Iron is deadly to faeries, but what about steel?
June 9, 2009 11:26 AM   Subscribe

paraphrased, asking on behalf of 9yo neice... "Werewolves get hurt by silver bullets, vampires get hurt by sunlight and wooden stakes. Faeries get hurt by iron; but what about steel, which is sort of iron and sort of not?" What are the (fictional) rules for this?

These are not the Tinkerbell kind of faeries, but the more traditional somewhat menacing magical folk.

I did some searching and found some writing that Faeries are unable to deal with "cold" iron, meaning naturally ocurring metoric iron as opposed to iron produced from ore.

Some say iron is deadly, others treat it more like a repellent, some never heard of it.

Long story short, aparrently if you are a creature from faerie, iron is your Kryptonite.

But can't find a ruling anywhere on steel - perhaps it's only iron qua iron? Hive mind?
posted by bartleby to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
My guess is that steel was introduced in the Renaissance and these various fairy tales date from the Middle Ages or before (I believe).

Steel is an alloy comprised mostly of iron.

So, the people who originally came up with these fairy tales would not have known about steel.
posted by dfriedman at 11:29 AM on June 9, 2009

I'm a big Supernatural (the tv show) fan, and I can't think of anything that they killed using steel specifically. They base their stuff hugely on existing myths and legends. Lots of iron and silver, and even copper once, but no steel (yet).

As for why, I would have to think maybe because a lot of the myths are base from waaaaaaaaaaaaaay back in the day and steel wasn't easily obtained so they didn't include it in the myths.
posted by gwenlister at 11:30 AM on June 9, 2009

Steel is 95%-98% iron. I can't see why it wouldn't count as a repellent.

Also, steel has been around pretty much as long as iron has, in terms of human technology. If you smith iron in a reducing fire, you get a mild carbon steel, at least on the outside of the piece.
posted by bricoleur at 11:36 AM on June 9, 2009

Gaming "wisdom" to the rescue... Oddly, this just came up in an RPG this past weekend for me.

When I asked something similar to our gaming group, the response I got was that "cold iron" was short for "cold forged iron" - something that was shaped without the heat of a forge, and therefore VERY difficult to make. In the same way you don't just have silver bullets lying around (unless you're the Lone Ranger), having something made from cold forged iron was rare, unless you specifically went through the effort of making it.

Now, traditionally, the reason for this myth was to make sure that a new mother remembered to check on a sleeping baby frequently. The legend went that the Faeries would steal sleeping children, and switch them with a Changeling. The counter to this was to put a bar of iron across the crib, to ward them away. The old fairy tale was a memnonic to check on the baby frequently and see if the bar was still in place, and also if the baby was still breathing and healthy, during the times when infant mortality was high.
posted by GJSchaller at 11:42 AM on June 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: It's the specific mention of the "cold iron" vs iron that raises the question about whether steel counts. Yes, steel is made of iron, but if the process of forging iron or making steel somehow removes the magical component....

And even if the iron myth predates steel, steel has been around long enough, and during times where people would have put faith in this sort of superstition, that the question would have been raised back in the day...
"Steel swords, you say? Yes, a very interesting newfangled material. Stays sharp, indeed, but it's no good on faeries, so you've got to look out for that. Care to buy a poultice?"
posted by bartleby at 11:50 AM on June 9, 2009

I think the other issue with iron & silver is that they don't really hold an edge well - pure iron or silver weapons would be lousy actual weapons and would only be useful against magical creatures. And yeah, whatever cold-forged iron is, the idea that it's rarer or harder to make than a normal steel blade.

It's not really rational what with being a faerie tale and all.
posted by GuyZero at 11:51 AM on June 9, 2009

Response by poster: Oh, and she asks because she's sad that steel=faeriedeath means that there can't be any faeries about, since you can't go ten feet in the modern world without encountering it. A faerie couldn't enter a skyscraper with its steel beam skeleton, for example.

I think she's looking for an "only cold iron counts" answer so she can hope to run into a brownie someday. Which she may get from me, but I figured I'd check with the hive mind first.
posted by bartleby at 11:54 AM on June 9, 2009

I've seen examples (although I'm not at my library so I can't cite) that range from "makes fairies uncomfortable/sick" to "just about as bad as pure iron."

This would be an excellent way to get her into camping/hiking... :P
posted by restless_nomad at 12:00 PM on June 9, 2009

Best answer: I have seen this very question discussed in a novel where the conclusion that author reached was that steel doesn't bother faery folk, because a) it's not all iron, and b) it's not cold-forged. (Maybe Steel Rose by Kara Dalkey?)

On the other hand, Holly Black has faery folk who need to take medicine if they want to live in cities, because all the iron and steel makes them sick.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:01 PM on June 9, 2009

Best answer: That sounds reasonable to me. Steel may be 95-98% "iron" but the crystalline structure of steel is very different than that of cold-worked iron or even plain iron ore. Everyone knows that crystalline structure is crucial to the physical and metaphysical properties of matter :)
posted by muddgirl at 12:02 PM on June 9, 2009

According to wikipedia and other sources cold iron is called cold iron because it is cold to the touch. Not because it is forged in any special way. The reasoning behind fairies having a weakness for iron was because it represented the forces of technology and industry and progress.

Now since iron has gotten really common since the times that many of these stories started when people make new stories they put different more esoteric rules on what a fairies weakness is. They put all sorts of provisos on it because it would weaken the sense of menace that scary serious fairies are supposed to have if they are especially weak to everything. So people have treated cold iron as meaning weird iron. Would steel work? It basically matters what mythology you are trying to be consistent with and what would make the best narrative for you. I basically think that if your story is set in a time when metal tools are sort of special at all then yes, steel would work, if it is set in a time where metal is problematically common then you would need to change it to special iron. For practical reasons.
posted by I Foody at 12:02 PM on June 9, 2009

According to wiki 'cold iron' is just iron. And apparently the modern usage of this phrase is, in fact, 'cold steel.' So if a faerie is negatively affected by 'cold iron' pretty much any iron/steel would qualify.

Also: posting an AskMe in hopes of getting a specific answer is poor form. If you feel like lying to your niece, maybe tell her they are out in the woods and meadows, or something.
posted by paisley henosis at 12:04 PM on June 9, 2009

Ahh, beat!
posted by paisley henosis at 12:05 PM on June 9, 2009

Best answer: Cold Iron is the key... and cold iron is iron that wasn't smelted. This means meteoric iron, or bog iron.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:05 PM on June 9, 2009

To expand a bit, (some) faeries are also known as barrow-people, creatures who lived in barrows. Barrows, we modern folk know, were generally bronze-age tombs... which means there weren't many weapons or tools in them that weren't bronze. Hence the legend that they didn't like iron (and, I suppose, steel.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:11 PM on June 9, 2009

In the book Steel Magic by Andre Norton (if I recall correctly from many many readings as a pre-teen 30 years ago), a stainless steel knife from a picnic set is used in that magical way.
posted by not that girl at 12:30 PM on June 9, 2009

Response by poster: @paisley: I'm not looking for a definitie answer from MeFi, I'm actually trying to collect more folklore and try to come up with something satisfactory.

@slap: oh, thanks for the bog iron! she lives not too far from the NJ Pine Barrens, so I could say that faeries live in the woods, except for the PB, which are full of bog iron (it was largest native source of iron for the early US colonies for a while).

bartlebette (neice) is, like many children, willing to believe anything, even the fantastical and fictional that she knows aren't real, as long as there are RULES, to make playing with the ideas interesting.

So now I'm sorta Asking MeFi for help in choosing which rules are more comon in fiction, and maybe more interesting:

1) faeries are affected by any post-bronze technology; so a lump of cold iron, a wrought iron horseshoe, a steel spoon, or an ipod would each be equally effective against the fey.
Meaning that by now, they've all diminshed and gone to the west or whatever because we've polluted the world with technology. So you've got to get really far away from the things of man to have a chance of running into a faerie that's still around.

2) "cold iron" is special and different from worked iron or steel, and only "cold iron" counts.
So there could be faeries under your bed RIGHT NOW, and you'd have to find a rare piece of meteor or bog iron to keep them from taking you in your sleep and leaving a changeling.
posted by bartleby at 12:41 PM on June 9, 2009

Lord Dunsany writes about the best description of a magic sword (and its making) in "The King of Elfland's Daughter" that I have ever read. So, it's not just the materials.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:52 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

The "Cold iron" is more fun because it allows for terror, suspense, and the necessity for talismans. You could say that it works because the iron straight from the ground or from the sky is more pure than steel and alloys and therefore more damaging. Therefore once the air gets in from processing it's as good as dirt. Also, this makes the fairies seem more powerful and less "oh let's flee"
posted by amethysts at 1:22 PM on June 9, 2009

Your basic horse-shoe is supposed to keep fairies away, and they aren't made of any special bog or meterite iron. So I would say that any iron would work. I certainly touch steel (like a bicycle) when moving through suspect fairy places.
posted by jb at 5:15 PM on June 9, 2009

The any kind of iron is more common in stories. Otherwise fairies could never be stopped. Morris dancing also works - see Pratchett's Lords and Ladies for general examples of a) how evil fairies really are, and b) how to defeat them.
posted by jb at 5:18 PM on June 9, 2009

Best answer: I've seen this suggestion a few times, most recently when I re-read Terry Pratchett's Lords and Ladies: iron is magnetic. Elves don't like magnetism. A lot of steel is magnetic too, but most stainless steel isn't.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:47 PM on June 9, 2009

Seconding Joe in Australia; I think that Lords and Ladies implied that elves/faries can "see" using magnetic fields, and they dislike iron because it's conductive and thus distorts magnetic fields. Of course, meteorite iron is usually (I think) magnetic, so there's another connection. Isn't folklore fascinating :-)
posted by primer_dimer at 2:03 AM on June 10, 2009

Tell her to google it.

Then tell her to check out the skeptics society web page.

Never too young to start using their brain!
posted by lamby at 9:01 AM on June 10, 2009

« Older Heal my flightless Thunderbird   |   Stained Glassy Collages? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.