In a week where the phrase "you couldn't make it up" has been uttered more often than we could have ever imagined, it seems a fitting time to write up my recent reading on the improbable topic of "animated horse hairs."
Yes, you read that right: there once existed a belief that horsehairs were capable of coming to life and moving of their own volition. When the horse drank from a body of water, hair would fall from its mane or tail, and, after entering the water, would, by some undiscovered force, become animated.
I admit I assumed this was a randomly regional belief until a bit of further research revealed that the belief in animated horsehairs was another one of those bizarre ideas that was actually widespread across the British Isles and some areas of the United States.
It seems that the belief dates back quite some way: Shakespeare references the idea in Anthony and Cleopatra. Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy published in 1651 states that when a horsehair is placed in water, it becomes a "pernicious worm." Giambattista della Porta's Natural Magick published a few years later recounted that not only had he had first hand experience of this transformation, but friends of his had likewise witnessed hair gaining life.
It was also one that was slow to die out. The belief was present in 18th century Derbyshire, as Edwin Trueman mentions it is in his History of Ilkeston. According to Coleridge in the 18th century, boys in Cumberland and Westmoreland would also often experiment with this belief. They would place a horsehair in water, and, when it was removed some time later, they observed that it would twirl around their finger, compressing it.
According to Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders, by William Henderson, a horsehair that was kept in water would eventually turn into an eel.
The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore Volume VII: Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from North Carolina, published in 1913, records several variations. People believed that if you hang up a horsehair, when it rains it will turn into a snake. If a horsehair is put into water, after a period of time it will likewise turn into a snake. If stagnant water was used, after nine days the hair would turn into a black snake. A hair would also turn into a snake if put under running water and then held down with a stone. Putting a hair into a bottle of water and then burying it for six months would also have the same effect.
This belief was associated with "vulgar" and "superstitious" people. Dobson's Encyclopedia of 1798 states that "Animated Horsehair" was:
"A term used to express a sort of long and slender waterworm, of a blackish colour, and so much resembling a horse hair, that it is generally by the vulgar supposed to be the hair fallen from a horse's mane into the water as he drinks, and there animated by some strange power."
The belief was prevalent and long-standing enough even in the 17th century that Martin Lister, in his Philosophical Transactions, felt the need to soundly debunk the theory. The animated hairs were, in fact, a type of long, thin water worm, that eventually transformed into a form of beetle. Despite this fact, the idea that horse hairs could come to life clearly proved more interesting than the truth, and the belief continued for a good long time to come.