May 19 is celebrated as the feast day of St Dunstan, a 10th Century saint who lived a quiet life as a smith and a musician in Sussex, England, until one night the devil paid him a visit and one of the great traditions of folklore was born: the nailing of a horseshoe over a door.
The modern version of Dunstan’s story was published in 1871 in the old and very long lyric poem, The Horse Shoe: The True Legend of St Dunstan and the Devil by Edward G. Flight, beautifully illustrated by George Cruikshank.
St. Dunstan was a very quiet and humble hermit who worked at his anvil and played the harp.
But one night, there was the sound of howling outside Dunstan’s hut. The Devil had come by. Always wanting to play some mischief, the Devil began howling discordantly out-of-tune with the lovely harp music.
Well, so it chanced, this tramping vagrant
Intent on villanies most flagrant
Ranged by Saint Dunstan’s gate;
And hearing music so delicious
Like hooded snake, his spleen malicious
Swelled up with envious hate
What happened next? There are many versions of St Dunstan’s story. One is that,
St Dunstan, as the story goes,
Once pull’d the devil by the nose
With red-hot tongs, which made him roar,
That he was heard three miles or more.
In another version, the Devil comes to the hut as a woman, but Dunstan sees his cloven hooves beneath the dress he wears.
In the version illustrated here, the Devil sees Dunstan shoe a lame horse and make him sound. Then, Dunstan notices that the Devil is limping on one of his cloven hooves. He offers to make a shoe to help the Devil, too. The Devil envisions a satin slipper, but instead, Dunstan nails a red hot horseshoe very tightly onto the split hoof.
The Devil screamed and begged him to take it off. But Dunstan was in no hurry to do that.
Dunstan’s solution was to make the Devil promise that he would always respect the symbol of the horseshoe and never enter a building that is protected by the sign of a shoe.
Then do not fail, great architect
Assembled wisdom to protect
From Satan’s visitation
With horse-shoe fortify each gate
Each lion’s paw; and then the State
Is safe from ruination
To this day, people still hang horseshoes over the doors of their buildings and still tell the story of Saint Dunstan. Especially on May 19, St Dunstan’s Day around the world.