Worldbuilding Wednesday: Weaving Fate

While playing around with the idea of Fates of some kind weaving a tapestry and cutting threads when someone dies for some stories I am currently busy with, I was reminded of a specific poem in the Icelandic Njál’s Saga. It appears at the end of the saga and is quite a gruesome scene that is described to the reader. Instead of thread, these “fates” are using body parts and weapons while weaving the outcome of a battle and choosing those who die therein (It’s interesting to note that Odin is not mentioned here as the one who chooses the slain). Here is the 1900 translation by Sir George Webb Dasent:

Men’s heads were the weights, but men’s entrails were the warp and weft, a sword was the shuttle, and the reels were arrows.
They sang these songs, and he learnt them by heart –

The Woof of War

See! Warp is stretched
For warriors’ fall,
Lo! Weft in loom
‘Tis wet with blood; Now fight foreboding,
‘Neath friends’ swift fingers,
Our grey woof waxeth
With war’s alarms,
Our warp bloodred,
Our weft corseblue.

This woof is y-woven
With entrails of men,
The warp is hardweighted
With spears of the slain,
Spears blood-besprinkled
For spindles we use,
Our loom ironbound,
And arrows our reels;
With swords for our shuttles
This war-woof we work;
So weave we, weird sisters,
Our warwinning woof.

Now War-winner walketh
To weave in her turn,
Now Swordswinger steppeth
Now Swiftstroke, now Storm;
When they speed the shuttle
How spearheads shall flash!
Shields crash, and helmgnawer
On harness bite hard!

Wind we, wind swiftly
Our warwinning woof
Woof erst for king youthful
Foredoomed as his own,
Forth now we will ride,
Then through the ranks rushing
Be busy where friends
Blows blithe give and take.

Wind we, wind swiftly
Our warwinning woof,
After that let us steadfastly
Stand by the brave king;
Then men shall mark mournful
Their shields red with gore,
How Swordstroke and Spearthrust
Stood stout by the prince.

Wind we, wind swiftly
Our war-winning woof;
When sword-bearing rovers
To banners rush on,
Mind, maidens, we spare not
One life in the fray!
We corse-choosing sisters
Have charge of the slain.

Now new-coming nations
That island shall rule,
Who on outlaying headlands
Abode ere the fight;
I say that King is mighty
To death now is done,
Now low before spearpoint
That Earls bows his head.

Soon over all Ersemen
Sharp sorrow shall fall,
That woe to those warriors
Shall wane nevermore;
Our woof now is woven,
Now battle-field waste,
Oër land and oër water
War tidings shall leap.

Now surely ‘tis gruesome
To gaze all around,
When bloodred through heaven
Drives cloudrack oër head;
Air soon shall be deep hued
With dying men’s blood
When this our spaedom
Comes speedy to pass.

So cheerily chant we
Charms for the young king,
Come maidens lift loudly
His warwinning lay;
Let him who now listens
Learn well with his ears,
And gladden brave swordsmen
With bursts of war’s song.

Now mount we our horses,
Now bare we our brands,
Now haste we hard, maidens,
Hence far, far, away.

Then they plucked down the woof and tore it asunder, and each kept what she had hold of.

(Dasent, 2005: 352 – 354)

This is definitely not the only way in which “fates” in the Norse mythology/literature is featured. The three Norns (as they are called) themselves are at Yggdrasil. The Codex Regius manuscript of the Völuspa (see Lindow, 2001:244) reads as follows:
Thence come maidens,
much knowing,
three of the out of that lake,
which stands under the tree (Yggdrasil).
they call Urd one,
the second Verdandi
– they carved on a stick –
Skuld the third.
They established laws,
they chose lives
for the children of people,
fates of men.
(Lindow, 2001:244)

Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld refer to the past, present, and the future. Snorri Sturluson, in the Gylfaginning, which forms part of the Younger Edda*, also states: “There are additional norns, who come to each child, when it is born, to shape the life, and these are related to the gods, but others are of the family of the elves, and the third ones are from the dwarfs” (Lindow, 2001:245); with some being the “daughters of Dvalin” (Lindow, 2001:245).

When it comes to the thread of life and the cutting thereof, the three Fates from classical mythology is probably the most well known. These daughters of Night; Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos are believed to spin, measure, and cut the thread of life at the time of death (see Wilkinson, 2009:17).

Other controllers of human destiny are the Furies, “appearing as a trio of old women” (Wilkinson, 2009:32) who “punished anyone whose actions violated the natural order” (Wilkinson, 2009:32). They are also known as the Eumenides (”kindly ones”) (see Wilkinson, 2009:32). Wilkinson (2009:165) also states “Some Celts see their sky god’s three daughters as aspects of one goddess, Brigit (”exhhalted”), who had supreme power over human fate”.

* The Younger Edda, written by Snorri Sturluson, is probably the easiest of the Norse mythology texts to begin with and gives a good overview of the main gods and myths. Personally I would suggest first reading the Younger Edda before tackling the poetry of the Elder Edda. There is a great translation by the scholar Jesse Byock, or you can search for translations that are no longer copyrighted.


Dasent, G.W. (2005). Njal’s Saga, or, The Story of Burnt Njal.New York, Dover Publications. (This is a republication of the 1900 text.)
Lindow, J. (2001). Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Wilkinson, P. (2009). Myths & Legends: An Illustrated Guide to Their Origins and Meanings. London, DK Publishing.

By Carin Marais

Bibliophile, writer of speculative fiction, non-fiction, and maybe-fiction, language practitioner, doer of stuff.

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