Vidirhrafn – Willowraven

In the spring of 2009 I documented several swords at the British Museum and the Wallace Collection In London UK. While there, I photographed many of the artifacts on display in the prehistory and Europe section of the British Museum. This kind of expedition is like a cattle raid of inspiration, I come back to my forested hills mind stuffed and brimming.

A number of artifacts influenced the sword I’m describing here– An Anglo-Saxon chape (which is a metal fitting that covers the tip of a scabbard) with a dragons head and the throat of a drinking horn with grim faces glaring from it.  I was also very inspired by a number of exquisite Persian blades at the Wallace Collection. They were made from crucible steel bars which were twisted and forge welded together very much like Germanic pattern-welded sword blades, but with a more complicated intricate execution.  It came to my mind looking at these incredible Persian swords that it would be interesting to combine their aesthetic with a Viking Age single edged sword. I started designing a piece that is a high Scandinavian Viking sword, from a time that never was, but influenced by artifacts from the real past. This would be a sword from the other side of the curtain of mist that separates myth from reality.

The Blade

I started by constructing four long strands, three would make the core and spine of the sword blade and the fourth would make the edge. The first three billets were nine layers each and I twisted them in an interrupted pattern, a checkerboard of strait and diagonal lines. The edge billet I folded until I had 800 layers of steel.

I heated these four strands up in the forge and welded them into a single bar with a hammer and a hydraulic press. This was the beginning of the blade. Once I forged and hardened and ground the blade into the shape I wanted, I began the work of creating the scabbard and hilt.

The Hilt

When I was sixteen years old a friend in my home room class had a copy of ‘Blade Magazine’. I was interested and began looking through the pictures of hunting knives and folding pocket knives, mostly it was just cool that they were knives. I turned the page and there was a magic dagger. I don’t mean it was some garish depiction of a fantasy knife, or a prop from a movie. It was an actual artifact pulsing with meaning. It was a knife made by Don

Fogg.  His work spoke to a place just behind my navel, it was visceral, like a child’s cry, I had no choice but to respond.   Life moved forward, I became a bladesmith and when I was 21 I sent Don an email. It was the first step towards a true friendship with a man I greatly admire, he treats my admiration with generosity and grace. The year before I began making this sword I traveled to a bladesmithing conference with Don that we were both presenting at. Before leaving his house he showed me a small pile of black wood, bits of oak from the hull of a salvaged Viking ship that a friend of his had given him. He gave me a piece of this wood.  It sat on my work bench, waiting for the right project.

Once I had the blade for this sword constructed and I could see the pattern in the steel and sense the texture of the artifact I wanted to create, I knew it was the right sword for the wood from the hull of a Viking ship that my friend Don had given me.

I went to work drilling through the wood, cutting it, shaping it. I constructed a guard and pommel for the sword, and designed the hilt on paper. I drew ornamentation on the dark oak with a white pencil and carved it.

 The Scabbard

I carved the Scabbard for this sword from the heartwood of yellow birch.  Birch is an important wood in Viking Mythology.  This sword was an attempt to play a note that resonated with the stories told in the Eddas, of Odin and Thor, Freya crying tears of gold, Loki with his lips sowed shut. I carved the throat of the scabbard with the faces of the gods from the Viking Myths, Odin in the middle with one eye, flanked by Freya and Frigg, The goddesses of love and wisdom, Thor, Loki, Tyr the god of war and Frey with his long beard.

For the chape I created a piece inspired by the chape I saw at the British Museum. It says “raven in willow like sword in scabbard  –  vidir es hrafn en skalbr es sverda” in the younger Futhark, Viking Age runes.

 

Naming the Sword

Naming swords is an important part of my work. I’m telling stories with my swords, or trying to evoke a feeling the way Don Fogg’s knife did all those years ago. The story is told in edges and surfaces and ornamentation, but in order for a story to have meaning it must have at least one word and this is the function of the name. In a way each sword is a one word story. Normally this is a fairly academic process, finding the name for the sword. I search though old books, look up words, write poetry and lists of names, until eventually I settle on a word that sums up the sword I have made. In this case the name came to me from outside.

While twisting the long strands that I forged into the blade of this sword one of them rested along my forearm while it was glowing bright orange. It’s corner left a prefect willow leaf shaped burn. Several days later I found a dying raven. He let me lift him up and carry him back to my forge. I laid him on my chair and called the vet. He died in my lap on the way to the vets office. He had been pecked by crows for steeling eggs. I named the sword after him and my willow burn. Willow-Raven translated into Old Norse – Vidirhrafn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sword assembled, polished, oiled, a thing diminished from all these dreams and happenings. Not quite what I imagined, but it’s a new object in the world– an artifact of its making.

Single edged pattern-welded viking sword

Vidirhrafn – Willowraven

2009

weight of sword – 1lb:10.3oz / 747g


overall length – 29.5 inches / 75cm


blade length – 24.25 inches/ 61.5cm


hilt length – 5.5inches / 14cm


distal taper – 6mm at hilt tapering to 2.5mm before tip


point of balance – 14cm / 5.5 inches from hilt


point of percussion – 12 inches / 30cm from tip

[portfolio_slideshow]

 

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Jake Powning

Jake is a professional swordsmith, artist, and writer who explores the strange place where traditional culture and the land meet.

6 Comments:

  1. Beautiful post, Jake. I am going to refer to events like Arctic Fire and the Ashokan Bladesmithing Conference as Cattle Raids of Inspiration from here on out! I don’t believe I ever knew the full inscription either. Wonderful; mythopoetic, and you can certainly call it good magic or powerful symbolism, depending on your worldview. I somehow feel like there’s a little more Fehu in my grasp- thanks for the reminder!

  2. Thanks J! I’m glad to hear it. there really should be more ceremony around collecting inspiration, maybe some stalking first and then rushing up yelling and grabbing it. Museum staff might not approve 😀 but I think we could get away with it at bladesmithing conferences…

  3. Jake,

    If sword-smiths of ancient times had access to modern day alloys, what steel(s) do you believe/ feel a sword (the historical intended purpose), could or should be crafted with? You can choose from your personal favourite period of blade making.

    Also, not that anyone would ever purchase one of your pieces to slay a water filled juice container or see how far the edge cuts into a steel drum or if the point can pierce the door of a scrapped chevy, but have you ever done destruction testing on your steel combinations?

    Regards,

    Matt.

  4. Hi Matt, an historical swordsmith would probably be happy with 10xx steels, modern steel moves differently than bloomery iron (which is what European smiths were working with) so he would find it different to work with. The reality is, almost any modern steel would be better for making a sword than the material they had access to during the iron age. A large part of our technological evolution has hinged on the production of better steels and larger batch quantities. Also we understand metallurgy now. Iron age smiths understood how to tell whether a material was good for making swords or not— they could tell how hard it was, whether it was flexible— but they didn’t understand why, they just had the received wisdom of their predecessors and their own experience. So we have an advantage because we have computer-controlled kilns and we can know the exact temperature that steel turns to austenite, so we can really finesse the heat-treating process. There are some contemporary smiths who have really pushed this advantage, Howard Clark, Kevin Kashen, Rick Furrer, Owen Bush to name a few.
    I would stay away from higher alloy steels, the steels that are the most similar to iron age steel would be low alloy steels with mid carbon content. Modern steels are much more homogeneous than the steel most European swords were made from, they were making their swords from bloomery iron which was folded and welded but was still stranded with silica and bits of slag impurities, while modern steel is liquefied and has the impurities removed.
    When I adopted my current steel regime (1075/8670m) I tested it extensively and designed my heat treating regime to get the best out of it. It makes good swords. I’ve got some 15n20 and 1084 from Aldo Bruno which I’m looking forward to making some blades from. The 15n20 has a higher nickle content and gives a brighter contrast in the steel so you can play with light refraction and create a holographic effect in the steel (Don Fogg did some amazing work in this area).
    thanks for the question
    Jake

    • Thank you Jake.

      I saw 15n20 advertised on an online Canadian knife supply site, $0.29 per linear inch. I’ve come across a lot of talk about T10 also, yet no supplier. I’m in Whitby, On, and so far I’ve struggled to find a Canadian site/store for steel supply to the smaller end user.

      Thanks again for your time.

  5. I absolutely love this Sword. I am not a rich man, but what would this Sword cost me? Is it even available for purchase? Ever since I saw this blade, my inner Viking had had an appetite that would put Loki and Thor to shame, a hunger for such a beautiful and powerful blade. This Sword, should I ever get one, will be buried with me when I am taken to Valhalla by the Valkyries, and I will set it at The AllFather’s feet and watch his eye widen with wonder.

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