Birds in Old Norse Culture

I’m going to look at folklore and mythology more generally in another post but whilst I was doing some reading about birds this month I accidentally fell into the world of animals and old norse traditions*… So we’re having a bit of a specialised focus on birds in norse mythology first. This also ties in with my endless wonder and fascination with members of the corvid family.

For those of you who aren’t up on your birds, corvids include crows, ravens and magpies and they are intelligent and intriguing birds. I’ve already written a lot about them in my animal spirit posts and I really do suggest you take a look. There is some really interesting factual stuff about them as well as a bit of background into the myths and beliefs that surround them.

On that note, I’m going to smoothly navigate myself back to norse mythology by introducing Odin and his two ravens, Hugin (from Old Norse for thought) and Munin (memory). They would fly around the world and report back to Odin, a god, about what was going on amongst mortals. 
Odin with the two ravens

This connection with the birds earned Odin the name Raven God. Having bestowed the gift of speech on the Ravens, Hugin and Munin are in Odin’s debt and the relationship is one which benefits all involved.

It’s important to note here that being able to understand the language of birds was a sign of great wisdom. Typically, it is royal characters who are able to understand the language of birds and generally involves an initiation of sorts. The birds then offer these individuals pearls of wisdom, advice and important information.

The ability to give birds the power to speak is one that lies ahead of the ability to hear birds, possibly reiterating Odin’s role as God and hence his place in the hierarchy above the royalty we shall look at now.

In the story of Sigurd and the dragon, Sigurd is sent off on a quest to slay a dragon who guards treasure. He drinks the blood of the dragon and finds he can understand what the birds around him are saying. The birds warn of betrayal and offer advice. He takes their advice, escapes death and instead follows a path of wealth, wisdom and spiritual knowledge.

This tale is shown in an 11th century carving:

The details for each part of the image can be seen on Wikipedia.

As with many tales, the story of Sigurd slaying the dragon takes a young man, places him in front of a challenge which he defeats, then offers him a gift or the result of his initiation, and then demands he face another challenge. This allows him to prove himself worthy of his noble birth and place in the royal line.

Sigurd is apparently also descended from Odin and that, along with his ability to understand the birds, make him an excellent candidate for future king. As we’ll see when we look more generally at folklore and beliefs, the idea of birds as messengers for gods is a common one and we often see them moving between the mundane world and the spiritual world. This means that Sigurd’s ability allows him to be as close to the Otherworld(s) as any mortal could be.

We later find that other characters can gain Sigurd’s gift by consuming his heart and also that it appears to pass onto children and other stories also involve wisdom acquired from birds changing prospects.

In a different text, a king is said to be “so wise that he understood the speech of birds.” This king, King Dag, had a sparrow which, like Odin’s ravens, flew around and returned with news for him. As with Odin, the tale presents the king as being wise due to the knowledge of the birds, his ability to understand them means he can carry out his role well.

Another tells of a farmer who can understand birds, in contrast to the king of the story who is not portrayed as wise, especially intelligent or knowledgeable. One line of thinking here is that the farmer is actually Odin who, in other stories, has appeared in disguise.

Returning to Odin, we find stories of his transformation into a bird, in particular eagles which are often associated with divine knowledge. With this in mind, and with Odin being a god of wisdom, perhaps the birds throughout these tales are messengers from Odin, or the god himself.

I feel it’s only fitting to end with a quote from the paper which started my tumble into animals in Old Norse traditions:

With their capacity to fly and sing, birds universally hold a special place in human experience as symbols of transcendence and numinous knowledge; Old Norse tradition reflects this reality.
Timothy Bourns

*As such, I am obviously no expert and you really should read The Language of Birds in Old Norse Tradition.

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