“The key to happiness…”
A key can both unlock and lock, at the same time giving access to that which was previously hidden and setting boundaries or limits. Symbolically, a key is the means to a new realm of knowledge, spirituality or destiny; when we say something is the “key to happiness (success, etc.)”, we call upon its symbolic power to open the door to whatever it is we aspire. The key is a male symbol; a lock represents the feminine. Together, the lock and key possess a yin yang duality, i.e. one thing complementing the other, or the inability to function one without the other.
This collection includes antique and modern skeleton keys – some functional, some decorative. Can you spot the jailer’s key from the 1880s?
The skeleton key, which can be any shape, plain or decorative, both antique and modern, is designed to open any door, thereby symbolizing versatility. In magick, the skeleton key (’cause, you know – we can’t just use a plain one) represents gaining passage to unknown worlds or planes, secrets and arcane knowledge.
The Roman god Janus, with his two faces looking to the past and future, was the protector of gateways, doors and roads, and beginnings and endings (especially of conflict). His symbols are the staff and key. In the Roman Forum, an enclosure dedicated to Janus was opened during times of war and locked when there was peace. Christianity’s St. Peter, guardian of the Pearly Gates, is often shown with two keys: a gold one which gives the worthy access to heaven, and a silver one which locks out damned souls. The Hindu elephant god Ganesh is the remover of obstacles and is associated with keys. In Voodoo, Papa Legba – an elderly man bearing a cane and keys (and a dog) – is the gatekeeper between the physical and spiritual worlds. Hecate, queen of the witches, is another key-carrying gatekeeper. In Tarot, the Hierophant has a set of crossed keys at his feet – one gold (the Sun), one silver (the Moon). Their meaning has many interpretations: the keys to the kingdom, heaven or the temple of wisdom; the conscious and subconscious, etc.
“I’ve got the key to my castle in the air, but whether I can unlock the door remains to be seen.” – Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
Keys to the Castle
In antiquity, the person responsible for guarding a house’s keys was almost always female; this may stem from the Greek and Roman deities Hestia and Vesta, hearth goddesses of domesticity who kept the keys to household supplies. Upon marriage, Viking women became responsible for the family’s treasures and wore their keys conspicuously as a symbol of equality, respect and power. From the Middle Ages onward, the lady of the house or a head housekeeper (think: Downton Abbey’s Mrs. Hughes) wore the keys on a chatelaine, a set of chains with a decorative clasp worn at the waist; she had the authority to direct servants and servicemen and decide who had access to what. Tea was once so expensive that only the woman of the house owned a key to the tea chest.
Bestowing the “key to the door” (presumably, the front door of the home) on a person’s 21st birthday is a traditional coming-of-age gift representing the attainment of adulthood and responsibility. Giving someone the keys to the city is a symbolic sign of trust and honour rewarding public service or a great deed.
Having the “keys to the kingdom” means you have everything you’ve ever wanted, with the world at your feet and all roads open to you.
“Love is the master key that opens the gates of happiness.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes
A movement which started in Rome in 2006 as a result of a book and film has couples attaching padlocks to bridge railings and other public places, and then throwing away the key as a symbol of their unbreakable affection. Paris’ Pont des Arts bridge is perhaps the most famous example of this charming yet destructive act of sentiment (let’s call it vandalism by devotion). Sadly, the added weight of hundreds or thousands of locks – over 700,000, in Paris – can cause the structure to which they’re attached to crumble and become a hazard and eyesore, so the locks eventually must be removed. However, some municipalities such as Niagara Falls, Ontario, embrace the locks as a tourist attraction, to the point of selling padlocks right next door!
Love locks on the Humber Bay Arch Bridge in Toronto, ON • Photo © Nancy Barrett Photography
Toronto has seen its share of love locks, too (see photo, taken by my sister). In the historic Distillery District, there’s a Love Lock public art installation which encourages visitors to add their own locks, customized with initials, dates or special message, to a large metal LOVE sign complete with giant heart. The padlocks are removed from time to time (and put in storage intact, according to the City) to make room for new ones, but ‘locking up your love’ is, after all, just a symbolic act.
“You unlock the door with the key of imagination.” – Rod Serling
The practice of divination using keys to uncover information, predict the future or tell fortunes is called Cleidomancy (Greek for ‘key prophecy’). It originated in Europe as a means of discovering the identity of a thief, and later spread to the New World. The basic method involves suspending a key like a pendulum and interpreting its movement in response to a simple question.
Bibliomantic Cleidomancy, still used today, involves inserting a skeleton key into a bible or other large book, with the loop protruding from the top of the pages. The book is wrapped tightly with a ribbon or string, and two people grasp the protruding key and suspend the book between them. The name of a possible guilty party or a yes/no question is uttered; if the key moves, turns or pulls out of the book, that person is deemed to be guilty, or the answer to the question is “yes”.
Old iron keys, especially rusty ones, are good luck. Any key that rusts easily (and stays that way despite cleaning) is a sign you will receive an inheritance • Giving someone a key is a sign that family or domestic relations will improve • Receiving a key indicates you will receive assistance from someone with means or influence • Finding a key represents enlightenment or gaining understanding. It can also predict an upcoming move of domicile • Dreaming of finding a key symbolizes a positive solution to a current problem • Dreaming about keys can mean a marriage is coming • Dreaming that you are responsible for a set of keys indicates a new position of authority.
Shut the Door!
Finding a key can sometimes mean a robbery; it could be a reminder to increase security measures • Dropping your keys is a bad luck omen • Worst still, breaking a key means an opportunity will be lost • Losing keys, the worst omen of all, indicates something unpleasant is about to happen, including being disappointed by a friend. In extreme cases, it can be a harbinger of disaster or death.
Harnessing Key Power
Hang a key on the interior wall above your doorway to protect the household, specifically to guard against losing the home • Wear a key as an amulet to remove obstacles, open doors to opportunity and protect you whilst travelling • Wear three keys together to unlock the doors to health, wealth and love • Place a large key under a sleeping child’s pillow to ward off evil spirits and nightmares (old European tradition) • Touch a key for comfort and to keep you safe, especially when entering a dangerous situation • Jangle your keys to repel negativity or evil. But don’t do it on a Wednesday; it will drive you mad! • When lost, throw your keys over your left shoulder; the longest key will point in the right direction • Wear a key necklace when searching for a new job; it will unlock new opportunities • Give a symbolic or decorative key as a housewarming or house blessing gift.Whatever you do, don’t leave an extra house key outside (e.g. under a rock, above the door)! It’s the first place thieves will look. And don’t ever trust those magnetic boxes for storing car keys under the vehicle – they can fall or be knocked off easily.
“A very little key will open a very heavy door.” – Charles Dickens