Ravens are special, which probably is the reason why the raven has been assigned magical properties in all cultures in the northern hemisphere – the raven’s habitat. How it is depicted and what its mythical mission is depends on the surrounding culture.
Image: Martina Toivonen
My first encounter with the raven as a magical creature was in Maria Gripes Glasblåsarn’s barn (The Glassblowers Children). In the village of Nöda, the wise woman Flaxa Mildväder (lit Flitter Mildweather) lived with the raven Kloke (klok means wise, clever).
I was fascinated by Kloke, his abilities, that he had a day eye and a night eye and by the relationship he and Flaxa had.
Image: Kloke and Flaxa Mildväder by Harald Gripe
Once Kloke got his night eye back, he perhaps was wiser than the ravens that live in the wild, but I’m not entirely sure. Ravens are clever birds. They use tools and not only that but they can also do it in several stages. An example from a research project is that there is a treat in a narrow tube, too narrow for the raven to access with its beak. The raven finds a small stick attached to a string that it manages to coax loose. The stick is too short to access the treat, but behind a grid there is a longer stick. The raven uses the short stick to get the longer one and with the long stick it manages to get the treat out of the tube.
There is a video from Nature where a raven attacks an eagle that is eating its prey. The eagle is both significantly larger and stronger than the raven, but still it is the cunning raven that ultimately takes the eagle’s prey.
Ravens are good at mimicking sounds and can learn human talk about as well as parrots. They are playful and do things just for the fun of it. In addition, they can, unlike smaller crows, sail – float on the upwind.
About Kloke, Maria writes:
“It could speak. And it did not talk nonsense at all. It responded when addressed, always very sensible – that is, if it wanted to, it happened that it didn’t because it was quite moody. And sometimes it spoke in riddles so that ordinary people didn’t understand at all. But Flaxa, she understood everything ”.
Ravens in the Viking Age
Grimnersmàl tells of Odin’s two ravens, Hugin (hug is Old Norse for ‘håg’ in the sense; mind, thought, spirit, soul) and Munin (memory in its most extensive form).
In Grimnersmàl it says:
Huginn ok Muninn
fljúga hverjan dag
óumk ek of Huginn,
at hann aftr né komi-t,
þó sjámk meir of Muninn.
There are several translations into Swedish. Erik Brate’s translation from 1913 reads:
Hugin and Munin
every morning fly
all over the world;
I’m anxious for Hugin,
that he will not come back,
however, I am more concerned about Munin.
As a seer Odin gazed – in to ancient times and in to the future, in all the worlds and all the kingdoms.
According to Davidson, it is in the capacity of shaman that Odin every morning sends out his souls in the form of ravens. Odin has gained a bit of hero status as a shaman in pagan circles because of his ability to see in other worlds – both with the help of his ravens and through the seiðr that he nicked from Freya. If you scrutinize Odin, you will see that he is hungry for power. He prioritizes himself and takes what he wants, by force or cunning. I find that he and his ravens have more in common with Aleister Crowley than with Flaxa Mildväder and Kloke. Flaxa and Kloke work to restore order in the world, the shaman’s mission, while Odin exercises domination and uses Hugin and Munin as tools of power.
Originally, the raven was associated with Hel and we must be aware that when the raven began to be associated with Odin, a paradigm shift had taken place. Society had become stratified and patriarchy had gained a firm foothold. Most drastically it is described by Gunnel and Göran Liljenroth in Hel. Den gömda gudinnan i nordisk mytologi: (Hel. The hidden goddess in Norse mythology)
“This new warrior society did not just need warlords. To maintain the current order, an organization was built. […] A spy organization was now required in society, to curb the rebellious tendencies of the lower classes. Eg : Odin’s two ravens, Hugin and Munin, who report everything hidden to their master. ”
The Valkyries also entered this new warrior society. Shape shifting in to ravens they stayed on the battlefields and chose which warriors would die.
The raven on the Anglo-Celtic Islands
Also in the Anglo-Celtic islands, the raven has a strong position as a magical creature.
“I have fled in the shape of a raven of prophetic speech,” wrote the bard Taliesin in the 5th century. He may well have referred to the raven’s ability to travel between worlds. The raven helps people in crisis, it has the power of healing. The healing of the raven is of the dark, the deep kind where one is confronted with ones shadow. If you fulfill your task, this piece of your shadow dies and you become healthier than you were before the crisis/disease.
The healing and innovative power of the raven means that it is seen as a spreader of joy and light, but it is also the messenger of death, associated with war and disaster. Morrigan came to the battlefields in the shape of the raven and Churchill had new ravens brought to the Tower of London for protection against the Germans.
Image: Valkyrie by Susan Seddon Boulet
The raven and Hel
We can, with good reason, assume that the raven was associated with Hel (considered to be the original Great Cosmic Mother in Scandinavia) in her death aspect. The raven is a scavenger who, among other things, eats carcass. This is probably the reason why it was associated with the Valkyries and war. But the raven’s connection with Hel is not only about the death aspect but just as much about Hel as the Mother of life and transformation.
Buffie discusses how birds were depicted in Paleolithic art and she writes:
“Because its twofold birth, first as an egg and then as a chick, suggests rebirth and regeneration the bird was considered by ancient worshipers of the Goddess to be sacred above all other creatures”. What she writes applies to birds in general, but there are some birds that are more common in myths and the raven is one of these. In Çatal Höyük, a Neolithic city in present-day Anatolia, which had a culture that was dedicated to the Great Mother, according to Marija, in which the vulture played an important role. As a scavenger, it helped to free the souls from the body. The raven does the same, so it is more than the double birth that connects the raven with Hel. The raven associated with Hel in all her aspects, to some extent continued when we were patriarchalized. According to Barbara, the Valkyries, when shape shifting to ravens, were psychopomps, they carried the souls of the dead to the afterlife so that they could be reborn. Therefore, it is not surprising that the raven among many North American and Siberian indigenous peoples appear in creation myths. For example the raven can be the one who ‘finds’ the first people in a mussel shell or something similar with a clear symbolic meaning. The raven acts as Mother Earth’s umbilical cord, providing the first people with nourishment until it’s time for them to be born.
I have ravens visiting daily. Usually one, sometimes two, rarely three but once there were about 25 ravens. It was Hels holy day (samhain) and we were in the middle of the several hours long ritual when a whole flock of ravens came. They sailed around us for a long time and in that moment we all experienced that the ravens came as Hel’s messenger. To be touched by Hel in this way is a gift. In a song to the Nornes we sing::
The earth you spin
the raven you give birth to/feed
You transform, you transform,
To be able to spin the earth, the Nornes also need to feed and birth the raven’s Hel power, something that Kloke is well aware of.
When Kloke has regained his night eye and the glassblower’s children have been returned to their parents, Flaxa says thoughtfully to the raven sitting in the tree:
“– Do you know now – or not?
“Yes, I know,” said the raven.
They looked at each other.
– Your eye turned green from lying so long in the well of wisdom…
“I know,” said Kloke.
– What more do you know?
The raven was silent at first but then gave her a ‘moon-look’ and replied:
– Everything. Before the sun knew where it lived, before the moon knew what power it had, before the stars knew where they would stand in the sky, Kloke knew what life was. ”
Image: Kloke by Harald Gripe
Barbara G. Walker The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets
Buffie Johnson Lady of the Beast. Ancient Images of the Goddess and Her Sacred Animals
Elof Hellquist Svensk etymologisk ordbok (Swedish etymological dictionary)
Erik Brate translation Eddan. De nordiska guda- och hjältesångerna (Eddan. The Nordic gods- and hero-songs)
Gunnel and Göran Liljenroth Hel. Den gömda gudinnan i nordisk mytologi (Hel. The hidden goddess in Norse mythology)
H R Ellis Davidson Nordens gudar och myter (The gods and myths of the Nordic countries)
Maria Gripe Glasblåsarn’s barn (The Glassblowers children)
Marija Gimbutas Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe
Stephanie and Philip Carr-Gomm The Druid Animal Oracle
It is a conscious choice to use first names when I refer to female authors/researchers since women’s surnames are almost exclusively either their fathers ‘or husbands’ names. This tradition developed at a time when women were seen as accessories to a man instead of as an independent person. Since this is an approach I strongly dissociate myself from, I reserve the right not to follow the academic convention.
Translated and adapted by Nauð Vanarot