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The Ravens of Iceland

|July 28, 2017
Loves writing, food, runes, Reykjavík life, traveling in Iceland and being out in nature. Born in England but fell in love with Iceland in 2010 and moved here, been here since.

From ancient Norse mythology and Viking folklore to modern day symbolism, the raven has always been revered in Iceland. But why is this bird so interesting? Where does the mystery come from? How do Icelanders feel about this black bird?

Ravens and the Discovery of Iceland

Ravens have been part of Icelandic life from the earliest times of settlement. In fact, these close cousins of the common crow have been living in Iceland since long before any people dwelled here permanently. For the first documented Icelandic raven reference, we have to go all the way back to the time before Iceland was called Iceland, to the epic pioneering journey of Flóki-Vilgerðarsson, the first Norseman to deliberately visit Iceland (around the year 870). This story is told in Landnámabók (the Book of Settlement), an Icelandic Saga about the first people of Iceland.

When Flóki undertook his investigative mission to Iceland, he was accompanied by his wife, Gró and their children. Whether or not this new land could be deemed a future homeland was the burning question on their lips. Two other men, Herjólr and Faxi, went with them. Their voyage took them from West Norway to the Shetland Islands, the Faroe Islands and then on to Iceland. At the start, it was a journey of mixed fortunes; one of Floki’s daughters drowned in the Shetlands, but on the Faroe Islands they later celebrated the marriage of another daughter.

Flóki took three ravens to help him find his way on the final leg of the voyage to Iceland. The first raven simply flew back to the Faroe Islands, while the second bird flew around a bit before coming back to the ship bearing no good news. The third raven, however, proved to be a great way-finder; It flew ahead of Flóki´s ship, guiding it through the wild waves, all the way to Iceland.

Flóki’s party spent a winter in Iceland, which at that time was named Garðurshólmi. However, observing the ice-floes beyond Ísafjörður (‘the Ice Fjord’), Flóki renamed it Iceland. His feelings were less positive than those of Herjólr and Faxi, but he still returned to make Iceland his homeland. Forever after, Flóki was known as Hrafna-Flóki, meaning ‘Raven-Flóki’ in English. So, Iceland had a strong raven connection right from the start.

Icelandic attitudes towards Ravens

Photo by Seth M. Kane

Ravens are frequently represented in art, crafts, and tattoos in Iceland. They are also sometimes chosen as the centerpiece for emblems or logos. The frequent use of ravens in Icelandic imagery obviously indicates they are, in general, thought of in a positive light.

Norse mythology, the Icelandic Sagas, and Icelandic folklore usually show the raven as a wise, all-knowing messenger and often a bird of prophecy, protector, and helper. Interestingly, this representation is not totally unwarranted, as Ravens are considered among the most intelligent animals alive today (about as smart as a young child). They possess a significant amount of problem-solving intelligence and can seemingly plan for the future.

In modern everyday life, people’s feelings toward ravens can be a little bit more mixed. Ravens are certainly a majestic sight, soaring on their glossy black wings, but they are omnivorous, which means they will eat virtually anything, including, nectar, fish, worms, small rodents and just about anything else that they can get their beaks on. They have been known to peck the eyes out of young lambs on occasion, but tales of their voracity are believed to be greatly exaggerated. Their grim propensity to steal eggs and eat the hatchlings from eider duck nesting grounds is well-known. In urban areas, Ravens rarely miss an opportunity to scavenge from trash, making a terrible mess in the process. They can be thought of as minor pests at the best of times, or a downright menace, depending on who you ask.

Are Ravens considered bad omens in Iceland?

No, they are not seen purely as harbingers of bad news and death in the way they are in the folklore of some cultures. The messages delivered by Ravens are as varied as life itself. If a death is going to happen, the appearance of a raven could herald the said death, but only if it was going to happen anyway. In Icelandic raven stories and legends, people have been helped to avoid danger or guided towards something which is beneficial to them.

The Norse God Oðinn (Odin) was often called Hrafnaguð, meaning the Raven God. He is associated with many important aspects of life: healing, death, knowledge, royalty, gallows, battle, poetry, sorcery, the runes, and frenzy. An Icelandic word associated with Óðinn is Skáldskapur, which can mean fiction or making things up, but it can also be the beauty of creativity. Skáld is an Icelandic word for poet. Death is just one factor linked with the Raven God, with this theme also connecting to gallows and battle. There is also the sheer beauty and elegance of poetry, knowledge, and healing.

The raven, does though, appear in almost all of the Icelandic Skaldic poems which describe warfare. In this context, they are presented as birds of blood, battle, and corpses!

What are Odin’s ravens called?

Odin (Óðinn), the Norse God who sacrificed an eye for wisdom relied upon two ravens; Huginn and Muninn. Their names mean ‘thought’ and ‘memory’ (or mind). Through his raven messengers, Odin was kept informed of all that happened in the entire world, known as Miðgarð. Óðinn could, using his eight-legged steed, Sleipnir, descend into the underworld or ascend to the upper world. With two Ravens taking care of the Earth, he had the whole of Yggdrasil, the great world tree of Norse mythology, covered!

Interesting ideas can emerge here. In many shamanic traditions, a horse can be an analogy for the drumbeat a shaman uses to shift consciousness between the worlds. Some Icelandic scholars say Freyja taught seiðr, or shamanism to Oðinn, so the legend may not be entirely unfounded.

Huginn and Muninn

Huginn and Muninn flew out in the morning and returned in the evening, reporting all they had seen and heard to Óðinn. He is usually described or pictured with a raven on each shoulder, sometimes also accompanied by the wolves, Geri and Freki. Huginn and Muninn feature in some Icelandic poetry. Snorri Sturluson, a highly respected 12th and 13th Century Icelandic historian and writer, referred to them in Gylfaginning, the first section of his Prose Edda:

Huginn and Muninn
Fly every day
Over the great Earth
I fear for Huginn
That he may not return
Yet more am I anxious for Muninn

The concern that the Ravens may not safely return to Ódinn shown in these few translated lines reflects the high value which the Raven God himself placed upon them. Perhaps this was an indication of perilous and dangerous times?

Ravens in Norse mythology

Óðinn bestowed the gift of speech to Huginn and Muninn, according to the Icelandic Ynglinga Saga and other sources. At night, they sat each on one of his shoulders flanking the supreme Norse God. By day, their eyes and ears missed nothing as they flew around the world. What else might they and Óðinn have done together?

We have some fascinating evidence showing how Óðinn was perceived. 5th or 6th Century gold bracteates have been found in Scandinavia, as well as other places where the Vikings traveled. These were worn like a pendant around the neck, as an amulet to protect against harm. One shows Óðinn in the human form above a horse, holding a spear and flanked by two birds. This image fits in with descriptions of the Ravens given in Snorri Sturluson´s Prose Edda, where a bird will sit close by the ear of the horse. A Norse expert says a probable interpretation is that Óðinn and his Ravens are giving healing to the horse.

Óðinn had responsibility for choosing the half of the warriors killed in battle who would go to the afterlife of Valhöll (Valhalla). He is said to have presided over Valhöll and all of the Valkyries who chose and tended to the warriors killed in battle, leading them to Valhalla and looking after them there. Valkyries are often depicted with ravens or swans. A verse by an unknown author mentions that Huginn and Muninn had a role to play on the battlefield, with Huginn tending to the hanged men and Muninn to those slain in battle.

The warriors killed in battle who were not Óðinn’s chosen men went with the Norse Goddess, Freyja, to her afterlife realm, the field or meadow, Fólkvangr. Freyja´s hall is called Sessrúmnir (meaning many seats).

Óðinn was fuelled by a constant thirst for knowledge and no sacrifice was deemed to be too great a price to pay. He already traded his eye for wisdom and hung for nine nights in the great world tree, the ash, Yggdrasil to receive his fabled runes. In the Prose Edda, Skáldskaparmál by Snorri Sturluson, it is said that Óðinn drank of the Mead of Poetry, also known as the Mead of Suttungr (Suttungmjaðar). Those who drank this mythical substance were said to become both poet and scholar, with access to unlimited poetic inspiration and the answers to any question.

Raven names

Ever since Hrafna-Flóki completed his reconnaissance mission to Iceland, raven names have been popular for both men and women. Eighteen Hrafn (raven) names appear on the Icelandic Naming Committee’s list. Some are rarely used today, while others are very popular. Male names include Hrafn, Hrafnar and Hrafnbergur, with Hrafnheiður, Hrafnborg, Hrafnhildur and Hrafndís being female alternatives. Hrafndís combines raven with “dís” which has some quite elevated meanings, including a Goddess or female deity, or a wise-woman and seeress. The blending of the two words presumably shows how well-regarded Ravens were when the name originated.

Like the bird men who are called Hrafn often get the nickname Krummi in Icelandic and children are more likely to speak about Krummi than Hrafn.

Ravens in Icelandic folklore

The tale of the servant girl at Skíðastaðir Farm is a beautiful Icelandic raven story. The owner of the farm at Skíðastaðir in the valley of Vatnsdalur was wealthy but certainly not godly or kind. He was a tyrant who did not care for the welfare of his workers. The men and women who worked for him were mercilessly mistreated. On Sundays, it was customary for workers to attend church and spend time reading the Bible, but the cruel farm manager forbade these things. One Sunday in 1545 the Skíðastaðir Farm was destroyed in a terrible landslide which killed 13 people. Only one person survived, a female kitchen worker.
The girl had worked at Skíðastaðir for some time and enjoyed good friendships with the other workers. She was not so happy with her boss. The winter before the landslide had been very hard; people and animals were starving; the bodies of dead animals had lain outside the farmhouse. Ravens gathered around but now even they had begun to grow hungry. The girl was not permitted to give food away, but she could use the residues left in the cooking pots to feed the raven.

As always, this particular Sunday she prepared breakfast. Later in the morning she scraped the remaining scraps of porridge from the pot and took these out to the raven, placing it where she normally did. The raven fluttered away a little and would not touch the food – this had never happened before! The girl took the food and followed the bird, which bizarrely kept walking away. Soon she was quite far from the farmhouse. Just then, an enormous landslide engulfed the whole place. She was the sole survivor, lead to safety by a raven.

The stories of Hans Christian Anderson have been translated into Icelandic and are enjoyed by many Icelandic children today. His Snow Queen is a particularly famous raven fairy tale. In this story, a raven helps Gerda to search for her friend, Kay. Another example of a way-finder in the guise of the raven!

Ravens in Viking culture

The raven banner, known as a hrafnsmerki, was a kind of flag flown by Scandinavian kings and chieftains in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries as they invaded other lands or marched into battle. Norse artwork shows these as triangularly shaped flags bearing raven images. The raven-decorated flag would represent the kingdom or chiefdom. They are also said to have been used as a tool of prophecy and divination. Some old English texts make it very clear that the raven flag was seen to be all of these things. The English people were in awe of the raven flag, seeing it as an object with the power to invoke the forces of Óðinn the Raven God!

An Old English word for raven is ‘hræfn’ which is unbelievably similar to Hrafn, the Icelandic word. The Vikings were among the greatest travelers of their age, so Viking raven lore, links, and influences have left their mark in other lands. The Vikings came to the British Isles, and actually found many places including the cities of York (Jorvik) and Dublin (Dyflin).
A raven appears on the coat of arms of the Isle of Man. Already invaded by Norsemen at some point between the years 850 and 990, this island, off the coast of England, was ruled by the Scandinavian Kings from Dublin and York. Ólafur Hvíti (Olaf the White) was a very famous Viking King of Dublin. He and his wife, Auður Ketilsdóttir (also known as Audur the Deep-Minded and Unn), came from Norway. She settled in Iceland many years later.

How many ravens are there in Iceland?

Náttúrafræðistofnun Íslands, the Icelandic Institute of National History also has a raven as its emblem. The institute has some quite interesting things to say about the raven population in Iceland. These birds are monogamous, pairing for life and returning to nest in the same place each spring, producing between four and six eggs. The hatchlings then develop quite slowly, depending on their parents’ protection until they are fully able to fly around the end of June when they are about five weeks old, before finally becoming fully independent in July.

There are believed to be about 2,500 nesting pairs in Iceland. In the autumn, the raven population swells considerably. They are currently listed as a being a vulnerable species on the Icelandic Red List of Birds. Raven nesting areas extend throughout the northern hemisphere.

Particularly around autumn and winter, ravens enjoy human-inhabited areas where they find ample food sources. In Reykjavík, they can often be seen at twilight flying back to Mount Esja, the imposing mountain just to the north of the city, where many hundreds spend the night. In Iceland, a large group of ravens is referred to as a ‘Hrafnaþing’ which translates into English as ’an assembly of ravens’.

What do ravens signify in the modern times?

We have already looked at ravens as way-finders and helpers in Old Iceland – Ódinn´s ravens were messengers and birds of prophecy. Shamanic people will always look at the habitat and behavior of a creature when considering its meaning when it appears in a dream, shows itself on a shamanic journey or appears in a way which feels significant in their everyday life. As creatures of the air, ravens link to the realm of thought, intellect, intention and the life-force which carries the seed-patterns of destiny.

In the Norse myths and legends there is a great affinity with death and rebirth, not just physical death at the end of life, but the times when we gather together our courage to traverse a gateway in our lives. The bravery to embrace that which is not yet born, to find a way, and to allow something within us to die away so we may expand. For me, that raven banners were flown when armies went into battle shows that raven power was believed to deliver the strength and courage to fight, and also to face one’s destiny.

We can never be sure that we will not be wounded in the battle of life, but we can find a way through. Ravens tells us that change is afoot. Tricky or very difficult situations can take us to a place of chaos, from which a new chapter can be born. Raven symbolism asks us to find and face our fears, particularly those which we have hidden from.

Have you ever seen an Icelandic raven? Embark on a wildlife tour for the opportunity to explore some of the best that nature has to offer. 

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