Discovering Wayland’s Smithy

Wayland’s Smithy, a 5,600 year old barrow burial mound…and more.

Deep in a dense, circular grove of trees, fall-softened rays of sun barely penetrate a thickened canopy. Behind a closed gate, at the end of a narrow, leaf-strewn path, somewhere below the Uffington White Horse and east of the towers of Oxford’s college churches, time stops on a misted English morning at a place known as Wayland’s Smithy. 

Large standing stones guard the chamber entrance to this long barrow burial mound built around 5500 years ago, during the Early Neolithic period. The tomb, constructed of stone and timbers and 185 feet long by 43 feet wide, held the remains of 14 men, women, and a child. The site would have witnessed Britain’s greatest revolution, its paradigm shift from hunting and gathering subsistence to the earliest forms of agriculture.

When the Saxons arrived some 4,000 years later, they discovered the place and imagined that one of their gods, Wayland, the god of smiths, must have built it. Wayland or Weyland appears in Scandinavian, German, and Anglo-Saxon legends as an incredibly gifted smith. The name Wayland exists in the Icelandic Eddas and in the 6th century story of Beowulf.

Also called the “Ruler of Elves,” Wayland was known as a god of smithcraft because of the beautiful work he created on his forge. It is told that he fashioned Beowulf’s sword and chain mail, as well as the weaponry of many northern European heroes, dragon slayers, and gods, with the result that many coveted his work.

However, Wayland also was known for the suffering that he endured as a slave at the hands of the Swedish King who coveted his work, kidnapped him, and cut his hamstrings to keep him from escaping from enforced work in the king’s smithy.

But, Wayland was also known for the fact he paid his debts. He eventually paid back the king by slaughtering the king’s two sons and sending their skulls set with jewels and fashioned as drinking cups back to the man. Then Wayland flew away with magic wings collected from bird’s feathers, swooping low over the king to mock him.

Wayland found refuge at what became known as Wayland’s Smithy in southern England. According to legend, if a traveler’s horse loses a shoe, the horse can be left at Wayland Smithy along with a silver coin. The traveler must leave, but when that person returns the next morning, the horse would be reshod and the money gone.  If the traveler didn’t leave and hid to watch the work, the horse would still be standing unshod and the silver coin untouched.

As a patron of fine handcraft in mythology, Wayland was a skilled traditional metal artist, dedicated to the creation of fine handcraft.  He is usually shown with a hammer and tongs, with fire and forge.  In his life and in his art, he did nothing by half measures, throwing himself into the experience of living, whether it was in the creation of beauty or enduring the pain.

In the vein of how traditional artists teach their art, Wayland had an apprentice called Flibbertigibbet, a sprite who was easily distracted.  Much to his master’s frustration, Flibbertigibbet found following instructions difficult. He so exasperated Wayland that the smith threw his apprentice down a hill and into a valley where he became a stone, rooted in the ground.

But, again, Wayland was deceived.

Although in today’s world, we would probably diagnose Flibbertigibbet with an attention disorder, I think that the sprite represents an important side of creativity alive and well in the traditional arts – the nonlinear, the improbable, the flight of fancy, and the impromptu that is part of innovation. 

Wayland requires a forge to create functional pieces, but he also needs the wings he used to escape slavery in order to create and give voice to the beauty of form that still speaks in our fine traditional art today.

First published 11/23/10.

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