Scandinavian god Odin | Adobe Stock
Scandinavian god Odin | Photo: Kalleeck via Adobe Stock

The Seeds of Blockchain Technology Are Found in Ancient Norse Mythology

Did ancient Norse mythology anticipate the future rise of blockchain? Maybe not literally but figuratively, it’s interesting to consider.

Neither Could Withstand Nor Could Resist

In other stories, still, we come across elves who seem to disregard the natural barriers to human movement. In Norna-Gests tháttr, there is an unnamed elf who can walk through a locked door [Jónsson and Vilhjálmsson], and another unnamed elf in Thithreks saga can physically disappear at will. [Jónsson] We do not have enough evidence to say for sure, but the possibility at least remains open that Völundr does possess the ability to levitate. In this case, why would he not leave the island at the first opportunity instead of staying and working for Nithuth “never sleeping, constantly swinging his hammer”? [Crawford] And why is Völundr so concerned with the survival of his victim Bothvild and her child?

One might get an impression that the whole patchy story was put together merely as a pretext to display shock content and indulge in descriptions of wanton, perverse cruelty. We might be tempted to assume the position of moral and cultural superiority and view ‘The Lay of Völund’ as a primitive relic of brutal times, a tale that can tell us only of how much better our own age is. Such arrogance, however, would be both unwarranted and unfair. Violence, in all shapes and modes, occupies as much room in human imagination now as it did in the Viking Age. Völundr’s fictitious account pales in comparison to some stories we find weekly (in the recent weeks, hourly) in our real-life news feeds. Moreover, artistic depiction does not automatically imply approval. It even requires a certain degree of distancing both from the subject and the views of the author (or the audience) to be properly artistic, not merely critical or apologetic.

Indeed, the poem does neither glorify Völundr’s revenge nor even encourage the audience to identify with him. The plot events are certainly shown mostly from his viewpoint, which is recapitulated and reinforced in his imprisonment soliloquy. Yet the poem ends with a victim’s perspective conveyed through Bothvild’s direct speech. “Ek vætr hánum vinna kunnak, ek vætr hánum vinna máttak,” she tells Nithuth. [Jónsson] “I couldn’t fight him, father, I couldn’t withstand him, father.” Instead of an empowering note, which a revenge story is normally expected to strike, we get a first-person account of helplessness haunting in its matter-of-fact terseness. This leaves the reader rather pondering on the damage done than gloating over a plot executed. There is no rape culture at work here.

Moreover, there are several subtler hints and allusions that add a layer of not necessarily appealing complexity to Völundr’s character. The way in which he kills Nithuth’s sons closely resembles the revenge of queen Guthrun on her husband, king Atli (apparently a highly fictionalized version of Attila the Hun). This story comes from the cycle of legends about and around the hero Sigurth, attested in the Völsunga saga and several heroic poems in the Poetic Edda among other sources. Atli murders Guthrun’s brothers to appropriate their treasures. For this, the queen murders the two sons she has with him, makes cups of their skulls and serves a drink – laced with the children’s blood – to Atli in them. [Crawford]

Thus, the weirdly gruesome particulars of Völundr’s vengeance are a trope utilized to establish an association between him and Guthrun. And she, in the Sigurth cycle, is far from a role model. Still more, in a society with strict separation of gender roles, like Medieval Scandinavia, [Crawford] opting for such an explicitly “womanish” way of revenge alone might actually compromise Völundr’s character. That it is Völundr imitating Guthrun and not vice versa can be safely deduced from stanza 14 of ‘The Lay’, where he expressly refers to the Sigurth legend.

Another (and related) hint comes from the elf’s physical description. In stanza 2, which gives a very concise account of the three brothers meeting the three Valkyries, Völundr’s neck is said to be white, “hvítan hals Völundar”. [Jónsson] The core theme of this scene is matching the beauty of the women to the handsomeness of the men, and a fair shade of skin is indeed associated with good looks in Old Norse literature. So, at face value, “white neck” is a compliment to Völundr’s appearance. 

Yet in the Old Norse context, snow-white skin is a feature rather of female than male beauty. For men, the desirable shade is ruddy, “rjóð”. It indicates that one spends a fair amount of time outdoors, engaging in gender-appropriate physical activities. [Crawford 2020] In fact, the pale skin of a man can imply a defect of character, a degree of pusillanimity that keeps him at home all the time. However, Völundr is expressly identified as a hunter, an occupation one cannot pursue without spending much time outdoors. In other words, it is unlikely that his neck is literally pale.

All in all, while Völundr is good-looking and ultimately successful against his enemies, there is a weird and undesirable aspect to both enviable qualities. Introducing this ambiguity, the poem invites us to question his actions and his character. Still, it is not a pure case of subversion, of superficial attractiveness which is there only to be seen through. In another scene, where Völundr is being captured by Nithuth, the king’s wife compares his eyes to those of a snake. This is obviously a derogatory remark, and can hardly be interpreted otherwise by a modern reader. Yet in the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, a Viking Age epos sharing a few themes with the Sigurth cycle, there is a prominent scene where the title character’s wife has to prove she is of a kingly extraction. She does it by pointing to the eyes of her newborn son: they are like those of a snake, which is a clear sign of full royal blood. [Jónsson]

Perhaps an astute Norse audience could perceive an ironic allusion to this scene in the words of Nithuth’s wife, an insult that unintentionally works as a compliment. It is interesting that both references to Völundr’s appearance can be read rather as comments on his character. In a sense, everything external about Völundr as an elf is only an expression of or a hint to the internal. This peculiarity fits neatly with a theory of Dr. Ármann Jakobsson, an expert on the paranormal in Old Norse literature. He locates the identifying feature of elves as a class not among taxonomical characteristics, like height or lifespan, but in their mental constitution and the nature of their inner experience. [Jakobsson, 2006]

This inner constitution of Völundr is puzzling, inscrutable in a peculiar way. It is not featureless and opaque, but rather combines clearly-defined polar features that would be hardly compatible with a normal, human character. Interestingly, Valkyries demonstrate a similar degree of polarity. Some sources portray them as fair and gracious, yet other descriptions are outright nightmare material. [Ellis] While tropes and allusions of gender ambiguity make up the subtler aspect of Völundr’s self-contained polarity, it comes to the forefront in his behavior towards female characters as expressly described in the poem. 

The story ends with a heinous sex crime he commits, yet it begins with him consciously accepting his wife’s departure in goodwill. Unlike the other two brothers, who feel entitled to bring their spouses back, Völundr respects his wife’s decision and only hopes she will return to him someday, on her own. This attitude is anything but typical for a rapist. It is also remarkable how drastically he goes from sentimental and vulnerable – “he sat waiting for her so long he fell asleep, and when he awoke he was bound in chains”, stanza 11 – to manipulative and violent, using on Nithuth’s sons that child abuser stock line, “Don’t tell anyone at all that you’re meeting with me.” [Crawford]

With this highly ambiguous protagonist and a set of very laconically outlined secondary characters, the poem might seem to make little psychological sense. Yet its plot is certainly not random, and there is order and coherence in it. These are underscored by reoccurring motifs we encounter throughout the poem. The line “Alvítr unga orlog drygja”, referring to Völundr’s wife and her supernatural role marks both the appearance and the departure of the Valkyries (not preserved in the referenced translation).

Both times Nithuth’s queen comes into view, when Völundr is captured and when he is getting even with the king, it is in “endlangan sal”, a “magnificent hall”. Völundr is roasting bear meat on the evening before his capture, in a cozy scene where “the kindling burned, the dry wood burned, the wind-dry logs burned, and it warmed Völund”. [Crawford] But then Nithuth’s sons are referred to as “bear cubs” when their grisly death (not far from Völundr’s forge) is being discussed. This volume of cross-referencing in a short poem conveys a sense of cyclic regularity, of a process.

Perhaps we should look for the focus of this story in rem, not in personam. Having captured Völundr, Nithuth asks him, “Where did you find our treasures in your valley?” [Crawford] Of course, the king is trying to frame the elf for having stolen the gold from him, which would justify its confiscation. Völundr’s reply, however, is hardly what one would expect in a situation like this. He begins with a pretty vague reference to the legendary treasures of Sigurth, probably implying the gold has not come to him as a random find. “We used to have yet more, when we were a happy family at home in Ulfdalir,” Völundr recalls. [Crawford] And then, yet stranger and completely unsolicited, he gives Nithuth the names of the three Valkyries and of their fathers.

At first sight, it is counterintuitive. Who would consciously tip an obvious enemy off about his relations? Just as counterintuitive is Völundr’s behavior the evening before his capture. Back home from a hunt, he counts his golden rings (all 700 of them) and finds one missing. It has actually been taken by Nithuth’s scouts, but Völundr tells himself that his wife returned and took the ring. This, again, is a weird and hardly warranted thought. But we must not forget that these are superhuman beings, which makes the gold in their possession supernatural as well. And if its purpose as an asset is to be a property of the supernatural family, we can assume it cannot be really expropriated in any human way.

While Völundr may appear naïve and maybe even unaware of the economic value of gold, [Jakobsson, 2006] it is actually superior knowledge that often distinguishes the Norse supernatural beings. The hero Sigurth seeks to share in the wisdom of Fáfnir the dragon no less urgently than his hoarded treasures. The dwarf Alvíss (“all-wise”), who wants to marry the god Thor’s daughter, tries to impress her father with his erudition, of the sort we would now call encyclopedic. Völundr’s wife herself is consistently referred to, in the original Old Norse, as Alvítr, “all-knowing” (not preserved in the translation, where she goes under her proper name, Hervor). And both nameless elves from Thithreks saga and Norna-Gests tháttr have some capacity for supernatural cognition.

Perhaps what Völundr demonstrates is not his own unawareness, but rather an underestimation of human ignorance. He knows that the gold cannot be taken away from his family, and for this reason, the thought of theft does not even occur to him. And it might be that he tells Nithuth about his relations precisely to warn that this gold would come back to them anyway – and also against all the collateral damage to come about along the way. But is it really surprising that his warning falls on deaf ears? All that happens next can be viewed as a story of the treasure becoming the property of Völundr’s family again.

It is remarkable that the golden rings, inanimate objects, play a rather active part in this plotline. They are not taken back by Völundr – in fact, we can safely assume they remain in Nithuth’s treasury. But through a chain of events which these rings incite and catalyze, a sort of reverse restitution takes place. Not the items are returned to their rightful owners, but the current possessors are transformed into Völundr’s family thus making the possession rightful.

Nithuth’s sons are attracted to Völundr’s island by the gold and appear mesmerized when they see it. Bothvild too arrives at Völundr’s prison on account of a ring she received from his collection. All too timely, it is broken (it is most probably an arm ring, not the smaller kind worn on a finger) and Bothvild finds the loss so great she does not dare tell her parents about it. Instead, she comes straight to Völundr, the only smith skilled enough to repair the ring. And once her brothers are dead and she is pregnant, the only possible successor to Nithuth’s throne – and implicitly, the supernatural gold – is her child with Völundr, should it be born male. If we take this circumstance into account, all that might appear strange about the elf’s revenge now makes perfect sense.

This is why Völundr makes sure the child survives after his escape, extorting from Nithuth a whole series of oaths to this effect. Perhaps, like the elf in Thithreks saga who too had a son with a female human, he is clairvoyant and can foretell the baby’s sex. And indeed, in the same Thithreks saga, Völundr’s son with Bothvild is featured as one of the most prominent companions and friends of the title character. By accepting Bothvild as Völundr’s “bride”, Nithuth himself unwillingly becomes a part of the elf’s family in a twisted, contrary to any normal notion of family way.

It is important to note, though, that the gold does not figure expressly in Völundr’s plans or motivation. These are laid bare in his prison monologues to himself and seem to be worded rather in personal than proprietary terms. In other words, it is not Völundr consciously devising a plan to leave behind an heir for the large mass of gold he cannot carry away. It is rather the gold bending minds, behaviors, and reality itself. Its power to do so can be compared to the ultimate smart contract. The actual smart contracts of our times are valid only within the digital space and are susceptible to the so-called endpoint vulnerabilities when data is being input by humans from the real world. But the gold of Völundr’s family exercises smart contract-like, algorithmic power over the tangible reality and the fates of people.

Another reference to Thithreks saga might help to elucidate this point. In the version of Völundr’s story it tells, one of his brothers, Egill, ends up in the service of Nithuth. A skilled archer, he is ordered by the king to shoot Völundr down when the latter is about to escape (in ‘The Lay of Völund’, on the contrary, Nithuth complains in stanza 36, “There is … nor so good a shot that he could shoot you down”). But Völundr has a leather bag with the blood of Nithuth’s sons attached to his side (this bag is mentioned in ‘The Lay’ too), and it ends up absorbing the impact of Egill’s arrow. 

In the nexus of events around the family treasure, if we try to combine the two versions of the scene in a mutually complementary way, we may view Egill as a “plan B” of sorts. Even if Völundr failed, he would still be there to replace Nithuth’s heirs – which he does symbolically, by spilling their blood from the bag. As unsavory as this symbolism is, the crudeness of its imagery is compensated by the elegance of its expression. There is no way around the smart contract-like protection embedded in those rings of gold.

Just as they belong to Völundr’s family, so is Völundr bound to them. In fact, all the major shifts in his attitudes and behaviors are connected to this gold, even though it is not the direct object of his passions. Ármann Jakobsson argues that the distinguishing feature of the Norse elves is that they “experience extremes in their emotional lives”. [Jakobsson, 2006] But perhaps we may somewhat expand on this definition and point out yet another layer of distinction. The behaviors that, from a human standpoint, seem to evidence extreme emotional shifts, with elves may actually proceed from thoroughly unemotional (at least in the human sense) grounds. Thus the whole dramatic plot of Völundr’s revenge can be viewed as a smart contract-like algorithm in action, where the agency of Völundr merely puts on the emotional forms appropriate to this or that situation. And the non-humanity of this infallible logic behind his actions, figuratively represented by the golden rings, accounts for the extremity of Völundr’s apparent emotions.

This is what makes him neither a villainous nor even a properly ambiguous, but rather an orthogonal figure. The common type of a criminal or a bully would seek to disguise self-serving interest as an alleged necessity, like “they left me no choice” or “I am the actual victim defending myself”. With Völundr, in contrast, apparent maliciousness is flaunted just as much as apparent nobility, all mixed up together – for both are only the external appearance of a larger, more than personal force. In his nicer moments, he is not humanly gentle. Neither is he humanly cruel in his atrocious acts. But the thing about Völundr that certainly does have a human dimension, is the damage he deals to other characters. And this brings us to a broader philosophical and social problem. 

A smart contract, whether embedded in blockchain or a mythical treasure, is at the bottom line just another one among the countless manifestations of the very basic human desire to make life run according to a script. At a different level, totalitarian regimes and dogmatic theories purporting to explain the whole course of history down to the last days, are attempts to satisfy the same longing. They all are extensions of a technological approach to purposes and solutions. But it looks like set scripts of this sort bring more misery the better they work. There is an inherent conflict between algorithmically set purpose and the living interests of human beings. It is so because life is a whole, integral experience, while technological solutions are always partial. Addressing a problem in a certain area, they inevitably create new problems in others – which, in their turn, will require solutions of their own.

In a sense, we need technologies to oppose and balance other technologies, each in its area and with regard to its purposes, if they are to serve human life in its wholesomeness. An absolute technology, on the other hand, will imply subjugation of the whole to a part, and ultimately of persons to things. This is what happens in ‘The Lay of Völund’ and what gives that peculiar edge of offensiveness to its gruesome plot. The well-being and the lives of people are being brutalized, with utter disregard for dignity or justice, to uphold a mere title to property. Is this technological absolutism any better than the tyrant Nithuth’s arbitrariness it is supposed to override?

In real life, the digital technology of blockchain as a decentralized and autonomous system was developed largely as a safeguard against the social machinery of excessively centralized and regulative state. Yet the calls for governmental regulation of blockchain-based cryptocurrencies are growing more urgent, as their very decentralization (with the user anonymity it allows) creates funding opportunities for terrorism and organized crime. Neither of these two rival technologies, the blockchain and the state, is absolute like that of Völundr’s gold. But perhaps it is their shared imperfection that leaves some hope that justice and human interest might not become the first casualties of the conflict.

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All links accessed on March 9, 2022