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
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
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.  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”.  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).  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. 
The Fatal Sisters. An Ode (1768)
(From the Norse-Tongue,)
IN THE ORCADES of THORMODUS TORFÆUS;
HAFNIÆ, 1697, Folio: and also in BARTHOLINUS.
VITT ER ORPIT FYRIR VALFALLI, &c. 
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.  On Christmas-day, (the day of the
battle,)  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  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
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, 
the hall of Odin, or paradise of the Brave; where they attended the
banquet, and served the departed Heroes with horns of mead and
Now the storm begins to lower,
(Haste, the loom of Hell prepare,)
Iron-sleet of arrowy shower 
Hurtles in the darkened air 
Glittering lances are the loom,
Where the dusky warp we strain,
Weaving many a soldier’s doom,
’s woe and Randver’
s bane. 
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,
, and Hilda
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,
(Weave the crimson web of war) 
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:
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 
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. 
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. 
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
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
Uprose the King of Men 
And saddled straight his coal-black steed: 
Down the yawning steep he rode,
That leads to HELA’S drear abode.
Him the Dog of Darkness 
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, 
The thrilling verse that wakes the Dead;
Till from out the hollow ground
Slowly breath’d a sullen sound.
- Pr. [Prophetess] 
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, 
O’er it hangs the shield of gold;
‘Tis the drink of Balder bold:
Balder’s head to death is
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. 
Now my weary lips I close:
Leave me, leave me to repose.
Yet a while my call obey.
Prophetess, awake, and say,
What Virgins 
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! 
Hie thee hence, and boast at home,
That never shall Enquirer come
To break my iron-sleep again;
has burst his tenfold chain 
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.
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
 See William Powell Jones, Thomas Gray. Scholar  (repr. New York:
Russell & Russell, 1964), 103. BACK
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
 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
Ante stragem futuram
Iam hastis applicatur
Quam amicae texunt
Rubro subtegmine [i.q. subtemine.
Texitur haec Tela
Staminique stricte alligantur
Sunt sanguine roratae
Hastae pro Insilibus
Textoria Instrumenta ferrea
Ac Sagittae pro Radiis:
Hanc Victoriae Telam.
Prodeunt ad texendum Hilda
Sargrida et Swipula
Cum strictis Gladiis;
Hunc (Gladium) Rex Juvenis
Et Cohortes entremus
Ubi nostri Amici
Et Regi deinde
Sanguine rorata scuta
Gunna et Gondula
Quae Regem tutabantur.
Ubi Arma concrepant
Non sinamus eum
Illi Populi terras regent
Qui deserta Promontoria
Dico potenti Regi
Jam Sagittis occubuit Comes:
Apud Viros delebitur.
Jam Tela texta est.
Campus vero (Sanguine) roratus:
Nunc horrendum est
Cum Sanguinea Nubes
Per Aera volitet:
Antequam Vaticinia nostra
De Rege juvene,
Victoriae carmina multa:
Bene sit nobis canentibus!
Discat autem ille
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].
rignir blóði ;
nú er fyrir geirum
grár upp kominn
er þær vinur fylla
höfðum manna ;
dörr at sköptum,
en örum hrælaðr ;
skulum slá sverðum
skapt mun gnesta,
skjöldr mun bresta,
í hlíf koma.
þann er ungr konungr
Fram skulum ganga
ok í fólk vaða,
þar er vinir várir
Þar sjá bragna
Guðr ok Göndul,
er grami hlífðu.
þars er vé vaða
líf hans farask ;
vals of kosti.
áðr of byggðu ;
kveð ek ríkum gram
ráðinn dauða ;
nú er fyrir oddum
angr um bíða,
þat er aldri mun
Nú er vefr ofinn,
en völlr roðinn ;
munu um lönd fara
um at lítask,
er dreyrug ský
dregr með himni ;
mun lopt litat
um konung ungan
en hinn nemi,
er heyrir á
ok gumum segi.
hart út berum
á brott heðan.
 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
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
Torfæus makes it clear that the battle occurred
on Good Friday (eodem die passionis dominicae),
i.e. April 23, 1014. BACK
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
 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
[Gray’s Note:] How quick they wheel’d; and
flying, behind them shotSharp sleet of arrowy showers.
Regained [III, 324]. BACK
 [Gray’s Note:] The
noise of battle hurtled in the air. Shakesp. Jul. Cæsar [II,
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
 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 , 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
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.
A shirt of mail armour. BACK
In the poem “The
Bard”, first published 1757, Gray uses the line
“Weave the warp and weave the woof” (l.
Valkyries. In the Icelandic original named as Göndul and Guðr. BACK
Poetical name for
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
 Gray’s source for the
poem was chapter two of Bartholin’s text (p.
A name for Odin. BACK
Odin’s eight-legged horse. BACK
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
 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
The original manuscript source has
no superscriptions indicating the speakers. BACK
 Mead; see
 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
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
 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
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