Who Were the Legendary Smiths?:
The figure of the often deformed or maimed blacksmith who forges remarkable weaponry and armour for gods or heroes is a re-occurring archetype in myth across many cultures.
We have Hephaestus in Greek myth who becomes Vulcan in Latin literature and may have travelled with trade routes and language to other cultures or, indeed have been absorbed from other cultures into the Classical pantheon. Both are regularly depicted in art carrying the tools of their trade – the blacksmith’s hammer and tongs.
Comparative parallels exist in the Ugarit craftsman and magician -god Kothar-wa-Khasis, who is identified from afar by his distinctive walk—possibly suggesting that he limped, and the Egyptian God, Ptah, described as a naked and deformed dwarf by Herodotus. He is also a creator figure, patron of metal workers and craftsmen in Egyptian culture.
Hephaestus, blacksmith to the Greek gods, can be traced to the Linear B script of the Minoans which suggests an early origin, perhaps influenced by contact with Egyptian civilisation. He is often depicted with his feet turned round backwards, or hunched over his forge with a bent back and a walking stick. Some myths suggest that he was maimed in falling from Olympus or was rejected by his mother Hera due to his disability in an age where malformed infants were exposed or thrown off cliffs.
Irish mythology also has a famous blacksmith called Goibniu (pronounced Gov-new). He was one of the Tuatha de Denann. Indeed his name formed the old Irish word for ‘smith’. Like the other mythical blacksmiths, he was approached by kings and heroes to make special weapons which would give them an advantage in battle and even made a bionic arm for the warrior Nuada when his arm is cut off in battle.
In Germanic mythology, Weyland the Smith or Wayland/ Volund was a lame bronze worker, responsible for the creation or re-forging of mighty swords, who’s names echo down the centuries to us, almost as clearly as that of Excalibur in English and Breton myth.
Wayland was said to have re-forged the sword of Hector of Troy into Durandal, the blade gifted to Roland by Charlemagne himself in La Chanson de Roland.
In Viking myth, we find the dwarf Reginn taking on the role of master smith, re-forging the shattered Gram which had belonged to Odin for his foster-son Sigurd, who then slays Reginn’s brother, the dragon Fafnir with the blade.
The master smith is a re-occurring and essential character in myth in many cultures but why do so many share the idea of his being deformed or maimed in some way and unable to walk without the aid of a staff or even a chariot?
One explanation might be that men who survived childhood with these types of disabilities had to find a trade that would keep a roof over their heads and turned to a skilled profession that would enable them to use the upper body strength they had acquired from hauling themselves about on useless legs. Smithing might be a good choice, given that they could set up business in one location with clients coming to them and it was also a trade requiring strength without having to walk great distances to practice it.
Rather like the blind poet, who used formidable memory skills to learn and recite epic poetry in return for shelter and food, the smith’s disability has been transmitted down the centuries to us, along with his skill at metal working and possession of hidden knowledge or semi-magical abilities.
‘Another interesting theory is that the traditional ugly appearance and lameness associated with these characters is taken by some to represent arsenicosis, an effect of high levels of arsenic exposure that would result in lameness and skin cancers. In place of less easily available tin, arsenic was added to copper in the Bronze Age to harden it; like the hatters, crazed by their exposure to mercury, who inspired Lewis Carroll‘s famous character of the Mad Hatter, most smiths of the Bronze Age would have suffered from chronic poisoning as a result of their livelihood. Consequently, the mythic image of the lame smith is widespread. As Hephaestus was an iron-age smith, not a bronze-age smith, the connection is one from ancient folk memory.‘
This is a fascinating idea and might explain the link between the smith and some kind of infirmity or deformity. When you consider how over-developed a smith’s arms and back might appear and the effects of dealing with chemical compounds on the body and skin, it could explain why they were so often depicted as hunched or limping.
In the Weyland myth, he takes a terrible revenge on the family of the king who imprisons him in order to exploit his skills:
‘…Wayland and his two brothers met three swan maidens (or possibly Valkyries) by the shore of a lake and fell in love with them. They stayed together for seven years until the swan maidens flew off, and the three brothers went their separate ways to seek their lost loves. Wayland was captured by the evil Swedish king Nmdud who lamed him by cutting his hamstrings and forced him to work at his forge. In revenge, Wayland killed two of the king’s sons and turned their skulls into drinking bowls, sending them to Nmdud as a gift. He also gave gifts of jewellery made from their teeth to their sister, Bodvild. When she came to Wayland with a ring to repair, he raped her, then revealed the nature of his ‘gifts’ to the family. He escaped by creating a magical boat of feathers to fly away in.‘ http://www.robinofsherwood.org/swords.html)
The idea of imprisoning a smith, perhaps to prevent him using his technology and arcane knowledge for the benefit of your enemy, makes logical sense and perhaps became confused with the idea of the smith having some limitation on his mobility, though the former suggests compulsion to create whereas the latter might just be due to physical impairment.
Wayland also had a famous sword called Balmung, and in a contest of skill with Amilias he cleft him down to the thighs with the sword. Balmung was so sharp that Amilias was not aware of the cut until he tried to move, then fell apart into two pieces. The sword was later placed in a tree by Odin, chief of the Norse gods, who stated that whoever could pull it out would own it and be victorious in all battles. All ten of the German princes of the time tried, and the youngest, Siegfried, succeeded. He featured prominently in Norse mythology along with Balmung which his son, Sigurd used to kill Fafnir the dragon.
Is Balmung the same blade as Gram, which means ‘wrath’ in Norse? There seems to be a conflation between Reginn and Wayland or Volund in the myths so perhaps they originated as two separate myths which were wound together through the mixing of Germanic and Norse cultures over many years. We can see a similar process in The Matter of France where Wayland is said to forge Durandal from the ancient blade of Hector of Troy which is then given to a Christian Paladin with the addition of Christian relics to the hilt. The Chanson de Roland was recited by the Normans before the Battle of Hastings, as a Christian morality tale, yet its roots contain references to their pagan, Viking past and mix ancient Classical legend with pagan Viking and Christian myth in the same way as Beowulf provides evidence of cultural fusion and assimilation.
The myth which relates how Odin stuck Balmung or Gram into a tree and princes vied to pull it out must derive from the same myth-stem as the Excalibur legend of the sword in the stone and fed into the fate of Durandal, which is still said to await the hero who can remove it from the cliff face at Rocamadour.
The sword named Balmung in the Nibelungenlied would seem to be the same sword known as Gram in the Volsung Saga but is given yet another name, Nothung in Wagner’s operatic ring cycle. All rather confusing but perhaps easily enough explained when you consider that swords took on a new incarnation with each re-forging – just as the ‘mythic’ shards of Narsil are re-forged to make Anduril in Tolkien’s homage to these ancient legends, The Lord of the Rings. The naming of swords added to their power, even, in one sense giving them animation and personality of their own which still convey a sense of awe and wonder through the mythical stories to our own day.
In a variation on the theme of the deformed, or maimed blacksmith, we also find in the legend of the Nibelungs, goblin or dwarfish creators and guardians of treasure hoards and magical or cursed rings. Like the blacksmiths, they possess skill and knowledge and are cunning and devious but can be tricked or outwitted by the gods and heroes who desire their treasure. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nibelung) As creatures of the earth and caves, dwarves would appear to be associated in Norse myth with precious metals and the creation of beautiful and precious things including swords of power as well as rings. Both these items were the kind of hoard gifts which would be prized in Norse and Anglo-Saxon culture as kingly possessions and imbued with magical qualities. They bind the owner to the service of the gift-giver and lend him status and prestige.
The Late Migration Age ‘Ring-Swords’ found in Scandinavia, Anglo-Saxon England, Saxony, Francia and Lombardy had a symbolic ring attached to the pommel and were thought to belong to kings – combining in one form both an oath-ring and a kingly weapon upon which a follower might swear his fealty to his lord and be bound in service. An early pre-cursor of the knightly ‘dubbing’ ceremonies of medieval tradition. Link:(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Migration_Period_sword)
Mythical Smiths and Magical Processes:
‘In ancient times, the art of the smith was held in great esteem. It was considered a powerful magic indeed to wield and master the element of fire, which was representative of the great Sun-God himself; to take the bones of the earth (said to be the very bones of the mother Goddess Eriu, remember) and transform them through the application of fire, strength, skill, secret knowledge and magic into the much revered and coveted bright shining metallic objects of tools, weapons and jewellery.'(https://aliisaacstoryteller.com/2014/11/24/the-blacksmith-in-irish-mythology)
It is easy to see how the blacksmith would become linked in popular folk tales to magical forces and how the man who produced weapons which proved superior to those used by an enemy would gain a reputation for skill and quasi-magical powers so that his name and reputation might live on in the oral tradition of his clan. The very process of forging a weapon is hugely theatrical and imbued with conjuring up elemental forces.
We are also reminded of the now legendary U+lfberh+t swords of the Vikings. The master smiths who forged these remarkable blades used Asian technology to forge crucible steel swords with higher carbon content, free of slag and impurities which weakened the blade. This made them better than anything else seen in Europe at the time. The quality of the steel was not replicated until the Industrial Revolution. These swords gave their owners a distinct advantage in battle because they were more flexible and therefore less likely to break on contact and their surface displayed a fascinating rippled or damascened effect and the U+lfberh+t brand name which would have been remarked upon for its skill and brightness in comparison with contemporary weapons containing less steel. They were elite swords for an elite warrior class and even the process of their construction allowed for mythical qualities.
The smiths who forged these swords used the carbon from bones to increase the strength of their blades, throwing in animal bones to the heat of the fire whilst forging. The use of a fierce beast such as a bear or wolf might seem to imbue the sword with the strength of that animal – similar to the shamanistic practices of many peoples across the world who sacrifice animals to obtain their powers or wear relics of animals on their bodies to ward off evil spirits.
There is conjecture that human bones might also have been used – if you wanted the strength of your grandfather, why not use relics taken from his body to forge into your sword? Your ancestor would, quite literally, stand with you in battle, in your right hand, forged into your sword and could be transmitted down the line of your kin to protect and strengthen them too. It seems an eminently sensible idea to me!
Whilst researching this blog I found this link to a Taiwanese sword smith who uses human bones today to forge swords and is commissioned by family members to add the remains of their relatives to swords to honour their memory. He relates that in China it was common practice to throw a man into the furnace when forging a sword because human bones helped to eliminate impurities from the metal. Link:(http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/09/090908-taiwan-sword-video-ap.html)
Viking traders may well have met with Chinese and Indian sword smiths far from home on their travels through the Russian steppes and along the ancient Silk Road and brought back this idea to Northern Europe along with the technology required to make superior weaponry from the East. Such knowledge would have been highly prized by their leaders who were always looking for new means of gaining advantage in warfare.
We can see how this practice morphed during the Christian period into the inclusion of saint’s relics into famous swords in order to add strength and moral purity to the man who wielded them.
Joyeuse – the sword of Charlemagne was said to contain the relics of saints. It was believed to protect the owner from death by poison and to change colour thirty times a day. It was forged by the famous smith Galas and took three years to make and shone so brightly in the sun that it blinded Charlemagne’s enemies. A similar claim was made of Excalibur as well. Thomas Malory wrote: “thenne he drewe his swerd Excalibur, but it was so breyght in his enemyes eyen that it gaf light lyke thirty torchys.”
Claíomh Solais, which is an Irish term meaning “Sword of Light”, or “Shining Sword”, appears in a number of orally transmitted Irish folk-tales carrying the same description of blinding brilliance and most likely relate to witnessing the products of superior technology which would have greatly impressed a people seeing them for the first time on the field of battle.
Durandal – the sword given to Roland by Charlemagne. In The Song of Roland, the sword is said to contain within its golden hilt one tooth of Saint Peter, blood of Basil of Caesarea, hair of Denis, and a piece of the raiment of Mary, mother of Jesus, and to be the sharpest sword in all existence. In the poem, Roland uses the sword to hold off a hundred-thousand-strong Saracen army long enough for Charlemagne’s army to retreat into France. When Roland lay dying he lamented that the sword should fall into the hands of his enemies and threw it high into the air, where it became embedded in a cliff face.
Hauteclere – the sword of Olivier contained a crystal in its golden pommel.
These were swords designed to inspire awe and create legends around them. They represented the nobility and honour of their owners, the generosity of the men who gifted them to another and the power of the hero who carried them.
Excalibur – Perhaps the most famous sword in English mythology – some said it was forged by supernatural forces or elves on the mystical isle of Avalon whilst in other traditions it was given to King Arthur by the Lady of the Lake and returned to her after his death. Variant spellings and legends criss-cross through Cornish, Welsh and Breton folk culture but all relate to the Excalibur we think of as Arthur Pendragon’s mighty sword. Ownership of Excalibur conferred legitimacy, as seen in the famous legend of drawing the sword from the stone. We can trace this idea through the coronation swords of various kingdoms and in the example of Joyeuse, which was used for hundreds of years as part of the coronation of French kings, along with the anointing by holy oil. It was part of the ritual process of king making and gave legitimacy and continuity to the notion of kingship.
Edward Gibbon made a similar claim for the ‘Sword of God or Mars’ which was said to belong to Atilla the Hun ‘the vigour with which Attila wielded the sword of Mars convinced the world that it had been reserved alone for his invincible arm.” In this way it became somewhat of a sceptre as well, representing Attila’s right to rulership. Sword as sceptre might be a whole new blog piece on its own! (The History of the Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire vol. 3 Ch. XXXIV Part 1)
Like the Norse swords of myth, Excalibur has many variant spellings in different versions of the myths and there are several locations which claim to be the lake where it remains, awaiting its ‘once and future king’.
The Worth of a Good Sword:
A sword might be the most expensive item that a man owned. The one sword whose value is given in the sagas (given by King Hákon to Höskuldur in chapter 13 of Laxdæla saga) was said to be worth a half mark of gold. In saga-age Iceland, that represented the value of sixteen milk-cows, a very substantial sum.
‘Swords were heirlooms. They were given names and passed from father to son for generations. The loss of a sword was a catastrophe. Laxdæla saga (chapter 30) tells how Geirmundr planned to abandon his wife Þuríðr and their baby daughter in Iceland. Þuríðr boarded Geirmund’s ship at night while he slept. She took his sword, Fótbítr (Leg Biter) and left behind their daughter. Þuríðr rowed away in her boat, but not before the baby’s cries woke Geirmundr. He called across the water to Þuríðr, begging her to return with the sword.
He told her, “Take your daughter and whatever wealth you want.”
She asked, “Do you mind the loss of your sword so much?”
“I’d have to lose a great deal of money before I minded as much the loss of that sword.”
“Then you shall never have it, since you have treated me dishonorably.”
It is somewhat poignant to consider how the role of the pagan smith was reduced in Christian times. There is a local folk legend concerning Wayland’s Smithy, close to the Uffington White Horse that if you left a horse and a coin over night at the ruined site of an ancient long barrow, that Wayland would shoe it for you, as long as you didn’t try to spy on him. Rather a come-down from forging mythical swords for heroes!
The smith in medieval Christian culture took on a more negative connotation, with the making of the nails used to crucify Jesus. In medieval Christian art, the smith who made these instruments of torture was often depicted as a female as no man could be found to undertake the task! Indeed, smithing skill was associated with women during the medieval period; the blacksmith’s wife, often working alongside her husband in the forge with women occasionally appearing as owners of forges and listed in guild records and even undertaking commissions from the king in the case of the famous Meg of the Tower who forged weapons for Henry Vth’s Agincourt campaign in the early C15th.
The Holstein Bible depicts a C14th female blacksmith, who seems to be taking on the role as her husband’s hand is covered in lesions. This suggests that women were practising blacksmiths within medieval society yet they do not appear to be the actual creator’s of mythical swords in any of the legends.
The role of women in mythical stories about swords is an interesting one. They may gift a sword to a king, as in the case of the Lady of the Lake and guard a sword of power in order to give it to a worthy hero at the right moment in the future.
In Norse myth we see mothers guarding shattered swords in keeping for their sons. Even in ancient myth, a mother may organise the forging of weapons in order to protect her son, as in the case of Thetis, who requests that Hephaestus forge invincible armour for her son Achilles before he faces Hector before the walls of Troy.
This would seem to be consistent with the mother’s role in myth as both guardian of her children and also matriarch of the wider clan. Women with a pre-science or foreknowledge of the future and the destiny or ‘wyrd’ of the family beyond the next generation and as guardians of treasure or family heirlooms and adds another aspect to the mystical quality of these swords and who possesses them.
In conclusion, there do appear to be common threads running through mythologies of different cultures relating to the forging of magical weapons by smiths who were greatly prized for their skill and knowledge but somehow impaired physically, either by a hunched of dwarfish appearance or by deliberate maiming which tends to relate to their legs or feet.
These figures are important to the quest of the hero. They facilitate his rise by forging or re-forging weapons which will give him a distinct advantage over his enemies, through the use of secret knowledge and skills and new technologies unavailable more generally in society at the time in which the myth takes place.
Not only are they skilled craftsmen and innovators, they also take on a mystical quality in the telling, as shamanistic figures who use supernatural elements in the creation of their pieces. These add power and legitimacy to the hero and accentuate their special destiny, setting them apart from their fellows but sometimes also cursing them to a particular fate or ‘wyrd’.
The master smiths become figures in the wider legend and are sometimes associated with female guardians of magical weapons and even supernatural beings such as elves and goblins, working together to promote the hero’s quest and assist him to fulful his destiny.
I have included lots of links in this blog to other sites where I have found interesting information relating to this topic and intend this to be an individual and entertaining blog piece rather than a more formal, academic approach to the subject. I hope that you’ve enjoyed it and found the information interesting and would welcome your feedback