Ravens appear in several places across western mythology. They are present in folklore, such as the tale of The Seven Ravens, and in Greek myth, where they are associated with Apollo. Ravens are prominent symbols in Norse and Germanic mythology and in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and J.R.R. Tolkien uses them for similar purposes in The Hobbit.
In western mythology, ravens typically symbolize one of two things: 1) Wisdom, council, and the bearing of messages, 2) Death and slaughter in battle. This latter carries into folklore and superstition, where the appearance of a raven is considered bad luck and a sign of immanent death. In mythology, the symbolism is more complex.
In Norse and Germanic mythology, the god Odin has two ravens named Hugin and Munin. Hugin means “thought” and Munin means “memory.”1 Hugin and Munin fly across the world and bring Odin tidings of happenings far and near. They are his messengers, and Odin has taught them human speech. However, they are also symbols of death and slaughter in battle. Odin is closely associated with war because his Valkyries collect chosen warriors from amongst the slain and bring them to Valhalla where they await the final battle of Ragnarök. Because ravens, being carrion birds, are often present at the field of battle and are also symbols of Odin, they are tied up in this symbolism as well.
The symbolism of the raven is less complicated in Anglo-Saxon poetry.2 Along with alliteration, kennings, and variation, Anglo-Saxon poets used a device called a motif. A motif is an appointed pattern (occurring in whole or in part) that signals a specific event. Anglo-Saxon poets used the motif of the raven, the wolf, and the eagle to represent battle. For example, in The Battle of Brunanburh, the poet uses the “beasts of battle” motif fairly literally,
They left behind them, to enjoy the corpses,
the dark coated one, the dark horny-beaked raven
and the dusky-coated one
the eagle white from behind, to partake of the carrion
greedy war-hawk, and that gray animal
the wolf in the forest.3
In The Wanderer, the poet uses the motif more symbolically,
Some war took utterly,
carried off forth-way; one a bird bore off
over the high holm; one the hoar wolf
dealt over to death.4
Anglo-Saxon poetry and Norse mythology are close cousins. If we return to Norse mythology with this motif in mind, a passage from The Children of Odin becomes more clear. Padraic Colum describes Odin “seated at the banquet table, with…a shining helmet shaped like an eagle upon his head. Odin would sit there…taking food off the table and giving it to Geri and Freki, the two wolves that crouched beside his seat.”5 Odin is as much a god of war as he is a god of wisdom, and the presence of the eagle helmet and Geri and Freki, the two wolves, solidify this.
Ravens also appear in The Hobbit. As Balin explains to Bilbo, “There used to be great friendship between [the ravens] and the people of Thror; and they often brought us secret news.”6 In this example, the ravens perform a similar role as Hugin and Munin: they are messengers and bearers of news. But Tolkien does not stop there. In the Battle of Five Armies, ravens, eagles, and goblin wolves are present—all three beasts of battle.
This is surely no accident. Ravens are prominent symbols in Norse mythology and Anglo-Saxon poetry, from being religious signs of Odin to playing a role in poetic motifs. Tolkien undoubtedly knew this and his inclusion of all three beasts of battle in the Battle of Five Armies is likely purposeful. It is parallels such as these which open one’s eyes to the continuous threads present throughout all literature.
Image: The Twa Corbies, Arthur Rackham, circa 1919
1Munin is more difficult to translate than Hugin as the Norse root does not have a perfect English equivalent. You may see Munin translated “mind” from time to time.
2However, the Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic people and their religion would once have been similar to that of the Norse, so it is possible they held similar beliefs about Odin.
3The Battle of Brunanburh, ll. 61-66, translated by Tom Kinsella
4The Wanderer, ll. 81-84, translated by Jonathan Glenn
5Padraic Colum, The Children of Odin, Part 1, Chapter 8
6J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Chapter 15