"Where now are the bones of Wayland the wise, that goldsmith so glorious of yore?
Who now wots the bones of Wayland the wise, or which is the low where they lie?"
These two stanzas were translated from Latin into Anglo-Saxon over a thousand years ago, and neither the translator nor his audience could have answered the question, because Wayland Smith was not a real man of flesh and blood, but a character from an ancient mythology.
Wayland (also spelled Weland, Walant, Welant or Volund) was known from at least as early as the 6th century in Scandinavian, German, and Anglo-Saxon legend, as a smith of outstanding skill - some legends say the smith of the Gods. According to other legends, he was a lord of the elves. Nobody is sure what his name means, but it may be connected with Old Norse vel, "craft."
Wayland Smith was known as intimately to our Anglo-Saxon forebears as, for instance, Robin Hood or King Arthur are known to us. The mention of his name was enough to call up the stories without them ever needing to be told. Because of their familiarity with him on the one hand, and the enmity of the Church towards paganism on the other, the references in writing to Wayland that remain are distinctly offhand.
For instance, the sixth-century Anglo-Saxon lyric poem "Deor's Lament", about a minstrel who falls out of favour with his Lord and is replaced by another, starts with the verses:
"Wayland the steadfast warrior knew what it meant to be banished; he suffered miserably; his only messmates sorrow and heartache and exile in the wintry cold. This was after Nithoth had prisoned and pined him, had bound with supple sinew bonds a far better man.
But that passed off; so may this....
Bothvild's brother's death did not crush her spirit so much as did her own wretched condition when she knew she was heavy with child. Never afterwards did she rejoice for thought of what should befall.
But that passed off and so may this...."
In the seventh-century, there's a picture of Wayland on a panel of the Franks Casket, a carved walrus-ivory box from Northumbria made in about.650AD, which shows a scene from the story told in the Lay Of Volund (which I'll come to in just a short while). The interesting thing is that Wayland's scene is shown with no captions... because everybody knew who he was and the legends surrouding him... whereas a scene immediately next to this, showing the Three Wise Men taking their gifts to the baby Jesus, has the word MAGI in runes above it - because Christianity had only recently been introduced to Britain, and people might not recognise what it was meant to be! Have a look at this photo of the carvings and you'll see what I mean...
Next, there's the poem "Waldere", an Anglo-Saxon epic of considerable length of which only two short fragments survive. The poem was probably composed around 770 AD, but nothing is known about its author. Wayland is mentioned as the maker of an unsurpassable sword.
Then there's Beowulf - the oldest epic narrative of all Germanic literature. It survives in only one manuscript, copied around 1000 AD. (This manuscript is the British Library, London) Wayland is mentioned as the maker of a superb war-coat.
Last, but by no means least, we come to the twelfth or thirteenth century Icelandic "Verse Edda". This collection of stories includes the Lay Of Volund (or Volundarkvida) which tells how Wayland was captured by the Swedish king Nithoth, lamed to prevent his escape, and forced to work in the king's smithy. In revenge, he killed Nithoth's two young sons and made drinking bowls from their skulls, which he sent to their father. He also raped their sister, Bothvild, when she brought a gold ring to be mended, and then he escaped by magically flying through the air. It's a scene from this story that's shown on the Franks Casket.
If you'd like to read the Lay Of Volund in full (don't worry, it's been translated into English!), you can find it by clicking here.