Fairy lore has become one of my favourite things to research, and I have also been enjoying the breadth of portrayals of Faeries / Fairies in pop culture. It made me come back to an old topic that most people in the English speaking world (and many beyond it) probably know, to ask a question. Why does iron hurt fairies?
Rule 1 of Fairies: They hate iron.
This takes different shapes in different folklore and pop culture. Fairies might be repelled by iron, burned by it, only able to die to an iron weapon, be unable to cross under an iron horseshoe, or simply dislike it and find it irritating. Among other effects.
Where on earth did this idea come from?
What even is “Iron” in this context?
Iron, in the context of Fairy lore, is not as simple as the element with the symbol Fe. Some fairy lore and especially pop culture re-imaginings like to make it important what sort of iron we’re talking about.
Steel is just iron with carbon (sometimes as little as 0.55%) but the majority of fairies in pop culture are not hurt by steel. It would make paranormal stories set in our own world a little difficult if fairies had to avoid cars and kitchen appliances (though some inventive author has probably made something out of that idea). Traditional folklore didn’t seem to make this distinction however.
Some media likes to rationalise that fairies are only hurt by cold iron. Some fantasy likes to expand this and give cold iron actual properties and a different origin to iron – in Warhammer and other media, the name is taken literally to mean iron worked without the use of fire. But in the real world cold iron was just a poetic way to talk about iron. TV Tropes suggests it came to be because, at room temperature, iron feels cold to the touch.
Gold is for the mistress – silver for the maid
Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade.
“Good!” said the Baron, sitting in his hall.
“But iron – cold iron – is master of them all.”Rudyard Kipling, Cold Iron, 1910
When did the idea of iron hurting fairies turn up?
Various metals hurting magical creatures is a fairly common belief and motif. Silver for vampires, obviously (though that also works on werewolves in modern stories). Meteoric iron or thunderbolt iron (iron from fallen meteorites) is often viewed as having magical properties too, and gold often has associations with purity. Iron has also often been used to repel demons.
It is not surprising that demons and fairies share that weakness. From the medieval right up to the Edwardian period, one of several explanations given in Folklore for Fae was that they were fallen angels who weren’t evil enough to become demons (or simply broke their fall on Earth instead of going all the way to hell, your choice). That, and the related belief that the Fae were held in ransom to the devil and had to pay tribute or else be dragged to hell, probably needs a blog post of its own.
The Secret Commonwealth by Robert Kirk, written in 1661 is often credited with turning the belief in iron hurting fairies into popular knowledge. He clearly didn’t invent it though – it comes up in Robert Herrick’s work in 1648, repelling witches and black magic with iron horseshoes.
Robert Means Lawrence in the 1890s credited a belief in iron repelling evil spirits of all sorts to a huge range of cultures – an iron nail driven into a reed and the chant “Neck, Neck, nail in water, the Virgin Mary casteth steel in water. Do you sink, I flit” can repel Scandinavian water fairies called Neck, for example.
However, one of the oldest, if not oldest, mentions of iron repelling evil comes from Pliny’s Natural History. He stated that iron nails from a tomb, driven into the door lintel, will repel nocturnal spirits. He also ascribed many other qualities to iron, from curing epilepsy to warding off noxious gasses (or drugs).
Iron and the divine
Iron potentially even has the power to repel the divine in some belief systems. The Bible has one mention that could be interpreted as iron halting the power of God when he could not defeat people who used iron chariots. The Jewish Talmud also forbids using iron tools to shape the stones for building an altar, and I have read an old account that stated a folk belief that iron should not be allowed to touch the talmud or bible – though I haven’t been able to find any further sources for that.
And the Lord was with Judah; and he drove out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.Judges 1:19 KJV
In the Christian bible, God similarly forbid any use of iron tools in the construction of the Temple of Solomon. However that might have been part of a wider taboo against construction noise at the temple site in Levant and Mesopotamian religions, as a taboo on stone cutting at the site when Gudea of Lagash built a temple for his god turns up in a Sumerian account.
Alright, So why does iron hurt fairies then?
One of the more common motifs I’ve seen in fairy pop culture is using fairies as a representative of nature and iron as a representative of humans or civilization / modernity. It is not a bad idea for a story premise, but I’ve seen genuine explanations suggesting this is where the whole folklore came from in the first place – that ancient peoples viewed iron as representative of civilization and therefore capable of repelling spirits.
I’m relatively skeptical of this idea, and I’ve not found any sources to support it. If you know of any, I’d love to hear them.
The truth appears much simpler. Iron has many qualities that, without modern science, may appear mystical. It can lead to true north, conduct lightning, hold a sharp edge, it is magnetic, and it can withstand extreme heat. Blood smells like iron (and contains it, though our ancestors did not that know), and so folklore often equated iron to also giving life. Plutarch and other ancient writers called iron the bone of the gods or blood of the earth as a result. Ironically, there are tales of blood drinking Fairies, but perhaps we have to forgive our ancestors there.
With two thousand or more years of distance between the people who first ascribed magical powers to iron, we will truly never know their logic. But it has given us a rich tapestry of folk beliefs and modern pop culture interpretations, which I hope never stop.
If you know of any other sources (or opinions) on why fairies hurt by iron, please share them with me.
Briggs, Katharine. (1976). A dictionary of fairies. Penguin Books.
TV Tropes. “Cold Iron”. https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ColdIron
Kipling, Rudyard. (1910). Cold Iron. All Poetry. https://allpoetry.com/Cold-Iron
Oldridge, Darren. (2016). Fairies and the devil in early modern England. The Seventeeth Century, 31 (1), pages 1-15. DOI: 10.1080/0268117X.2016.1147977
Pliny. (n.d.) Natural History.
Lawrence, Roberts Means. (1898). The magic of the horseshoe. The Riverside Press. https://www.sacred-texts.com/etc/mhs/mhs00.htm
Jinga, Constantin. (2019). Why is it significant for for the author to point out that no iron tools were used on the site of Solomon’s temple? Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange. https://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/38992
Cutting Tzitzit Strings. Aish.com. https://aish.com/cutting-tzitzit-strings/
Illustrations from Midsummer Eve: A fairy tale of love, by Mrs S.C Hall, published 1848 by C.S Francis.
Cover image by Richard Doyle, 1870. “The Fairy Queen Takes an Airy Drive in a Light Carriage, a Twelve-in-hand, drawn by thoroughbred butterflies”. The Met Museum collection.