Wayland the Smith and Whaitiri

FYI: The Old Norse, Old and Middle English, Faroese, and Icelandic letter Ð ð is pronounced like an English DH, and Þ þ is TH.

Wayland the Smith is a master blacksmith who features in Norse, Germanic, and Old English mythology and folklore. Other iterations of his name include Wieland (German), Weland (Old English), Völundr and Velentr (Old Norse), Wiolant (Old High German), and Welandaz (Proto–Germanic).

In Völundarkviða (part of the Old Norse Poetic Edda cycle), Völundr is one of three sons of the King of the Samis (the Far North of Scandinavia, and Russia’s northwest Kola Peninsula). He and his brothers, Egil and Slagfiðr, cohabit with Valkyries for nine years. When the Valkyries leave, Egil and Slagfiðr follow them and never return.

Völundr is captured by King Niðhad of Närke (now part of Sweden), hamstrung, and imprisoned on Sævarstaðir island. Niðhad takes advantage of Völundr’s most exquisite skill as a blacksmith, and forces him to forge many things. He also steals Völundr’s sword and the ring from his Valkyrie lover.

In revenge, Völundr kills the princes, and makes goblets from their skulls, a brooch from their teeth, and jewels from their eyes. He sends the goblets to Niðhad, the jewels to the Queen, and the brooch to Princess Böðvildr. When Böðvildr comes to have “her” ring mended, Völundr takes the ring back, rapes and impregnates her, and laughingly flies away on wings he’s made. He makes sure to tell Niðhad about his gruesome revenge.

In the Velents þáttr smiðs section of Þiðrekssaga, Niðhad is King of Jutland (now part of Denmark) After Niðhad graciously receives master smith Velend as a servant at court, Velend loses Niðhad’s knife and secretly makes another. When Niðhad realises this knife cuts much better than before, he asks Velend about the matter, and Velend pretends court smith Amilias made it.

Niðhad has his suspicions, and puts both smiths to a test. Velend forges a sword, and Amilias armour. Velend must use the sword to try to kill Amilias when he’s in the armour. Velend is about to start to work when he discovers his tools are gone. Suspecting chieftain Regin, Velend makes a lifelike statue of him. Niðhad then realises the truth, and gives the tools back.

Velend has many more adventures in Velents þáttr smiðs, also ending with gruesome revenge and flying away on wings.

As Welund, he appears in the Old English poem Deor. In Beowulf, he’s mentioned as Weland, the smith who made the title character’s mail shirt. He also featured in the story of Franks Casket, a whale’s bone chest with many knife-cut narrative scenes. No written form of this story has survived.

He also features in many other poems and folktales.

Wayland is derived from the Germanic elements wela (skill) and land.

Copyright Fir0002

Whaitiri is the Maori goddess personifying thunder, descended from several deities personifying lightning. She’s not exactly a kind and gentle goddess, particularly since she loves cannibalism. When she heard about a mortal named Kaitangata, she was thrilled. Since Kaitangata means “man-eater,” Whaitiri was convinced he’d be the perfect husband.

Whaitiri was very disappointed when Kaitangata turned out to be a kind, gentle person who didn’t engage in any cannibalism. Trying to prove her devotion, Whaitiri killed her favourite slave, Anonkia, and gave Kaitangata the heart and liver. Kaitangata was horrified.

Copyright Sailko

Kaitangata spent a lot of time fishing to feed his family, but most of the fish got away due to his lack of proper equipment. Whaitiri taught him how to make barbed fishing hooks, and he became much more successful. However, she quickly tired of this pescatarian diet, and caught two of Kaitangata’s relatives in a fishing net for her next meal.

Not suspecting the bones came from his own family, Kaitangata used them to make fishing hooks. Whaitiri likewise didn’t know some of their fish came from those hooks, and started going blind after eating it. The fish was infused with lapa, sacredness, from the humans.

Whaitiri was very offended to overhear Kaitangata describing her heart as cold as snow, with skin like the wind, and complaining about how dirty their kids were. She revealed her true nature, and returned to the heavens.

Whaitiri means “thunder” in Maori.

Voluptas, Vervactor, Viduus, Viriplaca, Verminus, Venilia, Vagitanus, Vitumnus, and Volutina

Since no one in Greek mythology has a name starting with V, either in the original Greek or in one of the Latinized forms historically used, I decided to use Roman mythology for the V day. My original plan had been to use Roman names for the letters missing from Greek, but there are also certain letters not used in Latin.

I also couldn’t find much substantial information on any of the Roman V deities I tracked down, so I decided to feature a bunch of stubs today. Because I’m very superstitious about lucky vs. unlucky numbers and dates, I had to make it nine instead of leaving it at eight. As irrational as I know this is, I always try to avoid the number eight!

Voluptas, etched by Daniel Hopfer

Voluptas, or Volupia, is the daughter of Cupid (Eros) and Psyche, and the goddess of sensual pleasures. Her Greek name is Hedone, which means “pleasure.” It’s the root of the English word “hedonism.” Likewise, Voluptas also means “pleasure” or “bliss,” and is the origin of the English word “voluptuous.”

Vervactor is one of the twelve helper gods of the goddess Ceres, overseeing each step of the grain cycle. He’s the first one up, the god who plows. A priest would invoke the help of these twelve gods, asking for Divine help and protection every step of the way. Vervactor derives from vervago, “to break up,” and vervactum, “fallow ground.”

Viduus is the god who separates the body and soul after Death. The name means “void, bereft,” and is the source of the English words “widow” and “widower.” Interestingly, “widower” is one of the few words whose masculine form is piggybacked off the original feminine form, not the other way around (e.g., actor vs. actress, usher vs. usherette). While I normally avoid using suffixes denoting sex, “widower” is one of those words which still seems to require it.

Viriplaca is the goddess who soothes men’s anger. This was used as one of Juno’s added names, when she was invoked as a goddess to restore peace between a married couple. There was a sanctuary to her on Palatine Hill in Rome, where women went to pour out their hearts when their husbands had wronged them. Viriplaca derives from vir, “man,” and placare, “to appease.”

Verminus is the god who protects cattle from disease, and is possibly taken from the Indigetes, a conquered Iberian people. There were several altars to him in the Roman Empire. His name either derives from vermine, “gripe,” or vermino, “to have worms.” Related words include vermis (worm) and verminosus (wormy). You can guess where the English word “worm” came from!

Venilia is a goddess of the winds and sea, though according to Ovid and Virgil, she was a nymph and the wife of Janus or Faunus. A mountain on Venus is named for her. The name might be related to ventosus, “windy.”

Vagitanus (or Vaticanus) is the goddess who presides over a baby’s first cry and opens their mouths for this purpose. The name derives from vagitus, “crying, wailing, squalling.”

Vitumnus is the god who enables the quickening (the first fetal movements in utero). Some sources believe this is an aspect of Jove (Jupiter) instead of a separate deity. The name derives from vita, “life.”

Volutina is the goddess who causes envelopes (i.e., leaf sheaves) to form. The name is derived from involumenta, “swaddling,” and voluto, “to roll.”

Urania and Uranus

Note: The Urania section is edited and fleshed-out from last year’s A to Z post. It was really hard to find anyone from Greek mythology whose name starts with a U (either in the original Greek or Latinized forms), so it was a rather foregone conclusion.

The Muses Urania and Calliope, by Simon Vouet, ca. 1634

Urania (Ourania) is one of the nine Muses, conceived and born when Zeus and Mnemosyne slept together on nine consecutive nights. Some sources name her as the oldest of the Muses. From her mother, she inherited grace and beauty, and from her father, she inherited majesty and power.

She’s the Muse of astronomy, and foretells the future through the stars. Urania most loves those who love philosophy and the heavens. Those who’ve been taught by her are raised into the heavens, since the power of thoughts and imagination lift the human soul to heavenly heights.

Urania, by Giuseppe Fagnani, 1869

Urania wears a cloak embroidered with stars, and a crown of stars. She’s also usually depicted with a celestial globe, to which she points with a staff. Urania keeps her eyes focused on the stars, her realm.

Some sources name her as the mother of musician Linus (by Apollo), and the god Hymenaeus (by Dionysus). Hymenaeus is the winged god of marriage ceremonies, song, and inspiring feasts. He was supposed to attend every wedding, for if he didn’t, the marriage would be a disaster.

In the Renaissance, she became a popular Muse for poets.

Urania is derived from ouranios, “heavenly.”

Uranus (Ouranos) is one of the fifteen primordial deities. He represents the sky, and was asexually conceived by his mother Gaia. Other sources cite his father as Aether, the personification of upper air; still other sources name his parents as Aether and Hemera (personification of day), or cite his mother as Nyx (personification of night).

Since the Greek deities were one big dysfunctional family, Uranus later married Gaia and had many children with her—the Titans, the Giants, the Cyclopses, the Furies, the Meliae (ash tree nymphs), and the Hecatoncheires (Hundred-Handed Ones).

Every night, Uranus coupled with Gaia, but he hated all his kids, and began hiding them deep in Tartarus, causing great pain to Gaia. Since she personified the Earth, these kids were in her physical body and unable to get out. Hoping to end this situation, Gaia made an adamantine sickle and told Kronos to lie in wait to ambush Uranus.

Detail of The Mutiliation of Uranus by Saturn, by Giorgio Vasari

Kronos leapt out and castrated Uranus next time he came to couple with Gaia. Aphrodite was born from the severed genitals falling into the sea, and the blood drops falling to the ground created the Giants, the Meliae, and the Furies. Some sources say the blood also birthed the Telchines, the original inhabitants of Rhodes.

After Uranus’s overthrow, Kronos re-imprisoned the Hecatoncheires and Cyclopses in Tartarus. Gaia and Uranus told him he’d be overthrown by his own children, so Kronos swallowed each at birth to prevent this. Only Zeus avoided this fate, due to his mother Rhea and grandmother Gaia’s clever thinking.

On 13 March 1781, the seventh planet was discovered and named after Uranus.

Uranus, like Urania, is derived from ouranios, “heavenly.”

Tantalus and Tethys

Tantalus, by Gioacchino Assereto, 1630s–40s

Tantalus (Tantalos) is a son of Zeus, great-grandpap of Agamemnon and Menelaus, and possibly a real historical figure. He was the ruler of an Anatolian city named Tantalis, Tantalos, or Sipytos. A port was named for him, and the city had a fairly well-known sepulchre of him.

Tantalus is claimed as Phrygian, sometimes the King of Phrygia, though his city was in the western part of Anatolia, where the kingdom of Lydia emerged. Since his son Pelops is called Pelops the Lydian, Tantalus may have belonged to a pre-kingdom royal family of Lydia.

Like the ungrateful Ixion, Tantalus too was invited to Zeus’s table by Mount Olympus. Tantalus wasn’t a very good guest, and stole the immortality-granting ambrosia. He brought it back to his people, and revealed the deities’ secrets.

Le Festin Donné aux Dieux par Tantale, Hugues Taraval, 1767

His misbehaviour didn’t end there. Tantalus sacrificed his own son Pelops, cutting him up and boiling him, and served him by a banquet for the deities. The Divine attendees found out just what was on the menu, and refused to touch it. Demeter, however, was so distraught over the loss of her daughter Persephone, she absentmindedly ate part of the shoulder.

Clotho, one of the Fates, resurrected Pelops on orders from Zeus. She collected the body parts and boiled them in a sacred cauldron, and rebuilt the shoulder with an ivory replacement made by Hephaestus and presented by Demeter. Pelops grew up to be very handsome, and Poseidon taught him how to use chariots. Sadly, Zeus punished him for the sins of his father, and kicked him out of Olympus.

Tantalus was forced to stand in a pool of water under a fruit tree with low-hanging branches. When he tried to pick fruit, the branches moved away from his grasp. Likewise, when he knelt to take a drink, the water receded. A threatening stone towered above his head.

In another version, Tantalus was blamed for stealing a golden dog Hesphaestus made to watch over the infant Zeus, who was hiding from his father Kronos. Tantalus’s friend Pandareus had really stolen the dog and given it to him for safekeeping, but when Pandareus asked him to return it, Tantalus denied he either had it or had seen it. Other versions depict Tantalus as the one who stole the dog and gave it to Pandareus.

Tantalus may be derived from Talantalos, “who has to bear much.” It’s related to talas, “wretched.” The English word “tantalize/tantalise” comes from his name.

Copyright Bernard Gagnon

Tethys is a Titan, the daughter of Gaia and Uranus, wife and sister of Titan Oceanus (Divine personification of the sea), and mother of the 3,000 river gods and the 3,000 Oceanid sea nymphs. Mythology obviously doesn’t operate under the normal scientific facts of conception, pregnancy, and childbirth!

According to one tradition, Tethys and Oceanus, not Gaia and Uranus, are the parents of the Titans. This may, however, be a misunderstanding of context and intent. Oceanus possibly was referred to as “from whom the gods are sprung” on account of how many river gods he sired, and Tethys may have been called “mother” due to her role as Hera’s foster mother.

Copyright Nevit Dilmen, GFDL, Creative Commons CC-BY 2.5

While Zeus was overthrowing his father Kronos, his mother Rhea took Hera to Tethys and Oceanus for safekeeping. They were very loving, attentive foster parents. Later on, Hera helped to reconcile the couple after an argument and resulting cessation of sexual relations.

Out of love for Hera, Tethys forbade the nymph Callisto (yet another of Zeus’s conquests) from touching the ocean after she was turned into a bear and placed in the sky as the constellation Ursa Major. This constellation never sets below the horizon.

One of Saturn’s moons, discovered in 1684, is named after Tethys.

Tethys is derived from tethe, “grandmother.” Other sources, however, believe her name was derived from that of the Mesopotamian goddess Tiamat, due to parallels between their stories. Tiamat possibly is derived from the Greek and Akkadian words for “sea,” and a cognate of the Northwest Semitic word tehom (the deeps, abyss). Tethys was identified with the sea, and her name was used as a poetic term for it.

Semele and Silenus

Jupiter and Semele, by Dosso Dossi, 1520s

Semele is the mortal mother of the god Dionysus, and the daughter of heroic Theban founder Kadmos (Cadmus) and his wife Harmonia. Her Roman name is Stimula.

Semele was a priestess of Zeus, and Zeus liked what he saw when he watched her slaughtering a bull by his altar and swimming in the river Asopos to clean off the blood. He flew over the river, disguised as an eagle, and fell in instalove yet again. Zeus, being Zeus, couldn’t keep it in his pants, and began an affair with Semele.

Hera, being Hera, was extremely pissed when she discovered the affair and that Semele was pregnant. She took on the guise of an old crone and befriended Semele, who admitted she’d been sleeping with Zeus. Hera pretended she didn’t believe Semele, and planted seeds of doubt in Semele’s mind.

Semele asked Zeus to grant her a boon, and Zeus was only too eager to comply. He promised by the River Styx to grant her whatever she asked for. Semele asked him to reveal himself in all his glory to prove his divinity. This request didn’t go over so well, but Semele persisted, and Zeus had no choice but to do it.

Jupiter and Semele, by Gustave Moreau

He tried to spare her life by only showing her his smallest thunderbolts and thinnest thunderstorm clouds, but it’s impossible for mortals to look upon deities without burning up. Semele was consumed by lightning-created flames.

Zeus rescued the fetal Dionysus by sewing him into his thigh. When Dionysus grew up, he rescued Semele from Hades and made her a goddess on Mount Olympus, with the name Thyone. She presided over her son’s wine-induced frenzies.

Semele may be of Thraco–Phyrigian origin, derived from the Proto–Indo–European root dgem, “earth.” It thus may be borrowed from the Thracian name Zemele, which means “mother earth.” However, this etymology is impossible to definitively establish after so many millennia.

The Train of Silenus, in the style of Peter Paul Rubens

Silenus (Seilenos) is the usually-drunk tutor and companion of Dionysus. He’s usually depicted as older than the other satyrs, sometimes significantly older. Originally, he was cast as a forest man with horse ears, sometimes also a horse tail and legs. Later on, he often began to be depicted as fat, bald, human-legged, thick-lipped, and squat-nosed.

Silenus is often so drunk, he has to be supported by other satyrs or carried by a donkey. Though he’s the drunkest of the satyrs, he’s also the wisest. When drunk, he possesses the gift of prophecy. King Midas of Phrygia took advantage of this, and spiked a fountain Silenus often drank from. When Silenus fell asleep, servants took him to the palace.

Drunken Silenus, by Giulio di Antonio Bonasone, ca. 1547

When Midas asked for some wisdom, Silenus replied, “The best thing for a man is not to be born, and if already born, to die as soon as possible.” This is very similar to the pessimistic musings of King Kohelet in the Book of Ecclesiastes.

In another version, Silenus was found wandering in the forest, rescued by peasants, and taken to Midas. The King showered him with xenia (hospitality), and Silenus told him stories in exchange. Midas loved the stories so much, he kept Silenus as a guest for five days and nights. Dionysus offered Midas a reward for his xenia, and Midas famously asked everything he touched to be turned into gold.

Silenus is of unknown etymology, though it could be related to the Thracian word zilai (wine).