November 24th, performed at Woolwich docks every year (a place my maternal Grandparents were very familiar with), on the banks of the River Thames. The apprentice blacksmiths gathered, the most senior being chosen to represent Old Clem himself. Old Clem was seated upon a large wooden chair, wearing a large overcoat, wig, face mask with long white beard. The chair had upon it a wooden anchor and crown, symbols of St Clement. Old Clem however holds a wooden hammer and pair of tongs, before him sits a wooden anvil, archetypal symbols of the Blacksmith. He was carried aloft by six men before a great procession who listened on as Old Clem made his speech:
“I am the Real St Clement
The first founder of brass, iron and steel from the ore
I have been to Mount Etna
Where the God Vulcan first built his forge
And forged the armour and thunderbolts for the God Jupiter
I have been through the deserts of Arabia
Through Asia, Africa and America
And through the city of Pongrove
Through the town of Tipmingo and all the Northern parts of Scotland
I arrived in London on the Twenty Third of November
And came to Her Majesty’s Dockyard at Woolwich
To see how the gentlemen Vulcans came on there
I found them all hard at work
And wish to leave them well on the twenty-forth”
The processions make their way through the Docks collecting donations to Old Clem, finally resting for a good meal (and drink) at one of the many public houses, a real treat for the young apprentice craftsmen.
St Clement (or ‘Old Clem’ as he was known in my Grandparents’ neck of the Woods) is the Patron Saint of Blacksmiths, Carpenters, Anchor Makers, Farriers and ironworkers. Study of his customs reveal a striking resemblance to many other legendary ancient smiths….Wayland (Volund), Tubal Cain, Hephaestus and of course Vulcan who is referred to directly in Old Clem’s speech. It’s interesting to note that the feast day of Wayland / Volund is also around the 24th / 25th of November.
Sadly this annual ceremony for Old Clem was stopped around 1837 when some raucous merry making spooked a horse which rampaged through a nearby shop! But be that as it may the figure of ‘The Smith’ is an important one in many magical traditions from Traditional Witchcraft, The Society of Horseman to Freemasonry where many of the Patron Gods are Smiths.
Why is this? Well due to the secrecy which surrounds many of these traditions it would be impossible for me to speak to the deeper significance on their behalf, I am not a member of any of these traditions and am therefore unqualified to do so. However from a personal Traditional Craft perspective the Smith is, in a nutshell, the ancient progenitor of Craft and Magic. We know from many literary sources that figures such as Tubal Cain for example were the first founders of all things made of iron, brass and so on, and also taught women the art of herbalism, cosmetics as well as the art of magic. There is a link therefore between the Smith, and the Magician. A link further reinforced by popular belief in antiquity that Blacksmiths were master alchemists, magicians if you will, who knew the secrets of Earth and Fire and how to wield the ancient and primordial elements to create and transform.
This ability to transform the materials of Earth in the furnace of the Forge has, over time and certainly in my own personal ‘musings’, lead some to associate The Smith with the Underworld, there is after all an almighty furnace burning at the Earth’s core…molten rock and metal which constantly renews the Earth’s crust and spews forth from Volcanoes (‘Vulcan-oes’) across the Globe, Mount Etna is a good example and it is no coincidence that Vulcan, the Roman Smith-God, lived beneath Etna.
By its very nature, anything associated with the Underworld, tends to automatically associate with death and the dead, it is no wonder then that the ancient Smith-God came to represent the Lord of the Dead, He who shapes and reforms the souls of the departed between Hammer and Anvil, leading us all in the great spiral dance towards our own transformation, be it from life into death or transformation from ignorant clay born mortal to wise master magician!
Our Saxon forbears were familiar with this ‘truth’ as it were. Long barrows and Tombs such as ‘Wayland Smithy’ on the Berkshire Downs and also West Kennet Long barrow in Wiltshire became intrinsically associated with Wayland, the Long barrow ‘Wayland Smithy’ of course being named after the Smith God Wayland (or Volund to use his original title). A piece of living legend tells of a man who left his Horse and a Silver coin at Wayland Smithy overnight, only to find in the morning his horse re-shod, and the silver coin gone. He who was the great progenitor and illuminator, the first to instruct man in the arts also becomes the last, the lord of the dead and.
Delving into other stories and legends associated with Smith-Gods one finds another reoccurring theme, that of Lameness. Why is it that so many ancient Smiths were lame or crippled? There are many theories. Some suggest that good Blacksmiths were rare creatures indeed, and when you found one you did everything in your power to keep him close, even if that means crippling the poor fellow so he physically can’t leave the village. The ‘Lay of Volund’ from ‘The Poetic Edda’ is testament to such brutal treatment:
“He’ll work us woe,” she further said,
“Unless you bind him forever, instead!”
So they hamstrung Volund one by one
till he could neither walk nor run.
He could not walk, but he could craft;
Alone on an island, prisoned fast.
Volund crafted precious things,
a smith in thrall to a heartless king.
My personal feeling is that being lame, or in some way crippled symbolically designated the figure of the Smith God as a walker between. By not being able to place one of his feet on the ground suggests that the Smith had perhaps one foot elsewhere…in the otherworld perhaps. Furthermore having some physical deformity visibly demarked the figure as something atypical, abnormal, something ‘other’ and therefore special, magical…the skill of the Smith makes / made him supernatural, even superhuman. The idea of a Lame Smith however disappears in Celtic and Christian ideology where the idea of spiritual perfection would not include physical imperfection!
It is only recently that the importance of The Smith as God and Master to practitioners of the arte has really dawned on me…for reasons which are his own, He has decided lead me on a journey to find out more about this complex and deeply significant figure in Traditional Craft. On this November 24th I shall be paying homage to The Smith in all his guises as Master, Begetter of Magic, Transformer of Souls and Leader of the Spiral Dance…maybe he will teach me a crafty thing or two!
The Every Day Book Volume One by William Hone
Stations of the Sun A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton