Metalworkers - Magical Professions

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Magical Professions

Metalworkers or smiths are primal magicians, shamans, and alchemists. The most primeval forms of magic are menstrual magic, shamanic spirit-working, and botanical (herbal) magic; modern magic was born with the advent of the Iron Age. The history of the modern magical practitioner is intertwined with the history of smithcraft.

Smiths, the original alchemists, evolved the art of transmutation, transforming one substance into another via the elemental powers of fire and water. The smith’s art was kept secret for centuries: those who possessed its secrets were able to craft weapons and tools by which they could completely dominate their neighbors—world domination indeed. These secrets were invaluable; people died maintaining them or attempting to obtain or steal them.

Metalworkers existed before the Iron Age. Metalworkers created beautiful sacred ritual objects of gold and silver; they crafted alloys of brass and bronze, and both remain sacred amongst many traditional cultures. However, iron was special and not just because it could be used to forge steel and create incredibly sturdy, powerful tools and weapons.

Iron derives from two sources: the purest iron on Earth comes from outer space, in the form of meteorites, thus it was metal from heaven, a gift of the gods. And yes, the ancients recognized where these meteorites came from, perhaps witnessing them fall. We know because some meteorites were extensively described, and were considered holy objects sacred to various powerful goddesses, most notably Artemis of Ephesus and Kybele. (See DIVINE WITCH: Artemis, Kybele.) The black stone that is the center of veneration at Mecca’s Kaaba is a similar meteorite; prior to Islam, the shrine was associated with a mother goddess.

Iron from the sky was affiliated with sacred deified mothers; the other source of iron is iron ore from within Earth. That, too, has primordial associations with primal female power, the power of the Great Earth Mother.

The magical art of metalworking didn’t emerge from thin air as an independent art. It was a continuation, a transformation, of an earlier magical art, the most ancient magic of all: women’s lunar, menstrual mysteries. This is a type of magic obviously restricted to women alone. Ironworking enabled men to participate too.

Menstrual blood was considered the most magical charged substance on Earth (and in many magical traditions it is still considered so). What could possibly be more powerful than an individual woman’s menstrual power? The Earth Mother’s own menstrual secretions—iron. In the right hands, this was regarded as potentially the single most powerful object on Earth.

Central Asia’s Turkic tribes had another perception of iron ore: they perceived raw metals as Earth’s waste products. If left alone, for a sufficient amount of time, they would eventually develop into finished metal. This “sufficient amount of time” might, however, be thousands of years—too long for any individual to wait. Smithcraft was a method of hurrying up the process. (This is the seed from which alchemy grows.)

Of course, not only is no other substance as magical, powerful, and potentially dangerous as menstrual blood, no other substance is subject to so many taboos and restrictions. Mining, shaping, and working iron were thus fraught with danger. Digging around in Earth was once considered akin to rape; it could not be done safely without the guidance and protection of Earth’s guardian spirits, especially snake spirits, powerfully affiliated with both women’s lunar mysteries and magical ironworking. (See ANIMALS: Snakes.)

By virtue of their contact with this magic material and their mastery over the substance and its spiritual mysteries, smiths were more than just artisans. They were the original master magicians, priestesses, and priests of the Earth’s mysteries. Although some smiths might also perform shamanic functions, smiths became the first professional magicians, requested to perform rituals and spell-casting on behalf of other individuals.

No wonder iron and steel swords were so much more powerful and efficient than older bronze weapons! Traditional menstrual magic is often used for defensive, protective reasons; ironworking puts the power of the Earth Mother’s blood into the hands of warriors.

The ironworker is traditionally more than just a metalworker, however. Like the professional witch and midwife, the ironworker is usually a multi-tasker, serving as healer, herbal practitioner, dentist, barber, body artist, and often the only person in the community authorized to perform circumcisions. (To this day, there are Bedouin communities who will await the arrival of a nomadic smith to perform all needed circumcisions, even if it takes years for one to turn up.) The smith carves amulets and musical instruments, performs cures, devises and leads rituals, and communes with the spirits. Metalworking (and associated spiritual and magical) secrets were closely guarded.

Smiths were simultaneously respected and needed, feared and persecuted. Rulers needed master smiths to create weapons and tools for them, so that they could maintain their authority. Others wishing to topple that authority would approach the smith as well, hoping for assistance. Because smiths were master diviners, theoretically they would know which side to back. Smiths thus held a pivotal position of power and an uneasy association with authority.

Smiths’ spiritual associations led to other concerns:

Image Because he is in daily contact with Earth’s ultimate power substance and is able to bend it to his will, the smith is perceived as having greater magical power than the average person. That magical power is continually replenished and reinvigorated by his proximity to iron.

Image However, iron, as Earth’s menstrual blood, is not only powerful but dangerous, subject to taboos and spiritual restrictions, especially in the hands of a man. The ironworker who handles it openly and constantly is obviously powerful but also commonly perceived by outsiders as somehow “tainted” or unclean.

Historically, both women and men have been ironworkers. Various myths suggest that women first discovered smithcraft or, conversely, that its mysteries were uncovered by a married couple: forged metal is created from fire and water, the most intensely male and intensely female elements.

Traditional smithcraft often involves a man and woman working together—the man wielding the hammer, the woman working the bellows. This dyad is reproduced in the marriages of sacred smiths: Athena and Hephaestus, Oya and Ogun. Notably, neither marriage worked out happily, perhaps reflecting that professional smithcraft, dependent on physical strength, eventually became a male-dominated profession.

A professional class of magical practitioners was born. Outsiders’ ambivalence toward magic was born, too. Smithcraft evolved into clans in order to keep precious magical secrets in the family. (And also because outsiders liked the smith’s services but often preferred keeping them at arm’s length when not needed.) The smith’s wife, who often worked alongside him, became a power in her own right: many ironworkers’ wives were healers, midwifes, and fortune-tellers. In the Middle East, spiritual and magical use of henna, a botanical substitute for menstrual magic, was strongly associated with Djinn and with ironworkers’ wives.

Iron is the one material that consistently repels harmful spells and malicious spirits. Fairies and Djinn allegedly fear iron, although Djinn, like dwarfs, are also simultaneously considered master metalworkers. A piece of iron or steel, iron’s derivative, placed under the pillow keeps the spiritual dangers of the night away. Iron is considered so powerful common magical wisdom suggests that if you don’t have any, just saying the word “iron” offers spiritual protection.

Many smiths evolve into nomads: the most famous are the Romany whose traditional lifestyle epitomized ironworking clans. Clans travel together and marry within their group. Men work as smiths and musicians; women as healers, shamans, and diviners.

Unlike masons and millers, but like fortunetellers and spell-casters, in many traditional societies, ironsmiths are explicitly identified with magic. Many engage in divination and spell-casting themselves. This type of ironworker still exists in communities in Africa and Asia.

In Christian Europe, ironworking became identified with the devil. The devil was envisioned hard at work in a forge, hammer in hand, frequently wearing the leather apron that is the smith’s uniform and which derives from women’s ancient magical costumes.

Sacred smiths exist too. Like ancient smiths, smith gods are both male and female. Female smith spirits are in touch with their martial side; male smith spirits have intense relationships with women, and often demonstrate complex relationships with their mothers. Male smith spirits tend to be intensely macho, testosteronedriven deities, however the magical art of smithcraft is never entirely divorced from women’s mysteries.

The traditional history of ironworking to a great extent parallels that of magic working. People need and desire smiths. Their services are crucial, yet people are also afraid to get close to them and will often not allow them to live as fully integrated members of society.

Among the spirits identified with metalworking are the following.