View Full Version : Forge of the Gods

Sunday, January 1st, 2006, 03:24 PM
Forge of the Gods: Blacksmithing

Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.

His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate'er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.

Week in, week out, from morn 'til night,
You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
With measured beat and slow,
Like a sexton ringing the village bell,
When the evening sun is low.

And children coming home from school
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge,
And hear the bellows roar,
And catch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing floor.

e goes on Sunday to the church,
And sits among his boys;
He hears the parson pray and preach,
He hears his daughter's voice,
Singing in the village choir,
And it makes his heart rejoice.

It sounds to him like her mother's voice,
Singing in Paradise!
He needs must think of her once more,
How in the grave she lies;
And with his haul, rough hand he wipes
A tear out of his eyes.

Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night's repose.

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought.

-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "The Village Blacksmith"

Longfellow caught well the strangely sad and humble, yet also naturally strong, primal image of the blacksmith. Whence comes the sadness in this image? Perhaps it comes from the fact that the smith was seen, in ancient times, as a sort of magical wonder-worker who worked with fire in the dim shadows of his smithy (the smithy is the actual building in which the forge is housed), producing the absolutely essential iron and steel implements of war and peace alike - and the political rulers of this world felt threatened by the power that this skill represented. This insecure feeling by the rulers could result in problems for the smith, as reflected in the old Norse tale of Volund (Weyland) the Smith:

Volund was captured by an evil king, and at the urging of the equally-evil queen, Volund's hamstrings were cut, leaving him crippled. Volund was then exiled to an island, where he was made to toil fashioning iron goods for the king. But one day Volund got his revenge: he lured the king's young sons to his smithy, and he cut their heads off. Then Volund fashioned silver-inlaid cups from the boys' skulls and sent these to the king. From their eyeballs he fashioned shining beads and sent them to the queen. From their teeth he made brooches which he sent to the king's daughter - and he impregnated her while she was on his island (the details are lost, as parts of this poem are missing).

Unbeknownst to his persecutors, Volund had also forged for himself a pair of wings, which he used to escape from the island. He alighted briefly on top of the wall of the king's house, and from there he revealed to the king what he had done, and then he flew, laughing, up high into the sky, out of reach of the king. Volund was himself the son of a Finnish king, which makes this writer smile because of his own Finnish (as well as Estonian and Russian) ancestry.

A similar story of an imprisoned smith and his (and his son's) escape from his royal captor is told in the old Greek story of Daedalus and Icarus. Another similarity can be found in the limping smith, Hephaistos, who served the Greek Gods. And Prometheus was chained to a mountainside as punishment by the Gods after he brought fire (and all that fire can create, such as the smith's creations) to Mankind. The smith-God (or demi-God) of the Finns was Ilmarinen, and the root of his name is "ilma", which means "air" - Ilmari was the God of the Air, so perhaps Ilmarinen was named after him, since the suffix "-nen" makes his name into an adjectival form, to whit: "Ilmari-ish", or "Like or of Ilmari".

Until the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, blacksmiths were found plying their craft in every town and village, in every castle and in every military camp. They made every humble iron household utensil, every iron tool, every plow that broke the soil in the farmer's field, every steel sword and spearhead and suit of armor, every helmet. They made the shoes for the horses of the great cavalry units that stormed across countless battlefields in the long, bloody dance of warfare that is our history. They made the hinges and locks of doors, the grates and ornamental screens of Europe's cathedrals, the beautiful gates and fences surrounding palaces, and the ornate balustrades and chandeliers inside these palaces. They made the first firearms and, in the process, introduced standardization into manufacturing. Smiths forged the first propeller shafts for the steamships of the 19th century and the first moving parts of the steam locomotive. They made the assembly line possible - and by doing so, they doomed their ancient craft to be eclipsed by the machinery of mass-production. Ironically, in its early stages, the machinery of the fledgling Industrial Revolution was not yet accurate enough to do its job properly, so the smiths had to be called in to complete the job on many occasions. Eventually, however, blacksmiths sank into obscurity and obsolescence. By the dawn of the 20th century they were already becoming rare in the industrialized West.

The invention of the automobile was a further blow to the survival of blacksmithing, as the need for farriers (blacksmiths who specialized in making horse-shoes) declined along with the need for horses. With America's entry into World War I, anvils became scarce as these were collected all over the country and donated to the war effort, to be melted down as scrap iron. There was a brief revival of the blacksmith's art in the 1920's, as the demand for ornamental ironwork revived, but this revival died with the coming of the Great Depression of the 1930's. For decades thereafter, blacksmithing survived among a few scattered old men and even fewer young students who lovingly kept it alive. Then, in the 1970's, a new revival began, that has continued to the present day and shows no signs of letting up. More and more people are taking classes at crafts centers to learn Blacksmithing. This author was introduced to Blacksmithing a couple of years ago at a local crafts center.

So, speaking personally, what is the appeal of Blacksmithing? I remember as a teenager going on a school fieldtrip to Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, which is a historical replica of a New England village from the first half of the 19th century. When we entered the blacksmith's dark and mysterious smithy, my nostrils filled with the wonderful smell of the smoke from his coal-fired forge. I love that smell! Even nicer is the aroma of the hardwood charcoal that I use. The orange glow of the coals heating up as the smith pumps his bellows to blow air into them in order to increase the heat, is a soothing glow in the cave-like darkness. The energy of the whole smithing process is dark and of the deep earth, whence the iron and coal come. The fire is like that of a volcano (and thus, the old Greek smith of the Gods, Hephaistos, was equated by the Romans with their god Vulcanos). Blacksmiths are typically solidly-built men with greying beards who would have looked natural in a Viking camp or accompanying the armies of the American Civil War. They are men of the Earth. In the old Norse/Germanic spirituality, the Dwarves were beings who inhabited an underground world where they mined the riches of the earth and made wondrous metalwork. Blacksmiths embody that ancient dwarvish energy. Nowadays, however, more and more women are becoming involved with Blacksmithing, and their creations are every bit as good as anything the men have produced.

Blacksmithing is not merely a process of cutting and joining pieces of iron or steel together to make objects - it is also a form of sculpting, because when the iron or steel is heated, it becomes softer and can be shaped like a very stiff clay by hammer blows into the desired shape. The metal cools quickly, so it needs to be placed repeatedly back into the fire and re-heated and worked. It is a process that requires much patience, as well as physical stamina. I do not yet have a proper forge, so I must improvise: my forge is an old Weber grill - one of those bowls on legs - into which I put the charcoal. The steel piece is stuck into the pile of burning charcoal, and heated to an orange glow by means of a hair-dryer that I hold in my hand. A piece of old automobile tail-pipe stuck into the charcoal concentrates the blast of air from the hair-dryer onto the steel piece being heated. If I want to, I can heat the steel until it glows yellow-white and throws off sparks like one of those sparklers you hold in your hand at a fireworks display. This is actually not good, because it means the metal is burning away, but if done briefly this is a good heat for forge-welding two pieces of iron or steel together with hammer blows - an important skill that I have not yet mastered. My anvil is a piece of railroad track attached to the top of a tree stump. I do all of my work outside, because my landlord would not appreciate it if I did it indoors and burned down his building! Unfortunately, this means that I can only do my work when the weather is dry - and as I write this, we are in the midst of the most rainy springtime that I can remember, here in New England.

It is very satisfying to work hard at my humble little forge, with the heat from the charcoal blasting up onto my face (and driving away the mosquitoes!), the wonderful smell of the charcoal wafting in the air, the steel glowing beautifully orange as I pound it with my hammer into the desired shape. To see the image of what I want to create emerging from the world of mental vision into the world of physical reality is a magical experience! Sometimes, the metal seems to have a will of its own, resisting my efforts to shape it - then it is a struggle where creation becomes an agonizing battle. Other times, everything just flows so smoothly and effortlessly, it is amazing! All the while, I get to enjoy the sensation of my body working efficiently to create my piece, with my muscles building up their hardness. Blacksmithing is a great way to build up muscular arms! Psychologically, all my worries melt away when I'm working at my forge, and at the end of the day, I feel serene! And when that piece is finally finished, and I have immersed it in the tub of water (the "slaking tub") to cool it down, I hold it up against the sky and turn it this way and that, admiring its beauty, and I announce to my Gods and the Spirits of my Ancestors:

"Behold what your son has wrought! Is it not beautiful? Are you not proud of me?"

The feeling that I get at such a moment can never be described in words! If you want to experience it, you will just have to become a smith!

Source (http://www.galacticapublishing.com/archive/2003/solstice/av_forge.php)

Thursday, January 5th, 2006, 03:01 PM
Some of my ancestors on my mother side were blacksmiths. The earlier ones made spoons, hint hint... later ancestor from these also became a smith, even though the family had long since turned to farming.

I have to admit, this profession appeals to me.

I also admire Volunds intelligence and creativity. :)