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Myth / Wayland the Smith

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Wayland (far left) on "Franks Casket" (Northumbria, 8th century)

Wayland (or Weyland), often referred to with the epithet "the Smith", is the modern English name of a mythical master smith of Germanic Mythology. In texts from different times and places, his name may be found spelled Wieland (Modern German), Wēland (Old English), Völundr (Old Norse), Wiolant (Old High German), and others.

Besides being an unsurpassed master smith, Wayland is also the protagonist of a gruesome vengeance tale that survives in two text sources, but can be traced in literary allusions and depictions in Early Medieval Art from places as far apart as England and Gotland and as far back as the 8th century. The core of the legend is how Wayland's smithing skill aroused the covetousness of a tyrannical king, who had Wayland taken captive and hamstrung so he would not run away. For years, the unjust king forced Wayland to forge weapons, armor and jewelry for him until Wayland gained the trust of the king's children and cruelly used it to implement his vengeance: He murdered the two boy sons of the king, then crafted the skulls of the boys into drinking cups for the king, their eyes into brooches for the queen, and their teeth into a collar for the princess. Then he raped and impregnated the princess. Finally, he devised a means to escape by flight, but not before, cruelly gloating, revealing his acts to the defeated king.

In other respects, the sources diverge. To wit, the two relevant works are the following:

  • "Lay of Volundr" (Völundarkviða), a lay from the Icelandic Poetic Edda. Young Wayland ('Völundr') marries a shapeshifting valkyrie, but after nine years she turns into a bird and flies away. In anticipation of her return, Wayland forges rings for her; in this task he is discovered and taken prisoner by King Nidud's ('Níðuðr') men, and the revenge plot follows as told above. It's not clear from the text how Wayland flies away; it might be a magical bird-transformation.
  • A segment in Thidrek's Saga, a compendium of German heroic legend, tells a longer and more meandering, not to say convoluted story. Wayland ('Velent') is first taught by the master smith Mimir, then by two dwarfs who plan to kill him when he has learned too much of their craft. But Wayland kills them first and, after some wandering, takes employment at King Nidung's ('Niðung') court. Eventually people at court are alerted to his smithing skills, which leads to a feud with the king's smith Amilias that only ends when Wayland's sword cuts like butter through Amilias' armour (with Amilias in it). Thus Wayland becomes the royal smith, but the miserly king keeps double-crossing him until things get personal. Wayland seeks revenge by poisoning the king, but gets caught and then is hamstrung as a punishment. The rest is similar to "Völundarkviða", with the addenda that Wayland is assisted in his flight by the master-archer Egil, unbeknownst to Nidung a brother of Wayland, and the rape of the princess is downplayed to a seduction. The flight through the air is accomplished with a pair of artificial wings, Daedalus-style.

Despite Wayland being interpreted as a human hero in both texts, there are numerous hints that Wayland is more than a mere mortal: "Völundarkviða" calls him "ruler of elves", while his father in Thidrek's Saga is a giant. Altogether, it seems that before Christianity, Wayland was functionally a demigod and the closest thing Germanic mythology had to a god of smithcraft. This may also explain the fantastic cruelty of Wayland's revenge, which, by its excessiveness, is likely to kill all audience sympathy for Wayland: In its original context, the tale was probably not a heroic legend, but a myth about an overbearing mortal who thought he could enslave a divine being, and eventually faced the dreadful punishment for hybris. Other fragments tell that the son he got with Bodvild, the daughter of king Nidhud, became a hero and warrior in his own right. He was known as Vidigoia or Viderik.

In Germanic legend, exceptionally good weapons or fine jewelry are often introduced as being made by Wayland. Examples include Beowulf's mailshirt in Beowulf and Mimung, the sword of Vidia in the German Dietrich von Bern cycle.

The memory of Völundr, and of his son Vidigoia spilled over to the Medieval Ballads, where one spesific song tells the story of Viderik Verlandsson and his grand deeds.


Core legend

  • The Blacksmith: Wayland is a master smith.
  • Body to Jewel: Wayland makes the eyes of the boys into brooches.
  • Child by Rape: At least as bad as the rape itself, the princess is impregnated by Wayland—so the king must live to see his daughter bear a child from his own worst enemy.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Even though the king treated Wayland unjustly and cruelly, his killing/raping of the king's innocent children just makes Wayland's revenge feel excessive.
  • A Fate Worse Than Death: Wayland's actions aim at extinguishing the king's family line. That he does not harm the king directly is probably only to make him suffer more.
  • Great Escape: Wayland's prison is an island from which, being hamstrung, he cannot swim away. He eventually outsmarts the king by finding a means of flying.
  • Greed: The main flaw of the king.
  • Made a Slave: The term is not used, but Wayland's captivity is factually enslavement.
  • Pride: The other flaw of the king.
  • Revenge: The main motif.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Wayland kills the two boys when they come to explore the smithy.

Thidrek's Saga

  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: Mimung, the sword Wayland forges for the competition with Amilias, slices Amilias in half from the head down together with his armor in one stroke.
  • The Bully: When both Wayland and Siegfried are apprentices of Mimir, Siegfried habitually beats the other apprentices. On learning that, Wayland's father Vadi takes his son away from Mimir and sends him to the dwarfs.
  • Diagonal Cut: Amilias is cleft in two and doesn't realize it until he is asked to shake, whereupon he falls apart.
  • Easily Forgiven: Nidung dies soon after Wayland's escape, and his surviving son Otvin makes peace with Wayland and even lets him marry the princess. Nevermind that Wayland murdered their child-aged brothers...
  • Faking the Dead: Anticipating that Nidung will order his archers to shoot the flying Wayland, Wayland fixes a bladder filled with blood under his arm. When Wayland has taunted Nidung and flies away, Egil purposefully shoots the bladder; when he sees the blood spilling out, Nidung wrongly believes Wayland has been lethally wounded, and Egil goes free from suspicion.
  • Half the Man He Used to Be: Wayland cleaves Amilias in two in one fell stroke.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Wayland's brother Egil is a master archer.
  • Standard Hero Reward: Subverted. When Nidung is on campaign and realizes he has forgotten his personal talisman, a "victory stone", at home, he offers his daughter and half of the kingdom to the one who can ride back and bring it to him before the battle. Wayland succeeds in the task, but the king finds a reason to refuse him the promised reward.
  • Ultimate Blacksmith: For his escape, Wayland secretly builds a (fully functional) pair of artificial wings from real bird feathers.
  • William Telling: To test Egil's archery skill, Nidung forces him to shoot an apple off the head of his own son. Egil succeeds in the first try.