1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Wayland the Smith

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1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 28
Wayland the Smith
See also Wayland the Smith on Wikipedia; and our 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica disclaimer. Some printings apparently used a plain "o" instead of "ö" here, and did not consistently use "í" either. In addition, "Venice" appears as "Vemce". This may be a defect of a particular scan.

WAYLAND THE SMITH (Scand. Völundr, Ger. Wieland), hero of romance. The legend of Wayland probably had its home in the north, where he and his brother Egill[1] were the types of the skilled workman, but there are abundant local traditions of the wonderful smith in Westphalia and in southern England. His story is told in one of the oldest songs of the Edda, the Völundarkviða, and, with considerable variations, in the prose Ƿiðrekssaga (Thidrek's sage), while the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf and Deor's Lament contain allusions to it. The tale of Wayland falls naturally into two parts, the former of which contains obviously mythical features. He was the son of the giant sailor Wate and of a mermaiden. His grandfather was that Vilkinus, king of Norway, who lent his name to the Vilkina- or Ƿiðrekssaga. Three brothers Völundr, Egill and Slagfiþr seized the swan-maidens Hlaþguþr, Olrún and Hervor, who, divested of their feather dresses, stayed with them seven or eight years as their wives. The second part of the story concerns Völundr, lord of the elves, the cunning smith, who, after learning his art from Mime, then from the dwarfs, came to the court of King Níþoþr, and there defeated in fight the smith Amilias. Völundr's sword, Mimung, with which he won this victory, was one of the famous weapons in German epic poetry. In the Dietrich cycle it descended to Wayland's son Wittich, and was cunningly exchanged by Hildebrand for a commoner blade before Wittich's fight with Dietrich. Níþoþr, in order to secure Völundr's services, lamed him by cutting the sinews of his knees, and then established him in a smithy on a neighbouring island. The smith avenged himself by the slaughter of Níþoþr's two sons and the rape of his daughter Bodvildr. He then soared away on wings he had prepared. The story in its main outlines bears a striking resemblance to the myth of Daedalus. For the vengeance of Völundr there is a very close counterpart in the medieval versions of the vengeance of the Moorish slave on his master. The dénouement of this tale, which made its first appearance in European literature in the De obedientia (Opera, Venice, 3 vols., 1518-1519) of Jovianus Pontanus (d. 1503), is different, for the Moorish slave casts himself down from a high tower. The Aaron of the Shakespearian play of Titus Andronicus was eventually derived from this source.

Swords fashioned by Wayland are regular properties of medieval romance. King Rhydderich gave one to Merlin, and Rimenhild made a similar gift to Child Horn. English local tradition placed Wayland Smith's forge in a cave close to the White Horse in Berkshire. If a horse to be shod, or any broken tool were left with a sixpenny piece at the entrance of the cave the repairs would presently be executed.


Britannica Wayland the Smith - The Franks Casket.jpg

The Franks Casket.


The earliest extant record of the Wayland legend is the representation in carved ivory on a casket of Northumbrian workmanship of a date not later than the beginning of the 8th century. The fragments of this casket, known as the Franks casket, came into the possession of a professor at Clermont in Auvergne about the middle of the last century, and was presented to the British Museum by Sir A. W. Franks, who had bought it in Paris for a dealer. One fragment is in Florence. The left-hand compartment of the front of the casket shows Völundr holding with a pair of tongs the skull of one of Níþoþr's children, which he is fashioning into a goblet. The boy's body lies at his feet. Bodvildr and her attendant also appear, and Egill, who in one version made Völundr's wings, is depicted in the act of catching birds.

See also Vigfússon and Powell, Corpus poet. bor. (i. pp. 168-174, Oxford, 1883); A. S. Napier, The Franks Casket (Oxford, 1901); G. Sarrazin, Germanische Heldensage in Shakespere's Titus Andronicus (Herrig's Archiv, xcvii., Brunswick, 1896); P. Maurus, Die Wielandsage in der Literatur (Erlangen and Leipzig, 1902); C. B. Depping and F. Michel, Véland le Forgeron (Paris, 1833). Sir Walter Scott handled the Wayland legend in Kenilworth; there are dramas on the subject by Borsch (Bonn, 1895), English version by A. Comyn (London, 1898), August Demmin (Leipzig, 1880), H. Drachmann (Copenhagen, 1898), and one founded on K. Simrock's heroic poem on Wieland is printed in Richard Wagner's Gesammelte Schriften (vol. iii. 2nd ed., Leipzig, 1887).


  1. Egill was compelled to prove his skill as an archer by shooting an apple off the head of his three-year-old son; he is thus the prototype of William Tell.