“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”Albert Einstein, The World as I See It
The blades we are considering in this series of posts about sharpening are made from iron and steel, so it makes sense to examine these materials from the viewpoints of sharpness and sharpening. Let’s look at some of the supernatural and legendary aspects of working steel first.
Steel is a magical substance. Since ancient times, the blacksmiths that worked it were sometimes seen as gods, sometimes as wizards. Regardless of local traditions, the power blacksmiths possessed to combine and shape the elements of earth, wind, water, fire and even spirit into the tools and weapons of everyman’s trade was seen as magical.
Even the blacksmith’s forge and anvil were seen as magical in and of themselves, and rituals incorporating them were widely believed to keep evil at bay, provide good luck and blessings, and even to cure ailments.
There were several extremely famous magical blacksmiths back in the mists of time. Allow me to present two of them to you.
Vulcan the God
The bas-relief stone carving in the photo above is of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and blacksmithing, also known as Hephaestus to the Greeks. This carving was excavated at Herculaneum, located in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius near Pompei. Herculaneum was an ancient Roman town destroyed by volcanic pyroclastic flows in 79 AD. The word “volcano” comes from the word Vulcan, so a stone carving of Vulcan retrieved from a town totally destroyed by Vulcan’s namesake is tragically ironic in the extreme.
The painting by Diego Velázquez above is from a scene in the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses where the god Apollo visits the god Vulcan in his forge to tell him that Venus, Vulcan’s wife, is being naughty with Mars, the god of war. Apollo is on the far left and can be recognized by his crown of laurel and shining aura. Vulcan stands next to Apollo with a shocked and incredulous expression on his less-than-beautiful face (nice abs, but his beard needs a lot of work). Vulcan’s assistants have stopped their work on armour (decidedly 15th century in style) astounded by both the sudden appearance of Apollo and the news he delivers.
Obviously, Venus and Vulcan were not a happy couple. Legend says that whenever Venus was unfaithful, Vulcan grew angry and beat hammer on anvil so fiercely that sparks and smoke rose up from the top of Mount Etna on the island of Sicily, under which he had built a forge, creating a volcanic eruption.
Perhaps Apollo is sharing this tidbit of news just to help out his old buddy Vulcan, or perhaps his reason for snitching is malicious. Whatever the reason, I think it’s safe to assume people loved drama in the 1600’s too. Nothing new under the sun.
My point is that Vulcan (Hephaestus) was not only worshipped in ancient Greece but had a presence in popular culture that ranged from before an Etruscan tribe drained the swamps that became Rome in the 10th century BC, to as late as the 1600’s. And I won’t even get into Trekkie lore. Now that’s an influential craftsman.
Wayland the Smith
Wayland the Smith was another famous blacksmith, metalworker, and magician. He was said to be a Lord of the Elvish folk who learned his trade from either giants or dwarves.
While not as old as Vulcan in human history, Wayland’s legend survives throughout Europe, and the products of his forge were central to heroic traditions of many peoples and kingdoms since the days of the first Viking longboats.
He is credited in Norse, Germanic, and Anglo-saxon legends and literature with forging magical objects of great renown, including rings of power, the impenetrable coat of ring mail worn by Beowulf during his epic battle with Grendel, the magical sword named Gram that Sigurd used to slay the dragon Fafnir, and even King Arthur’s sword Excalibur. Not just scribblers, but even Alfred the Great, king of the Anglo-Saxons c.886~899 on the island that would later become England, wrote of him.
The chains on the legs of the statue above probably represent his maiming and imprisonment on an island at the pleasure of an evil Norse king upon whom he took a bizarre revenge involving unconventional drinking bowls and jewelry. Is Wayland’s slavery one of the reasons blacksmiths have wrapped chains around their anvils since ancient times, or is the purpose just to secure the anvil and mute the bright ringing sound they make? Another mystery…
Wayland’s influence in modern times is not insignificant. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci’s fascination with flying machines was probably stimulated by the legends of Wayland building and using a winged contraption to escape slavery. And unlike Daedalu’s deadly device in Greek legend, Wayland’s didn’t melt.
The legends of Wayland the Smith were once deadly serious matters.
In a lighter vein, the writings of J.R.R. Tolkein, the author of the most popular works of written fiction in human history (no kidding), were influenced by these legends.
The Blacksmith’s Shop
While some blacksmithing traditions such as those involving Vulcan and Wayland are decidedly pagan in origin, others fit well with Christianity. For example, the ring of the blacksmith’s hammer on his anvil was once believed to strengthen the chains that bind the devil in hell barring him and his demons from God-fearing folk’s hearths. In darker times in human history the blacksmith’s workshop was believed by many to be a safe haven from evil forces, one that Satan and his imps actively avoided.
Here is a link to a charming story about why blacksmiths ring their anvils and how to make sure a horseshoe brings you luck at work and at home. I encourage you to read it. Legend of the Ringing Anvil
The Japanese Smithy
If you have ever spent time in small one-man traditional smithies of the sort where our blacksmiths labor to produce the tools we carry then you know the other-worldly atmosphere typical of such workplaces. Imagine walls and exposed wooden roof beams blackened with 70+ decades of soot, the compacted but lumpy dirt floor, the darkness of carefully-managed sunlight (the better to judge metal temperatures by eye), the bitter smells of charcoal fumes, straw ash, flux, hot steel and burning oil; the roar of forced gas forges; the sounds of grinders and the antique leather belt systems that drive them; and finally the terrible racket and vibration of spring hammers and ringing anvils. A man that could work alone in a place like that 12 hours a day for 70 years is not afraid of your run-of-the-mill demon.
It’s quite a sight to see a craftsman working in such an environment. They often start late in the morning to avoid noise complaints from the neighbors, and work until late at night doing heat treating when sunlight won’t interfere with the colors of the hot metal.
By noon their arms are black to the elbows and charcoal smudges are on their faces. The sight of a small, wizened 82 year-old man with strong sinewy arms staring into yellow-hot steel as he hammers the hell out of it is a truly medieval scene. Something of the ancient magic of Vulcan and Wayland can be felt in such places.
In the next post we will examine some alchemical aspects of the Mystery of Steel.
Links to Other Posts in the “Sharpening” Series
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