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Raven flag (Vikings)

Norway, Sweden, Denmark

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[the Raven flag] image by Dave Martucci

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The following information was originally published in NAVA News, in 1996, and is reprinted with permission of the author.

The Raven Banner and America

It is frequently assumed that the first flag to fly in America was the Raven banner of the Vikings, the first Europeans to discover and settle (though not permanently) in North America. In the preface to the first volume of NAVA's journal Raven, the name of the journal is explained. Of the first flag in America it is said: "... it seems probable that this first flag was the most common Norse flag, known as ’Raven, Terror of the Land’, or more simply ‘Raven’."1 The Norse discoverers of America are presumed to have brought with them this flag on their journeys to North America. To support this assumption, it is pointed to the Lothbroc legend and to coins depicting a raven found in England and Ireland.

This line of reasoning is based on the assumption that the most common Norse flag, the one we hear most frequently of, was the flag that was commonly used by Norse seafarers, and so was also used by Leif Ericsson when he discovered America in AD 1000/1001. This assumption is difficult to support

The medieval sources attribute the Raven banner to a limited number of kings and warlords. Under the Raven banner, these men are almost exclusively operating in the British Isles. Hallvard Trætteberg, the leading Norwegian authority on heraldry and flags, lists six instances where the sources mention the Raven banner:2

- The sons of Ragnar Lothbroc carried a Raven banner, Leodbroga, when invading England, about AD 867. The banner had a raven that flapped its wings when signaling victory for the Danes. This is the famous Lothbroc legend.

- King Canute had a Raven banner made from white silk when he triumphed at Ashington in 1016. The Encomium Emmae, also known as Geasta Cnutonis Regis, says that the King had "...a banner which gave a wonderful omen. I am well aware that this may seem incredible to the reader, but nevertheless I insert it in my veracious work because it is true: This banner was woven of the cleanest and whitest silk and no picture of any figures was found on it In case of war, however, a raven was always to be seen, as if it was woven into it If the Danes were going to win the battle, the raven appeared, beak wide open, flapping its wings and restless on its feet If they were going to be defeated, the raven did not stir at all, and its limbs hung motionless."3

- Earl Sigurd of the Orkneys had a magical Raven banner made by his mother. She gave him the banner the day before an important battle, saying: 'Take this sign, I have made it for you. It will bring victory to the man it precedes, but death to the man who carries it."4 The banner had a raven that seemed to rise when the wind blew into it Sigurd then fought with the Scottish earl and won three battles. His standard bearers fell. Then, at the battle of Clontarf in Ireland, he had to carry the magical banner himself, and he fell. This was supposedly on Holy Friday in 1014.

- Earl Sigvard of Northumberland was given a banner he called Landeydan (Landwaster, or Terror of the Land) by a mysterious old man he met on a hill top when chasing a dragon. Sigvard died 1055.

- Harald Hardruler, King of Norway, had a sign called Landeydan (Landwaster). The King's saga, Saga of Harald Sigurtharson, tells of a quarrel between Harald and Svein, a Danish king: "Svein asked Harald what possessions of his he valued most highly. He answered his banner "Land-Destroyer." Thereupon Svein asked what virtue it had to be accounted so valuable. Harald replied that it was prophesied that victory would be his before whom this banner was borne; and added that this had been the case ever since he had obtained it" Then they started to quarrel over whether this could be true.5 Harold invaded England in 1066. He was victorious under the Landeydan at York, but was defeated at Stamford Bridge. There, the hardest battle was fought around the Raven banner.

- William the Conqueror also had a Raven banner at Hastings, according to Trætteberg.

In addition to these descriptions in the literary sources, coins depicting Ravens have been found. Trætteberg mentions a bird on coins made in York, 926-27 and 937. The bird is eagle-like but possibly a raven. Another coin has a triangular banner fringed with bells or strips of some kind and with a rose shaped cross as charge. There is a similar banner in the London coin of Canute, but there is no emblem on this one.

The Raven banner seems to be well documented, both in written sources and on coins. It is mentioned in sources treating events from the mid 800s to 1066. In addition, it is well known that ravens occupied an important place in Norse mythology, the raven being the holy bird of Odin. However, with respect to the Raven banner and the Norse discovery of North America, there are some important misconceptions.

The most important misconception is that the Raven has come to be regarded as the emblem of the Vikings. As a result of this misconception, the banner with magical properties used by kings and warlords is seen as the emblem that any Viking would use to identify himself. In fact, little is known about the use of banners or standards among the Norse. Even though banners or standards are frequently mentioned in sources such as Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla: The History of the Kings of Norway, we are, with a couple of exceptions, never told what they looked like.6 It could be that Snorri assumed such banners to be commonly known to his readers. However, it could also be that the banners usually carried only a signaling function in war and had no symbolic value.

Further, there seems to be an assumption that the Norse discoverers used flags in much the same way as discoverers centuries later. Note for instance the words used by Smith and Taylor (1946) who says of Leif Ericsson in Vinland: "He is supposed to have planted there the banner of the Vikings, a white flag containing a raven with wings spread."7 Here it seems as if the Raven banner is treated as a modern (national) flag. The Norse knew no common emblem or symbols, as far as we know. Kings and warriors carried signs or banners, especially in war, but we are not told that these signs represented symbolically a territory or a community. Objections should also be raised to the word `plant', because it seems to reflect the much later practice of colonization and claiming land for a king or a country by planting their flag in new lands. It is not known that the Norse used to do this when taking new land. It is also not known that the Norse used flags on their ships, though we know they used vanes.

It does not seem correct to regard the Raven banner as the common symbol of the Vikings (or as the flag the Vikings would normally carry). The Raven banner is attributed in the sources to a few kings and warlords. We cannot assume that the men participating in the peaceful settlement of the lands in the North Atlantic also carried such banners. These settlers and discoverers set out on their own initiative and were not subject to any king. What we know from the sources is that the Raven banner was primarily used in campaigns in the British Isles. Because of its magic qualities, it was a prized possession. Had such a banner been in the possession of Leif Ericsson, we could expect the Sagas to mention it.

The Raven banner was believed to have magical qualities: It transformed itself in times of war to predict victory for those who carried it. On its way to America, the Raven banner has undergone a second magical transformation, that from a banner of kings and warriors, to the emblem of all Vikings and thus also of a seafarer like Leif Ericsson out on a private mission to find more land suitable for the families of himself and his crew.

Notes

1 Scott Guenter: `Raven', Raven, Vol. 1, 1994. The reference is to Dr. Whitney Smith's The Flag Book of the United States.

2 The list is based on Hallvard Trætteberg's article ”Merke og Fløy” in Kulturhistorisk leksikon for nordisk middelalder, Vol. XI, Oslo, 1966, columns 549-555. For more instances of the raven motive - with and without the banner - see note 3.

3 Quoted from translation of Encomium Emmae/Geasta Cnutonis Regis in N. Lukman: “The Raven Banner and the Changing Ravens: A Viking Miracle from Carolingian Court Poetry to Saga and Arthurian Romance”, Classica et Mediaevalia: Revue Danoise de philologie et d'histoire, Vol. XIX, 1958, p. 140.

4 Quoted from translation of Orkneyinga Saga in Lukman, p. 149.

5 In Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla: The History of the Kings of Norway, Austin TX, 1991, “Saga of Harald Sigurtharson,” Ch. 22.

;6 Hans Cappelen: ”Litt heraldikk hos Snorre,” Heraldisk tidsskrift, No. 51, 1985, pp. 34-37. The exceptions are Harald Hardruler's Raven banner, already mentioned, and Olav Haraldsson's Dragon banner.

7 Cleveland H. Smith and Gertrude R. Taylor: Flags of all nations, New York, 1946, p. 2.

Jan Oskar Engene: “The Raven Banner and America,” NAVA News, Vol. XXIX, No. 5, 1996, pp. 1-2.


Perrins mentions another occasion where the magical Raven flag appeared. In Chapter II, Pages 30/31 he writes as follows: "In the year 878 Hubba.. the brother of Hingvar and Halfdene, with 23 ships... sailed for Devon, where with 1200 others he met with a miserable death, being slain before the castle of Cynuit. There (the Christians) gained a very large booty, and amongst other things the flag called Raven, for they say that the three sisters of Hingvar and Hubba, daughters of Lodobroch, wove that flag and got it ready in one day. They say moreover that in every battle wherever that flag went before them, if they were to gain the victory a live raven would appear flying in the middle of the flag, but if they were doomed to be defeated it would hang down motionless, and this often proved to be so." I am not sure exactly where this quoatation came from for Perrin mentions both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser's Life of King Alfred.
Andre Burgers, 29 November 2004


I suppose this additional reference falls into the first of the six instances I listed (based on Trætteberg): That of the raven banner connected with Lothbroc and his sons.
Jan Oskar Engene, 30 November 2004