Thursday, August 15, 2013

Volundr and Ancient Smith Gods

In his Geospohia, Jake Stratton-Kent brings a great deal of attention to the figures of metal working deities and culture heroes. Sections are devoted to Hephaestus, Prometheus, the Dactyls and Cabiri as well as examinations of their roots in both Indo-European and non-European cultures. Recently some attention has been paid to similar figures in African Traditional Religions and their expression in New World traditions, especially Ogun and Aganju, in their many guises. There has been a notable lack of examination of a figure akin to all these in Germanic culture, known as Völundr in High Norse.

There are two main sources for information about this figure, an Edda, the Völundarkvida and a brief mention in an Old English Poem, Deor. The Franks Casket illustrates scenes from Völundr's story prominently as well as some adventures of one of his brothers. Later references to Völundr have him crafting many mythical weapons and armor, including the sword Gram as well as a suit of armor bequeathed to Beowulf.

Briefly, the story of Völundr is as follows. He is one of three brothers (thought by some to be hypostases of Odin) who stumble upon swan maidens while they are bathing in a pool. The swan maidens have removed their feathered cloaks (recalling Freya's own transformative feathered cloak) and appear as beautiful maidens. Völundr marries one of the maidens, and after some years she leaves him. He is captured by a king and imprisoned on an island and hamstrung (note the similarity both in the island home and laming to Hephaestus). Forced into servitude, Völundr eventually kills the king's two sons and crafts gifts for the king, his wife and daughter from parts of their bodies. After this Völundr rapes the king's daughter (in some versions impregnating her). He then escapes the island either by grabbing hold of a bird or crafting wings for himself (shades of Daedalus here).

Whether these stories represent a survival of an original Indo-European myth or are a later adaptation of Classical themes by various Germanic peoples is unclear. However, the figure of Völundr is worthy of examination by anyone interested in the connection between magic and metal workers, as well as the connection of both to "shamanic" practices. It should be noted that in the Völundarkvida, he is mentioned as being "leader of the elves" a theme taken up at length in Alaric Hall's Elves in Anglo-Saxon England, as well as the possible connections between Völundr and Odin himself.


  1. The role of water as an 'underworld motif' is somewhat of a constant with these figures (Aganju's river, Hephaestus' underwater forge, Volundr/Weyland's pool).
    I'm good with ancient Indo-Germanic with/without a 'classical' influence rejuvenating it along the way. OTOH there appear to be common features associated with every known 'metal working caste' - no Jungian archetypes or diffusionist theory really required.

  2. Agreed, while the recurring motifs do seem largely typical a big part of any given cultures reaction to people adept at metallurgy is going to be influenced by a "gee whiz that's strange" reaction. I have no idea how to smelt ore to get metal let alone how to make alloys, which makes metal workers pretty magical to me today.

    Some of the other trappings are definitely uncanny, especially the relation to water. Possibly that arises from smiths quenching metal in water. Then again it might not. Similarly, I wonder all of these figures are lame (although I can't remember if that's the case with Aganju or Ogoun) is symbolic of metallurgic being tied to an agrarian culture who feeds them.

    If I remember correctly there's some interesting ideas related to metallurgic castes in Mille Plateaux but it's possible that it's a rehash or deconstruction of whatever Dumézil had to say on the topic.