Thursday, October 6, 2016


viking odin
Odin with his ravens

Ravens conjure up scenes of battle, with mobs of winged shadows flocking to consume the dead. However much truth there is in this we can’t say but  unfortunately the raven gets some bad press in medieval  folklore - such notions as a death-bringer, sign of ill omen etc, might be Christian attempts to blacken pagan ideals linked to the bird. So, let’s see if we can’t wipe away some of that monotheistic grime and  unveil the Raven’s true symbolic nature.

Amongst the Norse god Odin’s many appellations was God of Ravens, for in myth he wore a raven upon each shoulder. These were Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory/mind) and he taught them speech.  They scouted the lands, bringing him news and thus extending his knowledge (see the Odin post). 

I love this fragment from the poem  Grímnismál which is found in The Poetic Edda. 

Hugin and Munin fly each day Over the earth. 
I am worried about Hugin, that he not come back, 
And yet more worried about Munin. 

In other words, though Odin worries that new thoughts and insight might not arrive, he frets more over losing his memory or mind. 

Bracteate, or talisman, from Sweden, 5-6th c. AD. Check out that head dress!

Migration period bracteate often depict a portrait with birds near its head or sometimes forming a sort of hat (see pics). John Lindow suggests that the notion of knowledge-seeking birds may come from shamanic practices, and therefore Odin’s fear of losing Munin might actually to be related to the danger a shaman faces when in a trance-state, travelling the spirit worlds.
Further strengthening the link between ravens and knowledge is the head-gear mentioned above, along with the horned, ceremonial helms with raven faces representing the double-raven aspect; these were ceremonial helmets worn by priests of the Odin cult -  reinforcing the link between raven and mind: the head being the seat of knowledge upon which the helm is placed. 
This association with Odin might in someway explain the bird’s prominence as a presence on the battlefield and might account for those later burdens of ill omen and death placed about the raven’s shoulders. Odin was many things, chief amongst them was a god of death and the Underworld. Perhaps it was this symbiotic relationship with the god that the Christians needed to refute. 
There is also a link between the Celtic god Lugh and Odin for, like the latter, Lugh possessed two ravens that did all his bidding. However the goddess Morrighan, a war spirit sometimes split into three battle maidens (with  similarities to the Viking Valkyries i.e. battle and bird-like qualities*) is directly associated with battle. This being said the raven was also possessed of prophetic powers in Celtic myth too: it could prophecy death and life and was associated with the  Underworld. This is personified in the tale of Brân Llyr in the Welsh Mabinogion. In this tale Branwen, his sister, was lured off to Eire where she was imprisoned. Her brother led an expedition to bring her back but during the attempt he was fatally  wounded. So Brân instructed his warriors to hack off his head and take it back to Wales. Even so his head sang and told jokes. Brân means raven, and Branwen the white raven. 
Raven artwork by me.
In Grecian myth Ravens are associated with Apollo and were the God’s messengers in the mortal world, bringing luck to those who beheld them.  To the tribes of the Pacific Northwest coast, including the Innuit, Haidas and Koyukons, Raven is a creator and a trickster. Back in Europe, by the time that alchemy was reaching its zenith, the raven was symbolic of darkness and putrefaction -  which, however negative it may appear, is seen as a necessary step in alchemical processes. 
In the so-called Real World Ravens are indeed clever creatures. Their brain size is one of the largest in the bird kingdom and they have a great potential and ability for problem solving, mimicry and insight.  These are just some of the attributes that scientists have noticed in Ravens. However couldn't ancient man - living closer to the animal kingdom - have shared such intimacies long ago, and did such insights influence early myth? It's an interesting thought. 
If you'd like to know more of the esoteric new-age symbology of the raven, you might like to try this page at The Order Of Bards, Ovates and Druids. The post, by Susa Morgan Black goes into some detail in many aspects of the Raven, from scientific to magical. 

There are many similarities between many cultures' mythology. Personally I believe that some of this can be accounted by the idea of diffusion, in which root ideas harking back to Indo-European or even Pre-Indo-European tribes still hold sway. As tribes migrated core motives were held onto but changed as the result of the meeting of other cultures and tribes splitting, spreading out.  I also feel that some of these ideas appear similar because we humans are hardwired the same way. As with Jungian concepts of collective unconscious and archetypes, I feel that there are ideas that are common to us all. The profound measure of our symbolic needs and desires have been projected by numerous cultures and transferred, generation-to-generation, by means of mythology. 

Stone Mad Crafts
Hand carved by me. Stone Mad Crafts.


Celtic Symbols - Sabine Heinz
Alchemy And Mysticism - Alexander Roob
The Encyclopaedia Of Celtic Mythology And Folklore - Patricia Monaghan
Norse Mythology - Peter Andreas Munch
Norse Mythology - John Lindow

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