Thomas James Mathias, "Incantation" (1781)

Thomas James Mathias (1753/4–1835)

1.        Thomas James Mathias held the office of sub-treasurer to the queen, vice-treasurer, and treasurer of the accounts of the queen’s household. He was also a keen antiquary. Among his interests was the poetry of the fictitious fifteenth-century monk Thomas Rowley, whose work was a forgery by Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770). Mathias published Essay on the Evidence Relating to the Poems Attributed to Thomas Rowley (1783), in which he reaches no definite conclusions. Mathias was elected fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in early 1795, and fellow of the Royal Society later the same year.

2.        Mathias was also a prolific Italian scholar, who edited several Italian texts and translated the poems of John Milton and other English writers into Italian. Mathias visited Walter Scott at Naples in 1831–1832, helping him collect local ballads. [1] 

3.        Mathias was most famous for his (at first anonymously published) satire Pursuits of Literature (1794–1797). This hugely successful poem held up for censure radical writers such as Thomas Paine, John Horne Tooke, and William Godwin. But he also made accusations against the Gothic writing of Matthew Lewis for its alleged licentiousness.

4.        “An Incantation Founded on the Northern Mythology” was first published as part of the collection Runic Odes: Imitated from the Norse Tongue in the Manner of Mr. Gray (1781; repr. 1790, 1798, 1806). As it is clear from the title, the inspiration of Thomas Gray’s Norse odes led Mathias to undertake research into the Norse tradition. The interest in Gray led to the publication of an edition of the poet’s work in two quarto volumes, with substantial prose extracts from Gray’s manuscripts, in 1814.

5.        The “Incantation” is connected with the two odes in the collection adapted from the Poetic Edda on the subject of Ragnarök. In these the main speaker is a völva, a seeres. Mathias’s collection of Runic Odes also contained an imitation of Ossian and an imitation inspired by the antiquities published by the Welsh poet and nationalist Evan Evans (Ieuan Brydydd Hir; 1731–1788) under the title Some Specimens of the Poetry of the Antient Welsh Bards (1764).

6.        The poem invokes the imagery of magic incantations that were often mentioned in writing on Norse mythology and the mysterious seers chanting these. In the eighteenth century, renderings of incantations, spells were seen as a way to renew the poetic idiom. There was also a new interest in sorceresses, as we find it in William Mickle’s ballad “The Sorceress; or Wolfwold and Ulla” (1781).

7.        The speaker in Mathias’s poem is Thorbiorga, who is a prophetess mentioned in Thomas Bartholin’s antiquarian work on old Scandinavia. However, many of the names of demons referred to in the poem cannot be found in Norse tradition. Peolphan is known as the Great Hunter of the North in the writings of the French witch-hunter Nicolaus Remigius; Glauron is a Christian angel, who can be invoked from the North; Coronzon is more or less equivalent to Lucifer, originating with the sixteenth-century occultists Edward Kelley and John Dee, and so on.


An Incantation Founded on the Northern Mythology (1781)

Hear, ye Rulers of the North,
Spirits of exalted worth;
By the silence of the night,
By subtle magic’s secret rite;
By Peolphan murky King,
Master of th’ enchanted ring;
By all and each of hell’s grim host,
Howling demon, tortur’d ghost;
By each spell and potent word
Burst from lips of Glauron’s Lord;
By Coronzon’s awful power;
By the dread and solemn hour,
When Gual fierce, and Hamad strong,
Stride the blast that roars along;
Or, in fell descending swoop,
Bid the furious spirit stoop
O’er desolation’s gloomy plain,
Haunt of warriors battle slain.
Now the world in sleep is laid,
Thorbiorga calls your aid.

Mark the sable feline coat,
Spotted girdle velvet-wrought;
Mark the skin of glistening snake,
Sleeping seiz’d in forest brake;
Mark the radiant crystal stone,
On which days Sovereign never shone,
From the cavern dark and deep
Digg’d i’ th’ hour of mortal sleep;
Mark the cross, in mystic round [2] 
Meetly o’er the sandal bound,
And the symbols grav’d thereon,
Holiest Tetragrammaton! [3] 
Now while midnight torches gleam,
Rivals of the Moon’s pale beam,
On ocean’s unfrequented shore
Some moss-grown ruin silvering o’er.
While the flame of resinous fire
Mounts aloft in curling spire;
I scatter round this charmed room,
The fragrance of the myrrh’s perfume;
And, bending o’er this consecrated sword,
confirm each murmur’d spell, each inly-thrilling word.

Source: Runic Odes: Imitated from the Norse Tongue in the Manner of Mr. Gray (London: T. Payne et al., 1781), 27–9.


[1] John Gibson Lockhart, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, vol. 10 (Edinburgh: R. Cadell, 1837), 147–8. BACK

[2] The ancient symbol of the sunwheel (a cross within a circle), which was also known as Odin’s Cross. BACK

[3] The four letters that spell the name of the Hebrew god, usually transliterated as IHVH. Here, we should probably think of “ODIN”. BACK