Thomas Gray, "The Fatal Sisters. An Ode" (1768) and "The Descent of Odin" (1768)

Thomas Gray (1716–1771)

1.        Thomas Gray was one of the most influential and popular poets of the eighteenth century. He first achieved success in 1751 with the publication of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”. Gray is connected with the poetry of sensibility and seen as a precursor for many of the developments that would lead to the flowering of Romanticism. Gray was also a scholar, who took an interest in both Old Norse and Celtic traditions. However, the two Icelandic poems included here were translated into English via Latin versions. Gray composed his translations in 1761, but they would await publication until the bookseller Robert Dodsley included them in the 1768 edition of Gray’s Poems.

2.        In a short “Advertisement” prefacing the poems, Gray explains that the odes were intended to illustrate Norse verse as an early influence on English poetry:

‘The Author once had thoughts (in concert with a Friend) of giving the History of English Poetry: In the Introduction to it he meant to have produced some specimens of the Style that reigned in ancient times among the neighbouring nations, or those who had subdued the greater part of this Island, and were our Progenitors: the following three Imitations made a part of them. He has long since drop’d his design, especially after he had heard, that it was already in the hands of a Person well qualified to do it justice, both by his taste, and his researches into antiquity.’

3.        The history of English poetry was planned with the minor poet William Mason (the “Friend” referred to above), but it was never completed. The “Person” mentioned in the last line is the poet and antiquary Thomas Warton (1728–1790), to whom Gray sent his notes, after he decided to abandon the project. Warton published his History of English Poetry in three volumes between 1774 and 1781. In the preface to the first volume, Warton refers to Gray’s aborted plans.

4.        The scholarly value of the odes, as representative of the Norse “style” influencing the development of English verse, is vitiated by the fact that both pieces are imaginative recreations rather than translations (“The Fatal Sisters” more so than “The Descent of Odin”). Evidently, Gray’s re-imagining of these poems suited eighteenth-century preoccupation with the Gothic and superstitious, and they became enormously popular. The odes were often reprinted, cited, imitated and even parodied.

5.        The Norse original of The Fatal Sisters. An Ode is found in chapter 157 of Njáls saga (13th century). The poem relates to the Battle of Clontarff, near Dublin in 1014. It centres on the image of the Valkyries, who are singing about the outcome of this battle. The song is recorded by a passer- by.

6.        The original is known as Darraðarljóð (“Lay of Darts”). Through metaphoric association, the Valkyries’ weaving and cutting of human lives on the loom of fate is compared to the web of arrows in the air over the battlefield. The type of loom referred to in the poem used a movable rod connected with loops to the back threads; this rod is called skapt, which is the word also used for the pole of a spear or other weapon (as in ON spjótskapt, “spear-shaft”). In fact, the poem is a major documentary source for information about weaving in Scandinavia. [1]  But Gray is primarily interested in its imaginative effects and the horrific image of female deities weaving a cloth from human intestines on a loom weighted by human heads.

7.        An undated entry in Gray’s Commonplace Book, entitled “Gothic”, refers to the poem as “The Song of the Weird Sisters, or Valkyries”. [2]  Shakespeare critics of the eighteenth century asserted that the “weird Sisters” in Macbeth were based on Scottish folklore; in turn this was a corrupt remnant of Old Norse religion (parts of lowland Scotland had been occupied by Vikings). [3]  Shakespeare’s “weird sisters” play an important role in deciding the fortunes of the agents in the play. Furthermore, the English weird is cognate of the Old Norse urðr (“fate”). Although Gray does not mention it, the purported link between the Norse “fatal sisters” and Shakespeare’s witches was certainly a reason for including this poem as an example of early influence on the development of English literary history.

8.        Gray’s version is a rather free paraphrase of the original. Some lines bear no relationship to the Latin text, from which he worked. The first atmospheric stanza, for example, has no equivalent in the source. At other times, Gray can be seen to intensify the descriptions of the original. To mention just one example, the line: “Gored with many a gaping wound” (l. 42) adds colour to the simple description of being shot to death by arrows, where the Latin source simply has sagittis occubuit comes (“from arrows the Earl is dead”). Furthermore, Gray liberally interpolates adjectives such as “griesly”, “gasping”, and “trembling” throughout. For comparison, Gray’s Latin source text and the Icelandic original can be seen here. [4] 


The Fatal Sisters. An Ode (1768)

(From the Norse-Tongue,)



1.        In the Eleventh Century Sigurd, Earl of the Orkney-Islands, went with a fleet of ships and a considerable body of troops into Ireland, to the assistance of Sictrygg with the silken beard, who was then making war on his father-in-law Brian, King of Dublin; the Earl and all his forces were cut to pieces, and Sictryg was in danger of a total defeat; but the enemy had a greater loss by the death of Brian, their King, who fell in the action. [6]  On Christmas-day, (the day of the battle,) [7]  a native of Caithness in Scotland saw at a distance a number of persons on horseback riding full speed towards a hill, and seeming to enter into it. Curiosity led him to follow them, till looking through an opening in the rocks [8]  he saw twelve gigantic figures resembling women: they were all employed about a loom; and as they wove they sung the following dreadful song: which, when they had finished, they tore the web into twelve pieces, and (each taking her portion) galloped six to the north and as many to the south.

2.        Note: The Valkyriur were female divinities, servants of Odin (or Woden ) in the Gothic mythology. Their name signifies Choosers of the Slain. They were mounted on swift horses, with drawn swords in their hands; and in the throng selected such as were destined to slaughter, and conducted them to Valkalla, [9]  the hall of Odin, or paradise of the Brave; where they attended the banquet, and served the departed Heroes with horns of mead and ale.

Now the storm begins to lower,
(Haste, the loom of Hell prepare,)
Iron-sleet of arrowy shower [10] 
Hurtles in the darkened air [11] 

Glittering lances are the loom,
Where the dusky warp we strain,
Weaving many a soldier’s doom,
Orkney’s woe and Randver’s bane. [13] 

See the grisly texture grow,
(’Tis of human entrails made,)
And the weights that play below,
Each a gasping Warriour’s head.

Shafts for shuttles, dipt in gore,
Shoot the trembling cords along.
Sword, that once a Monarch bore,
Keep the tissue close and strong.

Mista, black, terrific maid,
Sangrida, and Hilda  [14] , see,
Join the wayward work to aid;
‘Tis the woof of victory.

Ere the ruddy sun be set,
Pikes must shiver, javelins sing,
Blade with clattering buckler meet,
Hauberk [15]  crash, and helmet ring.

(Weave the crimson web of war) [16] 
Let us go, and let us fly
Where our friends the conflict share,
Where they triumph, where they die.

As the paths of fate we tread,
Wading thro’ th’ ensanguined field:
Gondula and Geira, [17]  spread
O’er the youthful King your shield.

We the reins to slaughter give,
Ours to kill, and ours to spare:
Spite the dangers he shall live.
(Weave the crimson web of war.)

They, whom once the desert-beach
Pent within its bleak domain,
Soon their ample sway shall stretch
O’er the plenty of the plain.

Low the dauntless earl is laid,
Gored with many a gaping wound;
Fate demands a nobler head;
Soon a king shall bite the ground.

Long his loss shall Eirin [18]  weep
Ne’er again his likeness see;
Long her strains in sorrow steep,
Strains of immortality!

Horror covers all the heath,
Clouds of carnage blot the sun.
Sisters, weave the web of death;
Sisters, cease, the work is done.

Hail the task, and hail the hands!
Songs of joy and triumph sing!
Joy to the victorious bands;
Triumph to the younger King. [19] 

Mortal, thou that hear’st the tale,
Learn the tenour of our song.
Scotland, thro’ each winding vale
Far and wide the notes prolong.

Sisters, hence with spurs of speed:
Each her thundering faulchion wield;
Each bestride her sable steed.
Hurry, hurry to the field!

Source: Poems by Mr. Gray, A New Edition (London: J. Dodsley, 1768), 73–84.

The Descent of Odin (1768)

1.        The second of Gray’s Norse odes is based on the poem known as Baldrs draumar (“Balder’s Dreams”), which is also called Vegtamskviða (“The Lay of the Wayfarer”) in some of the late manuscripts where it is preserved. The original is included in the Eddica minora, poems relating to Poetic Edda, but not in the Codex Regius, which contained the canon of the tradition. [20] 

2.        The background of the story is not fully explained in the poem, but readers could read about its tragic circumstances in Paul-Henri Mallet’s work. To summarize briefly, Balder, the son of Odin and Frigg, is told in his dreams that he will soon die. The other gods therefore send Frigg to exact an oath from all gods, living beings, plants and stone, not to do Balder harm. However, she forgets the mistletoe. The trickster Loki takes advantage of this oversight and makes an arrow from mistletoe, which he gives to the blind Hödr (Gray’s “Hoder”), Baldr’s brother. Unknowingly, Hödr kills Baldr. Odin begot Vali on the giantess Rind[a] to revenge his dead son. Vali grew to be man in just one day and killed Hödr.

3.        The poem takes place after the dreams. Gray omits the first four lines, which tells of the gods holding a council in which they decide to find out about Baldr’s fate. Odin dons the disguise of the traveller Vegtam (literally, “Way-tamer”) in order to awaken a völva from her grave. The völva could see into the future (hence, Gray’s translation “prophetess”), and the idea was to trick her into revealing the portents of Balder’s visions. Odin makes the re-animated völva answer a series of questions and thereby learns of Balder’s imminent death and how it will be revenged. For reasons no longer understood, Odin’s fourth question reveals his identity and the seeress bids him to leave, refusing to disclose any further information. Nonetheless, she alludes to the events that will take place at the end of the world: Ragnarök.

4.        The poem contained many of the themes that would become familiar in Norse-inflected poetry during the Romantic era: the descent to the underworld, the waking of the dead, the use of magic incantations etc.

Uprose the King of Men [21]  with speed
And saddled straight his coal-black steed: [22] 
Down the yawning steep he rode,
That leads to HELA’S drear abode.
Him the Dog of Darkness [23]  spied,
His shaggy throat he open’d wide,
While from his jaws with carnage fill’d,
Foam and human gore distill’d,
Hoarse he bays with hideous din,
Eyes that glow, and fangs, that grin:
And long pursues, with fruitless yell,
The Father of the powerful spell.
Onward still his way he takes,
(The groaning earth beneath him shakes,)
Till full before his fearless eyes
The portals nine of hell arise.
Right against the eastern gate,
By the moss-grown pile he sate;
Where long of yore to sleep was laid
The dust of the prophetic maid.
Facing to the northern clime,
Thrice he trac’d the runic rhyme,
Thrice pronounc’d in accents dread, [24] 
The thrilling verse that wakes the Dead;
Till from out the hollow ground
Slowly breath’d a sullen sound.

Pr. [Prophetess] [25] 
What call unknown, what charms presume
To break the quiet of the tomb?
Who thus afflicts my troubled sprite,
And drags me from the realms of night?
Long on these mould’ring bones have beat
The winter’s snow the summer’s heat,
The drenching dews and driving rain!
Let me, let me sleep again.
Who is he, with voice unblest,
That calls me from the bed of rest?

O. [Odin]
A traveller to thee unknown,
Is he that calls, a Warriour’s Son.
Thou the deeds of light shalt know;
Tell me what is done below,
For whom yon glitt’ring board is spread,
Drest for whom yon golden bed.

Mantling in the goblet see
The pure bev’rage of the bee, [26] 
O’er it hangs the shield of gold;
‘Tis the drink of Balder bold:
Balder’s head to death is giv’n.
Pain can reach the sons of Heav’n!
Unwilling I my lips unclose:
Leave me leave, me to repose.

Once again my call obey.
Prophetess, arise and say,
What dangers Odin’s Child await,
Who the Author of his fate.

In Hoder’s hand the hero’s doom;
His Brother sends him to the tomb.
Now my weary lips I close:
Leave me, leave me to repose.

Prophetess, my spell obey,
Once again arise, and say,
Who th’ avenger of his guilt,
By whom shall Hoder’s blood be spilt.

In the caverns of the west,
By Odin’s fierce embrace comprest,
A wond’rous boy shall Rinda bear,
Who ne’er shall comb his raven-hair,
Nor wash his visage in the stream,
Nor see the sun’s departing beam;
Till he on Hoder’s corse shall smile
Flaming on the fun’ral pile. [27] 
Now my weary lips I close:
Leave me, leave me to repose.

Yet a while my call obey.
Prophetess, awake, and say,
What Virgins [28]  these, in speechless woe,
That bend to earth their solemn brow,
That their flaxen tresses tear,
And snowy veils that float in air.
Tell me, whence their sorrows rose:
Then I leave thee to repose.

Ha! no Traveller art thou,
King of Men, I know thee now,
Mightiest of a mighty line —

No boding Maid of skill divine
Art thou nor Prophetess of good;
But Mother of the giant-brood! [29] 

Hie thee hence, and boast at home,
That never shall Enquirer come
To break my iron-sleep again;
Till Lok has burst his tenfold chain [30] .
Never, till substantial Night
Has reassum’d her ancient right;
Till wrapt in flames in ruin hurl’d,
Sinks the fabric of the world.

Source: Poems by Mr. Gray, A New Edition (London: J. Dodsley, 1768), 85–96.


[1] See Jenny Jochens, Women in Old Norse Society (Ithaca, NY: London: Cornell University Press 1995), 136–7. The poem describes a standing loom consisting of two posts on top of which rests a crossbeam. Threads were weighted at the bottom with stones or other heavy objects. BACK

[2] See William Powell Jones, Thomas Gray. Scholar [1937] (repr. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964), 103. BACK

[3] Shakespeare’s early eighteenth-century editor Lewis Theobald had identified Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters with “the Fates of the northern nations; the three hand maids of Odin” in his edition of 1726. This assertion was repeated by William Warburton in his edition of Shakespeare’s works (1747). BACK

[4] The poem was first translated in Thomas Bartholin’s Antiquitatum Danicarum De Causis Contemptae A Danis Adhuc Gentilibus Mortis (Copenhagen, 1689), 617–24. It was later reproduced in Thormodus Torfæus’s Orcades Seu Rerum Orcadensium Historiae (Copenhagen, 1697), 36–8. Bartholin’s Latin text reads:

Late diffunditur
Ante stragem futuram
Sagittarum nubes:
Depluit sanguis:
Iam hastis applicatur
Tela virorum
Quam amicae texunt
Rubro subtegmine [i.q. subtemine.
Randveri mortis.
Texitur haec Tela
Intestinis humanis,
Staminique stricte alligantur
Capita humana,
Sunt sanguine roratae
Hastae pro Insilibus
Textoria Instrumenta ferrea
Ac Sagittae pro Radiis:
Densabimus Gladiis
Hanc Victoriae Telam.
Prodeunt ad texendum Hilda
Et Hiorthrimula,
Sargrida et Swipula
Cum strictis Gladiis;
Hastile frangetur,
Scutum diffindetur,
Clypeo illidetur.
Texamus, texamus
Telam Darradar!
Hunc (Gladium) Rex Juvenis
Prius possidebat.
Et Cohortes entremus
Ubi nostri Amici
Armis dimicant!
Texamus, texamus
Telam Darradi;
Et Regi deinde
Deinde adhaereamus!
Ibi videbant
Sanguine rorata scuta
Gunna et Gondula
Quae Regem tutabantur.
Texamus, texamus
Telam Darradi!
Ubi Arma concrepant
Bellacium Virorum
Non sinamus eum
Vita privari:
Habent Valkyriae
Csedis potestatem.
Illi Populi terras regent
Qui deserta Promontoria
Antea incolebant.
Dico potenti Regi
Mortem imminere
Jam Sagittis occubuit Comes:
Et Hibernis
Dolor accidet,
Qui nunquam
Apud Viros delebitur.
Jam Tela texta est.
Campus vero (Sanguine) roratus:
Terras percurret
Conflictus Militum.
Nunc horrendum est
Cum Sanguinea Nubes
Per Aera volitet:
Tingetur Aer
Sanguine Virorum,
Antequam Vaticinia nostra
Omnia corruent.
Bene canimus
De Rege juvene,
Victoriae carmina multa:
Bene sit nobis canentibus!
Discat autem ille
Qui auscultat
Bellica Carmina multa
Et Viris referat.
Equitemus in Equis
Quoniam efferimus gladios strictos
Ex hoc loco.

9.        The original Icelandic text is here transcribed (from Íslendínga sögur, vol. 4. Njála [Copenhagen: S. L. Möllers bogtrykkeri, 1875], 899–900].

1. Vítt er orpit
fyrir valfalli
rifs reiðiský,
rignir blóði ;
nú er fyrir geirum
grár upp kominn
vefr verþjóðar,
er þær vinur fylla
rauðum vepti
Randvés bana.
2. Sjá er orpinn vefr
ýta þörmum
ok harðkléaðr
höfðum manna ;
eru dreyrrekin
dörr at sköptum,
járnvarðr yllir,
en örum hrælaðr ;
skulum slá sverðum
sigrvef þenna.
3. Gengr Hildr vefa
ok Hjörþrimul,
Sanngríðr, Svipul
sverðum tognum;
skapt mun gnesta,
skjöldr mun bresta,
mun hjálmgagarr
í hlíf koma.
4. Vindum, vindum
vef darraðar,
þann er ungr konungr
átti fyrri!
Fram skulum ganga
ok í fólk vaða,
þar er vinir várir
vápnum skipta.
5. Vindum, vindum
vef darraðar
ok siklingi
síðan fylgjum!
Þar sjá bragna
blóðgar randir
Guðr ok Göndul,
er grami hlífðu.
6. Vindum, vindum
vef darraðar,
þars er vé vaða
vígra manna!
Látum eigi
líf hans farask ;
eigu valkyrjur
vals of kosti.
7. Þeir munu lýðir
löndum ráða,
er útskaga
áðr of byggðu ;
kveð ek ríkum gram
ráðinn dauða ;
nú er fyrir oddum
jarlmaðr hniginn.
8. Ok munu Írar
angr um bíða,
þat er aldri mun
ýtum fyrnask.
Nú er vefr ofinn,
en völlr roðinn ;
munu um lönd fara
læspjöll gota.
9. Nú er ógurligt
um at lítask,
er dreyrug ský
dregr með himni ;
mun lopt litat
lýða blóði,
es sóknvarðar
syngja kunnu.
10. Vel kváðu vér
um konung ungan
sigrhljóða fjölð,
syngjum heilar!
en hinn nemi,
er heyrir á
geirfljóða hljóð,
ok gumum segi.
11. Ríðum hestum
hart út berum
brugðnum sverðum
á brott heðan.

[5] The full sentence reads: Vitt er orpit fyr valfalli/ rifs rei[th]i-ský. It is difficult to do justice to this in English translation: “Wide stretched is the pendant cloud (reiði-, passive, “held suspended”) on the crossbeam (rifr), blood rains down”. The “cloud” is the image used about the threads suspended on the loom’s crossbeams. BACK

[6] The Battle of Clontarf took place on April 23, 1014, when the forces of Brian Boru, High King of the Irish met with the armies led by the King of Leinster, Máel Mórda mac Murchada, joined by Viking mercenaries. Brian’s forces marched into Leinster to quench the rebellion. Máel Mórda sent his cousin Sigtrygg Silkbeard, the Viking king of Dublin, to find help overseas. Sigtrygg enlisted the support of the Earl of Orkney, Sigurd Lodvesson, as well as the leader of the Isle of Man, Brodir. In the battle, Brian’s forces were victorious, but Brian himself was killed by Norsemen who were fleeing the battle but stumbled upon his tent. BACK

[7] Torfæus makes it clear that the battle occurred on Good Friday (eodem die passionis dominicae), i.e. April 23, 1014. BACK

[8] The cave is Gray’s invention; the original refers to dyngja, which simply means a bower, or a place where women’s work is done. BACK

[9] This is a typo for Valhalla (“hall of the slain”). The OED records this as the first occurrence of the word in English, so the publisher or printer may have misspelled an unfamiliar term. BACK

[10] * [Gray’s Note:] How quick they wheel’d; and flying, behind them shotSharp sleet of arrowy showers. Miltons Par. Regained [III, 324]. BACK

[11] [Gray’s Note:] The noise of battle hurtled in the air. Shakesp. Jul. Cæsar [II, ii]. [12]  BACK

[12] Gray introduces deliberate echoes of Milton and Shakespeare, which can be seen as an argument for the influence of Norse verse on later English literary tradition. This was, after all, how he wanted to present the odes in his projected history of English poetry. BACK

[13] The original phrase in this line reads vinur… Randvés bana (the friends of Randver’s slayer). That this is a kenning for the Valkyries cannot be doubted. Several editors and commentators have accepted the suggestion of the Norse scholar Sophus Bugge (“Nordiske Runeindskrifter”, Aarbøger for nordisk oldkyndighed og historie [1899], 253–4), who suggested a reference to the son of the Gothic king Ermanaric (Jörmunrekkr), well-known from Norse legends. Ermanaric had Randver executed out of jealousy on the advice of his counsellor Bikki. Bugge sees Bikki as a personification of Odin, on analogy with Odin having donned other such disguises. However, there are others named Randver known from Norse tradition, including the son of Valdarr in Hervarar Saga, who is said to have fallen in England (ch. 16). It is uncertain who exactly is meant in this line; the MS text may be corrupt. Gray makes sense of the line by adding Sigurd, Earl of Orkney as a parallel, thus indicating that Randver was someone who fell in the Battle of Clontarff. BACK

[14] Valkyries. In the Icelandic original, they are Hildr, Hjörþrimul, Sanngríðr and Svipul. Gray leaves out the awkwardly named Hiorthrimula, which appears in his Latin sources, replacing her with the much more menacing sounding Mista. Gray found this name in Bartholin’s translation of a stanza of Grímnismál, a poem from the Poetic Edda, where it occurs in the list of names of valkyrjur. The Old Norse form in Bartholin’s text is Mist (p. 554). BACK

[15] A shirt of mail armour. BACK

[16] In the poem “The Bard”, first published 1757, Gray uses the line “Weave the warp and weave the woof” (l. 49). BACK

[17] Valkyries. In the Icelandic original named as Göndul and Guðr. BACK

[18] Poetical name for Ireland. BACK

[19] The young king seems to refer to Siggtryg, but it was the aging king Brian (born in 941, and thus 73 years of age) who was victorious. It has therefore been suggested that the poem incorporated into Njals Saga in fact refers to a Viking victory of 919; see Russell Poole, Viking Poems on War and Peace (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 120– 25. In Gray’s preface, the discrepancy is dealt with, or perhaps glossed over, by mentioning Brian’s near defeat and his death. BACK

[20] Gray’s source for the poem was chapter two of Bartholin’s text (p. 632). BACK

[21] A name for Odin. BACK

[22] Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse. BACK

[23] Garm (which has the meaning of “howl”), a gigantic hound guarding the cave Gnipahellir (the “yawning steep” of the next line), where one found Gjöll, the entry to the world of the dead. Gray’s elaborate description of the hound is not in the original, but contributes to the horror of the scene. BACK

[24] The repetition of a magic incantation three times is not in the original, but refers to folklore tradition, which was believed to contain traces of the pagan religion once practiced in the British Isles. BACK

[25] The original manuscript source has no superscriptions indicating the speakers. BACK

[26] Mead; see Glossary. BACK

[27] The reference is to Vali, who Odin begot with the sole purpose of having him revenge the death of Balder. Vali grew to adulthood in one day. This is why he does not have time for the activities listed in this stanza. BACK

[28] These are the “billow maidens”, also known as Ægir’s daughters, the personification of natural forces, whose grief will be so intense that it causes tempestuous weather. BACK

[29] Apparently, the völva is a giant, and thus an enemy of Odin’s Æsir, which explains why he must don the disguise of a mortal to extract information from her. BACK

[30] For his deceit which led to the killing of Balder, Loki was bound underground by adamantine chains. In another version of the story, his chains are made from the intestines of his son. Loki will break these chains at the day of Ragnarök. BACK