The Smith and the Devil

Why are the same myths associated with blacksmiths all over the world?

By George Monbiot. Published in Country Living magazine, sometime in 1994

From the mountain where God was said to live I travelled south, across the bleached scrub of the El Barta Plains. No rain had fallen in this part of Kenya for four years, and the nomads of the Samburu tribe had fled to the upland pastures on the edges of the district. A jackal crossed the track and turned to watch me pass; otherwise I saw no sign of life. In the middle of this desolate land I came across a group of huts.

At first I thought it must have been deserted. Only the wind moved, through the stick houses and over the empty corral. But a hurried scraping noise made me turn round. A child was crawling out of one of the huts. He straightened up and ran, dodging away through the scrub.

I wandered around the wretched camp, wondering who lived there and why they had chosen the most parched and isolated corner of their land to make their home. Drifting across the mirage lakes of the savannah came a tall, shaven-headed woman in red robes, led by the boy who had fled from me.

I sat with Ntalon in the dust beside her hut and listened to her story. She was, she explained, one of the Nkunono, the abominated blacksmith clan of her tribe. She and her people had to remain apart from the other Samburu, for they were said to be polluted by malevolent powers. They could cause a wound inflicted with iron to fester, or bring about the death of a child circumcised with an iron razor. Anyone of another clan who stepped over an Nkunono’s forge would break his legs. Their isolation and pollution were reinforced by their constraint to commit what the Samburu regard as incest, by marrying only among themselves.

As Ntalon spoke I remembered that blacksmiths are ostracised by tribes throughout Africa. But only later did I realize that, in this isolated part of Kenya, I had heard echoes of one of the most persistant themes in European folklore.

With the possible exceptions of the wolf, the raven and the crone, no one has a closer mythological connection with malevolence than the smith. One of the archetypes of northern European folklore is Wayland, the divine but evil blacksmith tutored by the trolls. He was maimed (becoming lame, like Hephaestus, the smith-god of the Greeks) and imprisoned by the legendary King Niduth, who forced him to use his magical skills to make trinkets for the court. The vengeful Wayland lured the king’s children into his forge, raped his daughter, killed his sons and turned their skulls into goblets from which the unwitting king drank. Then he fashioned himself a pair of wings and flew away cackling with delight. Throughout northern Europe his unquiet wight is said to haunt the Neolithic burial mounds reputed to be his smithies.

It is almost certainly Wayland who, in another incarnation, surfaces in the Fens of eastern England. There Will the smith, having been granted an extra life by the Devil, accumulated so much evil in his double span that he turned into the ghastly Will o’ the Wisp, the flickering blue flame of burning marsh gas.

There are stories of smiths using their powers to benign ends: St Dunstan, for example, seized the nose of the Devil (who came in the form of a beautiful temptress) in his blacksmith’s tongs. In other English folk tales a young man arrives at a forge and miraculously hammers an old horse into a young one, or an old woman into a lovely girl.

But these tales are far outnumbered by those which equate the smith with evil. Several tell of smiths entering into a pact with the Devil to get fire and the means of smelting metal; indeed it is arguable that the medieval vision of Hell represents the smith in his forge. His anti-Christian associations persisted into the 19th Century (there is still a sanitised version at Gretna Green today), when British couples who could not get the Church to bless their marriage would leap over a blacksmith’s forge together. In some parts of Britain, the introduction of iron tools was resisted for centuries, as farmers believed that the evil they contained would poison the soil.

Strikingly, archaeological evidence suggests that blacksmiths in Europe may, like the Nkunono, have been isolated, physically and culturally, from the remainder of their tribes. Iron Age forges appear to have been built outside the ramparts of settlements; the smiths’ ceramics, by contrast to those of the rest of society, are full of inclusions, suggesting that they did not have access to the same resources.

In Europe then, as in Africa, blacksmiths appear both to have been associated with evil and ostracised. At first I was mystified: what had the smiths done wrong? Surely they were among the most useful members of society? Only when I turned to the lands five hundred miles from Samburu district, on the shores of Lake Victoria, did I pick up what appeared to be a clue.

The 19th Century kingdoms the European explorers encountered here were the only stable monarchies in the region, governed by men with an absolute power over their people. Their symbol of government was the anvil. The smiths had become kings.

The forge was the military-industrial complex of the Iron Age. Both smelting and forging, the blacksmiths of the lake kingdoms, like those of ancient Europe, held the technological keys. If they could preserve the exclusivity of their skills they would, as potential despots, have been almost unstoppable.

There could have been no better means of protecting the secret of smelting than the invocation of magical powers. The smiths may well have insisted that these were benign, but it is not hard to see how, amid the noise, the smoke, the minerals and the mystery, other people translated them into evil. In doing so, they stumbled across the only sure means of containing the power of the anvil. Only people who ostracised their smiths could defend themselves against it. Only through association with evil powers could ostracism persist.