In this passage from the Lorica, or Shield, St. Patrick calls on God to protect him from dangers to body and soul from supernatural or demonic forces:
I invoke today all these virtues
Against every hostile merciless power
Which may assail my body and my soul,
Against the incantations of false
Against the black laws of heathenism,
Against the false laws of heresy,
Against the deceits of idolatry,
Against the spells of women, and smiths, and druids,
Against every knowledge that binds the soul of man.
Most modern readers understand Patrick's reference to the spells of women (as witches) and the spells of druids (as sorcerers) -- but the spells of smiths, that is blacksmiths, don't hold quite the same aura of menace that they must once have held.
In fact, many cultures consider smiths magical. In traditional Senegalese culture, for instance blacksmiths are closely associated with the creative force of the universe, and their daily routine is surrounded by shamanistic ritual:
The traditional smith may enter the smithy only after a ritual purifying bath prepared with a decoction of certain leaves or barks or roots of trees chosen according to the day. Then the smith garbs himself in a special way, since he may not penetrate the forge dressed in just any sort of clothes.
Every morning he purifies the smithy by means of special fumigations based on plants he knows of.
These operations over, cleansed of all outside contacts he has had, the smith is in a sacramental state. He has become pure once again and is equivalent to the primordial smith. Only now can he create in imitation of Maa Ngala, by modifying and fashioning matter.
Before beginning work, he invokes the four mother elements of creation (earth, water, air, fire), which are necessarily represented in the forge: there is always a receptacle filled with water, fire in the furnace, air sent by the bellows, and a little pile of earth beside the forge.
During his work, he pronounces special words as he touches each tool. Taking his anvil, which symbolizes feminine receptivity, he says: "I am not Maa Ngala, I am the representative of Maa Ngala. It is he who creates and not I." Then he takes some water or an egg and presents it to the anvil, saying: "Here is your bride-price."
In medieval Scotland, they were believed to have powers of healing:
It was generally believed that blacksmiths, particularly if descended from several generations of smiths, possessed preventive and therapeutic powers, provided that an exact ritual was followed which varied in different areas. According to the practice of 'laying' in the Highlands, the rickety child was washed with special water before sunrise and then placed with due ceremony on the anvil, when the smith passed his tools three times over the child.
In fact, for all the Celtic peoples, blacksmiths were considered magicians. And that is why St. Patrick placed them in the same class as witches and druids, whose powers were considered very real, but also dark and Satanic because the pagan gods they served were believed to be fallen angels or demons. (See 1 Cor. 10:19-21 -- "the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God," etc.)
This post is from the archives and I haven't been able to retrace my steps in finding the origins of the photo. All I have is History for Kids, which identifies it as a Greek vase from c. 530. Anyone who knows where it comes from originally, please clue me in.