millennia before the Iron Age, from meteoric iron that had fallen from the sky. This was when the sky was still the realm of the gods. Therefore, iron was a gift from the gods, and must be imbued with godly powers. Accordingly, these first artefacts were fit for our gods on earth. For example, the pharaoh Tutankhamun.

Some of the earliest known fairy tales concern iron and the art of the blacksmith. I have already touched upon the origins of fairy tales in a previous article here on #FolkloreThursday, along with their connection to iron and why horseshoes are said to be lucky and ward off evil if hung over your doorway.

Drawing of Iron and Bronze swords found in Hallstatt https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hallstatt_culture_swords_ramsauer.jpg

Drawing of Iron and Bronze swords found in Hallstatt https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hallstatt_culture_swords_ramsauer.jpg

The lore that surrounds iron has changed from beneficent to maleficent and back again as many times as historical conflicts and conquests have changed the ideology of the dominant culture. It seems that the smelting and use of iron developed independently in several locations around the world. The Iron Age is generally understood as the period during which the technology to make iron items — particularly weapons — spread from the Hallstatt culture in western and eastern Europe during the 8th century BCE. It radiated out through Celtic Europe, eventually reaching Britain, and then expanded into the La Tène culture during the 4th century BCE. 

Clearly, the peoples of this extended period did not one night go to sleep in the Bronze Age and awaken the next morning in the Iron Age. There were considerable overlaps as the technology of iron developed and travelled throughout the European continent by way of trade. This also appears to coincide with a violent period of history, with hill forts springing up all across the British Isles, particularly in the southern regions.

A detailed drawing of a viking age sword from the early 9th century found at Sæbø in the west of Norway. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:B1622_Lorange_1889_Tab_IV.jpg

A detailed drawing of a viking age sword from the early 9th century found at Sæbø in the west of Norway. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:B1622_Lorange_1889_Tab_IV.jpg

It is also interesting to note that bronze ‘carps-tongue swords’ in the Hallstatt style were popular trade items, appearing in Britain during the early period of the Iron Age of central Europe. These were beautiful and stylistically sophisticated swords and yet, technologically, they were already outmoded. This is just like international arms dealing today! Sell potential enemies inferior or out-dated weapons, and keep the superior tech for your own armies. So, the Britons were trading peacefully, and at the same time building defensive forts and preparing for battle. Imagine their surprise when the clashes came with the peoples who had made the swords they were using. It must have been baffling when enemy blades just seemed to cut right through theirs, and also their shields.

The Britons had a reputation for being small in stature yet fierce warriors, and possibly adept at magic. They seemed to be able to appear and vanish at will from among the trees of the forests and among the hills. According to some early Roman accounts, the Britons would spike their hair with white lime and cover their bodies in swirling patterns of blue woad for battle, possibly to enable them to vanish into the pattern of clouds in the sky or reflected on the surface of lakes. This resulted in a belief that they could appear out of thin air and make their getaways via ‘portals’ in lakes and rivers. Some have suggested that this is where the myth of the fairy folk began. These ‘fairy folk’ who used ‘magical’ tactics were armed with bronze, which was no match for the iron blades of the invaders. Therefore, iron became known as the enemy of the ‘fairy folk.’

Odin consults a Vǫlva Shaman https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Odin_og_V%C3%B6lven_by_Fr%C3%B8lich.jpg

Odin consults a Vǫlva Shaman https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Odin_og_V%C3%B6lven_by_Fr%C3%B8lich.jpg

In Wicca, wands are usually made from hazel or rowan – grown things of natural origin, reinforcing the connection with the seasons and cycles of nature, with which we work in harmony. However, the wands of the Norse Vǫlva shamans were iron, implying that for them magic was a human thing involving forging and manipulating natural resources and elemental forces according to our will.

Finds from a Vǫlva's grave in Köpingsvik, Öland, include an 82 cm long wand of iron incorporating bronze details and a unique model of a house. By Berig - GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3604654

Finds from a Vǫlva’s grave in Köpingsvik, Öland, include an 82 cm long wand of iron incorporating bronze details and a unique model of a house. By Berig – GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3604654

Siberian shamans traditionally make magical artefacts from iron, perhaps owing to their ancestral heritage. The name ‘Russia’ is derived from the Russ, a pre-Viking Norse clan who were founders of the settlement that became modern Moscow. This brings us nicely around to a famous iron sword, perhaps the most famous sword of all time: Excalibur.

Viking swords were prized by non-Vikings for a number of reasons, including their strength, balance, quality, and reputation. There were only a few ways that a non-Viking may come by a Viking sword. Possession of one indicated that you were very wealthy and had gained the respect of a wealthy Viking, or had defeated a Viking warrior in battle – both impressive achievements. So, could Excalibur have been a Norse-forged iron sword? We know that such weapons were often cast in moulds made of stone, so the ‘sword-in-the-stone’ bit would certainly fit. True, the Viking era came several centuries after the Iron Age, but myths and legends are often stories amalgamated from several earlier sources. Also, if remembered from the pre-Viking crossover period from Bronze to Iron Age, a similarly well-balanced, expertly forged iron sword would seem magical due to its ability to cut through bronze blades (and even through weapons made from inferior quality iron).

How Sir Bedivere Cast the Sword Excalibur into the Water. © 1894 Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bedivere.jpg

How Sir Bedivere Cast the Sword Excalibur into the Water. © 1894 Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bedivere.jpg

If magic is an energy, a physical force, then perhaps iron makes more sense as wand material. We know that iron can attract and conduct electricity, focus and release it, store it as magnetic energy, or disperse it by returning it to the earth. Iron can change form. It can be made molten, fluid, and malleable, and then set into unbending forms of our design. Be it blade or wand, the magic of this metal could enable one not only to repel fairies, but to rule with ‘a rod of iron,’ or indeed, ‘the sword of kings.’

References & further reading

Gareth Williams and Peter Pentz, 2014, Vikings: Life and Legend, British Museum Press, ISBN 978-0714123370

Barry Rafferty and Clint Twist, 2001, Atlas of the Celts, Philip’s, ISBN 978-0540078806

Geoffrey Barraclough, 2000, The Times Atlas of World History – A New Edition, Ted Smart / Times Books, ISBN 978-0007619009

Richard Cavendish, 1989, The Magical Arts, Arkana, ISBN 978-0140191523

Magnus Magnusson, 1976, Viking: Hammer of the North, Harpercollins, ISBN: 9780856133015

Richard Cavendish, 1969, The Black Arts, Pan Macmillan, ISBN 978-0330022231

Maria Antonina Czaplicka, 1914, Aboriginal Siberia: A Study in Social Anthropology, Oxford Clarendon Press

Jim Al-Khalili, 2011, Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity, British Broadcasting Corporation and Open University, UK Television

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Remy Dean was born in Newport, Gwent, 1965, and now lives with his wife, daughter and dog in Snowdonia. He is an artist and author of more than ten published books and more than fifty features in national newspapers and magazines. He is also a story-teller, lecturer on art and folklore, and hosts creative workshops. Non-fiction books by Dean include biographies and critiques of Nick Cave, Henry Rollins, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, Suede, Lydia Lunch, Celine Dion(!) and more recently the web-active history of art textbook, Evolution of Western Art. His works of fiction for grown-ups include Scraps, a novel, Final Bough, a tale of the supernatural, and the recent short story collection, The Race Glass. His latest novel, This, is an epic fairy-tale-fantasy inspired by local folklore and, written with his young daughter as creative consultant, is his first book for children and young adults. This (part one) is available now, via Amazon. For more information, go to Remy’s own weblog: www.remydean.blogspot.co.uk, or for regular updates, follow Remy Dean on twitter: @DeanAuthor.

Fairy friends or foes? Tweet your favourite folklore of how to attract or repel mythical creatures this Thursday with the hashtag #FolkloreThursday.

  • Freyalyn Close-Hainsworth

    I’ve not come across iron swords being cast rather than forged. Cast-iron is very brittle unless it’s forged, so a cast-iron sword wouldn’t be very good without forging.

    Also, there’s been a bit of research done on the relative strengths of bronze v iron swords – in the early IA, the bronze swords (at the height of their technological development) were much better than the early iron swords, which could be considerably dented and hacked by the bronze. So late BA swords would hold their value for a while against iron ones, until the iron forging technology advanced enough to give properly hardened bladed edges.

    • Remy Dean

      Good point (or rather good edge!) Top quality bronze, with a high tin content, would have been a match for iron blades, so I would not like to bet my life on either – which I guess they were doing back then!

      There is much discrepancy between the general periods I am talking about here, so I have generalised and condensed.

      Historically, armies equipped with iron had the advantage (or the edge), but current thinking is that was because iron was more easily sourced than the copper-tin combo for bronze. So, more fighters could be armed more easily and without long-distance trade for rarer metals. Also, iron blades tended to be bigger and heavier, so momentum increased their hack-and-smash powers. (I remember seeing this principal demonstrated on a Royal Institute Christmas Lecture where a tab of room-temperature butter was fired through a sheet of plywood…)

      By the time we reach the first inklings of the Viking age, from which Excalibur might have come, the technology had moved on from casting to forging layered blades (similar to Damascus steel) and Viking swords were super-advanced technology for their time. We just leapt several centuries there… but the memory of swords cast in stone does have that nice romantic link with the sword in the stone story.

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  • dr__pepper

    Excalibur and “the sword in the stone” are two different objects.