Protective iron

The iron in the locks was believed to be apotropeic (warding off evil). The belief was that iron counteracted and threatened the forces of evil and malevolent spirits that tried to get into people’s homes, churches, and storage areas through keyholes and other openings.

In the Middle Ages, door fittings were made with tiny wrought-iron dragon heads to guard them. Many are still found on the keyholes of the oldest churches.

Keyhole in the dragon guarding the door of the medieval Vänge church on Gotland.
Keyhole in the dragon guarding the door of the medieval Vänge church on Gotland.
Sketch by the author, based on a photo by Lennart Karlsson.


Smiths – who handled iron tools and forged in iron – were viewed with respect. Smiths were careful not to leave the forge without placing two pairs of tongs in a cross to ward off misfortune.

The magic of keys

In folklore, the key was a magic object with great power. Keys must never be placed on a table; that leads to discord in the house. If there were keys on the table and a child in the fire, retrieving the keys was the first priority.

Blowing through keys or biting on iron could cause a toothache.

Key from the late 16th century.
Key from the late 16th century. Photo by the author.

In Finland, it was believed that to make birthing easier, “it was useful to unlock three locks and place the keys of those locks in the woman’s bed.” In the old district of Norra Vedbo in Småland, a similar method was used: “The woman should bring along a key and a sharpening iron, that trolls not gain power over her.”

A Finnish cure for boils was to take a key with a cross on it or three teeth in the bit and pass the key chain over the boil three times, saying: “begone from the house, as a dead man returns to dust.” Then the key bit was pressed into the boil three times.

Church keys were especially magical. The giant, heavy key, forged of iron by the blacksmith, could help alleviate or even cure illness. Drinking north-flowing brook water out of a church key was said to cure whooping cough in mid-Sweden. The power of the key was enhanced if the bit or bow had a cross in it, or if it was borrowed on the sly.

Unruly children

“If small children are unquiet with much crying, shalt thou take a fresh birch switch and thread it through the church key, or break off such a switch on the church road, and with it strike them until they be goode.”

“When children are sickly, one should thread their linens through a church key”

For whooping cough

“Pour water through the church key for the childe to drink. In the Parish of Ed in Tjust, this key is often on loan to the villages for this purpose.”

To catch one’s true love

“During the early morning service on Christmas Day, or a Sunday on which the priest reads the Gospel, thread your handkerchief three times through the church key and state your intent; when you strike a girl with this handkerchief she will fall in love and be compliant.”

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