Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, the Hephaestus of Grecian mythology, was also the patron of blacksmiths and workers in metals. He was the great artisan of the universe, and at his workshop in Olympus he fashioned armor for the warriors of the heroic age. On earth volcanoes were his forges, and his favorite residence was the island of Lemnos in the AEgean Sea. Beneath AEtna, with the aid of those famed artisans, the Cyclops, he forged the thunderbolts of Jove; and there also, according to tradition, were made the trident of Neptune, Pluto's helmet, and the shield of Hercules. Hephaestus was thus a controller and master of fire.
The Cyclops were believed by the ancients to have invented the art of forging; and the discovery of the peculiar qualities of iron was attributed to certain mythical beings called the Dactyls, who dwelt in Phrygia, and who were thought to have acquired this knowledge from observation of the fusion of metals at the fabulous burning of Mount Ida. The Dactyls had the reputation of being wizards, whose very names possessed a mysterious protective power when pronounced by persons exposed to sudden dangers.
Certain semi-fabulous tribes of central Asia, workers in metals, kept secret the mysteries of their craft, and were wont to indulge in wild orgies and festivities, which served to inspire with awe the uninitiated. At such times they danced until frenzied with excitement, to the accompaniment of cymbals and tambourines and the clashing of weapons. The people of neighboring tribes feared to approach them, believing that they were possessed of a magical power which enabled them to transform one metal into another and to forge thunderbolts. They were reputed to be masters of fire and of the elements, and their forges, like Vulcan's, were volcanoes.
These barbarous peoples were sometimes confounded with the Dactyls, Corybantes, Cabiri, and Curetes, traditional metallurgists endowed with supernatural skill, and therefore popularly reckoned as magicians, or even as divinities. For a long period they were supposed to be vested with the exclusive knowledge of metal-working, a knowledge shrouded in mystery.
In the "Kalevalla," or ancient epic poem of Finland, the blacksmith Ilmarinen is represented as the pioneer and most skilled of artisans, who fashioned both the implements of warfare and domestic utensils. This hero
Came to earth to work the metal;
He was born upon the coal-mount,
Skilled and nurtured in the coal-fields;
In one hand a copper hammer,
In the other tongs of iron;
In the night was born the blacksmith,
In the morn he built his smithy;
Sought with care a favored hillock,
Where the winds might fill his bellows;
Found a hillock in the swamp-land,
Where the iron hid abundant,
There he built his smelting-furnace.
In the Teutonic mythology, blacksmiths were magical craftsmen; and even in the Middle Ages they were looked upon as superior to other artisans, owing to their faculty of seemingly toying with fire, rendering the dangerous element subservient to their will, and by its aid manipulating iron with ease and dexterity. In Germany their workshops were known as "Wieland's houses," in remembrance of the most cunning of smiths in the mythical lore of the North.
As in early ages the origin of metal-working was imputed to divine beings, it was natural that in popular tradition blacksmiths acquired their wondrous technical skill through the assistance of such beings, and hence were exalted above the plane of ordinary mortals because they had received supernatural instruction. . . .
The following mediaeval legend serves to show that memories of the old pagan traditions lingered in the minds of the Scandinavians until long after the establishment among them of Christianity. One evening in the year 1208, a horseman rode up to the house of a blacksmith named Thord Vettir, who lived in southern Norway at Nesjar, near the town of Laurvig on the Skager-Rack,and asked for lodging overnight and shoeing for his horse. The smith assented, and early the next morning began the work, chatting meanwhile with his guest. "Where were you last night?" he inquired of the latter. "In Medaldal," was the reply. "And where were you the night before?" asked the smith. "In Jardal," answered the stranger. "You must be a tremendous liar," said the smith, with great frankness. Then he applied himself to his task in earnest, and forged the biggest horse-shoes which he had ever seen, but which were found to fit the horse's feet perfectly. In the course of further conversation the traveler remarked that he had long dwelt in the north of Norway and was on his way to Sweden. When he was ready to continue journeying and had mounted his steed, the smith inquired his name. "Have you ever heard of Odin?" was the rejoinder. "I have heard his name," said the smith. "Then you may see him now," remarked the horseman, "and, if you do not believe what I have told you, look how I leap my horse over the fence." Thereupon he spurred the animal and rode straight at the courtyard fence, which was seven ells high. The gallant steed cleared the fence with ease, and neither he nor his rider were seen again by the worthy blacksmith.
The dignity and importance of the blacksmith's art in early mediaeval times in England is illustrated by the following tale from Paul Sebillot's " Legendes et Curiosites des Metiers," art. "Forgerons:"--
King Alfred the Great, who reigned in the latter part of the ninth century, on one occasion assembled together seven of his principal mechanics and craftsmen, and announced that he would appoint as their chief that one who could longest dispense with the assistance of the others; and he also invited them all to a banquet, on condition that each should bring with him a specimen of his handiwork and the tools wherewith it was made. At the appointed time they all appeared: the blacksmith brought his hammer and a horse-shoe; the tailor his scissors and a newly made garment; the baker his long-handled wooden bread-shovel and a loaf of bread; the shoemaker his awl and a pair of new shoes; the carpenter his saw and a squared plank; the butcher his chopping-knife and a large piece of meat; and the mason his trowel and a corner-stone. After careful deliberation the company decided that the tailor's work was the best, and he was accordingly chosen to be chief of the artisans.
The blacksmith was vexed at the choice, and vowed he would work no more, so long as the tailor was chief; he therefore closed his shop and took his departure.
But his absence was speedily felt; the king's horse lost a shoe, the six comrades one after another broke their tools, and, although the tailor continued to ply his trade longer than the others, he too was soon obliged to cease from work. Thereupon the king and his tradesmen decided to try their hands at blacksmithing, but met with ill success; for the king's horse trod on his royal master, the tailor burnt his fingers, and the others met with various mishaps. At length they began to quarrel among themselves, even coming to blows, and in the mêlêe the anvil was overturned with a crash. Just at this point Saint Clement appeared on the scene arm in arm with the blacksmith. The king saluted the newcomers respectfully, and addressed them as follows: "I have made a bad mistake, my friends, in allowing myself to be beguiled by the tailor's fine cloth and his skillful handiwork; in common fairness the blacksmith, without whose aid the other workmen can accomplish nothing, should be proclaimed chief artisan." All the tradesmen except the tailor then begged the worthy smith to make new tools for them, which he forthwith proceeded to do, even including a brand-new pair of scissors for the tailor.
Then the king reorganized the society of artisans and proclaimed as chief the blacksmith, whom all greeted with wishes for good health and happiness.
After this the king called on each one for a song, and the new chief in his turn sang one entitled "The Merry Blacksmith," which is even nowadays sometimes heard at the festivities of tradesmen's guilds in England.
Saint Clement, who figures in the above tale, was the patron saint of farriers. He was a Roman bishop, who died A.D. 100. In ecclesiastical tradition he was reckoned among the martyrs, having been bound to an anchor and thrown into the sea on November 23 of that year. His name-day was still observed in recent times by English blacksmiths, who regarded him as the originator of the art of practical farriery, and held an annual festival in his honor.
The blacksmiths' apprentices of the Woolwich dockyard were wont to form a procession on the evening of Saint Clement's Day, one of their number personating "Old Clem," with masked face, oakum wig, and long white beard.
During the festivities this worthy delivered a speech, in part as follows:--
I am the real Saint Clement, the first founder of brass, iron, and steel from the ore. I have been to Mount AEtna, where the god Vulcan first built his forge, and forged the armor and thunderbolts for the god Jupiter.
Saint Eloy, or Saint Eligius, is sometimes represented as the guardian of farriers and blacksmiths. He flourished in the seventh century, and in his youth served as apprentice to a goldsmith at Limoges, where he became very proficient in the art of working the precious metals. His festival occurs on December 1.
According to a well-known legend, Saint Eloy was once shoeing a demoniac horse, which refused to stand still; he therefore cut off the animal's leg and put on the shoe. Then, making the sign of the cross, he replaced the leg, the horse experiencing no ill effects from the operation.
This saint is mentioned in Barnaby Googe's "Popish Kingdome," as follows:--
And Loye the smith doth looke to horse, and smithes of all degree;
If they with iron meddle here, or if they goldsmithes bee.
In certain countries blacksmiths and farriers have always been credited with supernatural faculties, and it seems, therefore, reasonable thus to explain the origin of some portion of the alleged mystic virtues of their handiwork, the iron horse-shoe, although indeed this view does not appear to have been advanced hitherto.
Among ourselves, and in some of the principal European countries, blacksmiths are highly respectable members of society, although they do not usually deal in occult science. But in portions of the Russian empire, as in the province of Mingrelia, the Caucasus, and neighboring regions, blacksmiths do enjoy a certain reputation as magicians. Solemn oaths are taken upon the anvil instead of upon the Bible. In Abyssinia and in the Congo country all iron-workers have the reputation of sorcerers, and among the Tibbous of central Africa they are treated with great deference. When an inhabitant of the Orkney Islands wishes to obtain an amulet, he applies either to a farrier, or to his son or grandson; and the Roumanian gypsies are mostly blacksmiths, their wives obtaining a livelihood by mendicancy, the practice of divination, and the interpretation of dreams; while both men and women are thought to have the faculty of summoning to their aid powerful spirits of the air.
In Morocco, at the present day, there still exists a community of dwarfish artisans, workers in metals, magicians, and adepts in the healing art, who make little books which are used as portable amulets; and the Haratin, who inhabit the Drah valley, deem it sinful even to mention by name these dwarfs, whom they consider entitled to extraordinary respect.
Each member of this mysterious tribe of pigmy smiths is said to wear a haik, or outer garment, having upon the back a representation of an eye, a symbol suggestive of the Cyclops of old.
There was, indeed, as we have seen, a common opinion throughout a great part of Europe that the earliest smiths were supernatural beings; for it was reasoned that the marvelous process of melting and fashioning iron could not have been conceived by man, but must have originated through magical agencies.
In Germany blacksmith's forges were often situated on highways remote from settlements, and were the resort of travelers and teamsters, who stopped either to have a horse shod, or to obtain veterinary advice. Quite naturally these smithies, like the modern crossroads variety stores, became little centres of sociability and gossip, and even of conviviality. Moreover, questionable characters sometimes frequented these places, and hence their reputation was not always savory. But the blacksmith himself, by virtue of his calling, was looked upon with respect, even after his craft had ceased to inspire the vulgar with mysterious awe.
In south Germany and the Tyrol, when a blacksmith rests from his work on a Saturday evening, he strikes with his hammer three blows upon the anvil, thereby chaining up the Devil for the ensuing week. And so likewise, while hammering a horse-shoe into shape, he strikes the anvil instead of the shoe every fourth or fifth blow, and thus makes doubly secure the chain wherewith Satan is bound.
Blacksmiths are usually clever enough to recognize the Devil, even when disguised as a gentleman.
Once upon a time the Evil One appeared at the door of a smith in the village of Gossensass, on the Brenner road, Tyrol, and wished to have his two horses shod. When the work was done, he inquired how much he should pay; but the shrewd smith refused to take any money, and only stipulated that his customer should never enter the shop again, which the Devil promised and went away.
The magicians of Hindostan, when treating cases of alleged demoniacal possession, after the performance of other mystic rites, are wont to sprinkle the patient with water from a blacksmith's shop, the water having been endowed with additional virtue by the repeated immersion of iron.
In northeast Scotland a cure for rickets consists in having the child bathed by a blacksmith in the water-trough of the smithy. Then he is laid on the anvil and iron implements are passed over him, the use of each being asked, and the ceremony is followed by a second bath. To insure the efficacy of this process, three blacksmiths of the same name must take part in it.
In Henderson's "Folk-Lore of the Northern Countries of England," p. 187, mention is made of a remarkable method of treatment intended for the development of sickly, puny children who are thought to be under the influence of an evil spell which retards their growth, a notable instance of survival of the old belief in the blacksmith's magical powers. Very early in the morning the little patient is brought to the shop of a smith of the seventh generation, if such can be found, and laid quite naked on the anvil. The blacksmith raises his hammer thrice as if to strike a glowing horse-shoe, each time letting it gently fall on the child's body,--a simple ceremony, but vastly promotive of the child's physical welfare, in the minds of its rustic parents.
The farriers of the Arabs inhabiting the oases of the great Sahara desert are exempt from taxes and enjoy numerous privileges. Of these the most important and striking, as showing the honor accorded to the men of this craft, is the following:--
When, on the battlefield, a mounted farrier is hard pressed by enemies, he runs the risk of being killed so long as he remains upon his horse with weapons in his hand. But if he alights, kneels down, and with the corners of his hooded cloak or burnous imitates the movements of a pair of bellows, thus revealing his profession, his life is spared.
The Baralongs of South Africa regard the art of smelting and forging as sacred, and, when the metal begins to flow, none are permitted to approach the furnaces except those who are initiated in the mysteries of the craft.
In Finland, also, blacksmiths are held in profound respect, and the greatest luxuries are none too good for them. They are presented with brandy to keep them in good humor; and a Finnish proverb says, "Fine bread always for the smith, and dainty morsels for the hammerer."
Among certain tribes of the west coast of equatorial Africa the blacksmith officiates also as priest or medicine-man, and is a chief personage in the community, which often embraces several adjacent villages. Indeed, there appears to be a quite general belief in different portions of Africa that metal-workers as a class are superior beings,--of higher origin than their fellow-tribesmen. When a savage people, without a knowledge of farriery, acquired by conquest a new territory, and found therein blacksmiths plying their vocation, they naturally regarded these artisans with woiider, not unmixed with fear.
Moreover, the early association, in mythology and tradition, of metal-working and sorcery, appears to explain in a measure, as already suggested, the reason for the magical properties popularly ascribed to horse-shoes and to iron articles generally.