The Old Gods of England

Waylands Smithy

James Lloyd visits a long barrow in Oxfordshire and tells the tale of the ancient Anglo-Saxon god of manufacturing, just one of the many examples of how myths, legends and folktales can become attached to places in the British landscape.

For this week’s folkloric traipse, The Rural Voice’s legendary correspondent has, for the first time, left the safety of his native country for a strange and wild land, a foreign realm of mystery and peril, where they do things differently.

Oxfordshire.

Near Compton Beauchamp is a long barrow, believed to have been constructed over three thousand years ago, known as Wayland’s Smithy. Even the name is ancient, since it is recorded as far back as 955, when it was used as a reference point in a land deed. Legend has it that the barrow is inhabited by a spectral smith and that anyone who leaves a horse and payment at the barrow overnight will find the horse shod and the payment taken in the morning. When archaeologists investigated the barrow in the 1920s, they found several iron bars, a primitive form of currency, suggesting that at least one poor sucker actually did make an offering to the smith of the barrow, or possibly that there really was such a smith here once, using the barrow as his workshop.

That his name really was Wayland, however, is unlikely. That name belongs to a figure of Germanic mythology, whose story is found in mutually distinct Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse and Medieval German legends. Alfred the Great knew the story, as did the author of Beowulf. The best witness of all is a whalebone chest, displayed in the British Museum under the misleading name of the Franks Casket (after its donor, Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks). It depicts, alongside other unrelated historical or biblical scenes, episodes from the legend of Wayland the Smith.

We cannot be certain precisely what the story known to King Alfred was. The German version differs markedly from the Scandinavian and the English version survives only as allusions and illustrations, never in a complete form. These are enough, however, to piece together a reasonable idea of the biography of the man who gave his name to the long barrow in Oxfordshire.

Wayland was a great smith, trained by dwarves and preternaturally gifted. Such was his talent that Nithhad, an unscrupulous Swedish king, kidnapped him and forced him into his service. Making assurance doubly sure, he had him hamstrung and put him to work in a forge on an island in the middle of a lake. Nithhad’s sons, intrigued by the smith’s art, visited him in his forge one day to see him at work. He decapitated them, buried their bodies and turned their skulls into goblets, which he presented as gifts to the oblivious king and queen.

The king’s daughter, Beadohild, visited Wayland to have him fix a ring of hers. He drugged her and (to use an Old English expression) swived her. Things started to look up for Wayland when his brother Ægil visited, who shot down a bird for him. Wayland revealed to King Nithhad the true origin of the goblets from which the king had so gratefully quaffed and crowned his revenge with the announcement that Beadohild was now pregnant with Wayland’s own child. Having so said, Wayland jumped on the bird’s back and flew away.

Beadohild eventually gave birth to a boy, Widia, who would go on to become the hero of his own legends. Of Wayland himself nothing further is known but his name has continued to be used right down to the modern day. Aficionados of Nordic noir know it better as the name of a dour Swedish detective. Perhaps his most bizarre modern reincarnation is as a sexually ambiguous cartoon character. Say “Wayland Smith” enough times and you will eventually corrupt it into the name of Mister Burns’s assistant in The Simpsons (this is probably just a coincidence).

The legend of Wayland the Smith is part of an ancient tradition of smithing gods. The Greek Hephaestus and the Roman Vulcan were, like Wayland, lame and it is likely that the mortal figure known to the medieval Germans, Scandinavians and English was an echo of an immortal god, the Germanic god of metallurgy, whom oral tradition (and, possibly, the conversion to Christianity) demoted to human status.

In what form he was known to the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who settled what is now Oxfordshire in the fifth century it is impossible to infer but he was important enough and his story popular enough to be worth attaching to the long barrow near Compton Beauchamp. The long barrow is far older than the English invasion of Britain and probably older even than the legend. It is possible that it was associated with a smith (mortal or supernatural) in Roman or Brittonic times and that the English, having inherited the tradition, merely copied and pasted their own equivalent character on top. Perhaps, just as the people of Cranbrook located Mister Fox’s crimes to their very own Sissinghurst Castle, the people of Oxfordshire (or, rather, Berkshire – Wayland’s Smithy was part of that county until 1974) actually persuaded themselves that the long barrow really was Wayland’s workshop.

The British countryside is full of long barrows, tumuli, earth banks, ring forts, henges and other such sites of archaeological fascination. Most have folktales attached to them. Some of these tales are born of dodgy historical research or represent an attempt by the locals to explain the object’s origin. Other may be vague recollections of the genuine history of the site. Some, such as Wayland’s Smithy, have borrowed an already-established legend and incorporated into the lore of the area. Some may be a lot less ancient than they look, while others are genuinely, humblingly antique.

If, dearest reader, you are feeling bored and have an afternoon, you might like to get out an ordnance survey map and look for the nearest long barrow, tumulus, Roman trackway or earthwork. Having visited it, you might like to root around in the library, in the Victoria County History or even (as a last resort) the Internet to find out not only when it was built when it was said to have been built, what gods or fairies are buried in it or what battles between men and giants were fought nearby. You might like to share these stories with your family or friends, to keep the tradition alive.

Or, if you cannot find any folktales for your village, county or home, just make one up. After all, someone made up Wayland.

Photo credit: Wayland’s Smithy (Nigel Brown) / CC BY-SA 2.0)

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