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21 Mar 2010

Musing on Volund

“The high esteem in which well-tempered arms were held in these rude ages, made a skilful armourer or smith be held to be little less than a god, or at least a daemon or magician.”

– Depping and Michel, Wayland Smith

Volund, Weyland, Valent…we know him by many names. The Smith par excellence, the baleworking vengeant, the Lord of Elves – Volund is perhaps one of the most transformational mortals in Germanic lore. Captured by the tyrant Nithod, hamstrung and forced into creative servitude, Volund works his revenge, breaks free, and himself becomes winged and thus even semi-divine, seeking to reunite with his swan-maiden wife on smith-forged wings.

Volund’s tale, as does all good myth, timelessly instructs us even in this industrial age of senseless consumerism and widespread indentured servitude. Who in their right mind would endure the shackles of those who would profit at our expense?  Shall the divine spark of inspiration suffer the indignity of greedy tyrants or could it overcome adversity to become even more?  Do we dare take vengeance, reclaim our rightful ways, and explore the heights – or shall we remain crippled, isolated, and enslaved?

The figure of Volund has held fascination for me since I myself nearly lost the use of my legs at a young age. The accident itself was a powerful transformational experience, and as a result I have been given an artistic vision best conceived as a lifelong endeavor. To say nothing of myopic and impatient instructors in art school, following this vision has put me at odds with the very structure of modern society, as any contemporary self-employed artisan can understand. Yet this struggle is one of the central endeavors that I perceive for Heathenry if it is to have any meaningful impact on putting Midgard to rights – what we do to survive daily must be both meaningful and honorable if we are to escape the banality of the dominant consumerist culture. For me this has meant exploring and truly living as a metalsmith.

The common applications of smithcraft in fashioning tools to transform the outside world and adornment with which we transform ourselves, speak to our deepest impulses. I am in fact inclined to believe that jewelry, or at least body-adornment, predates cave painting on the Neolithic art-history timeline. Certainly the oldest known tools are bone knives, polished and sculpted far beyond the needs of mere functionality. Yet bone gave way to stone, and stone to metal – itself the refined quality of stone. Bronze reigned supreme until the secrets of iron gave way at last. We are still in this Age of Iron, and many of her deepest mysteries have only been discovered in the last one hundred years.

Elding. Sax. Steel, silver, niello, leather & wood. 2007.

That the iron blade has been held in high regard throughout Germanic history is indisputable: from Volund’s own sword Mimung, lost in legend, to Grettir’s sax Kársnautr, or Egil’s hewing spear, the iron blade is well accounted for in the lore. That the smith himself has been held in quite mixed regard is also indisputable…for we can make jewels that praise a woman’s beauty, confirm a King’s power, or, as does Volund, viciously satire the same. We make tools that may take lives or save them, whether by combat, hunting, or the simple necessities of food preparation. To create these things is to wield great power.

I have spent most of the past decade primarily exploring the bladesmithing art of pattern welding, whose ancient height wonderfully corresponds to that of the Heathen Age. Though new iron producing techniques made pattern welding relatively obsolete roughly at the onset of Christianity, these blades inspired mystery and awe long into the Christian era. The lore holds countless kennings describing pattern-welded blades such as serpent in the steel, wave-grains of the blade, and blood-warp.

Pattern-welding originated primarily as a necessity of construction during the early Migration Era due to limitations of iron refining technology, but evolved into something purely aesthetic toward the late Viking Age. Two or more steels with various differing alloy contents are fused together into multiple layers, which are then twisted, forged, or ground to various degrees. The manipulated layers, exposed on the surface, are prepared by polishing and attacked with an acid that reacts to differing alloying elements in the steel.

Modern artisans have reclaimed this technique, and taken it to the point of figurative imagery and beautifully complex mosaics with innovations such as powdered steels and the hydraulic press. I tend toward the traditional, though I do envision new ground that can be broken within the tradition.

Serpent in the Steel #10. Carbon Damascus. 2008.

I don’t seek to create reproductions, but rather to pick up where others have left off. I unabashedly blend techniques and artistic periods, to the chagrin of the common collector of historical bladesmithing endeavors. The Serpent in the Steel series is inspired by the traditional Viking Age “woman’s knife,” which was forged, handle and all, from one piece of iron. The original simple spiral handle unfurls and entwines into various functional handle shapes in modern pattern welded fancy. Other pieces play with Romanticist imaginings and contemporary allegory. Still other works elaborate traditional forms; not as things that could have existed, but as things that should exist.

As an artist, one of the main attractions I feel toward my chosen craft is the reverence that has been held for such objects as blades, jewelry, and drinking vessels. It was ever the same when the likes of Volund made these things, and may they ever be as such: tools with which we may change our surroundings, adornments with which we may change ourselves, and vessels with which we may honor and share in the ancient ways. So many of the stories that inform us of our ancestors come in the form of such objects…I too seek to leave a legacy of stories in my wake. May they inform and inspire others a thousand years hence.

Hail Volund!

Article by J. Arthur Loose.

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