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.
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.
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.
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.
Vidirhrafn – Willowraven
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