Lately, while reading about the Vikings and the Saxons, I encountered the tale of the raven banner, a flag that foretold the outcome of battles. If the flag remained outstretched, showing the raven, the Vikings would win; if the flag were limp, they would lose.
By uncanny coincidence, as I read, I heard a raven call. This is a unique noise, not likely to be confused with any other bird call. I glanced out the window, and a raven flew by. For a moment, I imagined the bird glanced through the window.
Perhaps it did, and perhaps its appearance was no coincidence. Viking seers likely would have imagined and interpreted the significance of this appearance. The Vikings, from whom my neighbors, the Norwegian-Americans, descend, placed great stock in the raven. They worshipped Odin – the Vikings, I mean, not my neighbors, at least to my knowledge. Odin kept ravens, one on each shoulder. They were his news gatherers, reporting goings-on to the god.
This is akin to journalism, so I have a fondness for ravens.
The news of most interest was news of battles, and ravens were always present on fields of battle. Ravens are omnivores, fully capable of hunting for themselves, but they never pass up an easy meal. Ravens in flocks suggested carnage on the field, and emblazoning a flag with a raven’s image might be intended as both a reminder and a warning. That’s how the Saxons interpreted it.
The record of encounters between the Saxons and the Vikings is far from complete. As far as we know, the Saxons first encountered the raven banner in 878 at a battle in Devonshire. The banner drooped; the Saxons were victorious that day. The victory was tenuous, however; not for half a century were the Saxons able to take control of all of what now is England, and they couldn’t hold it. Canute, after all, was a Viking, known to his people as Knut. William the Conqueror was a Norman, a label derived from the “North men.”
Britain still holds the raven in special regard. So long as ravens remain at the Tower of London, tradition holds, Britain will be safe. During Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister, one of the tower’s ravens was named Ronald Raven, a tribute to President Reagan. The Brits might have been hedging their bets with this nod to their American allies.
Ravens occur across the Northern Hemisphere. Lewis and Clark encountered them frequently and didn’t bother to describe them, since they were identical to birds they knew from the Atlantic coast. In early February 1805, Clark led a group on a five-day hunting trip; the group killed several bison, nine elk and about 30 deer. This was too much to carry back so much of it was cached. Several days later, Clark returned to collect what remained after ravens, magpies and wolves had plundered the store. The opportunistic scavengers, he wrote, “are very numerous about this place.”
Earlier, the explorers collected raven skins that Clark said were worn by Teton warriors whose duty was to keep order in camp. The skins were stuffed and “so fixed on the small of the back that the tails stick horizontally off from the body.” At least one of these “raven bustles” was sent down river to President Thomas Jefferson.
Ravens had an easy living on the Great Plains, where they were associated with herds of bison. Natural mortality among the beasts would provide food for ravens; the remains of a hunt would have meant feasting for the birds.
As European civilization overtook the Plains, ravens became rare. They seem to be reconquering lost territory, however. Ravens are frequent enough at our place west of Gilby, N.D., that I am no longer surprised to see them. Last week, I saw at least one raven on three successive days, and on one day I saw two. This seems to continue a trend. I first wrote about ravens in this column in 2009, and the column began, “The raven is not a bird you would expect to encounter in Grand Forks County.” Since then, I have seen them regularly in winter, and last summer a pair nested in the county.
In Hallock, Minn., the folks at Far North Spirits distill a rye whisky named for Ragnar Lothbrok, who flew the banner that began this tale, so the raven is present in spirits in the valley.
All of this contributes to interest in ravens among humans; we are a curious species. Ravens are known as curious creatures, too, so maybe the raven that flew past my window really was checking me out.