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Cover image for Wayland the Smith: a myth for the Software Developer

Wayland the Smith: a myth for the Software Developer

samosborn profile image Sam Osborn Updated on ・3 min read

Hwæt synt nu Þæs foremeran Þæs wisan goldsmiðes ban Welondes? ForÞi ic cwæð Þæs wisan forÞy Þa cræftegan ne mæg næfre his cræft losigan, ne hine mon ne mæg Þon eð on him geniman ðe mon mæg Þa sunnan awendan of heire slede. Hwær synt nu Þæs Welondes ban, aððe hwa wat nu hweat hi wæron?

Where now are the bones of the famous and wise goldsmith, Weland? I call him wise, for the man of skill can never lose his cunning, and can no more be deprived of it than the sun may be moved from his station. Where are now Weland's bones, or who knoweth now where they are?

Alfred the Great, king of the Anglo-Saxons, injected this moment of contemplation into his 9th century translation of Boethius. It is a noteworthy straying by Alfred from the content of the original latin and proposes a way of understanding the Consolation of Philosophy that is intimate to the daily life of an Anglo-Saxon. As he wanders from Boethius, he arrives at a place that is unique to the ancient world, a place where craft and skill are interfused with wisdom and cunning. Where philosophy and ritual articulate themselves in the solemn flashing glow of the forge. Where the smith is a rune-etcher, a word-knower, a delineator, and a form-changer. Within old metalworking communities the smiths were practitioners of religion: priestly and magical. We see this in their myths: an old and nameless Bronze Age smith god, twisted and deformed by arsenic poisoning left his shadow on the familiar gods of the classical and post-classical world: Hephaestus/Vulcan, Gabannus/Goibniu, Ugarit, Ptah, and Völundr/Weland/Wayland. All are tragic figures: sub-ordinate to and exiled from the gods, lame or crippled, but profoundly skilled: channelers of certain sort of cunning. An archetype is here: the subordinate smith to the gods, a personification of controlled skilled.

Weland the Smith is a slippery character; a talented man, skilled in a craft, so also cunning, wise, and self-possessed. He appears generically in Germanic Eddas and Beowulf as the maker of great and semi-magical items: swords, armors, rings. To say a thing was made by Wayland was to say that nothing could be finer. His was the fullest extent of applied craft, and he is a personification of craftsmanship.
Wayland is enslaved by the evil king Niðhad, who cuts his hamstrings to enfeeble him and confine him to the forge. However, Wayland is indignant and resolved to be free. He kills Niðhad's son and makes a goblet from his skull. He poisons Niðhad's daughter with beer from that same goblet. Then collecting feathers from birds, fabricates a pair of wings and escapes to haunt the edges of eddic stories as the maker of artifacts of narrative renown.

The story of Wayland invites us to consider creativity slightly differently.
I don't think it's wise to project Wayland onto any of us as developers: he is wild, violent, and indignant. However, I think the Wayland-Niðhad narrative is dialectically vivid, and probably embodied by us all internally, and played out around us externally.
In what ways are we enslaving our own skills? In what ways have we cut the hamstrings of our own cunning?
What does a pair of forged wings look like for the future we are headed into? Where will we gather the feathers to build those wings?

As craftfolks, we are well positioned to explore the mythic interplay between nurtured skill, subordinating control, and indignant escape.

Perhaps more whimsically, we can make connections between the antique mysteries cults around forges and smiths and the modern mysteries cults of technocaptalism: to which we are the smiths of the gods.

Cover image: Front panel of the Franks Casket, carved whales bone, early 8th century. Left scene shows the Wayland the Smith working the forge. The headless body of Niðhad's son lies under the anvil. To his right he, or his brother Egil, pluck feathers from birds to make Wayland's wings.

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David Wickes

This is an interesting take (and I'd not heard the arsenic poisoning explanation for the crippled metalworker god before, fascinating).

I'd reflect that, in many respects, software developers cripple themselves - and are happy to be working in Niðhad's forge. They don't care about their own agency, or what their works might be used for outside their workshop. They don't ask questions, don't talk to the rest of their business let alone the clients, don't do anything but sir hammering away at the keyboard, doing what they're told.

Chewy thoughts - thanks.