On the trail of the raven banner

My latest project has been to make a raven banner, as I thought it would be a spectacular thing to bring to the CNS Viking Feast.

The banner was meant to represent the famous raven banner owned by Earl Sigurd the Stout in Orkneyinga Saga. But as I was working on it, and finding out more about it, I discovered that the raven banner has an interesting story in addition to what’s in the Orkneyinga Saga.

Ravens are very special birds both in modern and ancient folk belief. Crows can also sometimes fulfil a similar role. In early literature, both Celtic and Norse, we see ravens and crows among the beasts of battle, which in praise poetry are described as turning up in the battleground to eat off the slain warriors. In Old Norse skaldic poetry, for example, a raven can be paraphrased as “the taster of the corpse-sea” and a warrior as “the raven’s foot-reddener” as our very own Earl Thorfinn the Mighty is described in Arnorr Jarlaskald’s praise poem to him from c. 1064-65. From Scotland, the heroic elegy The Gododdin, composed c. 600 AD to the lost warriors of Edinburgh, describes a battle where “there were swift spears, there was sunlight; There was crows’ food, a crow’s tid-bit.” A hero named Owain is lamented in the same poem as “a dear comrade, Owain; Wrong, his cover of crows.” Given the association with death in battle, the sight of a raven on your banner would naturally instil fear in the enemy.

In Old Norse mythology, the chief god Odin has two ravens which are called Hugin and Munin. As their names mean thought and memory, these two ravens may represent Odin’s spirit being sent forth, transcending realms, to be his eyes and ears and bring signs from him. On their return, they sit on his shoulders and tell of what they have seen and heard. In the praise poem to Thorfinn the Mighty, the earl is not any raven’s foot-reddener, but Hugin’s.

In more modern folklore, ravens can also be read as omens, as is perhaps natural given their black colour and nature as carrion birds. It is famously said, for example, that the day the ravens are no longer at the Tower of London, the tower and the monarchy will fall. In Norway, seeing a raven sitting of a roof is an omen of a forthcoming death in that house. The raven’s cry is believed to give warning that a predator such as the wolf or bear is about to attack the cattle. Ravens can also give clues to your luck in fishing: whether it is good or bad depends on the direction it is flying. Seeing seven or more ravens is an omen of war. In Orkney, I have heard the story told, within living memory, of a raven which was spotted flying east. Immediately afterwards, the telephone rang with the news of a death in the family. If you have any stories from Orkney about ravens, I would be very grateful to hear them.

The story of the raven banner begins long before the Orkneyinga Saga.  Already in the entry for 878, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the Danes as having a “war-flag” which they call “raven”. This raven banner does not seem to have been believed to have magical abilities, at least as far as the chroniclers knew, but in subsequent sources we can see the story of the magical properties developing.

Weaving, in general, was associated with a branch of magic called seiðr and seen as women’s magic. Not just the raven banner, but any woven cloth could in theory have magic woven into it. For example, in the poem Darraðarljoð, a group of Valkyries – the choosers of the slain – are seen weaving a tapestry using human body-parts for the loom, while the “weaving is cast with guts of men”. The textile itself is said to predict the outcome of a specific battle, and when the textile is complete the weavers tear it apart and the pieces are scattered in all directions. The poem is quoted in Njal’s Saga, where it is put in connection with the Battle of Clontarf, but the historical outcome of this battle does not seem to fit the prediction very well, so the poem might originally have been associated with a different battle. Sigurd Towrie also launches the interesting idea, on his Orkneyjar.com website, that the name Darraðarljoð itself may link the poem with the infamous Raven Banner, as it is possible to interpret the first part of the word as meaning banner and thus the name of the poem will be “the song of the banner” rather than being named after the person who saw the grotesque weaving scene. I cannot, at this point, prove the theory right or wrong, but as a theory it is fascinating nonetheless. The raven banner was in any case flown at the Battle of Clontarf, according to the Orkneyinga Saga, and the poem was – according to Walter Scott – known orally in Orkney as late as in the 18th century.

We can see the story of the magical properties of the raven banner beginning to develop in Gesta Cnutonis Regis (written c. 1043), where the Viking army under King Knut carry a magical raven banner. The strange thing is, this banner does not have a picture of a raven woven or embroidered onto it. It is blank! The raven, however, magically appears in times or war, and its appearance predicts the outcome of the war. If it is to be a victory, the raven beats its wings and opens its beak, and is restless in its feet. Is it to be a defeat, however, the raven is quiet and drooping its whole body. A very similar story is also told in Asser's Life of King Alfred and in The Annals of St. Neots (written c. 1105). In the latter source, it is also said that it was three daughters of Ragnarr loðbrókr who had woven the banner and gotten it ready during one single midday's time. Interestingly, although his nick-name is usually interpreted as meaning “hairy breeks”, another interpretation is “banner of fate”. Ragnarr loðbrókr is a famous mythological king, of whom stories have been told both in Scandinavia and Britain beginning, perhaps, as far back as the 9th century. His adventures were many: killing a dragon, raiding in England and being captured by another king named Ella and thrown to the snakes. His sons later used the infamous “blood eagle” technique on Ella to revenge their father. One of the runic inscriptions in Maeshowe mentions Ragnarr’s nickname, and an Orcadian poem called Krákumál, from the 12th century, is written as if spoken by the dying Ragnarr. So the idea that the raven banner was connected with this famous mythological king might have been known in Orkney, too.

Over in Norway, King Haraldr harðráði (“the hard ruler”) Sigurðarson (1015-1066) also had a magical banner, known as Landøyðan ("Land-Waster" or "Land-Destroyer"), and now the magical properties are starting to look a lot more like that of Earl Sigurd the Stout’s raven banner. In his saga, Harald explains that “victory would be his before whom this banner was borne; and added that this had been the case ever since he had obtained it.” But alas, it must have failed him in 1066 when he fell at Stamford Bridge.

Now, we finally get to Earl Sigurd the Stout’s raven banner, which we now know is not unique but somewhat of a fashion. It was made for Sigurd by his mother, a sorceress, who says: “Had I thought you might live forever, I would have reared you in my wool-basket. But lifetimes are shaped by what will be, not by where you are. Now, take this banner. I’ve made it for you with all the skill I have.”

This banner, however, not only brings victory to the one it is carried before, but it also comes with a backlash: The person who carries it, is always killed. So naturally, nobody would like to be the standard-bearer. We hear about this dilemma in Njal’s Saga: “Then Amundi the White said, "Don't carry the banner – everybody who does gets killed.”  "Hrafn the Red" called out Earl Sigurd, "you carry the banner."  "Carry that devil of yours yourself," answered Hrafn.”

The magical raven banner initially helps Sigurd win the battle of Skitten, but later on, facing the battle of Clontarf, everybody knows that it kills its bearer, and Sigurd consequentially has to carry the thing himself. So unavoidably, he is killed, and that is the end of Earl Sigurd. I hope it will not be the end of me, though, now that I have made my own. Hopefully I am not skilled enough in magic to make it work!

Very intriguingly, Earl Sigurd seems to have an identical twin down in Northumbria. This man is Siward (cognate to the name Sigurd) the Earl of Northumbria, who was also nicknamed “the stout” or in Latin “Grossus”. He was a Norseman who came to England to join King Knut/Canute in the 11th Century. According to Vita Waldevi, Siward passed through Orkney on his way from Scandinavia to England, and here he routed a destructive dragon! In Northumbria, he hears about another dragon, but before he can confront it he runs into an old and mysterious man on top of a hill, who hands him a raven banner and says he must go to London, for great things are in store for him there. The name of this raven banner is Ravenlandeye, and here we recognise the name of Harald the Hard Ruler’s banner, but with the word “raven” attached at the front. Have stories and traditions spread and mixed?  Or are Siward and Sigurd the same man?