Here’s a little tip if you’ve a mind to go on an English megalithica excursion: do it in early January.
Everyone complains about the weather but which annoys you more: the fact you have to wear wellington boots or the arrival of packed tour buses? Exactly. We had the place entirely to ourselves for the whole visit.
Unfortunately government budget cuts mean that any of the English Heritage sites that charge you to visit will be closed during the week.
But the ones you want to look out for in the booklet are the “open any reasonable hour” ones.
They’re unattended and, at this time of year, all yours. You can clamber to your heart’s content. (Not in a vandalism way, obviously.)
One such place is Wayland’s Smithy.
What fascinates me about ancient history is that it also has an ancient history. The Saxons living in the area in the first few centuries AD would have had no frame of reference with which to understand the lives of the bodies buried inside three thousand years before. It would have appeared to them -as it does to us- as a sacred place that was subsequently incorporated into their own mythic narrative… in this case a residence of the god Wayland. (Sidebar: can you say we don’t do the same thing in the twenty first century?)
When you go on a journey like this you are folding yourself into a mythic space where the universe speaks loudly and in code. My goal -beyond simply seeing as awesome tomb- was to see if I could tune in to how the Saxons conceived of this space. (It’s a fool’s errand trying to contact Neolithic shades. Even if there were any around -and there aren’t- they’d have to be a special kind of insane to have stuck around their tomb for almost six thousand years.)
The mythic speaks to you in a language that is simultaneously untrue and yet real. Which means you quickly fall into that Black Swan problem of describing events after the fact that don’t sound significant but in fact were.
So when I tell you I was in the flow for the entire drive out of Oxford you’ll take it in the way you’re supposed to take it. It actually reminded me of the drive across the Isle of Mull on the way to Iona. That time I could “see” centuries of mystics and wizards and clerics on horseback and in wains… all making their way to the western ferry.
Wayland’s Smithy doesn’t appear to have been a destination in quite the same way but you certainly travel along a mythic ‘road’. You can actually continue the walk to Avebury and Stonehenge.
In order to get to the site, you have to drive up Dragon Hill Road -so named because it passes the flat-topped hill where St George fought the Dragon. Then you park below the nearby Iron Age fort of Uffington Castle -complete with famous white horse -which you can see on Google Maps- and walk two kilometres. And of course, as we are driving up the poorly-maintained, one-land sheep track that is Dragon Hill Road to get to the carpark a horse wanders down the road in the opposite direction. A white one.
I nod my head. “That’s a good sign. Literally.”
We start the walk. My poor, long-suffering partner. I can’t stand other people at sacred sites to such an extent that I will leave at dawn to get there if possible and, if not, I’ll be at the gate waiting for a place to opener like a pensioner loitering outside a mall.
Anyway, on this particular morning my insanity paid off. Crisp, clear, sunny weather and not another soul around.
Then we hear the horns.
What the fuck was that? It’s important to realise that there are nothing but fields on either side of the path in the image to your left. Rolling, empty fields.
We continue for another three quarters of a mile along the path and suddenly a tractor pulling a large wagon lurches into view on the right. The driver slows, looks at us and carries on to our left. As he drives away I see into the back of a trailer. It’s filled with creepy old Tory men clad in Barbour and wellingtons. It’s a hunt.
If you don’t live in the UK it probably needs mentioning that fox hunting is illegal the way doing thirty five in a thirty zone is illegal. Everyone does it and nobody gets caught. So not really that weird unless you’re talking mythically.
Finally we arrive at Wayland’s Smithy – it’s deserted just how we planned- and I tune in.
It’s naming is currently unknown. The best I can find is the tomb became known as Wayland’s Smithy because of its “uncanny quality.”
Yeah, maybe. But a smithy is oddly specific. From what I get, the name is unrelated to the nearby hill (which isn’t Saxon anyway) and is based on nocturnal incidents that happened to Saxons travelling the ancient Ridgeway. The tomb is a fairly useful waymarker at the base of a gentle hill that would protect you from the elements. Basically you would camp here on your way somewhere else.
There are aspects of being ‘on the road’ that are significantly darker than our post-Hollywood vision of the idea. And quite a number of these fold into Wayland’s story.
Firstly there is loneliness. Wayland is a lonely figure. In his story the three valkyries that he and his two brothers were getting around with up and left them one day. His brothers followed them. He stayed behind. Then there is the whole thing about being lamed and imprisoned by King Niòhad… which follows neatly into the next unpleasant aspect of the road:
Being somewhere you don’t want to be. This could be a Travelodge by a motorway at 3am on a Tuesday morning, staring up at the sickly ceiling paint. A lot of journeying involves “unpleasant milestones”. Growing up in Australia, when we’d drive to the mountains to go skiing there were two specific gas stations (Goulburn and Cooma) where we’d get to stop. There was nothing good about either of them… they were just where we stopped. Even when road markers are glamorous they are always in some way functional. Especially as a horseshoe-making forge is essentially the Saxon version of a gas station.
Added to this, to my mind anyway, there is something bleak in the legend that leaving a coin by the smithy will result in your horse being freshly shod by morning.
It’s like if Wayland were incarnate today he’d be working in one of those Taiwanese factories that make iPhone components.
Even the tooth fairy gets an element of “maybe” in her transaction: “Maybe she’ll replace your tooth with a coin.” Wayland is reliable, still in servitude.
The final aspect that came through was that sense of extreme isolation and distance.
There are depictions of Wayland in the north of the country grabbing hold of a large bird to fly free of his captor. It’s a rather beautiful end to what is essentially a story about the loneliness of disability and the physical cost of status objects but it does rather beg the question… where did he fly away to?
Here. He flew away to this very spot.
Even the English-born Saxons would be aware that Wayland is a foreign god. He, like their parents and grandparents is from elsewhere. We already know that the Vikings considered the westernmost British Isles to be much closer to the Otherworld. The smithy captures that sense of distance, isolation and foreignness that is the shadow side of “the road”.
All of this may make it sound like the place was in some way grim or desolate. Far from it. It is cthonically uplifting (oxymoron?), potent and definitely sacred. A god lives here, after all.
And to me, this is how myth works best. Not as a story but as a language. Here’s Jake Stratton-Kent describing it in Geosophia:
So there is another aspect to the question, which is, if mythology is a language, how does it work? Before really addressing this, some examples are useful to illustrate the innate flexibility of mythological language.
Some are implicit among the themes explored herein: in the myths of the birth of Athene from the head of Zeus some uncertainty about roles is seen; was it Prometheus or Hephæstus, both Lords of Fire, who struck the blow? How could Hephæstus – the limping god – have done it if Hera created him in revenge for the birth of Athene? The mythic birth of Dionysus from the thigh of Zeus involves further apparent confusion of roles. If Zeus is lame when Dionysus is in his thigh, is Zeus then Hephæstus? When Dionysus fetches Hephæstus back to Olympus, drunk and seated on an ass, is Hephæstus then Silenus? When Dionysus conquers the world including India he is portrayed as bearded, no longer the eternal youth; which of the elder gods is he then, is he Hades, is he Silenus? Or is he Zeus himself, of whom he was the infant form, then the son, to be finally the Father?
In these scenes gods are seen at once as older and younger, dying and being born, tragic and comic. It is not that myth provides no clear cosmological system, but that it provides a language by which cosmological ideas are expressed, and by means of which they evolve. What is important is not that static forms neither define nor confine myth, but that myth gives life to otherwise static forms.
For me, Wayland’s Smithy expresses the cosmological idea of ‘the road’; multi-faceted, complex and somehow familiar.
After saying my silent goodbyes we walk a couple of miles back up the path to Uffington Castle. From the top on a cold January day you can see into several counties. We cut across the field in front of the white horse on our walk back to the carpark. In the distance I hear the horns again and look up.
On the horizon I see the tractor on its way to meet the hunters at the end of their route. Just ahead of me I see a herd of wild deer in front of me, leaping fence after fence.
On the road to somewhere.