The Beasts of Battle – uses in Anglo Saxon and Norse literature – by Amalasuntha
This is just working notes from the talk I gave and probably requires some explaination. There were shiny handouts and pictures, if I come across a copy I’ll update this. In both Anglo Saxon and Norse literature there is the use of the motif of ‘Beasts of Battle’ or the inclusion of the Eagle, Wolf and Raven. The Anglo Saxons and the Norse both use the motif frequently, but in differing ways. I went through each animal and the different ways that both cultures used it, sadly these are just my crib notes for the night, so might not make a lot of sense.
The Eagle was known as a carrion bird in Anglo Saxon literature with a name for it as ‘gudfugel’ or ‘bird of prey’. It was also known as ‘eagle kind’, ‘bird of war’ and ‘war hawk’.
Usually described as dewy or dew feathered in Anglo Saxon sources, such as Exodus:
‘War birds, greedy for battle, dew feathered
screamed over troop corpses’
Eagles are associated with heroes, they scream at the heroes birth and follow them later to feed upon the heroes slain enemies.
The eagle was taken as the symbol of sovereignty, probably influenced by roman models in which the eagle represented the Emperor.
The Norse named it ‘hraesvelgr’ or ‘corpse gulper’ Particularly associated with Odinn. Warriors before battle are encouraged with ‘so shall battle the eagles’. In one text eagles picking at fallen corpses after battle are likened to greedy impatient children at a Yule feast.
The wolf has strong associations with slaughter and carrion, but is physically described as grey on only two sources, The Battle of Finnsburh (6) and The Battle of Brunanburh (64-65) and is also described as lean in Judith. Sometimes double meanings are used deliberately. An example of this can be seen in the Finnesburg Fragment ‘the grey coat howls’. Occuring just after reference to the birds of battle, the immediate thought is that it referes to wolves to complete the set. However the description can also refer to men in mail coats, the words being equally suited to describing wolf or warrior.
The Anglo Saxons also understood a connection between the servants of the Norse god Odinn and battle present wolves, as the Anglo Saxon word is Walcyrge, that of a creature of the werewolf class rather than of the heavens.
In the Anglo Saxon poem the Battle of Maldon, describing events from around the year 990, the victorious Vikings attack the honourable English and animalised and described as ‘wolves of slaughter’ with a wild disregard for their own personal safety. The writer means them to be an ‘unnamed threat, the more terrifying because the less human, the less defined’. The Viking become the third beast, as eagles and ravens are described as normal. The writer combines the usual associations of the wolf with that of the human destructive threat. Skaldic references begin with their descriptions being used in kennings, ‘snarling grey wolves hunger’ being used as a phrase representing battle from the Ragnarsdrapa Lodbrokar dated to c. 800-850AD. King Harald Hardruler is praised by being referred to as the ‘reddener of ravenous wolves tounges’ in the Hrynhent (c.1042)
The double meanings occur again with warriors being named as ‘wolf coats’, likening grey wolves to men in mail coats. This could also extend to the warriors fierceness and bonded mentality, and the warriors success in providing food for the beasts of battle. Here the comparison is made to illuminate and positively praise the individual.
The wolf also has strong links with Ragnarok, the prophesied end of the world according to the Norse. Signalled by the escape of Loki, the story is described in the poem Voluspa, which states that ‘all the monsters are marching with the wolf’. A further connection can be made from the poem Vafthruthnimal, in the form of Fenris the wolf, whose first act upon breaking free at the beginning of Ragnarok, is to devour the sun.
The wolf is only described as grey once in the skaldic corpus ‘I saw clearly that the grey wolf bared his teeth over the wounded corpse’ (Orkneyingasaga 58). The poem Darradarljod from Njals saga is one of many examples of the association between wolves and combat:
‘swords will gnaw
like wolves through armour’
The wolf holds a central position in Norse mythology and poetry, always with negative connotations. With its association with combat, slaughter, annihilation and inescapable destruction, the wolf was the physical embodiment of slaughter and murder, the most emblematic of the Norse Beasts of Battle as ‘no other monster so embodied destruction’.
The divine connection comes in the form of the Valkyries, who in one saga are notes as being ‘creatures who carry a trough and ride on a wolf’. In some Norse passages there is the idea that a Valkyries possesses characteristics of a werewolf. Odin fed two wolves from his table: Geri and Freki.
In many cultures the raven was known as a carrion bird and a bird of prey. The Germanic symbolism connected to the raven was related to this natural aspect of the bird. Ravens are a symbol of sacrifice, for they are known for ‘receiving and rejoicing over sacrificial victims’
In Old English the raven is known as the waeceasega or the ‘chooser of the slain’, with its Norse equivalent in the Valkyrja, Odinns handmaidens who selected warriors to die.
It is also known as ‘raven kind’ and ‘robber of air’
Present on the Bayeux Tapestry.
In the Battle of Brunanburh the combat ends in which the losing army flees, and are described as leaving behind the dead and wounded as food for the ravens. Not following the usual pattern of Anglo Saxon anticipation, the writer at least alludes to a natural reason for the presence of the ravens.
The Raven Banner
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle in the entry for the year 878AD describes the outcome of a battle between victorious English and subdued Viking ‘there the war banner they called ‘Raven’ was captured’ (Anglo Saxon Chronicle 878 C,D,E).
The Annals of St Neots (c.1105) provides the magical qualities of the raven banner: ‘ Further it is said that if they were going to win a battle in which they followed that signum, there was to be seen, in the centre of the signum a raven, gaily flapping it’s wings. But if they were going to be defeated, the raven dropped motionless. And this always proved true’
Assers Life of King Alfred, the Gesta Cnutonis Regis (regarding the battle at Ashington 1016) and Gefferi Gaimar’s Estorie des Engles (ca 1140) all mention a raven banner in possession of the Norse. At the battle of Cynuit in 878AD the chronicler clearly states ‘The Raven was Ubbes banner’
A possible representation of the raven banner occurs in two places on the Bayeux Tapestry. The first of which shows a semi circular fringed banner in which a standing bird is present, the second is a triangular blank fringed banner being trampled under horse. Made within a generation of 1066 ravens are present within the borders of the tapestry, anticipating but not shown feasting at the resulting carnage.
The attackers in the tapestry are not Norse, however the association of a fierce animalistic opponent whose own banner signals their defeat may be a contemporary familiar interpretation.
Has associations with Odinn, as his familiars Huginn and Munnin (thought and memory) and thus was a source of wisdom and prophetic knowledge, most particularly when it related to omens of war. The raven could be an unlucky bird, or a bird of evil for those to die in battle.
When asked for an omen ‘red clawed ravens’ are seen as success in battle to come.
The Raven Banner (again)
The Raven Banner was a popular icon for Viking leaders and a token of victory. The Norwegian King Haraldr hardradi Sigurdarson also bore a Raven banner known as Landoydan ‘Land waster’ or ‘Land Destroyer’. The story appears in Snorri Sturlson’s Heimskringla (c.1220-1240) in the story Haralds saga Sigurdarsonar. As the most treasured possession of Haraldr, the ability of the banner to prophecy victory was undone at the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. Listed in the Orkneyinga saga and Njals saga, the raven banner was to ensure victory to those whom is was carried before, but to take the price of the bearer’s life.
Ravens are described in the text Husdrapa (c.978AD)
‘victory proud, and ravens
eager for wound dew’
And also in the Hofudlausn (c.947AD)
‘Wheeled the battle crane
O’er the bodies of the slain
Of blood drank it’s fill
The fight-gulls bill
Rends the wolf men’s limbs
While the wound stream brims
On the reddened cheek
Of the ravens beak’
Kennings work similar to a thesaurus, and the Viking kennings mention ‘raven sater’, ‘gladdener of ravens’ and ‘raven feeder’ as alternatives for ‘prince’ in the Velleka (c.961AD)
An aethling (noble) is the ‘feeder of greedy ravens’ in the Bersoglivisur, and in Thorfinnsdrapa the Orkney lord is described as ‘meal giver of the raven’. (Orkneyinga Saga Arn, V.I)
Viking coinage carries the association between Viking leaders and ravens. Coins issued in York by Olaf Guthrfrithson (839-41) describe him as ‘Kunnungr’ with the inscription round a raven.
An Anlaf Sihtricssin coin, minted in York in 924, shows possibly the only other depiction of a raven banner. These coins suggest a symbolic expression of the warrior ideology by feeding of the ravens. By displaying simple imagery connected with the Beasts of Battle theme, the Norse leaders not only played on the association of the successful warrior for their society, but also positively connected their own personal success in conflict through a widely understood symbol.
The raven on coinage and banners appears to be symbolic of Norse warrior ideology, connecting the symbol with positive victory and the praised warrior in a simple design.
A further theme for Anglo Saxon texts was the Natural World, and some writers have dismissed the Beasts of Battle theme as simply part of that, but if the Anglo Saxon texts are examined, the appearance of the Beasts of Battle in the scenes are always before the conflict. If they were simply a description of scavengers, they would appear during or after the conflict.
Dated to around 700AD it pulls on the Beasts of Battle theme to heighten awareness of the scenes to follow. A messenger having announced Beowulf’s death to the waiting Geats, predicts that a time of strife is nearly upon them:
‘Not the sound of the harp
wake the warriors, but the dark raven
greedy over the doomed, talking away
saying to the eagle how it went for him at his meal
while, the wolf he plundered the slain’
(Beowulf lines 3023-3027)
A similar use is found within the Finnesburg Fragment anticipating a battle:
‘The birds of battle sing
the grey coat howls’
So the foreshadowing of the battle to come is often heralded by birdsong and wolf howls, its appearance triggered by the ‘noise of battle’
The human combatants can be understood as having bestial characteristics in the descriptions of noise before combat. In the majority of examples, the prelude to battle after the arrival of the beasts at the scene is that of human combatants creating noise either in the form of drum, harp or vocal. This is generally followed by the beasts howling or calling as a prelude to battle.
So, the human combatants arrive at the scene, the beasts arrive, the humans create noise in some way, the beasts are described as howling or calling in return, then the combat begins.
The descriptions are minimal – perhaps using a colour, mood or perhaps a gloss.
Appearing before or within a combat, so not a description of the naturalistic world.
Give the combatants animal characteristics and parallel their behaviour, such as instances of noise before combat.
Can be described in metaphors with double meanings
Used as a foreboding of fatal destiny, a negative awareness of preordained combat.
The animals are often called by allegory, and used to compliment warriors and individuals
Appearing at the end and described as eating and enjoying the feast afterwards
The combatants are often described in animal terms
Usually described using metaphors with double meanings.
Used as a way to praise the individual or group, glorifying in an upbeat way as a positive compliment to the survivors.