I've heard that the Romans considered iron to have protective properties, similar to the more modern tradition of "cold iron" against the Fair Folk, or nailing a horseshoe above the door.

Do any ancient sources describe iron's apotropaic powers, or the reason behind them? And did these powers only come from ferrum, or from metal in general?

  • 1
    I seem to recall the flamen Dialis being unable to touch iron, but a quick search turned up no primary sources. Might be worth digging deeper into.
    – cmw
    Oct 26, 2017 at 18:25
  • @C.M.Weimer Fascinating...Google turned up Wikipedia but no sources are cited. I'll dig into that.
    – Draconis
    Oct 26, 2017 at 20:13

1 Answer 1


According to Pliny the Elder, iron seems to be resistant to magic.

Several remedies require things being done sine ferro (translations via Loeb):


quidam id religione efficacius fieri putant prima luna collectum e robore sine ferro, si terram non attigerit...
Some superstitiously believe that the mistletoe proves more efficacious if it be gathered from the hard-wood oak at the new moon without the use of iron, and without its touching the ground...


nam quae canaria appellatur lappa [...] medetur et subus effossa sine ferro addita in colluviem poturis vel ex lacte ac vino.
But what is called dog-bur [...] also cures pigs, if dug up without iron; it is added to their swill before they go to feed, or else given them in milk and wine.


[Magi] devorari autem iubent cor mergi marini sine ferro exemptum inveteratumque conteri et in calida aqua bibi...
[The mages] also recommend the heart of a sea-diver, cut out without iron, dried and pounded, to be taken in warm water...

Pliny also describes the use of iron to counteract poisons, which were often seen as magical.


Medicina e ferro est et alia quam secandi. namque et circumscribi circulo terve circumlato mucrone et adultis et infantibus prodest contra noxia medicamenta, et praefixisse in limine evulsos sepulchris clavos adversus nocturnas lymphationes, pungique leviter mucrone, quo percussus homo sit, contra dolores laterum pectorumque subitos, qui punctionem adferant [...] calfit etiam ferro candente potus in multis vitiis, privatim vero dysentericis.
Iron supplies another medicinal service besides its use in surgery. It is beneficial both for adults and infants against noxious drugs for a circle to be drawn round them with iron or for a pointed iron weapon to be carried round them; and to have a fence of nails that have been extracted from tombs driven in in front of the threshold is a protection against attacks of nightmare, and a light prick made with the point of a weapon with which a man has been wounded is beneficial against sudden pains which bring a pricking sensation in the side and chest. [...] In many disorders, but especially in dysenteric cases, drinking water is heated with redhot iron.

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