top of page
  • Writer's pictureNorse Norn

Odin's Ravens Huginn and Muninn and the Norse Concept of the Soul

Gods often have attributes that reflect their power and purpose and are often useful symbology to help us identify the gods in art. One of Odin's most consistent and fascinating attributes is his two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, whose names mean thought and memory.

The ravens reflect Odin in his capacity as the god of war and the god of wisdom, and they are also a reflection of his shamanic abilities as a master of Seidr magic. They may be part of Odin's soul, which he can send to do his bidding. The Norse had a very different view of the soul, which had four separate parts.

Huginn and Muninn with rune symbols
Huginn and Muninn with rune symbols

Huginn and Muninn in Old Norse Mythology

Huginn and Muninn seem to be old attributes of Odin as they are evident in association with him in pre-Viking times. For example, a sixth-century gold bracteate from Denmark depicts a warrior with a spear, identified as Odin carrying his famous enchanted spear Gungnir. He is flanked by two ravens who fly near his ears. A seventh-century plate from Sweden shows Odin on his horse carrying his spear with two ravens flying nearby. Odin and ravens are common themes in Norse art throughout the Viking period.

According to the Old Norse sources, Odin had two ravens, Huginn and Muninn (or Hugin and Munin in Anglicized spelling), who would fly out into the world every day at dawn, and then return at dusk to tell the god everything that they saw.

According to the Heimskringla, Odin gave the ravens the ability to speak so that they could report back to him, and according to the Third Grammatical Treatise, when they are with their master, called Hrafnagud (raven god) in the Prose Edda, they sit on his shoulders.

In the 13th century Old Norse text the Poetic Edda, Odin, disguised as Grimnir, tells Agnarr about the familiars of Odin in Norse mythology. He first tells him about Geri and Freki, the two wolves that accompany Odin everywhere he goes. Their names mean greed and ravenous, and they represent the challenging characteristics of the god that he must master every day.

Grimnir then talks about Huginn and Muninn, describing their daily travel across Midgard. The god also expresses the fear he feels each day that the birds will not return to his side.

Archaeological depictions of Huginn and Muninn
Archaeological depictions of Huginn and Muninn

Ravens and the God of War

Ravens are intimately connected with Odin in his guise as the god of war, which is why they are always depicted alongside Odin with his spear, the weapon most commonly used by Viking warriors. The Vikings considered it good luck to see ravens circling the battlefield as it meant that Odin and his Valkyries were present to choose the worthiest of the fallen dead to take to Valhalla.

Valhalla is Odin's great hall in Asgard. He takes fallen warriors there to feast and train until they are called upon to fight again alongside the gods in the final battle of Ragnarok.

Often Huginn and Muninn fly to the hanged and the slain. Odin is also sometimes referred to as the priest of raven sacrifice, the sacrifice presumably being the fallen warriors. Warriors are also sometimes called the feeders of ravens and the fatteners of the battle starlings.

Ravens as battle carion
Ravens as battle carion

Odin's Ravens and the God of Wisdom

While ravens are considered vicious carrion birds, they are also considered to be wise. This makes them the perfect companion for Odin, who is the god of both war and wisdom. Huginn and Muninn travel out into the world to collect knowledge for Odin. This is despite Odin having a throne in Asgard called Hildskjalf, which lets him look out over all of existence.

Odin was known to often abandon his seat in Asgard to wander the world in the guise of an old man, learning firsthand and passing on knowledge and advice where needed. Ravens are often described as accompanying him on his journeys flying nearby or sitting on Odin's shoulders.

In the Viking age, it was believed that if ravens showed up shortly after a sacrifice to Odin, then the raven god had accepted the sacrifice. The Viking age Osberg burial from Norway includes a tapestry that shows two ravens flying over a cart, presumed to hold a cult image of Odin. Thus the ravens accompanied the worship of Odin by men.

Huginn and Muninn with Aegishjalmur
Huginn and Muninn with Aegishjalmur

Huginn and Muninn and Seidr Magic

Odin learned the art of Seidr magic, practiced by the Volva, from the Vanir goddess Freyja when she arrived in Asgard. This was a shamanic magical practice, and Odin's use of Huginn and Muninn may reflect his practicing this art.

The Volva, Viking witches, were believed to be able to shapeshift into animals and also astral project into the spiritual realm to see what is happening elsewhere.

This seems to be what Odin is doing when he sends out Huginn and Muninn, sending out aspects of his mind, "thought and memory," to see what is happening in the world. This certainly explains his anxiousness as he waits for them to return and make him whole again.

Odin with Huginn and Muninn
Odin with Huginn and Muninn

Norse Concept of the Soul

This idea of Huginn and Muninn being parts of Odin himself seems consistent with the Norse concept of the soul. The Norse pagans did not have a Christian concept of a soul. The old Norse word for soul, sal, was only invented in Christian times.

Instead, the Norse believed that a person's essence is contained in four parts.

The Hamr is the "shape" or "skin" of the person and represents their physical form as it is perceived by others. But this is not static, and it can be changed through skipa homum, or shape-shifting. Volva and other magic workers could master their Hamr to become shapeshifters.

The Hugr is "thought", and it is the word that the name Huginn derives from. While the Hugr normally stayed with the person, those with a strong Hugr could have a significant effect on others just by thinking about them. This seems to be the Norse mythology equivalent of the evil eye.

The Fylgja is the "follower" of a person, and is a kind of spiritual companion. The well-being of the Fylgja and the individual are inextricably intertwined and if the Fylgja dies, so does the individual. They would often travel ahead of their owner and scout out what was to come.

The Hamingja is a person's "luck", but this is a personality trait. You can be born with good luck or the favor of the gods. This also is not unique to an individual. When a person dies, their Hamingja could pass to new family members. Often families would name children after the recently deceased to encourage their Hamingja to return. You could also lend your Hamingja to another living person to help them through a particularly challenging time.

The Norse idea of the soul seems to reflect the Norse idea of magic. It is by harnessing and utilizing that magic workers can achieve things such as shapeshifting, visions, and lending support to those in need.

This was an art that Odin has mastered, and perhaps Huginn and Muninn (or Hugin and Munin) are an aspect of that power.

Odin's ravens and the Norse soul
Odin's ravens and the Norse soul

33 views0 comments
bottom of page