Ravens and wolves are the most commonly recognizable Viking animals. They are everywhere and most sagas mention one or the other. However, they are far from alone in the sagas, and many more Fantastic Beasts are companions and even nemesis of the Gods. This is an introductory overview, to honor some of these mighty creatures, beginning with the most famous:
Ravens are probably the animal most associated with the Vikings due to Hugin and Munin, animal companions of Odin the Allfather. Odin is a God of war, and ravens feasting on the slain were a common sight on any battlefields. The connection is deeper than that, however. Ravens are very intelligent birds. You cannot look at the eyes and head movement of a raven and not feel that it is trying to perceive everything about you – even weigh your spirit.
Odin ravens are called Huginn (“Thought”) and Muninn (“Memory”). They fly throughout the nine worlds back to Odin all of what their far seeing eyes perceive. The connection is so important that Odin is often called hrafnaguð – the Raven God – often depicted with Huginn and Muninn sitting on his shoulders or flying around him.
Statue of Odin on Raven Throne 1900 by Rudolf Maison
Ravens are also associated with the 9th century Viking hero, Ragnar Lothbrok. who claimed descent from Odin through a human consort. This was something that did not sit well with the kings of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (as it implied he was a demigod), which led to a long series of wars and conquests. Ragnar and his warriors charged into battle with a raven banner flying above them, drawing the gaze of the Allfather, often leading to victory.
Hrafnsmerki - the Raven Banner
Various sagas and chronicles tell us Ragnar's success led him to Finland, France, England, and maybe even as far as the Hellespont in Turkey. Wherever he went, he carried the raven banner with him. His sons Ivar and Ubbe carried the raven banner at the head of the Great Heathen Army that conquered the eastern kingdoms of England in the 9th century. The banner continued to bring victories until their descendant, Sigurd the Stout, finally died under it at the Irish Battle of Clontarf about 150 years later. Harald Hardrada, the larger-than-life Norse hero historians like to call "The Last Viking” also carried a raven banner he called “Land Waster.” Some historians even claim that the Viking Age ended on the day his raven banner fell in 1066.
In Norse art, ravens symbolize Odin, insight, wisdom, intellect, bravery, battle glory, and continuity between life and the afterlife. For people today, they also represent the Vikings themselves, and the centuries of tradition, exploits and exploration that these ancestors achieved.
Anlaf Guthfrithsson, Hiberno-Norse King of Northumbria (date: c. 939-941 AD).
The wolf is a more enigmatic motif, as it can have several meanings. The wolf can be a dreaded beast, such as Fenrir, Hati or Skoll; or can be a protector, such as Geri and Freki, wolf companions of the Allfather.
Fenrir is one of the most frightening monsters in Norse mythology. He is the son of Loki and the giantess, Angrboða; the brother of the great sea serpent Jormungand, and of Hel, Goddess of the Underworld.
When Fenrir was young, the Gods decided to raise him with them, for he was fast, strong and smart. As time passed the Gods saw how quickly Fenrir was growing and how ravenous - and destructive - he was, so they tried to bind him, but Fenrir broke every chain. Finally, the dwarves made an unbreakable chain - Gleipnir - with which they managed to bind him – but only after he had ripped the god Tyr's hand off. The Gods placed a sword in Fenrir’s mouth to keep his jaws from snapping, and from his open, drooling mouth a river called Ván flowed as the wolf dreamed of his revenge. Fenrir is fated to escape at the dawning of Ragnarök and battle Odin, slaying him (read more about Fenrir here).
Hati and Skoll
Another pair of wolves are important in announcing Ragnarök: Hati and Skoll, who forever chase the sun and the moon.
Hati and Skol are mentioned in some tales as being the sons of Fenrir and, during the Ragnarök they will finally catch their prey and will devour the sun and moon.
Geri and Freki
Not all the wolves in Norse culture were evil however. Odin himself was accompanied by wolves, named Geri and Freki (both names meaning, Greedy) who accompanied him in battle, hunting, and wandering. This partnership between God and wolves gave rise to the alliance between humans and dogs (read more about Geri, Freki and their partnership with Hugin and Munin here).
Geri and Freki
Berserkers and the Úlfheðnar
The most famous type of Viking warriors is the berserker – men who “became the bear” and fought in states of ecstatic fury, empowered by the spirit of Odin. There was also a similar type of Viking warrior called an úlfheðnar, which means “wolf hides” (or werewolf). It is not entirely clear whether this was a synonym or a separate class of berserker. Some sources seem to hint that the úlfheðnar could have been like berserkers, but unlike the berserker (who fought alone ahead of the Viking shield walls) the úlfheðnar may have fought in small packs. We may never know for certain. What we do know is that the wolf is sacred to Odin and that some Vikings could channel the wolf to become “impervious to iron and fire” and to achieve great heights of martial prowess and valor in battle.
The wolf has both positive and negative connotations in Norse culture. The wolf can represent the destructive forces of time and nature, for which even the gods are not a match. The wolf can also represent the most valued characteristics of bravery, teamwork, and shamanistic power. The unifying characteristic in these two divergent manifestations is savagery and the primal nature. The wolf can bring out the best or the worst in people.
Sleipnir, the 8-Legged Horse
Sleipnir, also known as The Sliding One, is Odin's eight-legged stallion, and is considered by all the skalds to be "the best of horses." This title should be no wonder, as Sleipnir can leap over the gates of Hel, cross the Bifrost bridge to Asgard, and travel up and down Yggdrasil and throughout the Nine Worlds. All this he can do at incredible speeds. While the other Gods ride chariots, Odin rides Sleipnir into battle.
Sleipnir was conceived when the God Loki shape-shifted into a mare to beguile the giant stallion, Svaðilfari (all so that Loki could get the Gods out of an ill-advised contract with Svaðilfari's owner - whom Thor killed anyway). Therefore, Sleipnir is the brother of the World-Coiling Serpent, Jörmungandr and the world-eater wolf, Fenrir.
Some experts hypothesize that Sleipnir's octopedal sliding was inspired by the "tolt" - the fifth gait of Icelandic horses (and their Scandinavian ancestors) that make them very smooth to ride. While this may or may not be true, the idea of eight-legged spirit horses is a very, very old one. Sleipnir's image, or rumors of him, appear in shamanistic traditions throughout Korea, Mongolia, Russia and, of course, Northwestern Europe. As in Norse religion, these eight-legged horses are a means for transporting souls across worlds (i.e., from life to the afterlife). These archaeological finds are at least a thousand years older than Viking influence, showing that the roots of this symbol indeed go deep.
Sleipnir symbolizes speed, surety, perception, good luck in travel, eternal life, and transcendence. He combines the attributes of the horse (one of the most important and enduring animals to humankind) and the spirit. He is especially meaningful to athletes, equestrians, travelers, those who have lost loved ones, and those yearning for spiritual enlightenment.
Next week: Dragons! And much more, in the final part of Vikings and their Fantastic Beasts!
Price, Neil S. 2002. The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. ISSN 0284-1347
Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. ISBN13: 9781781395172
Saxo Grammaticus. The History of the Danes. ISBN-13 9780859915021
Grimm, Jacob. 1882. Teutonic Mythology, Volume 1. Translated by James Steven Stallybrass. (Google books)