Sun 16 Aug 2015
Shoes are magic. Many a woman will tell you that they have the power to ensorcell. Imelda Marcos, for instance, seemed to be the victim of a particularly strong shoe enchantment. But aside from the compulsion to buy these items, shoes have a traditional protective magic which seems just as strong.
I first learned of this aspect of shoe folklore when I read The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic by Ralph Merrifield, a wonderful survey of European (mostly British) folk magic and ritual from prehistoric to modern times. Shoes, as it turns out, were the most common protective magic for buildings, from at least the 14th century into the 20th. Generally they are found walled up in structures, sometimes pairs or new but usually an odd shoe and very worn, sometimes in groupings, but often solitary. These hiding places are usually spots where it’s unlikely they would have arrived accidentally: bricked up in chimneys, under well nailed down floorboards, behind pristine plastered or bricked walls and the like. This practice is found all over Europe, as well as Canada, Australia, and the USA—anywhere, I suppose, where the European diaspora happened. There may well be non-European examples of this belief.
It was apparently quite a secretive rite, considered bad luck to talk about. The last known examples of concealed shoes are from the early 20th century, but who knows? Given its secretive nature, the practice could still be going on. We can only speculate and piece together other superstitions to figure out what it may mean. Mr. Merrifield does an excellent job of this:
There are a few known superstitions about old shoes that may be relevant. There was a belief that a shoe thrown after someone setting out on a journey would ensure good luck and a safe return. This is a custom still observed when the bridal pair departs after a wedding…There is a strong association with fertility; we all know the fate of the old woman who lived in a shoe, and there used to be a custom in Lancashire of trying on the shoes of a woman who had just had a baby in order to conceive.
Concealed shoes might also be a magic device for containing evil spirits, a tradition at least dating back to the story of John Schorn, a 14th century priest in Buckinghamshire, who supposedly conjured the devil into a boot to trap him. This may be why shoes are often found near entryways to houses, so that they could contain evil spirits which might try to get in.
I can’t help wondering, and Mr. Merrifield also speculates about this, if it has something to do with a person’s soul being imprinted on items closely associated with them. Shoes and clothing were enormous expenses for people in centuries past and folks tended to wear things and repair them until they were in shreds, then repurpose parts thereof before actually discarding them. And if something has been worn that long and that extensively, might not a person leave some essence of themselves imprinted on the object? Might that essence bear some protective quality, some ability to guard and protect a building in the owner’s stead, a soul outside the soul?
I’m not sure I’d want to remove one of these shoes if I somehow found one in my walls. If tradition isn’t a strong enough motivator, the possibility of hauntings might give me pause.
There was an episode of Syfy Channel’s Haunted Collector featuring one of these concealed shoes—in this case, an old boot. (Episode 2.6 if this episode list from Wikipedia is correct.) Now, I think all paranormal T.V. shows should be taken with a grain of salt, sometimes an enormous boulder of salt. (And yet, I still watch them, a guilty pleasure.) But I found this episode genuinely fascinating because of my familiarity with the subject. John Zaffis, the curator of a Museum of the Paranormal, investigated a home from the 1800s in Lorain County, Ohio. The current owners reported that when they decided to renovate an old fireplace, they found various objects concealed within it, including an old boot. As soon as these objects were removed, they began experiencing paranormal activity. Zaffis determined that the shoe was the focus of the haunting (I can’t remember how), had it blessed in some way (memory fails me), and removed from the premises to his museum. According to the show, the paranormal activity ceased thereafter.
What’s interesting from a folklore perspective is that Merrified reports a similar haunting via June Swann:
Miss Swann is of the opinion that this is essentially a male superstition connected with the building trade, and understands that it is considered to be unlucky to remove the shoes from the house. There is even a story of an apparent haunting that began when a shoe was sent of the Museum of London for identification, and ceased completely when it was returned.
Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe. Please pass the salt.