Master of Flame and Iron
by Linda Leary
In his younger days, my father was a blacksmith, and because of this I became curious about the legends and superstitions that surround the craft.
Since ancient times, the blacksmith was a god-like figure, always treated with respect and awe. He was surrounded by mystique, often dwelling in caves or at the edge of a village. He handled iron, a commodity that had been taken from the depths of the earth and because of this and his ability to use fire to change the ore into weapons and farming implements. This served to establish his link to the underworld.
The smithy was seen to be a place of power, thought to be sacred by the populace and his tools imbued with a living force of their own. The process of extracting iron from the ground and making it into weapons and tools is thought to date back as far as 4000 B.C. Iron was prized for its strength and durability and because of its association with caves and mines, seen as portals to the Netherworld, it was believed to have magical properties.
From the earliest times we have ascribed our heroes with titles which portrayed their strength and invulnerability. Temujin, (later to become Ghengis Khan), means ‘Man of Iron’. Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, was known as ‘The Iron Duke’ and more recently Margaret Thatcher was ‘The Iron Lady’.
Not only was the smith respected for his trade but was also seen as a wise man, who had many other functions such as barber and dentist. In places where there was no church or place of worship, religious and community meetings were held at the smithy. The blacksmith was regarded as a leader of the community who could hold court or solemnize marriages over the anvil, a ‘handfasting’ ceremony which was still in practice until 1940. Even today it is thought lucky to touch the blacksmith’s anvil at Gretna Green.
Brigid, a Celtic goddess, was protector of blacksmiths and was later known by the Catholic church as St. Bride. In Europe, part of the wedding ceremony included shoeing a horse, perhaps giving rise to the title of ‘bride’ and ‘groom’ and the custom of giving a silver horseshoe to the couple to signify good fortune. Many people nail a horseshoe to their lintel, the horns of the shoe facing upwards to hold in the luck.
The blacksmith was often portrayed as a large man of abnormal strength allowing him to wield the tools of his trade. He would often have an apprentice to work the bellows and to learn the secrets of the trade. In most of the myths of Scandinavia, the smith is seen as a lame figure.
In Berkshire, near The Ridgeway, is the site of Wayland’s Smithy in Ashbury. Weyland (or Weland) is probable the best known legendary smith in the Western world. Mentioned in the epic Beowulf and also in the Life of Merlin by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Weyland is thought to be the same character as Volundr, also a blacksmith in Nordic mythology.
The story goes that King Niduth visited Weyland at his smithy and was astounded by the craftsmanship of the weapons and jewels that Wayland had made, and stole an intricate gold ring to give to his daughter. He instructed his soldiers to wait until nightfall and capture Wayland and his brother Egil. They were taken to Niduth’s stronghold on an island where Niduth took Wayland’s sword, Mimung, and cut through the hamstring of his right leg so that he could not escape to make weapons or jewelry for anyone else.
Wayland avenged himself by killing the king’s two sons and making their skulls into gold drinking bowls, jewels from their eyes and beads from their teeth. When the king’s daughter came to have her gold ring repaired he saw that it was the one which her father had taken and he raped her. He made his escape using magical wings which Egil had made for him. In another version, Wayland wades to the mainland through waters 27 feet deep using a staff and carrying his son on his shoulder. This bears striking similarity to the depiction of St. Christopher carrying Jesus to safety through the water, aided by his staff.
In Greek mythology, in a similar vein, Hephaestus, the blacksmith of the gods, having offended Zeus was cast out of Olympus and fell to earth, breaking his legs in the fall and becoming lame.
If your horse casts a shoe near Wayland’s smithy, you can leave it tethered, putting a silver coin on a flat rock by the entrance. You must then leave and return later when the hose will have been shod and your coin disappeared, but it will only work if you leave. If you wait to watch nothing will happen.
Some of the better known magical swords made by Wayland are: Excalibur, which he made for Merlin, the sword in the stone; Gramm, which was used by Sigmund to slay Fafnir, the dragon and Curtana wielded by Ogier The Dane.
In modern times only farriers shoe horses, and the smithy has been replaced by mobile, gas powered forges. The farrier can travel round to stables carrying his tools in a van and using light weight alloy horseshoes. Nowadays a blacksmith works mostly with wrought iron making household items, fences, garden furniture and staircases. Some of the folklore still remains. It is thought to be lucky to dip your hands in the ‘bosh’ the container of water in which the smith tempers his blades. It is also said to cure warts.
Ill fortune is thought to fall on any one who steals from a smithy. There is said to be a blessing on a blacksmith as there is a story which tells of the Virgin Mary who, on her way to Bethlehem, needed something to fasten her cloak. Joseph asked a shepherd for a thorn to use as a pin but he was too busy to listen. He asked the blacksmith, who made her a brooch from a coin.
The magic and respect for the blacksmith may have dimmed with the passage of time but the depiction of the burly figure, silhouetted by the flames of the forge, and the sound of hammer ringing on the anvil, still form an iconic visualization of the past.