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“ON Good Friday it happened in Caithness1 that a man called Dorroth went out of doors. He saw twelve persons ride toward a (stone) hut. There they were lost to his sight. When he came up to the hut and looked through a chink in the wall he saw that some women were inside and had set up a web. Heads of men served as weights, men’s entrails formed the woof and weft, a sword did as a weaver’s reed, and arrows as the rods. They sang this song: (follows the Song of the Valkyries). Then they tore the web down and into pieces, and each one held on to what she had in her hands. Dorroth right the opening and went home; but the women mounted their horses and rode away—six to the south and six to the north.”
Thus the Niáls saga (Chapter 157), whose narrative is our sole source for one of the most striking poems of Norse antiquity. Down to Walter Scott’s days it was recited in the Norn tongue by the inhabitants of North Ronaldsha (Rinansey), the northernmost of the Orkney Islands.2
As we have it, the lay is darkly prophetic of the outcome of the great battle of Clontarf (1014) in which some of the actors in the saga took part on the side of the Viking leaders, Sigtrygg Silkbeard, King of Dublin, and the Orkney earl, Sigurth Hlothversson, who were arrayed against the famous King Brian Borumha of Leinster; but contrary to its prophecy, history—and the saga, too—tells us that it was the Leinster king who won p. 73 the victory, though he paid for it with his life, and that the invaders were driven off, leaving Earl Sigurth on the field. To account for this contradiction, some scholars have surmised that the lay originally referred to some other battle. Against this it may be urged that at any rate Sigurth’s fall is foretold, in stanza 7. Also, it is just possible that the Irish themselves are meant as the dwellers on the outer nesses in their own land (ibid.) and that the valkyries are chanting their magic song to safeguard only their favorite, the young King Sigtrygg, weaving for him the “web of war”—much as the giant maidens in the Quern Song “grind out” the fate of their captor, King Fróthi.
As to the supposed transmitter of the lay, Dorroth, it seems that his name was supplied, either from the kenning in stanza 4, the “web-of-darts,” i.e., “battle” (vefr darratha(r)) or, even more probably, from the (unauthentic and inappropriate) current title of the lay, Darratha(r)lióth or Lay of the Darts which was misunderstood as Dorroth’s Lay.
Few lays in Old Norse compare with the Song of the Valkyries in somber power and dark magnificence. Thoroughly in harmony with the great carnage presaged is the gruesome picture of the loom; and terribly splendid the vision of the red dawn with its cloud-rack incarnadined by the blood of warriors, into which the battle maidens issue forth, riding on wild horses to join the fray.
The lay—which is in regular fornyrthislag—is handed down in the four main MSS of the Niáls saga, dating from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, but seems incomplete, for all that, and is in poor shape.3 In this case it is not altogether unlikely that the author was an inhabitant of the Northern Isles. At any rate it is well to remember that still another poetic prophecy—a genre more Celtic than Germanic in inspiration—viz., the Quern Song, right memories in these localities where Norse and Celtic blended most intimately.
|1||Widely is flung, warning of slaughter,|
the weaver’s-beam’s-web:4 ’t is wet with blood;
is spread now, grey, the spear-thing5 before,
the woof-of-the-warriors4 which valkyries fill
with the red-warp-of- Randvér’s-banesman.6
|2||Is this web woven and wound of entrails,|
and heavy weighted with heads of slain;
are blood-bespattered spears the treadles,
iron-bound the beams, the battens,7 arrows:
let us weave with our swords this web of victory!
|3||Goes Hild to weave, and Hiorthrimul,|
Sangrith and Svipul,8 with swords brandished:
shields will be shattered, shafts will be splintered,
will the hound-of-helmets9 the hauberks bite.
|4||Wind we, wind we the-web-of-darts,|
and follow the atheling after to war!
Will men behold shields hewn and bloody
where Gunn and Gondul8 have guarded the thane.
|5||Wind we, wind we such web-of-darts|
as the young war-worker waged afore-time!10
Forth shall we fare where the fray is thickest,
where friends and fellows ’gainst foemen battle!
|6||Wind we, wind we the web-of-darts|
where float the flags of unflinching men!
Let not the liege’s life be taken:
valkyries award the weird of battle.11
|7||Will seafaring men hold sway over lands,|
who erstwhile dwelled on outer nesses;
is doomed to die a doughty king,12
lies slain an earl by swords e’en now
|8||Will Irish men eke much ill abide:|
’t will not ever after be out of men’s minds.
Now the web is woven, and weapons reddened—
in all lands will be heard the heroes’ fall.
|9||Now awful is it to be without,|
as blood-red rack races overhead;
is the welkin gory with warriors’ blood
as we valkyries war-songs chanted.
|10||Well have we chanted charms full many|
about the king’s son: may it bode him well!
Let him learn them who listens to us,
and speak these spells to spearmen after.13
|11||Start we swiftly with steeds unsaddled—|
hence to battle with brandished swords!
1 The northeasternmost district of Scotland.
2 The poem had struck the imagination of Thomas Gray, who in 1768 made a free version of it which he entitled The Fatal Sisters. In 1814, when Scott was on his voyage among the northern islands of Great Britain, he heard a gentleman tell that when some remnants of the Norse were yet spoken there, a clergyman had carried thither Gray’s version, then newly published, and had read it to some old people as referring to the ancient history of the islands. But as soon as he had proceeded a little way they exclaimed they knew it well in the original and had often sung it. They called it “The Enchantress” (Lockhart, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, IV, 81. See also The Pirate, Note c).
3 In order not to overload the footnotes I have tacitly essayed an approximation in the translation of the first and second stanzas as well as in numerous other doubtful passages.
4 Kenning for “battle.” The same conception, growing out of the interweaving of darts and arrows in the air, is found in the Anglo-Saxon wīgspēda gewiofu, “the web of battle-luck” (Bēowulf 697). The two parts of this difficult stanza are parallel: a web is set up, the “web-of-battle,” which is all stained with blood.
5 Another kenning for “battle.” (Thing = “meeting.”)
6 The whole line, probably, a kenning for “blood.” Randvér’s banesman was Bikki, the evil counselor of Iormunrekk (cf. Guthrúnarhvot, Prose, and note 8), in whom—as in Gizur (Battle of the Huns)—we may detect Óthin, the instigator of strife between men. “Fill” is here, probably, used in the sense of completing the web with woof and weft. But it might also mean “to saturate” and so, “to color.”
7 The batten is the instrument used to beat home the yarn. Much also in this stanza is doubtful.
8 The names of valkyries.
9 Kenning for “battle-axe.”
10 Granting that “the web-of-darts” is a kenning for “battle” (from the cloud, or web, of missiles flying overhead), the meaning of this uncertain line is that the p. 75 valkyries are urging each other on to “weave” another such victorious battle as the young king (Sigtrygg) had before. Cf. Eiríkr Magnússon, Old-lore Miscellany of Orkney III, 92.
11 It is for the valkyries to decide the fate of battle and to choose the slain: they have no need of his life.
12 I.e., King Brian, who was set upon at the very end of the battle. The earl, Sigurth Hlothversson, had fallen earlier.
13 A hint to the listener outside.