Wayland the Smith and the Massacre of the Innocents: Pagan-Christian 'amalgamation' on the Anglo-Saxon Franks Casket

Sigmund Oehrl

Abstract: On the front panel of the Anglo-Saxon ivory box ‘Franks Casket’, the cruel revenge of Wayland the smith and the Nativity of Jesus are depicted side by side. This juxtaposition seems to represent a contrast between the cruelty of paganism and the Christian faith. Other researchers, however, have argued that Wayland should be understood as a positive Christian symbol. This discussion will argue that the depiction of Wayland’s child murder together with the Nativity of Christ was inspired by the iconography of the Massacre of the Innocents, depicting Herod and the child murder next to the Magi and the Virgin with Child. If Wayland can be interpreted as an Anglo-Saxon pagan counterpart of King Herod the Great, then the Casket functions as a forum for the examination of pagan and Christian cultural amalgamation during the early Middle Ages.

The front side of Franks Casket - Wayland's Revenge and the Adoration of the Magi

The famous, richly decorated walrus ivory casket was produced in the early eighth century in an ecclesiastical setting in north England, as a receptacle for jewellery, books, or relics. In 1857, it was bought by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks in Auzon, Département Haute-Loire, in France, who later gave it to the British Museum in London.1 With its inscriptions and images combining different narrative traditions and showing strong influences of late antique and Frankish art, it is one of the most famous and fascinating testimonies of fruitful interrelations between the Anglo-Saxon World and the Continent during the early Middle Ages. The pictorial programme includes the story of Wayland the Smith and the Adoration of the Magi on the casket’s front side, runic inscriptions and images of the Roman foundation fathers Romulus and Remus on the left side, and Titus’ conquest of Jerusalem on the back. The lid depicts an archer defending a building and a figure on a throne within it against a superior contingent of enemy soldiers.

The front panel of Franks Casket (eighth century). (Photo

FIGURE 1.1 The front panel of Franks Casket (eighth century). (Photo: Estate of Karl Hauck, ZBSA, Schleswig).

The runic inscription ¿Egili denotes this warrior as Wayland’s brother, the master archer Egill, who features in Old Norse tradition.2

The right panel is kept in the Bargello, Florence, Italy. While several suggestions have been presented, its mysterious images (a horse-human hybrid and a warrior, a horse and a grave mound, three men/women in cloaks, among other motifs) have defied all attempts at interpretation.3 In fact, it remains unknown whether the images on the casket’s five panels are linked by a common icono-graphical programme.4 Nonetheless, in the case of the images of Wayland and the epiphany on the front, a deliberate juxtaposition can be assumed.

The front side of the casket (Fig. 1.1) is bordered by a runic inscription. In alliterative long lines, this recounts the fate of the stranded whale whose remains provided the material (hronaesban, ‘whale bone’) for the production of the casket.5 A vertical band divides the space in half: to the right, the adoration of the infant Jesus is shown. The Three Magi, bearing gifts and approaching from the left, are identified by a runic titulus (maegi. cf. Matthew 2:1: magi). Between the leading Magus and Mary with the Baby Jesus, a rosette representing the Star of Bethlehem can be seen. Below, a long-necked bird appears to lead the Magi to the throne of the Blessed Mother, which is a unique scene in Christian iconography. On the left side of the panel, on the outer edge of the field and opposite to Mary, a bearded man is shown, whose identity as a smith is shown by the tongs in his left hand and the anvil with two hammers in front of him. A semicircular object represents the furnace or forgestone. At the man’s feet, a headless, naked human figure is lying prone on the ground. The smith holds the severed head in his tongs. In his right hand, he grasps a cup, which one of two women opposite him appears to reach out for.

There can be no doubt that this is a scene from the Wayland legend.6 In particular, this story is told in the Edda’s Vylundarqvida (probably tenth century) and in bidreks saga (mid-thirteenth century),7 and basically tells how master smith Wayland (Old Norse Vplundr; Old Norwegian Veleni) is abducted, crippled, held captive by a king (Old Norse Nidudr, Old Norwegian Nidungr), and forced to produce jewellery for the royal family. He takes revenge by beheading the king’s two sons. From their body parts, he fashions jewellery for the king and his family and drinking vessels from their skulls. After that, he impregnates the king’s daughter (Old Norse Bpdvildr), after making her compliant with an alcoholic drink, according to V^lundarqvida. Before flying away (using a bird-like flying machine, Pidreks saga relates, while the Edda remains silent about his means to fly), Wayland finally confronts the king with his revenge.

There is good evidence to suggest that Wayland’s story was known early to the Anglo-Saxons. The first two stanzas of the poem Dear (eighth or ninth centuries) tell of Wayland’s captivity at the hands of king Nidad and the king’s daughter’s sorrows about her unintentional pregnancy. Iconographical references8 to the Wayland story can be seen on the Gotlandic picture stones Ardre kyrka VIII9 and Alskog kyrka10 as well as the fragments of the stone cross of Leeds11 in West Yorkshire. There is also the gilded bronze mount (part of a helmet?12) in the shape of a man with wings from Uppakra,13 and the solidus from Schweinsdorf (Eastern Friesland, Germany), bearing the runic inscription tvela(n)du (= ‘Weland’).14

On Franks Casket, several figures relate to Wayland’s story’: the woman standing opposite the smith would be the king’s daughter, being handed the stupefying drink by' her tormentor. One of the beheaded princes can be seen on the ground, and the human head in the jaws of the smith’s tongs refers to the fabrication of the drinking vessels. The identification of the other two figures is unclear.15 The woman to the right of the princess has been interpreted variously as a maid accompanying her mistress to the smithy' (as told by Pidreks saga),lb the princess herself,17 a ‘beer maid’,18 or a supernatural ‘revenge helper’.19 The small male figure next to her, holding two of the tour birds in the scene by' their necks, cannot be identified. Wayland’s brother Egill may be shown here, collecting feathers for the flying machine,20 or instead one of the young princes hunting birds,21 the theft of the ‘swanshirts’ from the story’s prelude told in Vqlundarkvida,22 or the forging of the sword Mimung.23

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