Hugin and Munin: The Ravens of the Mind
A recurring theme in the mythology of Odin is his constant search for information. He was willing to travel to Hel, give up an eye, and even make himself a human sacrifice to learn more about magic and fate.
While these stories were dramatic, Odin also had ways to get information in day-to-day life. The most iconic source of the god’s knowledge was a pair of ravens named Hugin and Munin.
According to legend, the ravens flew over the world each day to gather news of what was happening. They reported to Odin over dinner, serving as mythological news reporters.
Many historians believe that these birds also served a symbolic purpose in Odin’s iconography. They were not just practical agents of information, but also representations of the god’s powerful magical abilities.
According to 13th century writings, Odin had two ravens that he named Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory). They were his two most constant companions.
Each day at dawn, Odin would set the birds out into the world. By dinnertime, they would return and report back on all that they had seen and heard as they flew over Midgard.
This was one of many ways in which Odin constantly increased his knowledge. While the sacrifices he made to learn about fate and magic, such as giving his eye to the Well of Mimir or hanging himself for nine days on Yggdrasil, were dramatic events, the reports of Hugin and Munin allowed him to keep his knowledge current.
Along with using his birds, Odin also had a view of everything that happened in the world from his throne in Asgard. Hugin and Munin, however, ensured that his knowledge did not rely entirely on his own perception.
According to the Poetic Edda, Odin worried about his birds. He feared that one, particularly Munin, would not return at the end of the day.
While the authenticity of the information in these later texts is often brought into question, archaeological evidence shows that Odin’s ravens far predated the writing of the Poetic Edda.
Gold plates from as early as the 5th and 6th centuries show a spear-carrying figure on horseback flanked by two ravens. Both the ravens and the spear became part of Odin’s iconography, leading historians to believe that these were early images of the Germanic god.
Similar images have been found from throughout Europe, from the shores of England to Western Russia. According to one historian, “similar depictions occur everywhere the Vikings went.”
Hugin and Munin served a practical purpose as Odin’s informants, but many historians believe that they also had a more symbolic function.
Although not much is known about how the people of the Viking Age practiced their religion, most believe that shamanic practices played an important role.
Often, shamans associate themselves with an animal form when they go into the trances that give them their powers. In the case of Odin, he had two sets of animals to take on this shamanic function.
Freki and Geri were Odin’s wolves, representing his physical strength and power in battle. As a shamanistic animal warrior, he could take on the attributes of a wolf as he fought.
Hugin and Munin, meanwhile, represented the god’s powers over fate and magic. As a master of seidr, Odin was closely tied to these concepts.
Seidr was a distinct branch of magic in Norse thought. It was primarily concerned with foretelling the future and influencing the strands of fate.
Many of Odin’s myths involve his efforts to expand his seidr abilities. His constant search for knowledge was aided by Hugin and Munin, physical representations of this pursuit.
This type of magic was not without its risks, however. Odin’s worries that Hugin and Munin would not return likely reflected actual concerns about magic users losing themselves permanently in their trances.
Ravens were also symbolically ideal embodiments of Odin’s seidr abilities. Germanic cultures often associated the raven with ideas of fate.
Ravens were an ubiquitous sight on ancient battlefields, leading some to believe that they could even sense a fight before it began. In Irish mythology, for example, the Morrigan often took the form of a raven or crow as the goddess of fate and war.
Odin was a god with great magical abilities, but he was also a warrior. Battlefields were typically sanctified in his honor, making all the blood spilled there a sacrifice to him.
The two ravens that accompanied him represented this connection to battle bloodshed, just as the raven form of the Morrigan did in Ireland. They appeared during or even before battle to feast on the bodies of the fallen, taking the dead as a sacrifice to the god.
Some historians have also tied Hugin and Munin to Norse concepts of magic known as fylgja and hamingja.
The fylgja was a type of supernatural being that was connected to a person’s fate. Believed to bond with a child at birth, this totem animal represented the person’s inner nature.
The hamingja was another supernatural being that served a similar role. Playing a role in determining a person’s happiness, the hamingja could also be passed on through generations.
In this interpretation, Hugin and Munin represented aspects of Odin’s personality as well as his magical abilities. His knowledge of fate and constant vigilance were a result not only of seidr magic, but also an innate part of who he was.
One theory combines the idea of the ravens as a symbol of fate and as a representation of Odin himself.
According to some historians, the earliest images of the ravens likely had no connection to Odin’s mind. The names Hugin and Munin were not attested until at least the 9th century, so there is no evidence that they were linked to ideas of thought and memory before then.
The early images of the ravens likely had a similar meaning as those in other Germanic cultures. They emphasized Odin’s connection to the fate of war, but did not impart knowledge or watch over the world otherwise.
As the mythology placed a great emphasis on Odin’s magic, particularly his search for knowledge, these birds took on an additional meaning. Long connected to the fate of a battle, they became associated with fate and knowledge in a more general way.
In this way, Hugin and Munin show how Norse perception of the gods and their powers evolved over time. From a general symbol, they became an embodiment of the very essence of the Norse pantheon’s chief god.
In Norse mythology, Hugin and Munin were two ravens who were often shown next to Odin. The Poetic Edda claimed that he released them each morning to gather and bring back news of what happened throughout the world.
Many historians interpret Hugin and Munin as shamanic totem animals. Their names meant “thought” and “memory,” giving credence to the idea that they were part of the god’s own mind.
Shamans entered into a trance and, it would believed, could see the world through the eyes of their totem animal. Such totem animals could also be supernatural creatures that, in Norse thought, were bonded to a person as a representation of their essence.
As such, the two ravens represented Odin’s mastery over magic, particularly as it pertained to fate. Ravens and fate were often connected in Germanic thought, as can be seen with the Irish goddess the Morrigan.
Some historians believe that Hugin and Munin evolved as Norse mythology became more complex. Originally in line with common Germanic raven symbolism, they gradually became more closely linked to the mind of Odin himself.