With its striking blue-black plumage, the Raven was a potent symbol to the folk of North-West Europe, and depictions of these animals can be found on many artifacts. In this article, the significance of the Raven is discussed.
An impressively large bird which had co-existed with man for thousands of years and thrived, the Raven have the uncanny ability to spot carrion from miles away and was known to call in other predator species such as wolves and foxes in order to open up a large carcass. It was also considered to be supernaturally intelligent, capable of extensive vocalisations, even to the extent of mimicking human speech. It is no surprise, then, that this bird of death became associated early on with that most complex of Gods, Wóðanaz, who would evolve into Woden in England, Wotan in Germany and, eventually Óðinn in Scandinavia.
The modern word "Raven" originates from the Old English hræfn (Mercian), hrefn or hræfn (Northumbrian, West Saxon), from Proto Germanic khrabanas. This can be compared to the Old Norse word hrafn. The Anglo-Saxons also used the term hræmn or hremm (compare Old High German (h)raban.)
The Raven appears numerous times in mythology. In the Poetic Edda poem Grímnismál, we learn :
In the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning (chapter 38), ‘High’ tells Gangleri of the two ravens named Huginn and Muninn who sit on Óðinn's shoulders. The ravens tell Óðinn everything they see and hear. The God sends Huginn and Muninn out at dawn, and the birds fly all over the world before returning at dusk. As a result, Óðinn is kept informed of many events. ‘High’ adds that it is from this association that Óðinn is referred to as Hrafnaguð or Hrafn-áss ("raven-god").Huginn ok Muninn fliúga hverian dag iörmungrund yfir;óumk ek of Hugin at hann aptr ne komit, þó siámk meirr um Munin.
Huginn and Mininn fly each day over the whole wide world;
I fear for Hugin that he come not back. Nevertheless, more anxious am I for Munin.
In the Ynglinga saga, Óðinn is described as having two ravens upon whom he had bestowed the gift of speech. These ravens flew all over the land and brought him information, causing him to become "very wise in his lore."
In the Third Grammatical Treatise an anonymous verse is recorded;
“Two ravens flew from Hnikar’s (Óðinn’s)
shoulders; Huginn to the hanged and Muninn to corpses.”
In fact, evidence for Wóðanaz being associated with a pair of ravens, precedes the ‘Viking Age’ considerably.
- Gold bracteates (medallions) from the Völkerwanderung (Migration Period : 5th and 6th century CE) often depict a human figure riding a horse, holding a spear and flanked by two birds. It requires no great imagination to identify the rider and his ravens.
|Vendel-1 Helmet Foil with Raven|
|Gold Bracteate from Funen (NM DK)|
- The Vendel I helmet foils (6th / 7th century CE) similarly show a helmeted figure holding a spear and riding a horse, flanked by two birds. The helmet from Grave XIV at Vendel features a copper-alloy nasal in the form of a swooping raven. The famous Sutton-Hoo helmet ‘Dancing Warriors’ pressblech shows two men wearing helmets crowned with so-called horns with bird-head terminals.
- 5-6th century Anglo-Saxon and Frankish scabbard-chapes such as that from Abingdon, Namur and Krefeld-Gellup show a seated figure flanked by two birds, again showing the same imagery.
|Frigg of Lejre, Roskilde Museum DK.|
The Norse sagas tell of ravens following armies in expectation of good pickings in the aftermath of a battle. Possibly because of its strong link with the pagan gods, following the adoption of Christianity, the raven got a bad press.
The Old English poem, ‘The Fortunes of Men’ from the Exeter Book, demonstrates this most graphically.
Vendel-14 NasalSum sceal on geapum galgan ridan,seomian æt swylte, oþþæt sawlhord,bancofa blodig, abrocen weorþeð.þær him hrefn nimeþ heafodsyne,sliteð salwigpad sawelleasne;noþer he þy facne mæg folmum biwergan,laþum lyftsceaþan, biþ his lif scæcen,ond he feleleas, feores orwena,blac on beame bideð wyrde,bewegen wælmiste. Bið him werig noma!
Even in Scandinavia, following the demise of paganism, the raven, became frankly demonic. According to Danish folklore, it was the ‘valravn’ (raven of the slain), which fed on battlefield corpses and, after consuming the still-warm heart of a child, became capable of transforming into a human or a half werewolf, half raven monster. If a king or jarl was killed in battle and remained unburied, ravens would eat his flesh. These ravens would then became valravne. The valravn that ate the king's heart would acquire human knowledge and great power enabling it to perform terrible deeds, even to the extent of corrupting human souls! Another story was that the valravn was a damned soul condemned to fly by night in search of redemption; only able to free itself from its animal form by drinking the blood of a child.
"One (man) must ride the gaping gallows,
hang to death, until his soul-hoard,
his bloody bone-coffer, becomes broken.
There (on the gallows) the raven takes his eye,
the dark-cloaked one tears at the soulless;
nor is he able to ward off that evil,
that loathsome thief of the air,
with his hands-- his life is fled,
and he, senseless, without hope of living,
pale on the tree, awaits his fate,
covered by the mists of slaughter. His name is cursed!"
The most famous ravens are, of course, those who inhabit the grounds of William-the-Bastard’s White Tower, in London. It is thought that wild ravens were first attracted there by the smell of the corpses of those executed there.
Tradition says that if the ravens leave The Tower, the British monarchy will fall and Britain with it. The story goes that Charles II disapproved of raven droppings on the new telescope which had been installed at the Tower. "These ravens must go!" he said. "But, Sire,” quoth the royal astronomer John Flamsteed, “it is very unlucky to kill a raven! If you do that the Tower will fall and you will lose your kingdom, having only just got it back!" Charles, not wishing to share his father’s fate, thought for a moment and replied: "The Observatory must go to Greenwich and the ravens can stay in the Tower."
So the ravens, whose wings are clipped to prevent desertion, remain in residence, guarding the kingdom and are one of London’s tourist attractions. Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, is reported to have been impressed by the ravens' verbal skills on a visit to the Tower because one of the ravens greeted each person in his entourage with a croaked "Good morning!" Perhaps the Raven God of Ásgarðr likes him.