Tuesday, October 07, 2008

On Legends

I blathered on at great length on this topic on Saturday night, so I'm going to write this up so even if I bore people with it again at least it will be organised in my head.

1. There's an English folktale of Weyland Smith. Weyland is an elf-smith, and if you leave a horse and a silver coin at his smithy over night, he'll shoe your horse for you.

2. As is often the case in the British Isles, when Christianity arrived, the pre-christian gods were either co-opted as saints or became fairies. Fairies, as is well known, worship the Old Religion[A], so all the bits and pieces of the old religion were turned over to the fairies.

3. The folktale of Weyland Smith is the last remnant of the legends of the Anglo-Saxon smith-god, best known as the Icelandic-Norse version Volund. Volund was captured by his enemy, lamed and forced to make cunning things for his captors. The most cunning thing he made was his revenge, and also a pair of wings to fly away with.

4. So Volund was a Germanic God, worshipped by the ancestors of the Norse and the Anglo-Saxons. It's likely that he came with them out of Sweden when they were one people, before spreading across Germany[B], Norway, Britain and Ireland and most of the way across the Atlantic.

5. Now for Iron Age peoples, smithcraft is a powerful and mysterious thing. The difference between success and failure can be seconds or the slightest change in temperature (differentiated by minute colour changes). It's one of the earliest specialisations of skills. It's also one of the few things you can do with a crippled leg. It also gives you plenty of time to sit and think while the forge heats up, so if you were inclined that way, you might brood over wrongs and plot your revenge.

6. Bronze Age smiths often suffered from arsenic poisoning, which could also lead to lameness and also skin cancers. So the idea of a lame smith is not so unique or striking or unusual that all lame smith legends are bound to have a common source.

7. But if you're into Roman gods, my harping on about lame smith gods will have given you the key to this next paragraph: Vulcan, lame smith god of Rome[C]. As we all know, Vulcan's smithy was at Mount Etna in Sicily, so clearly he's local to southern Italy.

8. As the Greek god fans will have anticipated, Vulcan is identified with the Greek smith god Hephaestus. The centre of worship seems to have been Lemnos in the northern Aegean. He was thrown off Mount Olympos (one of which was climbed by Stan who can testify as to it's position and the likelihood of supernatural beings living there) so he's clearly a Greek.

9. Comparative mythology can be taken too far by enthusiasts. So with that warning, let's remember Daedalus and Icarus, cunning artificers, taken prisoner by King Minos, making wings to escape.

10. So it's possible that proto-Weyland came out of the Ukraine, or maybe Kazakhstan in pre-historic times 3,500 to 4,000 years ago, travelling with proto-Indo-European culture with the Greeks down into the Aegean basin and then up the Mediterranean, and with the Germanic peoples up into Germany and Scandinavia, eventually turning up in southern England 1500 years ago; it was certainly with the Anglo-Saxons back before they lived in Saxony and that angle where Denmark meets the Baltic.

11. Which makes it interesting that Weyland's Smithy is near Swindon; you can go and visit it (as comics writer Warren Ellis did this summer). A myth from out of Scandinavia has roots of actual stone in England.

Afterword: The most interesting thing is that the smithy is actually a Neolithic burial site from 3700 BC. It doesn't just pre-date the arrival of the Saxons and their new-fangled smith-god, it predates bronze-smithing, not just in Britain, but anywhere in the world. Those are big stones. You'd need to make rollers and levers and sleds of wood to move them. They had no metal. Ever tried using a stone axe? I salute them.

Final Note: Don't leave your horse and a silver coin at Weyland's Smithy. Someone will steal them. (No, you can't keep watch; that would be even worse. Do you know nothing about folklore?)

[A] Some tales from the 16th and 17th Century seem a bit peculiar, until you realise that the Old Religion is no longer pagan, but Catholic; the Fairies have had their beliefs retconned.
[B] Or possibly the other way round, from Germany to Sweden; that's not important in this case.
[C] Other Vulcan's you may be familiar with: Mr Spock's home planet and the people who live there; the British Nuclear bomber, the Avro Vulcan; the M61 Vulcan air defence Gatling gun.


Susan de Guardiola said...

I wasn't at all bored reading this!

I hadn't realized that fairies had been subject to a religious retcon; can you point me at some tales that illustrate this?

Neil Willcox said...

The bored people had to listen to the rambling version in the pub on Saturday. I've been trying to remember which book the catholic fairies were in but I think it was maybe 10 years ago. The author had collected Irish and English folktales and compared some of the similar stories, and in some parts of England fairies had stopped saying "Golden Apples of the West" and said "Holy Virgin" or something like that. If I remember I'll let you know.

Susan de Guardiola said...

Please do. It rings very faint bells with me, but I've no idea what from.