Viking symbols are increasingly becoming a source of inspiration and, by association, a fad for those who understand them and want to fit in. They make cool tattoos and beautiful engravings.
That being said, if you are branding or sending out a message, it’s prudent to know what it says. Viking culture is rife with gods and mythical creatures, each with unique qualities and roles according to the Norse people.
The raven is a powerful symbol because it forms an important pillar of Norse mythology. Ravens are hailed as wise, all-knowing messengers, birds of prophecy, protectors and helpers.
They feature prominently in Nordic poetic Edda (a collection of medieval Icelandic poems and other literature) going as far back as the Viking Age. This article will focus on the Viking Nordic raven, its history in mythology and real life and how it remains relevant.
Ravens in Norse Mythology
Of all the animals in Norse mythology, ravens are the most sought-after. They were their all-father god’s most reliable assistants, which earned them trust and respect that has trickled down generations.
Odin, The Raven God
Odin is the main god of Norse mythology. They paint a picture of a wise old man with a single eye; he is said to have given up one of his eyes in exchange for wisdom. He rules the realms from a silver tower in Asgard, the abode of the gods.
The image of Odin, the all father, seated upon his throne, towering over the world with two ravens upon his shoulders, has been interpreted to symbolize his power to see into the future with his mind and thoughts.
Odin’s ravens, Hugin and Munin, are the most popular in Norse mythology. They double as his helping spirits; each morning, he sends them out to the nine worlds of his realm. They fly worldwide and come back with information from their observations and interactions.
The ravens sit on Odin’s shoulders at breakfast and whisper in his ears, briefing him on everything they saw and heard. Therefore, the raven god can keep in touch with his cosmos daily without skipping a beat.
The ravens are super intelligent, as suggested by the origins of their names. Huginn is an old Norse word that loosely translates to thought, while Muninn translates to memory or mind.
The ravens ensured Odin never lacked a sense of depth and perception even though he only had one eye. He thrived on the information they gave him to the extent that he didn’t need food for survival. The powerful Norse god only consumed mead and wine. He would give all his food to his two wolves, Geri and Freki, who followed him wherever he went.
Both wolves and ravens were dedicated to Odin. The ravens represented his intellectual side, an above-average understanding of the world and his subjects. The wolves represented his ravenous potential. Some sources say they were his first creations, preceding the ravens. They were loyal to a fault and were often depicted seating at Odin’s feet.
This is another Viking icon associated with ravens and is the subject of many Nordic runes contributing to their symbolic significance. The 9th Century Danish king was a Viking warrior with multiple accounts of victory against superior opponents.
He used a raven on his banner whenever he charged into battle. The numerous accounts of his exploits make the raven banner famous throughout Europe. He was most likely inspired by the raven god, as all Viking warriors were.
Symbolism of Ravens in Norse Mythology
Odin was a sort of shaman; his birds were shamanic avatars through which he could interact with the spirit world in various altered states of consciousness. He could be in many places at the same time. He is also referred to as the raven tempter or the priest of the raven sacrifice.
One interpretation of this situation depicts fallen warriors as sacrifices to the ravens. Odin determines who lives and who perishes in battle. His role as the god of war and death also greatly impacts his connection with ravens. Ravens were always present whenever a war occurred, given that they were carrion birds. Those who were slain in battle were considered gifts to the birds.
Because Odin was also the ruler of the dead in Valhalla, the gift of slain soldiers also went to him. His association with the ravens, therefore, came naturally to the Norse. Ravens are also very intellectual, a quality that the raven god had in abundance. Hugin and Munin symbolize Odin’s thoughts and memory. A symbol of his mental power and presence throughout the cosmos.
The sight of ravens immediately after a sacrifice to Odin was taken to mean the raven god had accepted the offering. Old Norse frequently designated blood as Hugin’s sea, Hugin’s drink or the reddener of Hugin’s bill, while a battle was referred to as Hugin’s feast.
The ravens were associated with almost all life concepts, from death, conflict, knowledge, and healing to arts and creativity. They were a true representation of the full cycle of life.
Icons of Strength and Bravery
In battle, they were a Viking symbol of Odin’s presence. Soldiers fought, drawing strength from the ravens that they believed came straight from Odin. If they fell in battle in the presence of the god Odin, they would be transported by Valkyries to Valhalla, the majestic hall of Odin’s fallen soldiers located in Asgard’s heavenly landscape.
This was where Viking warriors of repute would spend their afterlife alongside the most powerful Norse god, but only if they were slain in battle.
Valhalla was a place of feasting and making merry, and the perceived reward would embolden them, giving them the courage and strength to keep fighting even when the odds were against them.
A place by Odin’s side was the greatest honor for a warrior, so they didn’t fear death on the battlefield. The warriors would enjoy their time in Valhalla preparing for Ragnarök, or the doomsday battle where they were expected to fight giants alongside Odin.
This concept of valor and honor still resonates with soldiers, and you can hear the phrase ‘til Valhalla’ being bandied by soldiers just before the battle.
The idea is that people who die in battle are never truly gone but remain in our memories, especially because of how they impacted those left behind and their lifetime achievements. Many Viking kings and warriors flew the raven banner between the ninth and eleventh centuries.
The raven was revered throughout the Viking age; the Vikings considered it a symbol of good luck. They would easily follow a raven and fight in honor of it which is why their flags even had a large black raven emblem on a white field.
They would release a raven whenever they sailed far from their native shores. It flew in the direction of land, guiding its sailors to safety.
If you look deeper, they navigate much more than lost warriors. They enable people to work through life’s obstacles with foresight and intelligence. They also symbolize the moral Viking compass that distinguishes between right and wrong.
Conflicting Cultural Depictions of the Raven
It is worth noting that many portrayals of the raven support mythology around them being presages of doom. They are often associated with fear and bad luck, unlike the ravens in Norse mythology.
Take the world-renowned raven in Macbeth, the famous play by William Shakespeare. Upon hearing the sound of a raven, Lady Macbeth remarks that it is hoarse. She has been reading a letter from her husband about a witch’s prophecy of the king’s death.
Her sentiments are translated to mean that the raven has been continuously asserting that King Duncan must die, to the point it got hoarse. She imagines the raven is foretelling the death of the king, who is indeed assassinated shortly after.
On the other hand, Nordic runes make it clear that the Viking Nordic raven represents something positive that is much more than death and other unfortunate events.
The Impact of Ravens on Norse Names
Icelanders and Scandinavians have maintained raven-related names and titles to date. Many Icelandic children are named Hrafn, the old Norse word for raven.
Girls are named Hrafndis, which is the female adaptation. The name imparts feminine energy, representing a feminine deity with unparalleled wisdom.
The Viking Nordic Raven in Our Culture
There is a lot of Norse artwork in circulation depicting the raven. From jewelry supposed to inspire foresight and wisdom, Bayeux tapestry, banners and flags bearing raven images.
Many people go for fads like Odin’s crow tattoo without fully grasping its significance. If you are a Viking enthusiast, the Hugin and Munin tattoo or any raven tattoo should be more than just a way of fitting in or scaring people.
Just like the raven banner in battle, it should be a reminder of true belief in self and the Viking spirit, a reminder to aim towards the admirable qualities of the Viking Nordic raven, like intelligence, bravery, wisdom and an awareness of the right path physically and mentally. They are a symbol of life guidance in times of doubt.
A raven tattoo can be applied anywhere on your body, so you can decide if you want people to see it or restrict it to less noticeable parts like the back or chest where clothes will cover it. The most important thing is knowing what it represents to you personally.
Mythological Similarities Between the Viking Nordic Raven and Other Folklore
Ravens in Norse mythology bear similarities with native American mythologies of the Pacific Northwestern Indians and the symbolism can easily be mistaken if you take a casual look. (However, there is no tangible evidence of a common mythological heritage. This may also be Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious at work which we won’t get into today).
The ravens are also considered birds of prophecy by the native Americans, and their appearance is a prelude to something to come. They are renowned shapeshifters and will easily swap their feathers for human garments to blend with the population, just like Odin’s ravens would blend with the human population to gather information.