This great world has been home to endless ancient people throughout the ages, many of whom were never seen or understood by modernity because they lacked the written word. Without the ability to document their own beliefs and experiences through some form of writing, these cultures were muted by time and left with little acknowledgment or understanding—remaining essentially lost to us. As students of history, we delight in the discovery of some old relic because it has the power to transport us back to a time when the heavens were still a mystery, the land itself was filled with hidden secrets, and the inhabitants of the earth roamed about in almost poetic blindness for some 300,000 years. The mere sight of a such an artifact offers us a portal through which we can ruminate on the deep, dark, and often terrifying events of the ages, as well as the heroism, glories, and shimmering empires they enjoyed. The only other finding capable of heightening that connection to history is the discovery of written accounts from the unknown souls who lived, loved, and died long before we did. For some, there is nothing more exhilarating than witnessing the feelings, beliefs, and dreams of our human ancestors. Through them, we learn more deeply about human nature, the trajectory of our existence, and the universal truths of our species.
From the cuneiform proto-writing of the Sumerians to the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt, written communications from the past have the power to flesh out fantasy and illuminate our romanticized notions of what came before. In the case of the Viking Age—which lasted from about 790 CE until the Norman conquest of England in 1066 CE—all of the brave heroes, dangerous journeys, and beautiful women depicted in their stories were first remembered rather than written. Freezing long winters provided plenty of time for families and friends to sit around the fire and embellish their oral history with new fervor, but they still had no way—aside from the occasional rune— to document their memories. Just as this fading tradition was beginning to jeopardize their cultural mythology, the Church appeared to teach Icelandic citizens the written word. And fortunately, some men like Snorri Sturlusontook, an Icelandic writer of the 13th century, took a great liking to the process and wrote it all down so no one would ever forget Odin, his ravens, and their rich heritage.
One such delightfully revealing manuscript of Norse culture was the Codex Regius which was believed to be one of the oldest poem collections from the revered Viking civilization. The best-known of all Icelandic books—also called the Poetic Edda—this national treasure is every bit the medieval wonderment, written on 45 leaves of vellum paper (of which only eight are missing) and dating back to 1270 CE. Where it lingered until being discovered in 1643 by Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson of Copenhagen no one knows, but it revealed a stunning compendium of Old Norse poems written in the Northern Germanic language spoken in Scandinavia from the 9th to 13th centuries. To this day, it remains the sole extant source for most of its poetic writings and has become a visionary force in our knowledge of Norse mythology and Germanic legends, especially in the way it gave us Odin. Over the centuries, it’s been translated into every major language, allowing the contemporary collective mind a chance to experience the ocean air, ritual fires, and pagan revelry of divine Vikings like Odin, the Raven God. Called such for his love of the dark birds, Odin’s iconic relationship with his two ravens, Hugin and Munin, was what cast them as heroes in the hearts of Viking culture and fortified the appreciation of their dark majesty. The ancient Viking perception of the raven was complex, holding both love and fear in equal measure, and illuminated a great deal about their sense of the world and themselves.
Although the Viking Age remains ever mysterious, these Nordic people left behind many traces of their existence—which are still visible today—and archeological proof of their settlements, conquests, beliefs, and daily life. The study of place-names and language demonstrated their lasting influence on the British Isles, while DNA analysis offered some insight into the effect the Vikings had on the genetic stock of the countries where they settled. While all of this information was captivating, to say the least, their written sources provided the most insight—that and their love of the dark and mysterious raven. Many popular notions about Vikings are really 19th-century inventions used to titillate, and numerous scholars hotly suggest the sources we now depend on for details are entirely unreliable. But ancient Norse people loved their poetic stories, and the modern world has experienced the joy of reading them first-hand thanks to a bounty of more contemporary literature. And of course, plenty of Viking tales were written by their contemporaries, including their Arab trading partners and the Christian victims of their terrifying raids. And throughout these various anecdotes, the raven appears again and again, always prepared to champion its purpose.
Because many contemporary Viking accounts in the form of Scandinavian sagas, chronicles, skaldic epics, runic inscriptions, and written laws were written by Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, and Irish churchmen, they tended to interpret Viking raids as God’s punishment for Anglo sins and focused on the fact that these burly warriors attacked monasteries primarily for their wealth. Such contemporary accounts were relatively biased and hostile in nature, offering little more than descriptions of savage, violent usurpers. Lest we forget many Christian rulers of the time behaved in equally unpleasant ways, it’s worth remembering this was somewhat of an acceptable zeitgeist for the time. This lack of deeper understanding left the Viking character rather hollow, which was precisely why the Norse raven became culturally magnificent—it was one of the few bits of imagery that highlighted both the dark and the light aspects of the ancient Norse people, explaining more about their ability to embrace life’s sometimes bleak realities with dignity and courage. The Viking love for the raven elevated their people above mere brutality and depicted a more nuanced set of beliefs and behaviors.
According to the book Gylfaginning of the Edda, Odin’s two ravens—Hugin for “thought” and Munin for “memory”—sat on his shoulders and whispered to him what was happening in the vast world, then known as Midgard. When they flew out into the great beyond, they were more than just Odin’s messengers—they became the symbolic release of both his astral spirit and his consciousness, fused together to gather an understanding of the land below their wings. On his behalf, Hugin and Munin flew over the roiling ocean, the craggy plains, and the jutting mountains, using their black wings to slice through the frigid air and their beady black eyes to pick out the vivid details of the landscape. And when Odin’s ravens returned to his side in time for breakfast, their news from Midgard allowed him to make more well-informed decisions for his Viking people. Regardless of whether he was galloping into battle or presiding over his dominion, the Raven God was never without Hugin and Munin, his trusted confidantes and valued friends. Some scholars say these majestic birds were symbolic manifestations of Odin’s own personality or fylgjur, while others insist the birds symbolized his shamanistic ability to roam outside his body through projection and thought, much like necromancy.
O’er Mithgarth Hugin and Munin both
Each day set forth to fly;
For Hugin I fear lest he come not home,
But for Munin my care is more. —translation by Henry Adams Bellows
While it’s true Odin appeared more concerned about the state of his memory than the condition of his spirit, as were represented by the ravens, the reason for this fear was debatable—some say it was the result of his aging spirit, while others suggested the darkness he remembered was a difficult parcel to carry through the ages. And then there were those who say Hugin and Munin were the figurative combination of Odin’s intellectual and spiritual capabilities and essentially synonymous. Regardless of which opinion wins, there’s no arguing Odin’s connection to the ravens was ancient and deep, existing long before anyone could remember. Visual depictions of the Raven God in helmets and jewelry often pictured him accompanied by one or more of the dark birds, a relationship that did much to strengthen his role as the god of war and death. As carrion birds who fed on flesh, ravens were always present during battle and considered any fallen warriors to be a “gift” or sacrifice in their name. As such, the raven reinforced Odin’s divine power and absolute omnipotence as king of a brutal and passionate world. As “the greedy hawks of Odin,” the sight of ravens immediately following any sort of sacrifice in his name was a sign of his acceptance and pleasure. Of all the species to associate with this glorious figure, the raven was likely chosen because of its innate connection to otherworldly knowledge, wisdom, and attraction to scenes of bloodshed.
If Vikings were known for one thing, it was their strikingly simple yet effective methods of marine navigation. Because they did not possess a fine concept of time or a way to calculate speed, the Norse sailor ventured forth with no real accuracy in assessing distance or a way to approximate their location. What they did have was decades of hard-earned wisdom about the position of the sun and cosmos; a familiarity with the seasonal winds; which birds and seaweed indicated what shore; and the experiences of those who had sailed similar routes before. They knew the concepts of east, west, north, and south, but their navigational sense was based on a simple understanding of the horizon, the tide, and the sun’s progress through the sky rather than on the Earth’s magnetism in the form of a compass. A Viking seaman would listen for the sound of waves breaking on the shore; feel for the wind’s direction on his face; taste samples from the seabed to detect the existence of fresh water; and smell any humidity related to nearby trees or plants. And of course, they were able to make long and dangerous voyages into uncharted territory—and still return home in one piece—because of their relationship to the raven whom they trusted as nature’s authority.
In history, this reliance on ravens was poetically depicted in the life of Flóki Vilgerðarson, the first Norseman to settle in Iceland. As was documented in the medieval Landnámabók manuscript from this time, Flóki set sail with his family to the Shetland Islands where one of his daughters was believed to have drowned and the other possibly married sometime later. At that point, Flóki took three ravens into his ship to help him journey forth to Iceland, earning him the name Raven-Flóki. The first raven he released instantly winged towards home, while the second one flew up to roost in the ship’s rigging above. But the third one flew out to sea and did not return—a sure sign that he was within a day’s reach of shore—so he followed his direction and ultimately found Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland. Despite the raven’s obvious connection to dark omens, the Viking people relied on them for their inherent ability and wisdom, naturally accepting their role as both messenger and agitator.
These sailing strategies of “discovery-by-bird” gave way to arguably the most iconic Viking symbol of all—the raven banner or hrafnsmerki which was flown by various chieftains and Scandinavian rulers from the 9th century onward. In Norse artwork, this flag appeared triangular in shape with a rounded outside edge and tassel detailing, often hung like a weather vane on Viking longship to invoke the threatening spirit of Odin and intimidate the Anglo-Saxon enemy. This banner was eventually adopted by the Norse-Gaelic kings of Dublin and Northumbria, like the Uí Ímair clan who claimed descent from Ragnar Lodbrok through his son Ivar The Boneless. This imagery soon spread to other facets of Viking and Anglo-Saxons civilizations, like the penny minted by King Olaf Cuaran in 940 CE which depicted a raven-like bird and the banners adopted by Norse Jarls of Orkney who fashioned them to imitate a bird’s flight. For the Cnut the Great—king of the North Sea Empire including Denmark, England, and Norway late in the 1st century—the raven was believed to have predictive powers, as was illustrated in the 11th-century Latin speech honoring Queen Emma of Normandy, the Encomium Emmae:
The banner was woven of the cleanest and whitest silk and no picture of any figures was found on it. In case of war, however, a raven was always to be seen, as if it were woven into it. If the Danes were going to win the battle, the raven appeared, beak wide open, flapping its wings and restless on its feet. If they were going to be defeated, the raven did not stir at all, and its limbs hung motionless.
However, the earliest mention of the Viking raven banner was from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for the year 878 CE, which recorded:
This year about mid-winter, after twelfth-night, the Danish army stole out to Chippenham, and rode over the land of the West-Saxons; where they settled, and drove many of the people over sea; and of the rest the greatest part they rode down, and subdued to their will; — all but Alfred the king. He, with a little band, uneasily sought the woods and fastnesses of the moors. And in the winter of this same year the brother of Ívarr and Hálfdan landed in Wessex, in Devonshire, with 23 ships, and there was he slain, and 800 men with him, and 40 of his army. There also was taken the war-flag guðfani, which they called “Raven.”
This account suggested the legendary raven banner of the Danish Vikings was captured that year by King Alfred and was later carried by Cnut in his victory at Ashingdon in 1016. And the illustrious history of the raven banner continued from that point forward, holding a prominent place in several historical events like the account of Harold Godwinsson who fought and defeated the Vikings under the Norwegian King Haraldr in 1066. But without a doubt, the best artifact of a raven banner was the Bayeux Tapestry from the 11th century which depicted the events leading up to the conquests of William the Conqueror. This 230 foot long embroidered cloth was considered to be one of the supreme achievements from the Romanesque period whose survival over nine centuries was nothing short of astounding. It illustrated some 50 different action scenes in woolen yarns, all of which were quietly overseen by embroidered ravens along the outer edge, a constant source of vigilance and strength to the struggling characters within.
The raven banner was particularly striking to the enemy and those who glimpsed it above the roiling waves because it captured the forbidding characteristics of this powerful bird. When painted as the portent of death and war, the Viking raven truly expressed its full glory. Very few skáldic poems from the Viking Age went without a raven of some kind, all of whom were connected to the violent nature of man and their innate desire to create conflict. To “please” the raven was to bring pain, as is illustrated through the Story of Norna-Gest, the legendary dark fairy tale from the year 1300 of the Norse hero Getr. When the character Sigurd, whose legend was documented on seven pictorial runestones and the Ramsund carving in 11th-century Sweden, killed the sons of Hunding, his foster father Regin poetically recited:
In this passage, the ritualized form of execution known as the “blood eagle” was seen as pleasing to the raven who smiled upon such harsh justice. Someone who could muster the stamina to chop another man’s ribs away from his spine with a small ax before pulling the victim’s lungs through the opening to create “wings,” was deemed “valiant” in the eyes of his people and a worthy chief. Because the raven was also seen as a totem of wisdom and grace, the idea that he was made “glad” by the brutality of the blood eagle lent the ritual some degree of dignity and necessity. In this way, the raven’s dark nod was a validation of certain violence and a confirmation that along with possessing knowledge and strength, man must also be ready to face life’s bloodier demands.
The Norse language itself became interwoven with the raven in many fascinating ways, particularly in figurative descriptions. The Vikings loved to use kennings, or compound expressions with metaphorical meaning, to heighten the drama and purpose of certain words. Used also in Old English poetry, this verbal approach could turn a simple sword into a “death-bringer” or an icicle into a “winter-spear.” The most popular kenning for the word blood was the “toast of ravens,” as they were known to gracefully alight on a heap of corpses after a grisly battle, scanning the horizon with dark eyes for signs of movement. Like curtains of shadow, Norse tales described flocks of Ravens winging from place to place, blood on their beaks and the smell of death in their inky feathers. Sometimes these giant beetle-like birds were identified as Hugin and Munin, out scouting knowledge for Odin, while others were seen as “ravens of Hell,” ripping out the eyes of anyone who spoke against them. According to the Poetic Edda, one of the most terrifying curses a Viking could utter was Þit skyli hjarta rafnar slíta, or “may ravens tear your heart asunder.” As such, these dark birds were seen as instruments of both the divine and the dastardly, doling out the essence of each in equal measure. As ravens fed on carrion and croaked their contentment with disturbing hoarseness, they were typically viewed as foreboding omens of impending death. Because they seemed to straddle the tenuous worlds of both the living and the dead, ravens were regarded as having the power to reach lost souls and communicate between the two realms—much like gods themselves.
Cultural depictions of the raven were not unique to Vikings and began long before these mighty bearded warriors engraved them on their jewelry and armor. From the Greeks who believed them to be gods of prophecy to Noah who released a raven from the ark after the flood to the Irish Morrígan who took the shape of the dark bird during battle, the raven has appeared throughout every stage of our long history. But for the Vikings, the raven was particularly special in the way it was equally venerated and feared. This ability to accept the dual nature of the bird reflected their cultural propensity for a life lived in both shadow and light. Even though the raven was often viewed with unease, the Viking Age empowered the darkness of the raven and used it to bolster their own resolve and innate strength. By embracing the bird’s foreboding nature, the Norse warriors and people were able to bestow upon themselves the same degree of wisdom, bravery, and predation. The raven’s darkness then became a jewel of the night and something powerful to be revered and treasured, not shunned or feared. Regardless of their sometimes violent associations, the raven was largely viewed as a positive figure in early Scandinavian life, mostly because they possessed such a warm regard for the realities of conflict. Unlike the Western cultures of today, the realm of darkness was seen as a source of powerful knowledge, the complement of light, and an inherent part of the universe. Many Norse children were given names like Hrafn, Hrafnkel, and Hrafnhild to honor references to the raven and reinforce their inherent mettle.
While it was not uncommon for ancient cultures to embrace dark totems in the pursuit of deeper strength, the Viking connection to the raven remains a uniquely fitting emblem of their complex relationship with life’s beauty and violence. In many ways, this combination of poetic wisdom paired with grisly resolve—all of which is romantically embodied by the raven—is the ideal symbol for the treasured Viking Age. Their appreciation for the duality of the raven reflected a genuine comfort with their own fierce nature and an acceptance of the world’s innate cruelty—and deep, undeniable beauty. To them, the raven was truth—a truth so strong, it could set them free to live their own.
And the rest is history.