Völundr has the distinction of being one of the only named Alfar attested in the lore, along with his brothers. Völundarkviða of the Poetic Edda is his story, and he is also mentioned in the Thidrekssaga. As Wayland, he has enjoyed popularity in England as well, attested in many poems of the time, especially Beowulf, Waldere, and Deor. As well as the Franks Casket, an archaeological treasure from the 8th century, and the Ardre image stone VIII.
Völundr appears to have been unknown to the Æsir and Vanir, though according to Old English poems, he may be the son of the jötunn Wade (Vaði in Norse) or the King of the Finns. By some accounts, he is the great-uncle of Ullr (by Sif and his nephew Egill-Örvandill). He had two recorded brothers, Egil and Slagfiðr, and he married a valkyrie named Hervör, with whom he had a son, Heime.
Of all the legendary artisans, Völundr is perhaps the most celebrated and enduring, and he is still counted as the ancestral forefather of many modern English people. He was supposedly trained to smith by two master dwarfs, and he is often depicted surrounded by his smithing tools. The Berkshire Downs burial mound, Wayland’s Smithy, is named for him, and the superstition is that if you leave your horse and a silver coin there overnight, the horse will be shod by morning.
In the Poetic Edda, Völundr is captured by a greedy king by the name of Niðhad. In order to force his servitude, the king has his hamstrings cruelly severed and sets him to work in a shop on the island of Sævarstöð. The smith dutifully crafts many trinkets and baubles at the whims of the king, all the while plotting his escape and ultimate revenge. The king’s curious sons he kills and then fashions goblets and jewelry from their skulls, which he gives to the unknowing Niðhad as gifts. He lures in and rapes King Niðhad’s daughter, Böðvild, and she later gives birth to a son, named Viðga.
In a fantastical climax similar to that of Greek Daedalus, Völundr flies off to freedom wearing mechanical golden wings that he has crafted. Other versions of this tale place his brother Egil with him on the island, and he helps construct the magical wings. Alternate versions also explain an overblown argument between Völundr and King Niðhad leading up to the smith’s hamstringing.
Völundr is also credited with crafting the sword Gramr, which Sigurd used to kill the dragon Fafnir. The sword is delivered to Sigmund by Óðin (so perhaps the Æsir did know of him!) and is described as being decked out in gold and emblazoned with a dragon. Óðin also breaks the sword later on.
Thoughts on Völundr
Old English poems add a lot more to the story of Völundr, but these stories are continually embellished and then further embellished through time … and what was original to the story and what has ended up in the modern tellings gets blurry pretty quick. Völundr’s father, for instance, is the subject of many stories concerning the famous smith.
Vaði is alternately an ancient Finnish King, a sea jötunn, or a half man-half mermaid hybrid. He is also attested to having been from Zealand, Denmark, and to have waded across the Danish sound with his son perched on his shoulder (which I guess supports the giant theory). He fosters his son with the god Mímir, which was a common practice in those days – and this would have made Völundr and his father kin with the Æsir. Quite a fortuitous move!
Later, Vaði’s son apprentices with the dwarfs, who seem unhappy with the arrangement, though the apprenticeship lasts a couple of years. In the end, Vaði is killed in an earthquake, which we are led to assume is the sneaky work of the cranky dwarfs, and Völundr takes vengeance and kills the dwarfs in return.
Völundr was so famous an artisan that no fewer than fourteen swords are accredited to him in various writings, including the Poetic Edda, the Karlamagnus Saga, and even some Arthurian poetry. That’s quite the legacy!
Signs and Symbols
Anvil, forge, smithing tools, and smith’s apron. Golden wings.
Wayland, Weyland, Wēland, Velentr, Galand