My apologies for the long delay between posts. It’s come to that time of the year when deadlines are fast approaching just when the ability to write seems to have abandoned me. Part of the difficulty has been trying to tie together the sheer diversity of material I’ve looked at into a coherent argument for my dissertation. In the last week alone, I’ve suddenly gone from medicine to metalworking. Typically, smiths, doctors and demons would have little to do with each other. But in Entry CXXVII in the Lacnunga, we find this metrical charm presumably intended to be read out as part of the cure for ‘sudden, stabbing pain’:
‘Loud were they, lo, loud, when they rode over the mound,
They were fierce when they rode over the land.
Shield yourself now, you can survive this attack!
Out, little spear, if you are herein!
A smith sat, forged knives,
Little iron weapons, powerful in wounding.
Out, little spear, if you are herein!
Six smiths [(?)or Knife-smiths] sat, made deadly spears.
Out, spear! Not in spear!
If there should be herein a sliver of iron,
The work of a witch [or witches], it shall melt [(?)or heat shall melt (it)].
If you were shot in the skin, or were shot in the flesh,
Or were shot in the blood [or were shot in the bone],
Or were shot in the joint [or limb], never may your life be harmed.
if it were shot of gods [or spirits], or it were shot of elves,
Or if it were shot of witch [or witches]; I will help you.
[trans. Pettit, pp.91-5]
Those smiths caught my eye when I first read this remedy because they seemed so out of place alongside the other fantastical elements of the remedy. Of course, I should’ve realised that there was an allegorical reference waiting to be discovered. The connections are somewhat complex, so do bear with my attempts to elucidate them.
Our investigative trail starts at Genesis 4:22, which reads: ‘Sella also brought forth Tubalcain, who was a hammerer and artificer in every work of brass and iron…’ Tubalcain, as his name suggests, was a descendant of Cain, who has the rather unglamorous claim to fame as the first murderer, and a fracticidal one no less (although it would have had been a family member, considering the circumstances). Because of his heinous crime, God curses Cain and his descendants. In his commentary On Genesis, Bede describes the descendants of Cain as ‘children of the curse’.
While the verse in Genesis simply suggests that Tubalcain was a skilled smith, an early interpretation of the text was that Tubalcain had taught all men the art of metalworking. According to Erin Wagner, this interpretation can be traced back to at least as early as the writings of Origen. Since Tubalcain embodied Cain’s curse, it followed that the art of smithing itself was cursed. This is certainly implied in Bede’s commentary, where he remarks that all metalwork would be unnecessary if man did not sin.
So, we have established the belief that smiths could represent wickedness and sin, but how did it translate into the realms of the supernatural? For this, we have to take a step away from Tubalcain and cast our eyes towards Beowulf, which contains an interesting passage between lines 109-113:
‘Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God’
[trans. Heaney, p.9]
This seemingly strange association between Cain and monsters arises out of the apocryphal Book of Enoch, which says that the fallen angels, i.e. demons, took the daughters of Cain as wives and so produced a race of giants. The Book of Enoch also explicitly says that one of the fallen angels, Azazel, taught mankind how to forge weaponry and armour. Although the Book of Enoch proposes a different origin of metalworking, it nevertheless maintains its evil connotations while establishing an additional link to the demonic realm.
The smiths in the Lacnunga charm above may very well reflect the influence of these apocryphal ideas. I remain speculative because (to my knowledge) the charm has no other evidence of Christian appropriation apart from the ending line that simply says ‘Be well! May the Lord help you.’ But it is not inconceivable that the mention of smiths here draws upon these apocryphal traditions; they might even be a pseudonym for demons, though that might be pushing the argument a bit too far. It is improbable that the scribe was aware of the obscure passage in Genesis 4:22, so it is more likely that the Book of Enoch or some knowledge of its contents was circulating in Anglo-Saxon England at the time.
Bede. On Genesis. Translated by Calvin B. Kendall. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008.
Coatsworth, Elizabeth. ‘The Book of Enoch and Anglo-Saxon Art’. In Apocryphal Traditions in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Kathryn Powell and Donald Scragg, pp.135-50. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003.
Hinton, David A. ‘Anglo-Saxon Smiths and Myths’. In Textual and Material Culture in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Donald Scragg, pp.261-82. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003.
Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf. W.W. Norton, 2002.
Pettit, Edward. Anglo-Saxon Remedies, Charms, and Prayers from the British Library MS Harley 585: The Lacnunga, vol. 1. Edward Mellen Press, 2001.
Wagner, Erin. ‘Keeping it in the Family: Beowulf and the Tradition of Familicide in the Kin of Cain’. Hortulus 9, 1 (2013). Here.