As part of the Past in its Place project, I am conducting a reappraisal of one key dimensions to the literary and material intersections of the Early Middle Ages: the legend of Weland the Smith. Taking an archaeological perspective, I am interested in how the identity of Weland manifests itself in artefacts, technologies, sculpture and monuments, from his appearance on a series of picture-stones from Gotland and recumbent and free-standing monuments from northern Britain to the Franks Casket’s depiction and the multi-phased megalithic chambered tomb known as ‘Wayland’s Smithy’ from at least the 10th century AD associated with the smith.
I have outlined some of my initial ideas about this in my posts relating to my talk last year about Wayland’s Smith here and here, as well as my talk to the Runes Network last Easter here. It also relates to my recent publication on Beowulf and archaeology, where I reconsider the significance of the stone barrow in the story.
Back in the spring, archaeologist and artist Hannah Sackett and I decided it would be a great idea to collaborate on the creation of a cartoon strip that outline one version of the Weland story and its material dimensions. We submitted a draft as our cartoon’s early pages to this year’s Heritage Jam. We were delighted to be deemed winners of the team submissions. Well done Hannah! I can’t wait to be able to share the entire cartoon in due course.
Below is a full version of our paradata that explain the rationale, aims and objectives of our collaboration and Hannah’s art.
Weland the Smith
Retold by Hannah Kate Sackett
Consultant: Howard Williams
The goal of this project is to re-tell the story of Weland (ON Völundr) the smith. In particular, we aspire to emphasise the complexity of the smith’s identity including his cyborgian character as a transformer of things and a transformer of self. The project also hopes to emphasise the monstrous, material and artefactual components inhered with Weland’s identity as his story was adapted and distributed in the early medieval world.
This is achieved in comic-strip format, representing an original style of re-telling the story which aims to be widely comprehensible and engaging. The original idea, artwork and design is the work of archaeologist and artist Hannah Kate Sackett. Archaeologist Howard Williams provided suggestions and guidance on the re-telling’s literary and material dimensions, relating to his on-going research on the Past in its Place project funding by the European Research Council.
The story of Weland the Smith is important for understanding how the identities of Christian elites were mediated by pre-Christian legends in the Early Middle Ages. Rather than an oral narrative ‘told’ by art and materials, we suggest that the story was constituted and circulated far and wide through the making and exchange, encountering and reworking of material media.
Furthermore, the Weland story is a powerful and enduring way to introduce and explore a wide range of themes in early medieval societies, including the interconnected roles of retributive violence and artefact production and exchange in social relations, perceptions of enslavement and good and bad kingship, and the shamanistic artisanal identities attributed to supernatural metal-workers.
The story of Weland might have been known through many versions and evolved over the centuries. At its heart, however, is a story of a forlorn but famed artisan who is crippled and imprisoned to make precious treasures for a king. Weland gets his revenge by murdering the king’s sons and raping his daughter. He then triumphantly escaped his island prison in a flying machine of his own making to gloat over his former capture and assert his usurpation of the king’s blood-line. Weland is an artisan, but also a warrior and a rapist: a maker of famed weapons and treasure, a slave and slayer of royalty and a violent progenitor of famed blood-lines. As such, the core of the story is the transformation and interpenetration of human bodies and materials.
Weland’s story is only known from the 13th-century Lay of Volund (Völundarkviða) from the Poetic Edda. However, there are strong indications that earlier versions and dimensions of the same story were known many centuries earlier and were circulating before the Viking Age. For early medieval elites, Weland seems to become both a feared and honoured anti-hero. His story was certainly familiar by the ninth century in England since it is alluded to in Anglo-Saxon poetry and prose, notably King Alfred’s Boethius and the poems Deor, Waldere and Beowulf.
Art of Weland
The Weland legend has been apprehended in art and artefacts. Most famously, on the early eighth-century whalebone Franks Casket, Weland is depicted in his smithy seducing the king’s daughter who receives his gift of mead, juxtaposed and contrasted with the magi bringing gifts to the Christ-child. This is a scene all about gift-giving and models of kingship: good and bad.
The aeronautic ‘cyborgian’ character of Weland is emphasised in the lithic and metallic arts. A Viking Age mount from Uppåkra (Sweden) depicts Weland as a bird-man, bleeding from his wing by an arrow during his escape from his island. The Gotlandic picture-stones Ardre VIII and Alskog also appear to represent the tale of the smith’s capture, killing of the king’s sons revenge and aerial escape with a woman. Finally, the tenth-century cross-shafts from Leeds and Sherburn seem to articulate the Weland story in the context of commemorating secular patrons, in one instance (Leeds 1) it seems the cross might commemorate a female patron, Weland’s aerial ascent juxtaposed against a portrait of a Bible-bearing en-face aristocratic lady. A recumbent (hogback) tomb from Bedale (Yorkshire) represent the bird-man motif and possibly other scenes relating to the Weland legend including the court of the king where he receives the gifts of Weland: his son’s bodies re-made into treasures. In this context, Weland’s story might pertain to the tomb as a perceptible dwelling for the dead.
Further south, Weland was clearly well known by the tenth century. His workshop and dwelling — hence a place associated in the early medieval mind with not only metal-working and a hoard of treasure, but also with the smith’s imprisonment and his retributive murder and rape of the king’s children — accrued to a megalithic monument of Neolithic date in the parish of Compton Beauchamp, historically in Berkshire and now in Oxfordshire. Situated upon the long-distance land-route of the Berkshire Ridgeway, Wayland’s Smithy is an archaeological archetype as a monument with a long ‘afterlife’. Following its multiple phases of Neolithic construction, the monument has revealed evidence of Iron Age and Romano-British burial and ritual deposition. Later, Williams is researching how it became an element of a complex martial and ceremonial early medieval landscape with other legendary places and place-names. As such, Wayland’s Smithy’s folklore persisted into recent centuries.
Rethinking Wayland’s Smithy
As part of the ERC-funded Past in its Place project (https://humanities.exeter.ac.uk/english/research/projects/thepastinitsplace/), Williams is working with archaeologists, literary scholars, geographies and historians to rethink the relationship between story and place in the English and Welsh landscape. Wayland’s Smithy is one of the principal targets of the project’s investigation as a rare and specific instance of a Germanic legendary figure associated with a striking prehistoric monument. Williams’s work is involving:
- a reinterpretation of the representations of Weland on the eighth-century whalebone Franks Casket (British Museum)
- rethinking the Weland scenes on Viking-Age sculpture from Leeds, Bedale and Sherburn as technologies of remembrance (see Williams 2011).
- Rethinking the significance of the hogback stones upon one of which the Weland story appears at Bedale (Williams 2015a).
- a revaluation of the significance of megalithic monuments as places associated with giants, dragons and treasure in the later Anglo-Saxon imagination through a reinterpretation of the poem Beowulf (Williams 2015b).
These are necessary precursors to a reinterpretation of the significance of Wayland’s Smith. In doing so, Williams aims to reinterpret:
- the biography and materiality of Wayland’s Smithy and how they might have prompted a link between the legend and this specific monument;
- a new interpretation of the landscape context of Wayland’s Smith to help inform the significance of its naming.
An archaeological perspective brings attention to the artefacts, assemblages, costume, weapons, treasures in the visual representations of the Weland story, as well as attention to the material affordances of the megalithic monument attributed to this infamous anti-hero. The aim is for this consideration of the material world of Weland to not only integrate literature into the interpretation of archaeological sites and material cultures, but also to reinvigorate attention towards the materialities within Weland’s textual rendering. The focus is upon the monstrous and cyborgian character of Weland, as someone connected not only to the mastery of fire and metals, but also stone and bone.
Archaeology has been slow to adopt alternative ways of visualising the historical and legendary/mythological dimensions of early medieval sites and material cultures (Williams 2009). The specific challenge of the Weland story comes from the historiographical tradition of reducing the narrative to a singular identity of Weland as a ‘smith’. Instead, understanding the story requires a consideration of Weland’s many ambivalent, monstrous, violent and cyborgian dimensions. Upsetting bad kingship and wreaking havoc upon the social hierarchy through violence and rape, Weland is more than an artisan. Yet the specific challenge came from attempting to represent scenes and artefacts from the time period to avoid a sense of anachronism, while giving a sense of the different temporal and imaginary realms in which Weland inhabits, including Weland himself imagining the future receptions of his story within different artefacts and monuments.
We hope this comic strip will offer a distinctive reading of the story of Weland that both foregrounds the landscapes and material cultures of the story itself but also the many different material and monumental arenas in which the Weland story was represented in the early medieval world.
The images for the comic strip draw upon and adapt representations of human figures and buildings from the Franks Casket and other features like trees and waves are inspired by early medieval rune-stones and picture-stones. Others have no direct early medieval parallel and are Sackett’s original inventions, including the representation of Weland’s swan-wife and King Niðhad.
We hope that the comic strip will be of use to those encountering the Weland story at all ages, from those in school to higher education students and academics, as well as the general public. We make no claim for this reading to be definitive but only distinctive and prompting reflection on the story’s themes and material dimensions. It is also hoped that the re-telling complements Williams’s research as well as being a stand-alone piece.
We hope that this comic-strip will be widely utilised for the public, for students and teachers interested in the Middle Ages worldwide. We intend to publish it on our own blogs and discuss its wider significance in our public talks and academic research.
Williams, H. 2009. On display: envisioning the early Anglo-Saxon dead, in D. Sayer. & H. Williams (eds) Mortuary Practices & Social Identities in the Middle Ages: Essays in Burial Archaeology in Honour of Heinrich Härke. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, pp. 170-206.
Williams, H. 2011. Remembering elites: early medieval stone crosses as commemorative technologies, in L. Boye, P. Ethelberg, L. Heidemann Lutz, S. Kleingärtner, P. Kruse, L. Matthes and A. B. Sørensen (eds) Arkæologi i Slesvig/Archäologie in Schleswig. Sonderband “Det 61. Internationale Sachsensymposion 2010” Haderslev, Denmark. Neumünster: Wachholtz, pp. 13-32.
Williams, H. 2015a. Hogbacks: the materiality of solid spaces, in H. Williams, J. Kirton and M. Gondek (eds) Early Medieval Stone Monuments: Materiality, Biography, Landscape. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, pp. 241-68
Williams, H. 2015b. Beowulf and archaeology: megaliths imagined and encountered in Early Medieval Europe, in M. Diaz-Guardamino Uribe, L. García Sanjuán and D. Wheatley (eds) The Lives of Prehistoric Monuments in Iron Age, Roman and Medieval Europe, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 77-97