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The Smithy on the Downs
Folklore or Fact?

Wayland the Smith’s tale was first written down in an old Norse poem from the thirteenth century, the Volundarkitha, which tells of the exploits of 'Volundr' the Norse form of Wayland. There are further variations of the story in Thidrek’s Saga. However, the legend is obviously much older, since aspects of it are mentioned in two old English poems, Beowulf and Deor’s Lament, dating from three centuries earlier. Still older are scenes from the tale which appear on the "Franks Casket", a beautiful box carved from whalebone in eighth century Northumbria.

The Franks' Casket

Wayland was a god of ancient Teutonic myth worshipped all over Scandinavia, Germany and by the Anglo-Saxons in England. As mentioned, he was said to have been the son of the god-giant, Wade. As well as being King of the Finns, Wade was a great sailor, having a boat, complete with glass windows, made of two halves of a tree. These were so tightly fitted together that the vessel could sail underwater. Hence he met Wayland’s mother, a mermaid. Wade was well remembered in Northern Britain where several sites are named after him, notably "Wade’s Caus(ew)ay" on the North York Moors. It is said to join Pickering and Mulgrave Castles (Yorks), built by Wade and his wife, Bell, and used by the latter to cross the Moors in order to milk her giant cow! The causeway is, in fact, one of the longest and best preserved stretches of Roman road remaining in the country. Wade himself was the son of the sea-goddess, Wachilt, who rose from the sea and halted the ship of King Vilkinus of Norway, proclaiming that she was with child - his child! She returned home with the King, gave birth to Wade, and then disappeared again. Wayland’s brother, Egil, was the prototype for William Tell. He was compelled to prove his skill at archery by shooting an apple from the head of his three year old son!

Wayland is often identified with the Greek god-smith, Haphaestos, and the Roman Vulcan. Indeed, Vulcan was said to inhabit the Sicilian island of Vulcano where, if one left a piece of unworked iron with enough money for the labour desired, the next day, it would be found fashioned into a sword or the like, whatever you had wished for. This is just like Wayland’s metalworking on the Berkshire Downs. Whether he made Excalibur or not seems a little dubious, for the King Arthur stories are essentially Celtic-British and not Anglo-Saxon. However, it is recorded that the Celtic-British King, Rhydderich Hael (Roderick the Generous) of Strathclyde, gave one of Wayland’s swords to the original Merlin, so the tale may be true. The vengeance factor in Wayland’s legend is reflected in the medieval tales of Moorish slaves gaining revenge on evil masters. It is ultimately found in the character of Aaron in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.

The name 'Wayland’s Smithy' certainly dates back a long way. Over a thousand years ago, it can be found as 'Welandes Smithan' in a Saxon boundary charter for Compton Beauchamp dated 955. In Germany, smithies were known as 'Wayland’s Houses' in Medieval times and perhaps earlier. When excavated, in 1921, two iron bars, used as currency during the Iron Age, were discovered at Wayland’s Smithy. Could it be that an ancient smith did work here, and was paid in iron, long after the tomb had ceased to function as a prehistoric graveyard? His memory may live on under Wayland’s guise. This sound rather mundane though, and there is an alternative explanation.

Occasionally, Wayland is seen as the equal of the Greek, Daedalus, best remembered for his dramatic escape from Crete with the ill-fated Icarus, using wings similar to Wayland’s own. He was, however, also builder of the great Cretan labyrinth, home of the infamous Minotaur. Though known in Scandinavian as a Trojeburg ("Castle of Troy"), in Icelandic a stone maze becomes a Volundarhus: a "House of Wayland". Even though early versions of his legend describe Wayland as flying by pure magic, the identification seems clear. This may explain how Wayland’s Smithy gained its name. The smithy is, in fact, a prehistoric triple-chambered tomb dating from the fourth millennium bc. However, to past inhabitants of the Downs, the three chambers may have suggested a maze, like that built by Daedalus (alias Wayland) in Crete. So a maze, or a chambered tomb perceived as such, would be seen as the natural home for Wayland.

There exist several Saxon charters for the Ashbury/Uffington area, such as that which first records Wayland’s Smithy, as mentioned above. Some of these indicate that there were once other sites in Berkshire associated with Wayland’s legend. This idea was first expressed by G.W.B. Huningford and later expanded by Leslie Grinsell. Together, they have shown that 'Beahhildae Byrigels' or Beahilda’s Barrow was the Saxon name for a burial mound once located near Cowleaze Farm, on the parish boundary between Woolstone and Compton Beauchamp. The mound has now disappeared, but was apparently excavated in 1850, when a jet ornament, a Kimmeridge ring and a bronze pin were recovered. To the east of Compton Beauchamp village and just below Hardwell Camp stands a natural mound, known in the tenth century as 'Hwittuces Hlaew' or Widug’s Low. Widug (alias Wittich or Widia) was Beahilda’s son, by Wayland, and Low is, again, another word for a (burial) mound. Widug features in later Teutonic myths. He appears in the 'Dietrich Cycle' where, as a follower of Attila the Hun (d.453), he was to fight the hero, Dietrich (Theodoric the Great, King of the Ostrogoths c.454-526), with Wayland’s sword, Mimung. However, Dietrich’s tutor, Hildebrand, cunningly exchanged it for a common blade shortly before the fight. Later he renounced his allegiance and slew Attila’s two sons. Finally, his great grandmother, Wachilt, rose from the sea once more (as she had done at the birth of his grandfather) and stole him away from those who wished to kill him.

Further to these Berkshire monuments, on Woolstone Down, south-east of Wayland’s Smithy, stands Idlebush Barrow, commonly called Idle Tump. It seems to have been a place associated with various legends, especially as to how it obtained its name. One tells how a traveller, lost on the Downs and desirous of reaching civilisation before nightfall, asked a shepherd, resting upon the mound, the way to Lambourn. The man said nothing, but lazily nodded his head in the appropriate direction. The traveller then met a second and a third shepherd who, being asked the same question, pointed finger and toe respectively. The place was thus nicknamed Idle Tump. Another tale tells how trees planted on the barrow would not grow, out of pure laziness. The name actually derives from early abortive attempts at treasure hunting, and means Empty Barrow. However, in Saxon times, this burial mound was known both as Hawk’s Low ('Hafeces Hlaew') and Wade’s Barrow ('Weardaes Beorh'). Wade was, of course, Wayland’s father. So it seems that, at one time, the whole landscape of the Eastern Downs featured in Wayland’s story. Perhaps there were additional chapters, now forgotten.

Next: Places associated with the Legend
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