Friday, December 2, 2011


I have been fascinated by ravens since I was a boy. I watched crows, and I read of their cousins, the ravens. Tales of ravens, such as Hugin and Munin, are part of what drew me to Norse mythology and, eventually, to the sagas and poetry. The Norse had a fascination with the ravens and their eerie behavior when scavenging. The kennings list at the Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages website shows no fewer than 125 different kennings for ravens.

A few years ago, I read Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds, by Bernd Heinrich, a fascinating book which discusses the intelligence of the birds. Recently, I came across a web posting on the same subject. In the article, the authors discuss the sophisticated communications system of ravens:
[R]avens use their beaks similar to hands to show and offer objects such as moss, stones and twigs. These distinct gestures were predominantly aimed at partners of the opposite sex and resulted in frequent orientation of recipients to the object and the signallers. Subsequently, the ravens interacted with each other, for example, by example billing or joint manipulation of the object. Ravens in particular can be characterized by complex intra-pair communication, relatively long-time periods to form bonds and a relatively high degree of cooperation between partners.
It is this highly developed communications strategy that helped inspire this verse describing a pair of ravens viewing a battlefield. I hope you will enjoy it!




Hrafnar (Ravens)
Old Icelandic Line-by-Line Translation Prose-Order Translation
Blígja um braut brandéls
blóðig nágagl eygt-svart;
á hvíslur hast-ligu
hreyr dæmum leyndar.
Hrafnar einir heyra
haug-mál hrylla-liga;
skipta ein-hjal skáliga
skárfir roða sára.

Svipa í hlóði sveita
svanir fæða á bana;
boginn hǫfuð heyra
hag-mæltr bana-mana.
Eru stolen arm-hring
offran fyrir Tyrs-náð.
Eru stoliinn sagar
sagði fyrir Herjans.

Fljúga heim môr Hugins
(Hanga-drótins sam-siði)
vísi bjóða vigs-menn
(veg-semd syngja víg-liðs)
meyja Viðris máttkar
(minni halda þinna)
ok syngja á heim sálnar
(ok sǫgur telja soks-mans)
Gaze over road of sword-storm
bloody corpse-geese black-eyed;
in whispers harsh
corpses talk secrets.
Ravens only hear
cairn-talk horrid;
bandying secrets baleful
sea-gulls huddle of wounds.

swoop silently blood
swans to feed on death;
bent heads listen
(to) well-spoken dead-men.
are stolen arm-rings
offering for Tyr's grace.
are stolen tales
told for Herjans

Fly home swarm of Hugin
(Hanged-god's companion)
Guide (and) offer war-men
(glory sing of war-folk)
(to) maids of Viðris mighty
(hold your memories)
and sing home the souls
(and tales tell of attack-men)
Bloody black-eyed corpse geese
Gaze over sword-storm road;
corpses talk secrets
in harsh whispers.
Only ravens hear
the horrid cairn-talk
seagulls of wounds huddle
bandying baleful secrets

Blood swans silent swoop
to feed on death;
bent heads listen
to well-spoken dead-men.
Stolen arm-rings are
offerings for Tyr's grace;
Stolen tales are
told for Herjans

Swarm of Hugin, fly home and
offer to guide to war-men
Viðris's mighty maids
and sing home the souls.
Companion of the hanged-god
sing the glory of war-folks
hold your memories and
tell the heroes' tales


Kennings Used

braut brandéls   >  sword-storm road  >  BATTLE-FIELD
nágagl  >  corpse-geese  >  RAVENS
skárfir sára  >  wound sea-gulls  >  RAVENS
svanir sveita  >  blood-swans  >  RAVENS
môr Hugins  >  Hugin's swarm  >  RAVENS
Hanga-drótins sam-siði  >  Hanged-god's companion  >  ODIN'S companion  >  RAVEN
meyja Viðris  >  maid of Viðris  >  ODIN'S maid  >  VALKYRIE


One note: In the third stanza, I did a tricky - I essentially split the two half-stanzas into four lines and mixed them together. So, when you look at the Old Icelandic and Line-by-Line versions, the parenthetical lines go together, as they do in the prose order translation. This is a rarely used technique, but an interesting one to use once in a while. I'm sorry if this causes confusion.


Your comments mean a great deal to me. They help guide me. Please, comment below or to my e-mail.


  1. I like this, Fridrikr. Sometimes you have to 'mix it up'. Anyway, it works.

  2. I'm a big fan of ravens too, Friðríkr (though the word's an a-stem, so the plural is hrafnar...). Recently a mysterious donor gave me this awesome print, which seems like it would appeal to you also:

    Anyway, very atmospheric and evocative. I like the enjambment, and that you used so many kennings for ravens (my personal favorite involving ravens, though not for ravens, is hrafnasveltir: "starver of ravens," i.e. a coward!). Skaldic poetry is always best when its subject isn't quite directly named, but always sort of whispered distantly in different ways, and you've done a great job with that.

  3. I also read the Heinrich book and the article about gifting behavior in ravens.

    I really like this poem. I will likely print it so I can keep it close.


  4. Thank you, all. This poem was n't supposed to be an experiment in enjambment, but I think it turned out well, nevertheless. Thanks for the correction, Jackson. It seems that every poem hides a new headache. This one is how to identify -ar, -ir, -ur nouns when looking in the dictionaries. Someday, a lifetime from now, I'll be partially fluent, I hope.