Sunday, April 18, 2010

From Women, Blacksmiths and Druids

I went blacksmithing with my daugher and son this week, to a wonderful and free program run by an antique tractor association. The guys who run the program open a huge blacksmith shop, welcome anyone who comes, and teach blacksmithing every week as long as the temperature is over 40 degrees. However, though all are welcome, the teens and young kids who come get top priority from the smiths, who patiently coach and encourage the often knife and sword crazed kids who show up.

I first learned smithing 30 years ago when working for a colonial era living history museum. The museum required all volunteers and credit-earning students to learn about every shop at the museum. I worked in the weaving cabin, perched on the side of the West Virginia hills, and sat out in front of cabins teaching spinning. I had to make a hook in the smithing shop, but the boys then clearly didn't want women and girls around "their" forges. "Women weren't smiths," they lied to us repeatedly, and I hated the hot smithy enough that I didn't care at all! Let me sit in the breeze with a spinning wheel while the boys all made boring, boring hooks.

Here we are decades later, and my daughter and friend wanted to make a Viking Women's knife at a free Pennsic workshop. (Pennsic is a two week international camp out with 10,000 of your closest friends in the Society for Creative Anachronism.) I showed up with two kids at 8:30 in the morning, by the side of Cooper's Lake, and Master Eli kindly took both kids through every step of making the knife. It was a wonderful morning. We left Pennsic knowing we wanted to learn more!

So now, when weather permits, we smith every week. When too many kids show up and there is no room at the 5 forges, I help with the bellows and learn all about coke fires and forge temperatures. My best smith friend is an 83 year old retired forestry commission wild life rehabilitator, who loves Tony Hillerman books, Navajo traditions, and has too much arthritis to hammer anymore but helps run the fires with me. He is an inspirational and loving dude.

The program is typical of what I find in conservative groups. The Republican and NRA-cap wearing men who run the shop never blinked at my nosering, dreads, tattoos, or my multiracial kids. The smiths all want to keep their craft going to a new generation, and they welcome emo, goth, punk, and steampunk kids with complete happiness. I love these guys dearly. Compared to those "liberal" boys back in the WV museum, who worked hard to keep women from smithing, these guys, Republican though they are, are actually models of Christian loving.

Which brings me to the title. This is attributed to St. Patrick, though the written version comes from 8th century Ireland:

St. Patrick's Breastplate

"I invoke today all these virtues
Against every hostile merciless power
Which may assail my body and my soul,
Against the incantations of false prophets,
Against the black laws of heathenism,
Against the false laws of heresy,
Against the deceits of idolatry,
Against the spells of women, and smiths, and druids,
Against every knowledge that binds the soul of man.

Christ, protect me today
Against every poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against death-wound,
That I may receive abundant reward.

Christ be with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ in the fort,
Christ in the chariot seat,
Christ in the poop deck.
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of an invocation of the Trinity,
I believe the Trinity in the Unity
The Creator of the Universe."

This prayer is a "binding," a tradition Pagan prayer or spell or meditation or incantation (take your pick of words), used to protect the speaker from harm. Note that wonderful line, "against the spells of women, blacksmiths and druids."

Here is a lovely example of the powers of women in the church, in paganism, in the smithy and in druid communities. The connections between and among evils in women pagan or Christian, all smiths male and female, all druids male and female, demonstrates to me the wonderful powers we can find here on the boundaries of Pagan, Christian, Celtic and other traditions. What is truly amazing here is that the prayer itself is so Pagan, from the bindings to invocations to the Trinity - the Irish church by the 8th century was its own amalgamation. Why today would we choose spiritual paths set down by others and avoid paths others deem evil?

I dare say most readers would support me and my daughter learning to be blacksmiths - despite the antipathy of those boys 30 years ago. I would support crafty explorers of spiritual traditions in much the same genderbending/sex role defying way. Bridget, patron saint of blacksmits, holder of Bishopric in the church, herself shows new ways to be Christian, female, pagan, druid and human. I say we grab Bridget just as my daughter grabs her hammer (a gift from those Republican smiths).

No bindings needed. Liberation and freedom are much more fun.

Oh and to those boys back in the 1980's telling me and all women that "women were never smiths. . ." The above print is from the Holkham Bible Picture book, from England c. 1327. It is the first picture of a European smithy known.

The picture shows a woman working with a hammer at the forge. . .

Oh, and the hymn of Saint Patrick's breastplate was re-written in Victorian times, with pesky notes about smiths and druids removed. You can hear many versions on Youtube, and here is one I like most:


  1. ... and ya' REALLY gotta watch out for them druid women blacksmiths. (wink) Thanks for the post, especially the fabulous illustration. :-)

  2. Sorry - what you are looking at in that image is ALLEGORY, not an accurate depiction of historic fact.
    The problem of gender restriction in roles is ALWAYS a complex one. A single illustration from a historic source, without further examination of the context in which the image was original created, certainly can not be considered *proof* - of anything.

    The realities of history should NEVER be used as justification for MODERN restrictions. Otherwise you can 'justify' slavery, rape, stoning...

    I happily accept female students to my courses, and have personally observed the significant impact the growing number of female smiths have had on artistic blacksmithing over my own 30 year experience.

    Never let anyone tell you that you CAN NOT do something.
    But history is NOT our modern age!


    I think you will like this as well. It's a Brazilian song that is a binding as well. St George is the blacksmith orixa Ogun in the afro-Brazilian religions. The song is a protection spell against bullets, bindings, knives, chains...who sings it is under the protection of George, and things made of iron can't harm him/her