Huginn and Muninn: The Divine Ravens of Odin
In the heat of battle, Odin was in a quandary. He had a critical decision to make -- one that would either bring victory or defeat to him and his fellow Gods in Asgard. He needed counsel; especially from those that could trigger his “thought” and “mind.”
Yet, in a world of gods – including Thor, the god of thunder and his trusted son, and the rest of the Aesir – Odin relied on two unlikely deities to give him the wit and wisdom to lead his forces to victory.
Huginn and Muninn, were not gods; they weren’t even angels, nymphs or fairies. They were ravens with symbolic names. While some text referred to them as pets, their importance to Odin – the most powerful Norse God – was beyond such designations.
He relied heavily on these winged masters to act as his eyes and ears over the great domain he ruled, as well as for the battles he fought. And, despite being mere pets, they received more attention from him than his heavenly and mortal subjects did.
Thought and Mind
Every morning, Odin called upon the ravens and sent them flying over the world to observe what was going on in his kingdom -- which included Asgard and Earth. They returned to him, sat on his shoulders and whispered in his ears about the things they observed during their flight.
Translated from Old Norse, Huginn meant “thought” and Muninn, “mind.” They came to symbolize Odin’s vast knowledge and omnipotence, and were responsible for expanding his wisdom.
Not only were the ravens revered by Odin in the Nordic mythology; in reality, they were worshiped by the Nordic people. They were often depicted with Odin on numerous artifacts from the era, which included shields, plates, bracelets and jewelry.
The Ravens in Ancient Literature
Oddly enough, as important as they were, Huginn and Muninn take up only a few lines in several crucial epic poems that make up the Norse mythology canon.
Most information on the ravens – aside from the artifacts – came from literature written by the 13th century Icelandic historian and scholar, Snorri Sturluson. He described the ravens in two parts from his seminal Prose Edda – a compilation of books written in the prose-poem format.
The ravens appeared in the Edda in books entitled “Gylfaginning” (or the Tricking of Gylfi) and the “Skáldskaparmál" (Language of Poetry), in which they were featured in a few lines in Chapter 38 and Chapter 60, respectively.
In another book by Sturluson, Heimskringla: A Chronicle of the Kings of Norway (in a section known as the Ynglinga saga.), he made more references to the ravens. This collection of epic poems was about the life of Odin. Chapter 7 revealed that the two ravens made Odin wise.
In addition, another book in Prose Edda collection, "Grímnismál", revealed other tantalizing information about Huginn and Muninn. In this particular poem, Odin disguised himself as Grimmir (meaning hooded or masked one). His goal was to counsel Prince Agnarr. He did so by providing the young prince information about the two ravens. Odin, as Grimmir, stated the following:
“Huginn and Muninn fly each day
Over spacious earth.
I fear for Huginn, that he comes back.
Yet anxious am I for Muninn”— Benjamin Thorpe translation
Scholars debated the line; they believed it referred to the ravens’ mystical influences. Some stated these lines had some relations to shamans and their practices of taking a trance-like “journey” in an attempt to get closer to the gods.
Professor of Scandinavian medieval studies at the University of California in Berkeley, John Lindow, wrote that the stanza may have indicated Odin’s ability to send his “thought” and “mind” to shamans during their trance-like states.
In another stanza, Odin worried about the return of Huginn and Muninn, which "would be consistent with the danger that the shaman faces on the trance-state journey." (Lindow, 2001)
The Ravens After Christianity
Christianity spread throughout Europe, including Scandinavia. Soon, the ways of the Nordic gods fell out of favor with the people. While many of the gods -- as well as the ravens -- remained as symbolic fixtures of Nordic culture, they stopped being important in the Nordic people’s lives. As a result, many of these deities, including the ravens, were replaced with Christian saints or angels.
Still, Huginn and Muninn didn’t go away entirely. Science had a place for them, for their names were used to name actual breeds of ravens.
Twentieth Century and Beyond
In the late 20th century, Huginn became the inspirational name for a Black Metal band. The Italian band, Huginn was formed in the early 1990s, and – as most Black Metal bands – the theme centered on nature worship or the Occult.
The ravens also served as influences in modern TV and fantasy tales.In 1946 America, Heckle and Jeckle became a popular cartoon. While the birds are magpie crows, they both dispensed some thought and mind.In addition, they worked in unison, just as Huginn and Muninn did.
In Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, the people in the story’s alternative universe had daemons as disembodied connections to themselves. Many took on the role of animals and had symbiotic relationships with its host human. One can’t help but notice that these daemon operated in the same way as Huginn and Muninn did with Odin.
Huginn and Muninn are not household names, unless one is familiar with them as the namesake of different raven species. And, maybe a few diehard metal-heads know it bears the name of one of their favorite bands (at least in Huginn's case). Still, the ravens have a place in the world’s myths and legends as well as the ancient Nordic culture. Most importantly they will always represent the wisdom Odin brought to the kingdom of Asgard, the people of Earth, and to the world of myths and legends.
© 2018 Dean Traylor