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Ravens in Iceland

What do ravens mean in Icelandic culture?

|November 13, 2023
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 blackbird?


Icelanders, indeed, have a fascinating history full of meaningful details. One such detail is a black, spooky-looking bird known as a raven. You have surely seen one, but do you know the stories that involve this bird and Icelandic history? Continue to read and learn all about the importance of ravens from the early settlement of Iceland until now.

Black raven on cliff in Iceland

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 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 (or “The Book of Settlements), 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 real question. 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 following the death of one of his daughters and the marriage of the other.

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. 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

Black crow sitting on ice

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.

What do ravens signify in the modern times?

Photo by Seth M. Kane

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 that feels significant in their everyday life. As creatures of the air, ravens link to the realm of thought, intellect, intention, and the life force that carries the seed patterns of destiny.

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

Ravens in Icelandic folklore

Woman with costume and ravens in sky

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 supervisor 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, led 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 NORSE MYTHOLOGY

Painting by pencil of god with ravens

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, called Miðgarð. Óðinn could, using his eight-legged steed, Sleipnir, descend into the underworld and come back up. With two ravens taking care of the Earth, he had the whole of Yggdrasil, the great world tree of Norse mythology, covered.

Huginn and Muninn

Painting of two black ravens

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 the book “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 that the Raven God himself placed upon them. Perhaps this was an indication of perilous and dangerous times.

WORD “RAVEN” AND ITS INFLUENCE ON PEOPLE’S NAMES

Let’s come back to the past when Iceland was uncovered by Hrafna-Flóki. Ever since he completed his reconnaissance mission to Iceland, people started using word “raven” as a name. 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.

How many ravens are there in Iceland?

Black raven on ground 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.”

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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