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The development of the Weland Saga Tradition

Among all the testimonies of Weland (O.E. Welund) the Smith, text or picture, the carving on the Franks Casket is the oldest evidence. The carving shows the smith at his anvil, under which there is a beheaded body, according to the saga that of a prince, the son of King Niðhad, whose slave Weland now is. He passes a cup of drugged beer to a woman, princess Beaduhild, Niðhad’s daughter, whom he is about to seduce, so that she will bear his child. To the right of them – hidden between two ornaments – there is another woman carrying a flask. This may be Weland’s spouse, the swan maiden or fylgja, who by supplying the drink, assists him in his doing. This is commonly regarded to be the revenge for his servitude. But if he is of elfish nature just like his other half, the fylgja, his deed is the only means to free him. Now he is able to change his shape and to escape as a bird. And that is what the scene on the right describes. Then the fowler is the desperate father of prince and princess, but not a Weland-brother Egil, the archer, as frequently assumed. – There is an archer Egil, depicted on the lid of the casket, but there is no hint that he should be in any way familiar or even related with the elfish smith.

Also from Anglo-Saxon England we have a couple of cross shafts, in particular those from Leeds, depicting a smithy with tools and beheaded body and “shape-changer”, i.e. a human being in bonds, grasping a female and growing wings. As the crosses were definitely of Christian intent the pictures may have be just a symbol for the profession of the one buried beneath the stone. On the other hand it may have had a symbolic meaning.

This meaning is, possibly, reflected in the Anglo-Saxon poem Deor’s Lament, where the ‘scop’ consoles himself over his own hard fate with view on Weland’s and Beaduhild’s misery. “That went by, so may this …” So the picture on the tomb stone may procure some comfort over the loss of the deceased.

The other source is Waldere, a fragment of heroic epic nature, which mentions Weland’s son Widia, and refers to Weland as the smith of the outstanding sword Mimming. Obviously, the mentioning of Weland in literature serves in both cases the intention of the poets rather than that of the saga itself. The material went through a Christian filter, losing its substance in the process.


More informative are the testimonies from Scandinavia, where the old creed lived on for centuries. With the Gothland Standing Stone Ardre VIII we have a picture of smithy and tools, of decapitated bodies and a leaving (seduced ?) princess, but top if it all, a bird – the freed elfish smith, having changed his shape into that of a bird. Was Weland man at all? Very likely he was of elfish nature, equal to his spouse, a shape-changer, who acted cruelly, not to take revenge, but ‘to get even’ in order to be able to change shape and get away.

Next in line is the Song of Weland (O.N. Vœlund), known as Vœlundarkviða, from the Edda. Here the smith has two brothers, Egil and Slagfidr, and they all affiliated with swan maidens. After nine years the valkyries leave their partners, who – apart from Weland – also move away. The smith is captured by Nidud’s men, as the king is greedy for his treasures and – not enough – the skill of the man who produced them. The queen is reported to be afraid of the grim captive, and her fears are justified. Weland kills her sons and makes drinking vessels from their skulls as a present to their parents, - something usually done with the bones of one’s enemies. And he rapes the daughter, when she comes to the smithy in order to have a ring mended, a jewel which once belonged to Weland’s valkyrian wife. After these deeds Weland is able to fly without any technical means like a pair of artificial wings or the like. He flies up, rests on a fence, brags with his deeds and flies away. The king lamented not to have an archer to shoot him down.

The Gothland standing stone Ardre VIII shows a smithy with tools, two decapitated bodies behind the house and a woman, probably the king’s daughter walking away. Behind her back a bird – very likely the elfish smith after changing shape – flies away. This drawing, too, indicates that the smith is no human being but a member of the “Other-world”, the realm of elves, fairies, fylgjur and the like.

Finally there is the prose narration of Weland (Velent) rendered by the þiðrekssaga, a collection of sagas linked with ‘Dietrich von Bern’ and a source much younger than the rest. Here Weland is a human being that takes revenge and escapes with a flying-device. Long before that his brother Egil pops up like a deus ex machina. As he is a famous archer Niðung forces him to shoot an apple from the head of his, Egil’s son. He does it but different fom other narrations of this kind there are no evil consequences, neither for the marksman nor for the king. – Weland does not drug and rape the king’s daughter, he simply asks his brother to arrange a date, and at that occasion they make love with all the consequences. – As he plans his escape he has his brother test the flying-device. When the day comes and the smith takes off, Egil is forced to shoot him down. As arranged before the archer hits a bladder filled with blood, so everyone assumes that Weland is mortally wounded. – Years later the smith returns to join mother an son.

The above overview may give the reader an idea of the development of the saga: Two elfish beings are disturbed in their relation due to the greediness of a man or, maybe, a giant, with the skilful “imp” captured. Tying his prisoner down means in this case to disable potential of the shape changer, to have him spell-bound in human shape. The way this is phrased in the Vœlundarkviða is fairly ambiguous. It could refer to the web-feet of water-fowl and that would correspond to the theft of the swan maiden’s feathery gowns, by which the Weland-brothers forced the valkyries into a nine-year long marriage. In this case the magic 9 may have ended the spell. In the course of time and due to the expansion of Christianity the audience forgets the old views or, may be, the poets and scribes refrain from referring to that realm.

This abstract bases on the much more detailed essay “Zur Wielandsage” as published in Alfred Becker, Franks Casket, Zu den Bildern und Inschriften des Runenkästchens von Auzon (Regensburg, 1973) S.154 - 186.

The text in its German version, scanned in from the book, can be viewed here as PDF document.


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