James has written for various magazines, including Celtic Guide, Mythology Magazine, and Pagan Forest.
The clang of iron on iron, the heat of burning coal, and the tang of magic in the air. Not all enchantments come from wizards and witches. Some come from a more tangible and down to earth source. Call it blue collar magic if you will, but the abilities of blacksmiths and craftsmen can rival that of all but the most powerful of sorcerers.
Throughout the many incursions into Ireland, the Tuatha de Danann are the most loved and cherished of the ancient Irish deities. With their wisdom and their fighting prowess, they were a formidable race and had many craftsmen and smiths among them.
My personal favorites are the trio of gods whose sphere were arts and crafting. It was these three who forged the weapons the Tuatha De used against the Fomorians, another race of power beings who inhabited the Emerald Isle. Luchtaine was the wright, and it was he who crafted the unbreakable spear staffs and made the wooden shield bases. Creidhne mastered working with bronze and brass, including the fittings the kept the weapons together.
The third is Goibhniu, whose name derived from Old Irish “gobae,” which means “smith.” He was the metal smith of the Tuatha De, creating swords that would never fail to strike its target. What makes him the most interesting to me is his role as a brewer and giver of feasts. His beer of immortality and his ownership of the magical cow of abundance, the Glas Gaibhnenn, protected the other gods from sickness and old age. Although said to have passed away from a plague (odd, given his role), it is also said that he became Gobban Saer, a legendary builder of churches across the island.
In Norse tales, Regin is a smith who is adept at working with iron and the softer metals of silver and gold, being both a blacksmith and a craftsman. In a story of betrayal and death, the god Loki kills Regin’s brother Otr, whose father demands Loki pay him back in gold. The gold is cursed and causes Regin’s other brother, Fafnir, to kill his father. It is this greed that turns Fafnir into a dragon. Although Regin gets none of the gold, he becomes smith to the king and foster father to the hero Siguard, who will in turn destroy the dragon Fafnir. Some tales talk of Regin being a man, while the Poetic Edda says he and his family are dwarfs, and he was versed in magic, as well as smithing.
Wayland the Smith
Now, for the last stop, take a trip with me as we visit the best known of them all, still recognized to this day not only through folklore, but through place names that still exist in the green country shires of England and more. Across Europe, from Germany to Scandinavia, into France, and across the waters to Iceland, there are tales aplenty. He has also gone by Weland, Galand, Volund, and a host of other names. Welcome, to the hammer and tongs of Wayland the Smith.
He is mentioned in many sources. There is the Volundarkvida, a poem out of Iceland’s Poetic Edda, as well as Iceland’s prose Thidriks saga, both from the 13th century. It is here where he is described as a prince of the elves, “one of the alfar.” German poetry about Theoderic the Great give Wayland as being the father of Witige, one of that country’s famous heroes. The Anglo-Saxon poems Waldere and Deor include Wayland, discussing the smith’s lamentations during captivity, as does the epic story Beowulf. He is even mentioned by the great king Alfred the Great. In the king’s translation of Boethius, Alfred asks “what now are the bones of Wayland, the goldsmith preeminently wise?” which indicates just how respected this craftsman was. One of the additional tidbits that I found interesting is that that Wayland’s father is sometimes said to be a giant, which is odd, given that he’s also elvish. Knowing the randiness of some folkloric races, one doesn’t necessarily preclude the other. The hippies of the ‘60s had nothing on free love over these peoples.
Notably, Wayland had two brothers, Egil and Slagfior. One day while walking, the trio happened upon three swan maidens, sunning themselves without their swan coats. The brothers stole the coats, keeping the women in their human forms. The maidens had no choice but to marry the brothers, although they eventually found their swan coats and, donning the magical garments, left the brothers. Perhaps coercive nuptials aren’t the best way to create a happy home. Wayland’s swan-wife, Hervor, bore him a son, Heime, before leaving.
He and his brothers were also said to have been married to three Valkyries: Olrun, Hervor alvitr, and Hlaoguor svanhvit. These choosers of the slain, too, left the brothers after nine years of marriage, although the other two brothers chose to follow the Valkyries, leaving Wayland to himself.
Whether only one of the marriages happened or both occurred, Wayland’s wife/wives left him with a golden ring. With it, he honed his craftsmanship, making hundreds of copies of the flawless golden ring that had been given to him by his supernatural spouse.
Along with this hard work, Wayland also learned his skills through apprenticeships. He was taught by the giant Mimir, although this must have been before Odin used the giant’s head as a counselor, and was then later sent to study under two dwarves who lived under Kallava Mountain. Through all of this, his skills increased to such a degree that he was known throughout many lands and was even in demand by royalty. One such royal, who did not want him working for anyone else, was King Nidud of Sweden.
King Nidud induced Wayland to work for him, promising a daughter’s hand in marriage and a part of his kingdom. When Wayland arrived, though, the king had him hobbled by cutting his hamstrings, so that he could not escape his island smithy. As revenge, when the king’s sons came for have Wayland create weapons, the smith killed them and crafted drinking bowls from their skulls, presenting them as gifts to the king. Yelling “Wassail!” while drinking from those mazers certainly sounds like cross odds! Wayland also crafted gems from the boys’ eyes, which were given to the queen, and a brooch from their teeth, for the king’s daughter Bodvildr. The daughter was treated much kinder when she asked that a golden ring be mended. She retained her life, although not her innocence. Wayland gave her drugged beer, served in her brother’s skull before it was given to the king, and then raped and impregnated her. Knowing he must escape before the deeds were discovered, Wayland crafted a pair of magical wings, so he could fly away, regardless of his injured legs. Before flying completely away, he ensured his captor knew of his revenge. Flying over the king, Wayland taunted the monarch, letting him know of the death of his sons and the abuse of his daughter. The offspring of this deed was a son, Wideke, a famous warrior in his own right.
Besides the magical wings of flight, Wayland crafted many other wondrous items. There was the sword Gramr, which means wrath. This was the powerful weapon the mighty Siguard used to kill the dragon Fafnir, as is told in the Volsunga Saga. Some say the sword was not only embedded with gems, but was emblazoned with a dragon, as if Wayland knew of its future. He also smithed the sword Beowulf wielded, as well as the mailed shirt the hero wore, being thusly told in the epic story: “No need then to lament for long or lay out my body. If the battle takes me, send back this breast-webbing that Wayland fashioned… Fate goes ever as fate must,” words which accurately fit the viewpoint of the Saxon warrior: fate is inexorable.
There are several locations which are significant to Wayland. Large stones near Sisebeck in Sweden are said to mark his burial site, but there is also a site near Vellerby in Jutland that lays the same claim. Perhaps most notably, there is a stone burial chamber near Berkshire in England, close to White Horse Hill, called Wayland’s Smithy. Legend has it that the spirit of a smith haunts the structure, who will shoe your horse. Just set your payment down and walk way until the work is done, but if you try to peak at the work being done, your animal will remain unshod. Although some say it is just a ghostly smith, other tales insist that it is the spirit of Wayland himself, still making himself useful for the English. Another location connected with Wayland is Lancashire, from which he escaped a Viking jarl by clinging to a flying bird. Maybe the winds of England weren’t as conducive to magic wings flight, as is the case in Sweden, and that’s why he didn’t use them again.
The cause of Wayland’s death is not recorded. Perhaps he is the spirit in Wayland’s Smithy or perhaps he lies in repose beneath a Scandinavian cairn. Some say he was never a man, but a god of craftsmen and smiths, and so he has just gone back to the Otherworld to stay with his alfar relatives. In any case, his is a tale of awe and craft, overcoming obstacles in order to make priceless works.
I hope you've enjoyed the tour, even if it focused on the most famous of all blacksmiths and craftsmen. Slainte and wassail!
“Gods and Fighting Men” (Lady Gregory Augusta – 1902)
“The Poetic Edda” (Henry Adams Bellows translation – 1936)
“The Prose Edda” (Snorri Sturluson; Jess Byock translation – 2006)
“Celtic Myths and Legends” (Peter Berresford Ellis – 1999)
“Beowulf” (Seamus Heaney translation – 1999)
“Myths and Legends of All Nations” (Logan Marshall 1914)
“Beowulf” (JRR Tolkien translation, finished by son Christopher Tolkien 2015)
Wayland the Smith on Encyclopaedia Britannica (www.britannica.com)
© 2018 James Slaven
James Slaven (author) from Indiana, USA on March 21, 2018:
S Maree on March 20, 2018:
There was a great program on PBS last year about the Viking broadsword! Seems an international team got it really close & replicated one! If you go to the PBS website & type "Secrets of the Viking Sword", you'll be directed to the episode. Was put on by NOVA.
Have a great day!
James Slaven (author) from Indiana, USA on March 19, 2018:
Thank you! I'm glad you liked it. Your comment was lyrical! Also quite informative. I've tried keeping up with the Viking sword research, but haven't succeeded very well (and I don't think there's even much to read).
S Maree on March 16, 2018:
Drinkhail! Man! Those old boys lived large & on the edge! Sure don't see the appeal those old legends had on their audiences. But I guess since I also don't get the appeal of today's dark dramas & comedies, I'm the odd one!
Was fascinated, as a lot of my family are Smiths. Name only, not the craft. But smithies were powerful people! Metalworking was so guarded that only today are we learning how the magnificent Viking broadswords were made! The secret was lost for centuries! If a family of smiths knew a few special methods, but were all wiped out in some disaster, bye,bye secrets!
And fine metalworking! Their jewelry & decorations of fine metals must have awed the ordinary Joes & Janes of the day! Still do!
No wonder so many dark age & medieval smiths were considered powerful, even wizards! Saracen swords were prized for their incredible sharpness, shape, & flexibility. It was assumed that all Eastern metalworkers were magical.
In a culture that revered iron & that rare & incredible offspring, steel, smiths were key people! It could mean starvation if you ticked off the local smith. He could refuse to repair your agricultural or defensive metalworks! Finding another close by could be hard, and waylayers were rife!
Fascinating! Nice work!