Origin of Iron

The Kalevala, a Norse saga, has a chapter on the “Origin of Iron” that is both mythical and practical.

The Kalevala: Rune IX – Origin of Iron

WAINAMOINEN, thus encouraged,
Quickly rises in his snow-sledge,
Asking no one for assistance,
Straightway hastens to the cottage,
Takes a seat within the dwelling.
Come two maids with silver pitchers,
Bringing also golden goblets;
Dip they up a very little,
But the very smallest measure
Of the blood of the magician,
From the wounds of Wainamoinen.

From the fire-place calls the old man,
Thus the gray-beard asks the minstrel:
“Tell me who thou art of heroes,
Who of all the great magicians?
Lo! thy blood fills seven sea-boats,
Eight of largest birchen vessels,
Flowing from some hero’s veinlets,
From the wounds of some magician.
Other matters I would ask thee;
Sing the cause of this thy trouble,
Sing to me the source of metals,
Sing the origin of iron,
How at first it was created.”

Then the ancient Wainamoinen
Made this answer to the gray-beard:
“Know I well the source of metals,
Know the origin of iron;
f can tell bow steel is fashioned.
Of the mothers air is oldest,
Water is the oldest brother,
And the fire is second brother,
And the youngest brother, iron;
Ukko is the first creator.
Ukko, maker of the heavens,
Cut apart the air and water,
Ere was born the metal, iron.
Ukko, maker of the heavens,
Firmly rubbed his hands together,
Firmly pressed them on his knee-cap,
Then arose three lovely maidens,
Three most beautiful of daughters;
These were mothers of the iron,
And of steel of bright-blue color.
Tremblingly they walked the heavens,
Walked the clouds with silver linings,
With their bosoms overflowing
With the milk of future iron,
Flowing on and flowing ever,
From the bright rims of the cloudlets
To the earth, the valleys filling,
To the slumber-calling waters.

“Ukko’s eldest daughter sprinkled
Black milk over river channels
And the second daughter sprinkled
White milk over hills and mountains,
While the youngest daughter sprinkled
Red milk over seas and oceans.
Whero the black milk had been sprinked,
Grew the dark and ductile iron;
Where the white milk had been sprinkled.
Grew the iron, lighter-colored;
Where the red milk had been sprinkled,
Grew the red and brittle iron.

“After Time had gone a distance,
Iron hastened Fire to visit,
His beloved elder brother,
Thus to know his brother better.
Straightway Fire began his roarings,
Labored to consume his brother,
His beloved younger brother.
Straightway Iron sees his danger,
Saves himself by fleetly fleeing,
From the fiery flame’s advances,
Fleeing hither, fleeing thither,
Fleeing still and taking shelter
In the swamps and in the valleys,
In the springs that loudly bubble,
By the rivers winding seaward,
On the broad backs of the marshes,
Where the swans their nests have builded,
Where the wild geese hatch their goslings.

“Thus is iron in the swamp-lands,
Stretching by the water-courses,
Hidden well for many ages,
Hidden in the birchen forests,
But he could not hide forever
From the searchings of his brother;
Here and there the fire has caught him,
Caught and brought him to his furnace,
That the spears, and swords, and axes,
Might be forged and duly hammered.
In the swamps ran blackened waters,
From the heath the bears came ambling,
And the wolves ran through the marshes.
Iron then made his appearance,
Where the feet of wolves had trodden,
Where the paws of bears had trampled.

“Then the blacksmith, Ilmarinen,
Came to earth to work the metal;
He was born upon the Coal-mount,
Skilled and nurtured in the coal-fields;
In one hand, a copper hammer,
In the other, tongs of iron;
In the night was born the blacksmith,
In the morn he built his smithy,
Sought with care a favored hillock,
Where the winds might fill his bellows;
Found a hillock in the swamp-lands,
Where the iron hid abundant;
There he built his smelting furnace,
There he laid his leathern bellows,
Hastened where the wolves had travelled,
Followed where the bears had trampled,
Found the iron’s young formations,
In the wolf-tracks of the marshes,
In the foot-prints of the gray-bear.

“Then the blacksmith, Ilmarinen,
‘Thus addressed the sleeping iron:
Thou most useful of the metals,
Thou art sleeping in the marshes,
Thou art hid in low conditions,
Where the wolf treads in the swamp-lands,
Where the bear sleeps in the thickets.
Hast thou thought and well considered,
What would be thy future station,
Should I place thee in the furnace,
Thus to make thee free and useful?’

“Then was Iron sorely frightened,
Much distressed and filled with horror,
When of Fire he heard the mention,
Mention of his fell destroyer.

“Then again speaks Ilmarinen,
Thus the smith addresses Iron:
‘Be not frightened, useful metal,
Surely Fire will not consume thee,
Will not burn his youngest brother,
Will not harm his nearest kindred.
Come thou to my room and furnace,
Where the fire is freely burning,
Thou wilt live, and grow, and prosper,
Wilt become the swords of heroes,
Buckles for the belts of women.’

“Ere arose the star of evening,
Iron ore had left the marshes,
From the water-beds had risen,
Had been carried to the furnace,
In the fire the smith had laid it,
Laid it in his smelting furnace.
Ilmarinen starts the bellows,
Gives three motions of the handle,
And the iron flows in streamlets
From the forge of the magician,
Soon becomes like baker’s leaven,
Soft as dough for bread of barley.
Then out-screamed the metal, Iron:
‘Wondrous blacksmith, Ilmarinen,
Take, O take me from thy furnace,
From this fire and cruel torture.’

“Ilmarinen thus made answer:
‘I will take thee from my furnace,
‘Thou art but a little frightened,
Thou shalt be a mighty power,
Thou shalt slay the best of heroes,
Thou shalt wound thy dearest brother.’
“Straightway Iron made this promise,
Vowed and swore in strongest accents,
By the furnace, by the anvil,
By the tongs, and by the hammer,
These the words he vowed and uttered:
‘Many trees that I shall injure,
Shall devour the hearts of mountains,
Shall not slay my nearest kindred,
Shall not kill the best of heroes,
Shall not wound my dearest brother;
Better live in civil freedom,
Happier would be my life-time,
Should I serve my fellow-beings,
Serve as tools for their convenience,
Than as implements of warfare,
Slay my friends and nearest. kindred,
Wound the children of my mother.’

“Now the master, Ilmarinen,
The renowned and skilful blacksmith,
From the fire removes the iron,
Places it upon the anvil,
Hammers well until it softens,
Hammers many fine utensils,
Hammers spears, and swords, and axes,
Hammers knives, and forks, and hatchets,
Hammers tools of all descriptions.

“Many things the blacksmith needed,
Many things he could not fashion,
Could not make the tongue of iron,
Could not hammer steel from iron,
Could not make the iron harden.
Well considered Ilmarinen,
Deeply thought and long reflected.
Then he gathered birchen ashes,
Steeped the ashes in the water,
Made a lye to harden iron,
Thus to form the steel most needful.
With his tongue he tests the mixture,
Weighs it long and well considers,
And the blacksmith speaks as follows:
‘All this labor is for nothing,
Will not fashion steel from iron,
Will not make the soft ore harden.’

“Now a bee flies from the meadow,
Blue-wing coming from the flowers,
Flies about, then safely settles
Near the furnace of the smithy.

“‘Thus the smith the bee addresses,
These the words of Ilmarinen:
‘Little bee, thou tiny birdling,
Bring me honey on thy winglets,
On thy tongue, I pray thee, bring me
Sweetness from the fragrant meadows,
From the little cups of flowers,
From the tips of seven petals,
That we thus may aid the water
To produce the steel from iron.’

“Evil Hisi’s bird, the hornet,
Heard these words of Ilmarinen,
Looking from the cottage gable,
Flying to the bark of birch-trees,
While the iron bars were heating
While the steel was being tempered;
Swiftly flew the stinging hornet,
Scattered all the Hisi horrors,
Brought the blessing of the serpent,
Brought the venom of the adder,
Brought the poison of the spider,
Brought the stings of all the insects,
Mixed them with the ore and water,
While the steel was being, tempered.

“Ilmarinen, skilful blacksmith,
First of all the iron-workers,
Thought the bee had surely brought him
Honey from the fragrant meadows,
From the little cups of flowers,
From the tips of seven petals,
And he spake the words that follow:
‘Welcome, welcome, is thy coming,
Honeyed sweetness from the flowers
Thou hast brought to aid the water,
Thus to form the steel from iron!’

“Ilmarinen, ancient blacksmith,
Dipped the iron into water,
Water mixed with many poisons,
Thought it but the wild bee’s honey;
Thus he formed the steel from iron.
When he plunged it into water,
Water mixed with many poisons,
When be placed it in the furnace,
Angry grew the hardened iron,
Broke the vow that he had taken,
Ate his words like dogs and devils,
Mercilessly cut his brother,
Madly raged against his kindred,
Caused the blood to flow in streamlets
From the wounds of man and hero.
This, the origin of iron,
And of steel of light blue color.”

From the hearth arose the gray-beard,
Shook his heavy looks and answered:
“Now I know the source of iron,
Whence the steel and whence its evils;
Curses on thee, cruel iron,
Curses on the steel thou givest,
Curses on thee, tongue of evil,
Cursed be thy life forever!
Once thou wert of little value,
Having neither form nor beauty,
Neither strength nor great importance,
When in form of milk thou rested,
When for ages thou wert hidden
In the breasts of God’s three daughters,
Hidden in their heaving bosoms,
On the borders of the cloudlets,
In the blue vault of the heavens.

“Thou wert once of little value,
Having neither form nor beauty,
Neither strength nor great importance,
When like water thou wert resting
On the broad back of the marshes,
On the steep declines of mountains,
When thou wert but formless matter,
Only dust of rusty color.

“Surely thou wert void of greatness,
Having neither strength nor beauty,
When the moose was trampling on thee,
When the roebuck trod upon thee,
When the tracks of wolves were in thee,
And the bear-paws scratched thy body.
Surely thou hadst little value
When the skilful Ilmarinen,
First of all the iron-workers,
Brought thee from the blackened swamp-lands,
Took thee to his ancient smithy,
Placed thee in his fiery furnace.
Truly thou hadst little vigor,
Little strength, and little danger,
When thou in the fire wert hissing,
Rolling forth like seething water,
From the furnace of the smithy,
When thou gavest oath the strongest,
By the furnace, by the anvil,
By the tongs, and by the hammer,
By the dwelling of the blacksmith,
By the fire within the furnace.

“Now forsooth thou hast grown mighty,
Thou canst rage in wildest fury;
Thou hast broken all thy pledges,
All thy solemn vows hast broken,
Like the dogs thou shamest honor,
Shamest both thyself and kindred,
Tainted all with breath of evil.
Tell who drove thee to this mischief,
Tell who taught thee all thy malice,
Tell who gavest thee thine evil!
Did thy father, or thy mother,
Did the eldest of thy brothers,
Did the youngest of thy sisters,
Did the worst of all thy kindred
Give to thee thine evil nature?
Not thy father, nor thy mother,
Not the eldest of thy brothers,
Not the youngest of thy sisters,
Not the worst of all thy kindred,
But thyself hast done this mischief,
Thou the cause of all our trouble.
Come and view thine evil doings,
And amend this flood of damage,
Ere I tell thy gray-haired mother,
Ere I tell thine aged father.
Great indeed a mother’s anguish,
Great indeed a father’s sorrow,
When a son does something evil,
When a child runs wild and lawless.

“Crimson streamlet, cease thy flowing
From the wounds of Wainamoinen;
Blood of ages, stop thy coursing
From the veins of the magician;
Stand like heaven’s crystal pillars,
Stand like columns in the ocean,
Stand like birch-trees in the forest,
Like the tall reeds in the marshes,
Like the high-rocks on the sea-coast,
Stand by power of mighty magic!

“Should perforce thy will impel thee,
Flow thou on thine endless circuit,
Through the veins of Wainamoinen,
Through the bones, and through the muscles,
Through the lungs, and heart, and liver,
Of the mighty sage and singer;
Better be the food of heroes,
Than to waste thy strength and virtue
On the meadows and the woodlands,
And be lost in dust and ashes.
Flow forever in thy circle;
Thou must cease this crimson out-flow;
Stain no more the grass and flowers,
Stain no more these golden hill-tops,
Pride and beauty of our heroes.
In the veins of the magician,
In the heart of Wainamoinen,
Is thy rightful home and storehouse.
Thither now withdraw thy forces,
Thither hasten, swiftly flowing;
Flow no more as crimson currents,
Fill no longer crimson lakelets,
Must not rush like brooks in spring-tide,
Nor meander like the rivers.

“Cease thy flow, by word of magic,
Cease as did the falls of Tyrya,
As the rivers of Tuoni,
When the sky withheld her rain-drops,
When the sea gave up her waters,
In the famine of the seasons,
In the years of fire and torture.
If thou heedest not this order,
I shall offer other measures,
Know I well of other forces;
I shall call the Hisi irons,
In them I shall boil and roast thee,
Thus to check thy crimson flowing,
Thus to save the wounded hero.

“If these means be inefficient,
Should these measures prove unworthy,
I shall call omniscient Ukko,
Mightiest of the creators,
Stronger than all ancient heroes,
Wiser than the world-magicians;
He will check the crimson out-flow,
He will heal this wound of hatchet.

“Ukko, God of love and mercy,
God and Master Of the heavens,
Come thou hither, thou art needed,
Come thou quickly I beseech thee,
Lend thy hand to aid thy children,
Touch this wound with healing fingers,
Stop this hero’s streaming life-blood,
Bind this wound with tender leaflets,
Mingle with them healing flowers,
Thus to check this crimson current,
Thus to save this great magician,
Save the life of Wainamoinen.”

Thus at last the blood-stream ended,
As the magic words were spoken.
Then the gray-beard, much rejoicing,
Sent his young son to the smithy,
There to make a healing balsam,
From the herbs of tender fibre,
From the healing plants and flowers,
From the stalks secreting honey,
From the roots, and leaves, and blossoms.

On the way he meets an oak-tree,
And the oak the son addresses:
“Hast thou honey in thy branches,
Does thy sap run full of sweetness?”
Thus the oak-tree wisely answers:
“Yea, but last night dripped the honey
Down upon my spreading branches,
And the clouds their fragrance sifted,
Sifted honey on my leaflets,
From their home within the heavens.”

Then the son takes oak-wood splinters,
Takes the youngest oak-tree branches,
Gathers many healing grasses,
Gathers many herbs and flowers,
Rarest herbs that grow in Northland,
Places them within the furnace
In a kettle made of copper;
Lets them steep and boil together,
Bits of bark chipped from the oak-tree,
Many herbs of healing virtues;
Steeps them one day, then a second,
Three long days of summer weather,
Days and nights in quick succession;
Then he tries his magic balsam,
Looks to see if it is ready,
If his remedy is finished;
But the balsam is unworthy.

Then he added other grasses,
Herbs of every healing virtue,
That were brought from distant nations,
Many hundred leagues from Northland,
Gathered by the wisest minstrels,
Thither brought by nine enchanters.
Three days more be steeped the balsam,
Three nights more the fire be tended,
Nine the days and nights be watched it,
Then again be tried the ointment,
Viewed it carefully and tested,
Found at last that it was ready,
Found the magic balm was finished.

Near by stood a branching birch-tree.
On the border of the meadow,
Wickedly it had been broken,
Broken down by evil Hisi;
Quick he takes his balm of healing,
And anoints the broken branches,
Rubs the balsam in the fractures,
Thus addresses then the birch-tree:
“With this balsam I anoint thee,
With this salve thy wounds I cover,
Cover well thine injured places;
Now the birch-tree shall recover,
Grow more beautiful than ever.”

True, the birch-tree soon recovered,
Grew more beautiful than ever,
Grew more uniform its branches,
And its bole more strong and stately.
Thus it was be tried the balsam,
Thus the magic salve he tested,
Touched with it the splintered sandstone,
Touched the broken blocks of granite,
Touched the fissures in the mountains,
And the broken parts united,
All the fragments grew together.

Then the young boy quick returning
With the balsam he had finished,
To the gray-beard gave the ointment,
And the boy these measures uttered
“Here I bring the balm of healing,
Wonderful the salve I bring thee;
It will join the broken granite,
Make the fragments grow together,
Heat the fissures in the mountains,
And restore the injured birch-tree.”

With his tongue the old man tested,
Tested thus the magic balsam,
Found the remedy effective,
Found the balm had magic virtues;
Then anointed he the minstrel,
Touched the wounds of Wainamoinen,
Touched them with his magic balsam,
With the balm of many virtues;
Speaking words of ancient wisdom,
These the words the gray-beard uttered:
“Do not walk in thine own virtue,
Do not work in thine own power,
Walk in strength of thy Creator;
Do not speak in thine own wisdom,
Speak with tongue of mighty Ukko.
In my mouth, if there be sweetness,
It has come from my Creator;
If my bands are filled with beauty,
All the beauty comes from Ukko.”

When the wounds had been anointed,
When the magic salve had touched them,
Straightway ancient Wainamoinen
Suffered fearful pain and anguish,
Sank upon the floor in torment,
Turning one way, then another,
Sought for rest and found it nowhere,
Till his pain the gray-beard banished,
Banished by the aid of magic,
Drove away his killing torment
To the court of all our trouble,
To the highest hill of torture,
To the distant rocks and ledges,
To the evil-bearing mountains,
To the realm of wicked Hisi.
Then be took some silken fabric,
Quick he tore the silk asunder,
Making equal strips for wrapping,
Tied the ends with silken ribbons,
Making thus a healing bandage;
Then he wrapped with skilful fingers
Wainamoinen’s knee and ankle,
Wrapped the wounds of the magician,
And this prayer the gray-beard uttered
“Ukko’s fabric is the bandage,
Ukko’s science is the surgeon,
These have served the wounded hero,
Wrapped the wounds of the magician.
Look upon us, God of mercy,
Come and guard us, kind Creator,
And protect us from all evil!
Guide our feet lest they may stumble,
Guard our lives from every danger,
From the wicked wilds of Hisi.”

Wainamoinen, old and truthful,
Felt the mighty aid of magic,
Felt the help of gracious Ukko,
Straightway stronger grew in body,
Straightway were the wounds united,
Quick the fearful pain departed.
Strong and hardy grew the hero,
Straightway walked in perfect freedom,
Turned his knee in all directions,
Knowing neither pain nor trouble.

Then the ancient Wainamoinen
Raised his eyes to high Jumala,
Looked with gratitude to heaven,
Looked on high, in joy and gladness,
Then addressed omniscient Ukko,
This the prayer the minstrel uttered:
“O be praised, thou God of mercy,
Let me praise thee, my Creator,
Since thou gavest me assistance,
And vouchsafed me thy protection,
Healed my wounds and stilled mine anguish,
Banished all my pain and trouble,
Caused by Iron and by Hisi.
O, ye people of Wainola,
People of this generation,
And the folk of future ages,
Fashion not in emulation,
River boat, nor ocean shallop,
Boasting of its fine appearance,
God alone can work completion,
Give to cause its perfect ending,
Never hand of man can find it,
Never can the hero give it,
Ukko is the only Master.”

The Kalevala, by John Martin Crawford, [1888], at sacred-texts.com (public domain)