Weladu the flying blacksmith
Updated: Jul 31
Master blacksmith Wayland is well-known from Germanic mythology. The smith who was kept captive on a small island in the sea and escaped from it with selfmade wings. The Saxons, Anglo-Saxons, Norwegians, Icelanders, in fact all the old Germanic peoples had their own medieval stories or artefacts relating to Wayland. Even the Franks did. All, except but one, the Frisians. But, as it turns out, Frisia has the oldest claim of all.
Several early medieval gold solidi with Frisian personal names (of big men) on it have been preserved. These are: Audulfus, Had(d)a and Skanomodu. The latter two names are written in Anglo-Frisian runes, respectively ᚻᚨᛞᚨ and ᛋᛣᚨᚾᛟᛗᛟᛞᚢ. The Skanomodu solidus is unprovenanced and was part of the collection of King George III, which was donated to the British Museum in the year 1825. Read our blog post How the porcupine gave birth to the U.S. buck to learn more about these costly coins or solidi and their men.
Yet another solidus is known. It is an obscure gold coin carrying the Anglo-Frisian runic inscription ᚹᛖᛚᚩᛞᚢ. The runes have been deciphered and the name of none other than Weladu was revealed. Indeed, Wayland the Smith. The language in which Wela[n]du is written is Old Frisian (a.o. Düwel, 2018). With that, it belongs to one of the oldest artefacts testifying of the Old Frisian language. In contrast to linguists and rune-specialists, historians proper have not paid much serious attention to this coin up to now, and therefore not much intell is available. For this reason, an APB was put out by the Frisia Coast Trail on Twitter and on Facebook a few weeks ago. Tips subsequently received, disclosed where the coin was being held and scarce images of this coin were traced as well. The solidus is being kept in the Ostfriesisch Landesmuseum Emden, region Ostfriesland ‘East Frisia’ in the northwest of Germany. The coin was accidently discovered in the year 1948 on a field near the village of Schweindorf, also in region Ostfriesland. It is dated AD 575-600 or AD 575-625. Behold:
The coin has traces of being used as a pendant. This was not an uncommon practice. Sporadically, scholars even suggest the 'coin' might have been a pendant/ bractaete instead of a solidus from the start. We think it is a solidus, a coin. These solidi could be used as currency but had the function of prestige too and were hoarded a lot. Not long after this solidus is dated, silver pennies or sceattas would be introduced in big numbers to facilitate the growing Frisian, supra-regional free-trade. The runes are written backwards, by the way. Again, not an uncommon practice.
The legend of Wayland the Smith
Who would have thought Wayland is possibly a Frisian smith and that his true, native name is Weladu? Weladu was, as said, a master blacksmith. He forged the finest jewellery, swords and mail-shirts. For forced labor he was overpowered by the cruel King Niðhad (or Nithad), king of the Njars (in present-day southern Sweden) whilst he was asleep, and imprisoned on a small island in the sea. Both hamstrings of Weladu were cut so he could not walk and escape from the island. During his captivity he was being forced to forge the most beautiful jewellery etc. His luck changed when the two sons of the king came to the island and to his smithy. Weladu killed them. From the boys' skulls he forged two goblets, from their eyes he forged jewels and from their teeth he forged a brooch. The goblets he gave to the king, the jewels to the queen and the brooch to the king’s daughter Böðvildr (or Beaduhilde). To sublimate his revenge, one day he intoxicated the princess and subsequently raped her. Princess Böðvildr got pregnant, of course. From bird feathers Weladu made wings and with these he flew to King Niðhad. With the fabrication of these wings, his brother Egill helped him out. Weladu told the king all the horrible things he did to his offspring. Then, like a true Daedalus, he flew off and never to be seen or heard of again. Until 1948, Germany.
If you think the whole goblet-skull thing is too weird, read our blog post Groove is in the Hearth, and shiver! There is much more to tell about the legend of Wayland, like his love affair with the Valkyrie Swanhilde just before he was abducted. Also, Wayland is the creator of the magic sword named Gram and of a magic ring. Check it out too, it all is very interesting.
Different written sources have been preserved, each with a (slightly) different version of the life of Wayland or Weladu. And, with all the different sources and cultures Wayland’s name is written in many ways: Wēland/ Welund, Weyland, Völundr/ Vølund/ Vǫlundr, Velent, Wieland, Wiolant and, thus, Weladu. This list probably is not comprehensive, neither are the sources of the legends of Wayland mentioned below.
The first source to mention is the ninth/tenth century Old English epic poem Beowulf. It recounts how Wéland (Weladu) is the maker of the battle-shirt (i.e. mail-shirt) warrior Beowulf was wearing, and of which Beowulf asked it to be sent to King Hygelac "if the battle would take him". King Hygelac of the Geats, however, would die before Beowulf would, namely during a raid in western Frisia at the mouth of the river Rhine early sixth century.
Onsend Higeláce, gif mec hild nime,
beaduscrúda betst, Þæt míne bréost wereð,
hrægla sélest, Þæt is Hraédlan láf,
Wélandes geweorc. Gaéð á wyrd swá hío scel.
Send to Hygelac, if I am taken by battle,
the best of battle-shirts, that protects my brest,
choicest of garments, that is Hrethel’s relic,
Wayland’s work. Fate takes its course.
The second source is the Old English poem The Lament of Deor, or simply Deor. It is part of the tenth century literary collection known as the Exeter Book or Codex Exoniensis.
Welund him be wurman, wræces cunnade,
anhydig eorl, earfoÞa dreag.
Hæfde him to gesiÞÞe, sorge ond longaÞ,
wintercealde wræce; wean oft onfond,
siÞÞan hine, Niðhad on, nede legde,
swoncre seonobende, on syllan monn.
Þæs ofereode, Þisses swa mæg.
Wayland the blade-winder, suffered woe,
that steadfast man, knew misery.
Sorrow and longing, walked beside him,
wintered in him, kept wearing him down,
after Nithad, hampered and restrained him,
lithe sinew-bonds, on the better man.
That passed over, this can too.
The third, is the thirteenth century Old Icelandic poem Völundarkviða. The fourth, is the mid-thirteenth century Old Norse Þiðreks saga or Thidreksaga.
Besides written sources also medieval artefacts 'speak' of Wayland the Smith. This is a representation of the lay of Wayland depicted on the so-called Ardre VIII image-stone, dated eighth or ninth century and found at Ardre, Sweden. Furthermore, what is known as the Franks Casket. An Anglo-Saxon whale's bone casket, dated early eighth century and kept in the British Museum in London. On the frontside, left, a scene of the legend of Wayland the Smith is shown. Lastly, three tenth-century stone crosses depicting the legend of Wayland have been preserved in Leeds, Sherburn-in-Elmet and in Bedal, all in the UK. However, the oldest artefact, by far, is the gold solidus with the Old Frisian runic inscription Wela[n]du found near the village of Schweindorf, Germany. With that the oldest, tangible proof testifying of blacksmith Wayland, or from now on, Weladu.
Weladu and the Wijnaldum fibula
If you have ever seen the Wijnaldum disc-on-bow brooch in the flesh in the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden, you can not help wondering how it was made and who made it. Such craftmanship. Could it possibly be Weladu was somehow historical, knowing blacksmiths were highly valued in early-medieval society and an important, big man? And if so, could it be he made this fibula? Check out our blog post Ornaments of the Gods found in a mound of clay to learn more about this fibula.
The agency of the smith was even protected by law. The Old Frisian law Lex Frisionum dated ca. AD 790 protected the craftman as follows:
Qui harpatorem, qui cum circulo harpare potest, in manum percusserit, componat illud quarta parte maiore compositione, quam alteri eiusdem conditionis homini. Aurfici similiter.
Who hits the hand of a harp-player, who can play harp in a circle (audience), pays with a fourth bigger fine, as with another man of the same status. Goldsmiths likewise.
If we take as assumptions that names on solidi were those of rulers or of 'big men otherwise' who ordered the production, and that those men were still alive while their coins were casted since they normally did not authorise coinage with names of others, of competitors, Weladu must have lived at the time this gold solidus was issued. The coin, as said, is dated AD 575-625. A talented blacksmith who later became a legend. A more eatable variant of this theory is that it was not Weladu the Smith who created this solidus but just a (big) man who carried the name of the legendary blacksmith (Düwel, 1968). This would also mean the legend pre-dates AD 575-625.
An alternative explanation to the one where (a) Weladu produced the solidus, is that the image on the coin represents Weladu. In this scenario the creator of the solidus wanted to depict the legend of the famous blacksmith (Oehrl, 2011). The standing figure might be holding a snake in his hands. Furthermore, the figure is more or less confined in space by the fantasy Roman letters. These elements together, would refer to the snake pit Wayland stayed in, according to the Deor poem. The words 'be wurman' in the Deor poem might be understood as referring to snakes. A translation not without controversy, though. Lastly, this representation is almost identical to the aforementioned gold solidus of Hada, found in Harlingen, the Netherlands. If you adhere to this somewhat complicated snake-theory (Beck, 1980) then the Hada coin depicts Weladu as well. But, according to other scholars this whole snake-pit construct, including the interpretation of the Deor poem, is all too far-fetched (Nedoma, 1990).
Argument against the just described alternative scenario is that in general the solidius fits within the early-medieval tradition of copying former solidi of the Roman Period. Secondly, the image actually does not feature any obvious 'smithy' elements and this would have been the logic thing to do. Why hassle with snakes and other circumstantial stuff, if one could take an anvil or wings instead which would have been clear symbols to everyone? Remains it is a traditional, though a bit sloppy, immitation of a Roman emperor. Sloppy, especially if you compare this solidus with the one found in the UK with the Frisian name of Skanomodu, also in runes.
Our conclusion? We opt for the most obvious option. It was Weladu the Smith, of course. A choice without any bias. It was Weladu a talented, Frisian blacksmith who made the coin and put his name on it in Frisian language, and who later became a legend. A coin found on Frisia territory as well.
The disc-on-bow fibula
Let's take a quick look at the extravagant disc-on-bow fibula found in the terp of Wijnaldum in the Netherlands. It is dated ca. AD 625. So, there is a small time slot. It is very small, since some historians date the Schweindorf solidus between AD 575-600. Besides the time slot, the village of Wijnaldum lies in Mid Frisia, present-day province Friesland and is located 140 km west of the village Schweindorf as the crow flies. Not too far remote from each other and both Schweindorf and Wijnaldum were part of Frisia at that time.
And if you think we are pushing the envelope, everything starts with 'but what if?'
Then there is the folklore feast called 'Klaasohm' (ohm meaning uncle: (Ni-)Cholas-uncle) at the East-Frisian Wadden Sea island Borkum. It has a several striking parallels (in bold below) with the legend of Wayland the Smith. Each year on December 6th, men dress up as Klaasohms. It means they are dressed in sheep skins and feathers and wings of birds. After they have scared the island and hunted for women, they even try to fly away. That is done by jumping from an elevation onto the crowd below. Schweindorf and Borkum are both in former Frisia and less than 50 km apart as the crow flies. Are the 'Klaasohms' therefore in fact representations of Weladu?
And we are still baffled by the fact that part of the famous sixth-century voyage of the Irish monk Saint Brendan who crossed oceans and seas passed an island of blacksmiths who, by the way, threw slag at Saint Brendan's boat.
Note 1. Blacksmiths started to fullfil a crucial role in societies once mettalization started, meaning the moment metal became an important commodity in society. The Stone Age ended in Europe around 2300 BC and from then on started the Bronze Age which lasted till about 500 BC, Then the Iron Age took over. It is from the Bronze Age that the agency of the smith became crucial. His skills to produce (dureable) commodities for daily use, items for value exchange, weapons and items for rituals and relgious purposes. The use of metal meant a not-to-be-underestimated revolution in the history of mankind, and it were the techniques of the smith that were thus fundamental. Also, the blacksmith was able to convert commodities and items belonging to one of these categories to one of the other categories, by re-melting and re-forging it. The specific quality of metal above stone or wood. This agency gave the blacksmith a mythical, almost super-natural postition and resulted in all kind of legends like we discussed here (Hedeager, 2001; Fontijn, 2020).
In province Groningen (former Mid Frisia) people use the expression 'dat mag smid waitn' (that, the smith may know) which is a variation of the Dutch expression 'dat mag Joost weten' (that, Joost may know) where Joost represents the devil. Thus, the blacksmith and the devil are exchangeable. In Mid-Frisian language they have the expression 'it geheim fan de smid' (the secret of the smith).
The Frisian saga of Wybo the Blacksmith of the village of Eernewoude, has similar ingredients in which devil and blacksmith are comparable. Wybo is an unashamed and rude person, and one of the last descendents of the heathen King Radbod. People said Wybo had made a pact with the devil. After Wybo murdered his brother, without knowing about the blood-tie, a big flood happened killing many including Wybo. From then on the blacksmith haunts the nights as De Langesleattemer Man 'The Tall Man of Langesloot.'
Note 2. Since the Wikipedia page of Wayland the Smith did not mention the gold solidus of Weladu, it was edited accordingly by the Frisia Coast Trail bastards recently. With this pushing the date of the oldest reference of Wayland (Weladu) with at least a century back in time compared to the sources mentioned on the page till then.
Note 3. Wayland and music. Composer, and unfortunately also with anti-Semitic sympathies, Richard Wagner drafted in 1849-1850 the opera libretto Wieland der Schmied but nobody was interested to produce it. Eventually, it was Jan Levoslav Bella who made an opera out of it and produced it in Bratislava, former Czechoslovakia in 1926. The same anti-Semite sentiments existed around the audience of the Swedish rock band Völund Smed in the '90s. Dutch singer Willem Bijkerk chose Waylon as his stage name. Whether he was inspired by Wagner or by the Frisian legend Weladu, should not be a question. It was the country singer and songwriter Waylon Jennings who inspired him. Nevertheless, we encourage Willem to change his stage name into Weladu. Lastly, a music band in Michigan, USA named Wayland exists.
Note 4. At Ashbury in the UK the megalith long-barrow is nicknamed Wayland’s Smithy, since the tenth century already. The stone structure itself is dated 3600 BC. Popular belief is that when you leave your horse behind with some money coins at 'the smithy' for a while, the horse will be shod when you return. Till this day people perform pagan rituals, stick coins everywhere and also for Druidry this megalithic mound is an important object.
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