This is a collection of my thoughts on the period of time where I worked intensely with a forge god who identified himself as Ilmarinen. It might interest you if you're interested in blacksmith gods, Finnish mythology, or what deity work can look like on an individual basis.
The forge appeals to me as someone whose elemental affinity is fire, as an artist, as a fighter, and as one born under the metal element in Chinese astrology. I’ve been fascinated by metalwork since my first trip to a working historical village as a child, but only as an adult did I take up the hammer and torch for myself.
Modern Finnish paganism is generally referred to as “Suomenusko”. One of the best places to start reading about it is Taivaannaula, an organization in Finland. The vast majority of Finnish pagans are found in Finland, of course, but stray people working with the Finnish gods can be found elsewhere.
Ilmarinen is an artificer-god and one of the best-known figures in Finnish paganism. In the Kalevala, he appears in a number of stories, most notably in the forging of the magic sampo, a mill that grinds food, money, and other goods out of nothing. He is a blacksmith, and can create any number of wonders in his forge. He is also seeing singing rune magic, which is common in the Kalevala, and summoning winds. His name is related to the words for “air” and “weather” so that is not surprising.
I’m not Finnish. He came to me anyway. I hear that’s getting to be more common, and it’s nothing new to me. I’ve worked with gods from a variety of pantheons before. But Ilmarinen swept in at the very end of 2010 and told me I needed to change things. I agreed with him; I knew I did.
He told me to make a few adjustments, get myself organized, and then he’d show me what I should be doing.
I did my best to fulfill his request, made some progress, and then things began to fall together like a ton of bricks. Good bricks, mind you, if overwhelming. And while he never told me in as many words, I couldn’t help but feel like I saw his hand in it.
I thought I would start slow with him, pick something safe like wire crochet or chainmail, maybe metal clay to start with. But no, I got firmly pushed in the direction of welding right out of the gate. Nope, this was not going to be easy.
It was exactly what I needed. I need someone who’s going to keep me pointed in the right direction. I need to be dragged, kicking and screaming most of the time. (Odin had to do that to me in the first place. It’s a pattern. Not one I’m proud of, but a pattern nonetheless.)
That time in my life was very scattershot– I needed to start making changes based on what I wanted, instead of what I didn’t want, but I had a hard time learning what I wanted. In addition to learning to weld and to hammer metal, I got a lot of lessons in patience and follow through, in keeping at it, and in redirecting my anger.
When I took that first blacksmithing lesson, I wrote:
First I watched my teacher do the first part of today’s project – a decorative hook, if you’re curious. When he did it, it looked super easy. Bang, bang, bang, the steel was narrowing and shaping just the way he wanted it. It went really fast. Then I got to my anvil and lit the forge. I couldn’t seem to get the steel to move at all. I spent a few minutes thinking this was impossible and a bad idea and I wasn’t strong enough or clever enough.
Then I asked the teacher to show me again, which is something I almost never do. I hate doing it. I failed a horticulture class once because it was easier than asking the teacher for help. But this was important so I sucked it up.
And the next time I went at it, I heard a ringing anvil and it took me a minute to realize that was me, that was my hammer and my anvil and then the metal was pretty much going where I wanted it to go, and from that point it went a lot more smoothly. Then we broke for lunch and came back and watched him do the second half of the project. This time I paid attention to different things, knowing the difference between what he did and what it translated into. The second part went faster and easier, though not nearly as fast as his demo. Not perfect either – I managed to get the decorative leaf turned around the wrong way, somehow. But I hammered! And rounded! And twisted! And managed not to crack my leaf off!
I walked out that day with a decorative iron coat hook and the ability to ask for help when I need it, all at the same time.
Another week I observed:
Today’s main project was a chisel. One of the things I find awesome about metalwork in general and blacksmithing in particular is the fact that, starting with a hammer and some tongs and an anvil, you can produce pretty much every other tool you would want – more hammers and tongs (we’ll be making another set of tongs later in this class), other items like punches and the chisel I made today. It really makes me aware of the history of this skill. Aside from the fact that my forge is run on propane instead of coal, (and that I cheated using a belt grinder to get my point) I’m doing this in essentially the same way it’s been done for thousands of years. Heat metal, bang on metal, cool metal off. Repeat.
So today I used my tools to produce a new tool, and now I have a chisel to go with my tongs. It’s pretty amazing to me.
Since the chisel has to be strong enough to cut through other metal later, we learned how to temper. Tempering is a surprisingly precise process for something that’s done almost entirely by sight. Basically, you heat the metal to just above the temperature where it stops being magnetic, and then you cool the point you want to be hard, and then wait for the heat of the rest of the metal to seep into the hard part, and then cool it again. (It’s easy to miss the right moment – this is where the phrase “lose your temper” comes from.)
Adapting to change makes metal hard. It can do the same for people – if you do it right, anyway. If you don’t let the stress get to you. If you don’t lose your temper. If you file off the scale and let the inside shine through. And if you do it wrong, you crack.
The classes I took were very popular with artists, and some people retook them regularly just to get the time with the equipment and the instructors. As a rank beginner with a perfectionist streak, it took a lot of sitting with my discomfort to be okay with the fact that I was not the fastest, not even close to perfect, and just appreciate what I could accomplish.
Later in the semester, I had the chance to make a knife as a side project:
I have owned and used probably more than my share of ritual knives and athames in my time, some of which have even tasted my blood. Today, however, I made my first ritual blade from scratch.
The assignment was a hatchet made from a railroad spike. I carefully straightened and measured and marked a first one, then, while that was heating, picked out a second just in case.
While I progressed with the first one, I started hammering out the second. It was pretty rusty and not in as good a shape as the first one. As soon as I started working on the tip, I decided it wasn’t going to work as a hatchet anyway. It did, however, look like the start of a half-decent knife.
So in between heats on my official project for the day, I bashed away at the blade of a knife. I’ve seen railroad spike knives several times online and the basic premise is pretty straightforward. I dedicated it to Ilmarinen as I worked, though I didn’t do anything fancy – I was in the classroom and sharing a forge, after all. Once I had the blade shaped and the edge ground, I decided to put a decorative twist in the handle.
And then I burned myself with it. I put a hole the size of a silver dollar in my favorite shirt, and when I checked out the burn, I was missing a piece of skin the size of a dime and the wound seemed to have conveniently cauterized itself.
It doesn’t hurt, precisely – well, unless I poke it – and I cleaned and dressed it using the first aid kit, and again when I got home. I’ve gotten worse burns in that class already. I have to say that I’ve never had a ritual blade that wanted my skin before, but I’m not going to argue, either.
I had made a few ritual tools before this but never anything that took quite that much out of me. It taught me a lot about how much you can put into something you’re making, and the energywork I undertook that day still underlies how I build tools.
Before the semester ended, I also made some more knives, an iron wand, and plasma-cut aluminum runes for myself and a caduceus wand for a friend. I learned a lot about how I wanted to exist in the world, and the things I needed to change about myself to get there. I was able to reach a deeper understanding of the magic of making, wholy separate from some bad habits and toxic ideas I’d worked to put aside, and built up a way of building up magic that was new and my own.
Ilmarinen Makes The Sky
He began with a great sheet of iron.
It was so large it did not fit over the flames of Ilmarinen’s forge. Rather than heat it with coals and forced air, he sang the origin of fire. Heat and light sprung up around the iron, so that it glowed orange. It sank easily when Ilmarinen brought his hammer down against it.
The smith worked for many days. As he hammered the sheet of metal, it thinned and spread further. It took on the deep dome shape he envisioned. It became so large that he had to install it, for there was no room to work the whole of the sky from the earth. He continued his work until it covered the whole of the void where the sky had been.
Now when the women and men looked up, they saw the solid, comforting grey-black sky and knew they were protected from the void.
But it was yet dark. Ilmarinen’s forge did not grow cold, nor did his hammer still. He poured gold and gently shaped the sun, a perfect shining disk. He installed it and the days were light and the plants could once again grow.
Ilmarinen was starting to grow tired, but still his forge did not grow cold and his hammer did not still. He poured silver and shaped the moon, though he was not as careful as he had been with the sun. He let the hammer come down harder than he intended, and sparks flew up, embedding themselves into the iron sky to become stars. Exhausted, Ilmarinen installed the moon and finally went to bed, not caring that when you look up, you can still see the shapes his hammer left as he formed the moon.
After his first wife, the Rainbow Maiden, was killed, Ilmarinen found himself alone in his home. He hadn’t been alone in quiet some time, and he struggled to remember what to do with himself in the long, long silences. It seemed like nothing was worth doing, and so he sat in the silent house for days on end, conjuring up images of his dead wife and casting them aside.
Remembering was hard. Remembering to eat often meant thinking about how she cooked for him, or sharing a meal with her, or the way she looked in the light from the morning sun through the window where she stirred the pot. Remembering to sleep meant being oh so very aware of the emptiness of their bed. Even something as simple as remembering to change his clothes meant running his hands over the fabrics she had woven for him.
Ilmarinen resolved, then, to do none of these things. He stayed in his smithy, where there were fewer things to remind him of what he had lost. He worked without cease, so there was no chance for wandering thoughts to interrupt him.
Still, he had to stop occasionally to stoke the coals or gather fresh water. Each time he did, the thoughts that had been held back crashed forward, threatening to drown him. Finally, one day, he went back to his forge still thinking of her. Rather than banish the thought, he took a flat sheet of metal. Rather than let himself sink, he sank the metal, bringing out the shape that he couldn’t get out of his mind.
After three days of non-stop work, he studied his work. Her body was silvered, her hair golden. Her shape was perfect. He sang life to the metal, and she smiled at him. He took her into his home, and only then did he feel he could sleep.