Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The riddle of Odin's ravens



Odin had two ravens named Huginn (Old Norse “thought”) and Muninn (Old Norse “mind”). Every day, Odin would send them out at dawn, and the birds would fly all over the world before returning at dinner-time. They would then tell Odin everything they saw and heard. It is said that this is the reason why one of Odin's names was “raven-god” (hrafnaguð). 

In the Poetic Edda sonnet Grímnismál, the god Odin (camouflaged as Grímnir) tells Agnarr, the young son of King Geirröðr a very strange thing about his two ravens. I include here four different translations of the stanza in question so that you can get better feeling for what Odin is saying. 

1797 Amos Simon Cottle in Icelandic Poetry “The Song of Grimnir”

Hugo, in azure fields of air,
And Mumin too each day appear:
I fear lest Hugo safe return,
But more for Mumin inly mourn.

1851 C.P. in The Yale Magazine, Vol. 16 “The Song of Grimner”

Huginn and Muninn, over the fields of earth 
Fly daily; fear creepeth upon my soul, 
Of Huginn, lest he come not faithfully; 
But of Muninu I have greater fear than this.


1866 Benjamin Thorpe in Edda Sæmundar Hinns Frôða “The Lay of Grimnir” 1883 Gudbrand Vigfusson in Corpus Poeticum Boreale “The Sayings of the Hooded One”
 
Hugin and Munin
fly each day
over the spacious earth.
I fear for Hugin,
that he come not back,
yet more anxious am I for Munin.

1883 Gudbrand Vigfusson in Corpus Poeticum Boreale “The Sayings of the Hooded One”

Thought and Mind [his two Ravens] fly every day over the mighty earth
I fear for Thought lest he never come back, but I am still more fearful about Mind. . . .

Scholars have been wondering for a long time about the meaning of the above verses. 

John Lindow relates Odin's ability to send his "thought" (Huginn) and "mind" (Muninn) to the trance-state journey of shamans. Lindow says the Grímnismál stanza where Odin worries about the return of Huginn and Muninn "would be consistent with the danger that the shaman faces on the trance-state journey."

Rudolf Simek is critical of the approach, stating that "attempts have been made to interpret Odin's ravens as a personification of the god's intellectual powers, but this can only be assumed from the names Huginn and Muninn themselves which were unlikely to have been invented much before the 9th or 10th centuries" yet that the two ravens, as Odin's companions, appear to derive from much earlier times. 

Anthony Winterbourne connects Huginn and Muninn to the Norse concepts of the fylgja—a concept with three characteristics; shape-shifting abilities, good fortune, and the guardian spirit—and the hamingja—the ghostly double of a person that may appear in the form of an animal. 

Bernd Heinrich theorizes that Huginn and Muninn, along with Odin and his wolves Geri and Freki, reflect a symbiosis observed in the natural world among ravens, wolves, and humans on the hunt. He proposed that the Odin myth was a metaphor that playfully and poetically encapsulates ancient knowledge of our prehistoric past as hunters in association with two allies to produce a powerful hunting alliance. It would reflect a past that we have long forgotten and whose meaning has been obscured and badly frayed as we abandoned our hunting cultures to become herders and agriculturists.

I believe that the above stanza is a riddle, a koan, which was used for teaching the novices about the difference between Thought and Mind. The fact that Odin has two ravens called thought and mind is already very significant. Most people equate thought, thinking, the thought machine and mind. But interestingly mystics all over the world, since the beginning of time have been trying to tell us that the truth is exactly the opposite. Thought, thinking, thought machine and mind are two different things independent of each other. Odin is trying to tell us the same. 

Many books were written on the subject of dualism of Thought and Mind. Basically anything ever written about meditation, mindfulness and achieving enlightenment actually tries to explain the relationship between the Thought and Mind. In my opinion one of the best was written by the guy called Eckhart Tolle. The book is called "The Power Of Now". This is not a religious book. This is a practical guide to understanding the relationship between Thought and Mind.

But how are we to understand Odin's worry that his ravens will not return. John Lindow is partially correct when he relates Odin's ability to send his "thought" (Huginn) and "mind" (Muninn) to the trance-state journey of shamans. Only the Muninn's flight is a metaphor for the meditative process. Huginn's flight is a metaphor for the thought process. Lindow says the Grímnismál stanza where Odin worries about the return of Huginn and Muninn "would be consistent with the danger that the shaman faces on the trance-state journey." But actually I believe that Odin is not worried. It is a riddle. He is opposite from worried. He is hoping that the ravens will not return. 

The reason why scholars are still wondering what the meaning of the above stanza is, is because they are not vikings. 

Ravens were used by Vikings to determine if there was a land ahead during their long voyages across the open sea. They carried ravens with them in cages. When they found themselves far away from the shore, and didn’t know which way to go, they would set a raven free. Raven would fly high in the air and then start flying in circles searching for land in the distance. Because ravens can't land on water, if the raven could not see a land, he would return to the ship. But if the raven saw land in the distance, it would fly straight for it. All the Vikings had to do is follow the raven. So raven acted as a guide, which guided Vikings through the unknown and uncharted waters to a safe haven. Which means that raven must be directly related to the idea of a guide, leader, just like Odin, Wodan whose name actually means Guide, Leader. You can read more about it in my post called "Odin the wandering deity".

As I said already it is very important that there are two ravens of Odin. Thought and Mind. They are two ravens which each of us can use to search for the way forward through the unknowable future. Most people only ever use Thought. This is because they are not even aware of the existence of the other raven, Mind because they think that Thought and Mind are one and the same. That mind is a sum of our thoughts, rather than a completely separate entity. This is a pity because all the mystics in the world throughout the history have been telling us that it is the mind, clear of all thought, the mind of no mind, which gives us the true vision, the true sight. The sight that reaches much further in space and time then our thoughts would ever be able to reach. And this is exactly what Odin is telling Agnarr. Odin says that although there is a possibility that thought might not return, he is more anxious about Mind not returning than thought. What this actually means is this:

It might be possible to use your thought to successfully guide you through life. This is symbolised  by Odin's fear that Hugin, Thought, might not come back. As I have already said, raven Thought would not come back only if it had found the way (Tao) through life which you can follow. But Odin says, that he is more worried about the Muninn, Mind, not returning. This means that Odin thinks that raven Mind, mind empty of thought, the opposite of thought, is more likely to find you the way (Tao) through life which you can follow. This is, I believe, the message Odin was trying to convey to Agnarr and everyone else.

And so, I believe, the riddle of Odin's ravens is solved. A fitting message from the God whose name means Guide, Leader. What do you think?

51 comments:

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    1. Odin is not a shaman, he is a god and known as the highest of Gods (or AS God)

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    2. Could it be that mind and thought are the conscious ans subconcious part of our mental states? Perhaps the Vikings were aware of them before Freud?

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    3. Gods can use shamanic powers if they like.

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    4. What might you think my ancestors developed their beliefs upon, all of their religious beliefs were based upon practical experience and developed over time and or refined and expanded as additional experiences came to those who were after the elders?

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  2. It's interesting that you are using a couple of thought-methods (Hugin) outside of the Norse system as a means of understanding Odin's statements (Munin). Stripping the chains and blinders of dogma away, most religions work out to the same thing: trying to understand this world we're in. Some people are used to it, others aren't; being from other realities and here for their first time.
    The Shaman Odin transcends this reality in search of others (as Ravens were used on the Longboats of the Norse) and there is a decided risk of either not wanting to return or being unable to return. That's the risk every Shaman faces.
    Why do I use your "Odin the Shaman) as a reference? He wanders the world, seeking something. He gains his magic by internal means (sacrificing himself to himself). He is either hooded or wears a hat ( a way of blocking out the lower world). He "sends his Ravens over the world each day"... to the flat-earth Norse, this world and the other worlds were connected the same way the Celts saw them connected, hence his thought and memory (Mentation) would be seen as seeking over the world when in fact he was seeking over the WORLDS, not just this one.
    Your monograph is excellently done and a pleasure to read: thus I send my Hugin into your words and he returns while Munin connects the ideas and also returns.
    Hmm: Odin, the perpetual Student.

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    1. Thank you Kyllein. You are right. It is the path that one seeks, not the destination. Destination is always the same, but each of us has a different path that leads us to it. Odin is not showing us the way, because no one can do this really. Odin is in this story, I believe, just telling us how to look for that way...Odi = walks, travels, wanders. Vodi - leads, guides...Vodja - leader...(From "Odin the wandering deity")

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  3. May I suggest you read (or view) the work of Maria Kvilhaug "the Seed of Yydrassill". She specialises in the actual translated meanings of the Old Norse names. You might change your view with further information. Good Luck!

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  4. Thank you, this was brilliant!

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  5. I wonder, how would the nautical references apply to the Germanic peoples to the south, who revered Woden but were not seafarers in the way the Norse were and did not inhabit that Viking world? Is the image of the circling ravens simply a decoration of the central idea?

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    1. This particular story of Odin and Ravens comes from Norse writers. I believe that they would have used things known and understandable to them to describe the idea of the difference between the Mind and Thought and their use.

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  6. I have always seen this in a much more earthly sense - Hugin/Thought and Munin/Memory. He fears losing track of his thoughts, but He is much more worried about losing His memories. When Loki stole Idun for the giants, the gods aged rapidly, becoming senile. To a god who has lived almost since the beginning of time, would not that be the greatest fear? Especially for one who has paid so much for knowledge and wisdom
    9not often the same thing).

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    1. Memory is indeed one of the ways in which Muninn was translated. Memory, Mind and Desire were proposed as the translation of the term Muninn. Loosing your memories would indeed be a terrible loss. After all they are the most precious things we collect as we go through this life. But is memory something you would send away to bring you back news of the world? Or Desire?

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    2. It struck me as strange that the Mind of no mind would be placed beside Thought, because the traditional teaching is that it is transcendent.

      You mention that the word can also mean memory and desire. Here is my interpretation: Munin is the mind of dreams and images - the imagination. This mind flies together with Thought (logic). It is Odin who is the Mind Beyond Mind, the transcendent Self, directing these birds. Just some Hugins.

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    3. A little late to the conversation- but, Raven Wolf, I liked your last sentence. That is how I view Odin's Ravens- Knowledge and Wisdom. Knowledge is raw and untempered, while wisdom turns that knowledge into a tool, gives it direction. Information and the ability to know what to do with that information.

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    4. Always have known them as thought and memory I even have it tattooed on my leg with 2 ravens

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  7. people are W A Y overthinking this. it's pretty simple, it means that Odin was sending his thoughts and mind over the world contemplating it (metaphorically speaking) meditating on it and hoping that it didn't over whelm him to the point of insanity. the ravens are figurative not literal he's hoping his thoughts come back to his reality and his mind remains intact and with him when he's finished. not that complicated

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    1. That is one of the possible solutions of this riddle. However ravens have a very specific meaning of "the way searchers" and who by not returning are actually showing you the way that you have been searching for...So maybe there are more than one solutions of this riddle... :) The dark night of the soul is the place where most meditators stop because they are sensing that if they proceed they will loose themselves, that they will sacrifice themselves to themselves... :)

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  8. Where did Lindow say those things? Please provide the source. I would like to read up on it. Thanks!

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    1. Apparently here: Lindow, John (2001). Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-515382-0

      I was just quoting another quote... :)

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  9. Interesting article... I enjoyed the reading.

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  10. Salena Shakti Radford23 October 2015 at 09:48

    better by far to loose track of one's thoughts than to completely loose one's mind

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    1. Do you mean loose or lose?

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    2. Thank you. A pet peeve. Lose, as in cannot find, and loose as in to release.

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  11. The ravens are late forms of the earlier brothers of Odin, Vili (Will in the sense of desire) and Vé (Holiness, as in German Weih(nacht)). This triad formed a sort of old warrior trinity, with *Wodan (German Wotan, English Wednes(day)) meaning something like Master of (Battle) Rage or Frenzy. The raven iconography emerged not only from the use of ravens as guide birds, but also from their habit of scavenging the dead on a battlefield. The shamanistic interpretation of the ravens' flight and Odin's worries receives support from Odin's self sacrifice, hanging nine days and nights on Yggdrasil as an offering to himself, by which suffering he received knowledge of the runes and through which he was also resurrected. Such arboristic feats are also known for the shamans of the northern reaches of Eurasia, especially within the Finno-Ugrian domain.

    It is important to keep in mind that grammatically the name 'Wodan' is irregular in Germanic (the /-an/ or /-en/ suffix means 'master of a social doman', as in the Old English 'Theod-en' people-master.of = "king"), but here applies to a state of mind, /wod-/ 'rage' (Norse O∂,earlier husband of Freya, a consort of Odin).

    The Goths claimed Wodan as their own, and his worship diminished as one reached the (non-Germanic, but heavily influenced ) Lapps and in Iceland, where Thor was dominant. There is also no trace of a Wodan in Tacitus' account of the Germanic beliefs and customs in his Germania (98 AD). There is some evidence that the name itself was taken from Steppe Iranians (Sarmatians, Alans, etc.) when the Goths were in the Ukraine or North Caucasus region,(from an Iranian epithet, Wardana, attested in Circassian, a cognate of the epithet Vrddhana Giver of Wealth', used of Shiva), and that it made its way up into northern Europe via early Gothic influence.

    One may ponder passages as one wishes and argue of their possible meaning, as surely the Norse themselves must have done, but a full understanding of such things is only achieved by viewing them in a broader, historical context.

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    1. I thought wod/wood translated more as 'passion'/'fervour' than 'rage'... and could include passion for battle, for drink and through drunkenness, ardour, poetry or any number of passions...? Wish I had time to dig out the references.

      Mat

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    2. Ah, here is one ref, containing other refs:
      http://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/the-aesir-gods-and-goddesses/odin/

      This passage is interesting and maybe pertinent to your points: "Paradoxically, Odin is often the favorite god and helper of outlaws, those who had been banished from society for some especially heinous crime, as well. Like Odin, many such men were exceptionally strong-willed warrior-poets who were apathetic to established societal norms – Egill Skallagrímsson (Egil’s Saga) and Grettir Ásmundarson (The Saga of Grettir the Strong) are two examples. The late twelfth/early thirteenth-century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus even relates a tale of Odin being outlawed from Asgard for ten years so that the other gods and goddesses wouldn’t be tarnished by the vile reputation he had acquired amongst many humans.[8]"

      So, Saxo Grammaticus, however accurate it may be, provides an interesting backdrop to the insertion of Odin into the previously Thor and Tyr dominant regions.

      Mat

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  12. I know next to nothing about Norse anything but it is clear to me that the passage is talking about depression. That is how it feels to not know from one day or even hour to the next if ones mind will be there to deliver ones thoughts in any meaningful or true way. Thoughts may go astray but if the mind flees the body all is lost.

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  13. An interesting read.
    I have also read an interpretation that claims in order for Muninn to be Memory, it should have been Munir and that the closest translation for Muninn would actually be Desire.

    Depending on the perspective one chooses to use. Desire would make much more sense within his poem.

    "Thought and Desire,
    fly each day
    over the spacious earth.
    I fear for Thought,
    that he come not back,
    yet I fear more for Desire."

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    1. Yes, I read that too, and linguistically it does seem that the 'desire' root 'munir' is a lot closer and more likely than the 'memory'/'mind' root 'minir'.

      More here:
      http://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/the-aesir-gods-and-goddesses/odin/

      and in yet more depth, here:
      http://gersey.tripod.com/religion/mythology/mythic_geography.html

      The second one is excellent and very interesting in relation to Serbian Irish's (nicely written thank you!) interpretation. I wouldn't like to say your interpretation is wrong, Serbian Irish... but saying it seems close might be acceptable! ;-)

      It's perfectly possible to substitute 'desire' for 'memory'/'mind' and 'the lands of the dead' for the 'earth' in your interpretation, and still have an excellently valid perspective.

      I also like William Reaves's idea of that grim (Grimm? Pardon the pun!) dry humour in that the ravens might be more prone to get lost as they'd be feasting in the land of the dead.

      Mat

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  14. This is why conjecture on cultural attitudes is meaningless without a full understanding of said culture. Munin, or memory(not really mind) is an extremely important aspect to Old Norse cultural values. To be without memory is to be without self, to be stripped of your orlogr, to have no knowing of kith and kin...to be rootless. It has nothing to do with some hippy dippy core shamanism stuff.

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    1. Robert, this is not hippy shamanism. This is core principle of every religion including Christianity. Finding yourself and finding the righteous path through life are two principle goals of any religious person.

      As I already said in one of my previous comments, memory is indeed one of the ways in which Muninn was translated. Memory, Mind and Desire were proposed as the translation of the term Muninn. Loosing your memories would indeed be a terrible loss. After all they are the most precious things we collect as we go through this life. But is memory something you would send away to bring you back news of the world? Or Desire?

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  15. Our memories are what make us who we are. Anyone who loses their memory ceases to be the person they once were in terms of personality. However, it is our memories and remembering them and the experiences of our past that often hold us back from our future and we need to let them go to move on and become who we are going to become. Maybe he was deliberately trying to give up his memories but at the same time recognising that if/when this happens he ceases to be who he is and becomes someone new. Exciting but terrifying!

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  16. I find the two names translated as 'thought' and 'memory' to be more accurate. Thoughts are aimed at the future, and memories are aimed at the past, both are actions you let loose in your mind, you use them to guide you when they come back to you in the present with what they found.

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  17. Could it be as simple as everyone forgets things but to lose your mind is terrifying

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  18. This is a good article too. He translates Munnin as desire which gives The old poems new meaning. Desire is harder to rein in than thought, hence Odin being more worried about it's return. http://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/the-aesir-gods-and-goddesses/odin/

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  19. Odin still wanders. He's appeared to me and my friend in our shamanic journeys. He's Sifu Odin to me 🐲

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  20. i see Huginn as the sub- conscience mind and muninn as the conscience mind.....he worries more for muninn because worry is something of the conscience mind. the sub-conscience mind was one of the other great oceans that they traveled. The raven that is released from the boat, on the ocean of the sub-conscience mind and does not come back.....is what causes his worry for huginn, and even more so for munnin

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  21. In his autobiographical work The Teachings of Don Juan, Carlos Castananda enrolls as an apprentice to a Native American shaman. He is shown how the shaman sets free two lizards he has captured and uses them to visualize places and situations which are out of his sphere of knowledge.

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  22. Thank you all for the wonderful feedback. When I first read this story, I thought of it as symbolic of Alzheimer's, but I like what I've read in this article and the comments.

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  23. WONDERFUL write-up! Thank you!

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  24. I completely agree with this article. It is the path we seek not just the journey. Thanks for the read

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  25. Could Munin mean something like 'experience'? In order to find our about the world we first need to experience it - to have immediate impressions about it. Then we use Hugin or Thought to make sense of the experience and build a meaningful map of the world. Past experiences of course become 'memory'.

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  26. Too much booze will render ones memory to be lost

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  27. I just wanted to comment that I agree that when we search out our path for our lives, we let loose thought and memory. We use memories of the past, and past paths, to guide us in our future paths. So it would make sense that one of the ravens could be memories. You would let lose your memories of the world to gather information; in other words, does the world still match your memory of it? Without our memories, we are lost; we are on a ship without any knowledge of where we have been. And if we don't know where our ship has been, how will we know where to go? So I do believe that Odin could let loose a raven that is memory, to search out all over the earth. That raven would see where Odin has been, so Odin knows if he needs to go there again, or go somewhere new.......

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  28. I always thought of munin as memory, in this context the concern would be that he could lose his ability for critical thinking if hugin fails to return.... leaving him with only memories

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