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Autumn is here and so are the ravens. Posted by on Sep 19, 2012 in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

Every year, as if heralding the oncoming autumn, ravens fly into towns in Iceland. They’ve lived all summer far away from humans but as the air grows cold they come back to live with us for the whole dark season. (A quick warning to begin with: this post will be full of raven photos.)

There are few birds as well loved in Iceland as the raven. In fact the only one that can even rival it in popularity is the Atlantic puffin, but as they tend to leave the island around the time the ravens return there isn’t much of a competition. Ravens are called hrafn in Icelandic but they also have a nickname, krummi, which shows they indeed have a rather special place in the local hearts. In Old English they were called hræfn which sounds already quite similar to raven! Hrafn is also a very popular name and is often used as the first part of a name for both men and women, f.ex. Hrafngrímur (M) and Hrafnbergur (M), Hrafnfríður (F), Hrafndís (F) and Hrafnlaug (F).

The reason for their apparent taking a liking to humankind is simple: as ravens are considered lucky to have around and admired for their intelligence and beautiful appearance Icelanders don’t harm them. What’s more, many people feed them during the winters and as a result of this they’re fairly tame and let humans get very close to them. At times they can be a little too comfortable around us, in my opinion, because you really cannot turn your back to anything they perceive as edible or otherwise a fun toy to play with, not even for a moment. I once let a trash bag out of my sight for a minute and when I saw it again it had already made its way to the other side of the yard and was accelerating, having caught the attention of a particularly large raven that had decided to drag it somewhere out of sight for proper examination.

Ravens are often linked with Ásatrú and no wonder: besides being friends with valkyries two of them even sat on Óðinn‘s shoulders. They were called Huginn (= thought) and Muninn (= memory/mind), they could speak and their job was to fly around the world and bear news to Óðinn wherever he was. As his companions ravens are a symbol of wisdom and prophecy and this is apparent to this day in f.ex. superstitions.

Superstition says:

* If a raven flies to the same direction as you when you’ve just left your home… and then flies along or towards the right side of the road… ~ it means health and happiness for you for that day.

* If a raven flies toward you when you leave home… or high above you…  ~ it means that you may not have much luck and therefore it’s best to turn around, read some prayers and then try again.

Besides the example above it’s also believed that if a raven lands on a roof of a house, jumps around, flaps its wings and cries it’s foreseeing a death by drowning, quite possibly for someone living in the house. Another scary raven is nátthrafn that sings in the night instead of the day and is considered a type of a ghost. As a word nátthrafn also means someone who stays up all night long, a night owl.

Krummavísur (= raven verse) is one of my favourite traditional Icelandic songs. Here’s a version of it that I really like! The lyrics of the first verse go:

Krummi svaf í kletta gjá, –
kaldri vetrar nóttu á,
verður margt að meini;
fyrr en dagur fagur rann
freðið nefið dregur hann
undan stórum steini.

Raven slept in a ravine, –
On a cold winter night,
Many are the things that can harm him;
Before a beautiful day dawned
He dragged his frozen nose
From under a large stone.

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About the Author: hulda

Hi, I'm Hulda, originally Finnish but now living in the suburbs of Reykjavík. I'm here to help you in any way I can if you're considering learning Icelandic. Nice to meet you!


Comments:

  1. Leonhard:

    I like the raven banner a lot http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raven_banner

    • hulda:

      @Leonhard Ooh I did not know much about that before, that was a really interesting read. Quite a banner to bear to fight indeed!