The Metal Magicians.
Some people are very skilful at what they do. If you set out in a small boat to row or sail to Sweden without a modern satnav or even a compass, how would you know which way to go? If you had someone with you who could guide you, so that after three or four days and nights you arrived safely at the very place you wished to go to, wouldn’t you admire their knowledge and their skill? And wouldn’t you wonder just how they had done it. It would seem to be almost like a magic trick, especially if you truly believed in REAL magic. Early navigators were held in awe for the knowledge they possessed. Until more recent times people who seemed to have medical knowledge were held in the same kind of wonder. Even today, what we might call witch doctors still hold positions of great power in many societies. We might think that what they offer is like a kind of ‘magic’ based upon their special secret understandings that are passed from one to another.
Amongst the Anglo-Saxons the men who worked metal had a similar kind of status to that of a chemist or a leading-edge scientist today. The metal workers had special abilities. They could transform rocks into metal by a special process that only they understood and then the metal could be transformed again into a variety of very important tools or equipment and even into precious objects. They understood the alchemy of heat and liquid metal, the meaning of the different coloured bands in hot metal, of quenching in different liquids, of adding ingredients such as charcoal to change the nature of the material, of the subtle effects of striking the metal, stretching it, forming it and joining it. They knew more … probably … than you know today. You could not do what they did.
The things they produced were valuable, such as containers, chains, armour, weapons and jewellery. The sharpness of their blades went beyond the everyday understanding of mere mortals. Knives were of particular importance and sharpening them came to have special symbolic significance. In the Sutton Hoo ship-burial the king had a sceptre with an intricately modelled, bronze Stag as its capping. The major part of the shaft of this sceptre was a long fine-grained whetstone with carved heads at the ends. This object might have signified the power that the king possessed which could be transmitted to his followers. Could theirs be the sharpest blades capable of removing the heads of their enemies with a single blow? Maybe the power of sharpness could flow from this stone into the metal as we might think of an electric current today? We can only speculate, but it would seem that this blade-sharpening stone was the ultimate symbol of the king’s power.
Certain swords had individual names and were passed from one warrior to another. The exploits of swords were recounted in their stories. Modern soldiers might dismantle their weapons, oil them, polish them, re-assemble them, hone their bayonets and check, check, check everything. Finally, they may turn to a religious symbol to hope for divine protection for when life is about to be put at serious risk, your offensive tools are your best defensive protection. You might come to believe that your sword protects and carries your spirit. You will be tested together. You will rely on it to save you. If your sword had touched the king’s whetstone, could it have given your sword the protective power that you need?
The blacksmith was a very special person. Powerful leaders needed such men. A king would have his own highly skilled smith, so that he could ask for certain objects to be made and could possess custom metalwork of the highest quality. Alliances were forged (literally) by giving gifts. Powerful warriors kept their bands together by sharing their goods. They were like a ruthless, armed, fighting rugby team that ate together, got drunk together, travelled together and fought together. Armies today may still use the same bonds of comradeship to bring together and cement a fighting unit. We still understand the words ‘Band of Brothers’ that was probably in use long before Shakespeare put these words into the mouth of King Henry V just before battle.
Today we know that the weapons the men hold and the protective armour that they have around them, will be all-important when it comes to the fight. The Anglo-Saxons also knew this and they knew that these things came from the hands of the smiths. When another man’s sword strikes your sword and shatters it, to leave you unarmed in the midst of battle you will probably pay with your life, being horribly and painfully mutilated. As you enter any battle you must have the utmost faith and the deepest belief in the sword in your hand and the men that produced it. The better the smith, the better the swords, shields, spears, axes, helmets and protective clothes would be. These objects represented the forefront of technological exploration and scientific understanding at that time. The men who could produce them to the highest quality were clever then and they would be clever now. Their status was close to being metal magicians.
Whetstone image from Remaking the Sutton Hoo Stone
The Ansell-Roper Replica and its context.
Paul Mortimer & Stephen Pollington. asbooks.co.uk