The raven was a powerful symbol in Norse society during the Viking Age. Its significance was tied to the leader of the gods, Odin, and ravens were commonly used on ships to help Vikings sailing abroad determine if they were closer to land. As a symbol, it is thought that the raven was used pictorially to represent a given chieftain’s rapprochement with Odin, a form of legitimacy for their rule and leadership. Indeed, a common item paraded by reenactors all over the world is the Raven Flag (or Raven Banner), which is thought to have been a common part of Viking armies. Yet, the archeological and historical records are suspiciously light on evidence to tell us how prevalent the Raven Flag was used. Here is the evidence:
Archeological Evidence for the Raven Flag
The Raven Flag is most famously depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry and was flown by the Normans during their conquest of England. Its repeated presence on the Bayeux Tapestry is the best evidence we have for the existence and use of the Raven Flag.
What is believed to be a Raven Flag is also depicted on coins minted in England in the 9th and 10th Centuries. However, many historians dispute that the coins are depictions of a flag or banner—rather they are simply depictions of a raven. Upon inspection, it is fairly obvious that it’s a flag of some sort (on the right).
Textual Evidence for the Raven Flag
The Raven Flag is mentioned once in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the banner of the Northmen who arrived to conquer the island. The text depicts the flags as “war-flags” used to evoke the imagery of the raven.
Another text, the Annals of St. Neots, evokes the imagery of the Raven Flag as having belonged to the mythical ruler Ragnar Lothbrok, of History Channel fame. The account is two hundred years past due, and therefore not a particularly reliable piece of evidence to support the use of Raven Flags in the Viking Age.
The Orkneyinga Saga, the Saga of the Vikings in the Orkneys, makes more heavy-handed use of the Raven Banner in its telling of Sigurd the Stout who used the banner as his standard. But his story takes an unexpected turn, and the Raven Banner itself becomes a cursed symbol that ushers in Sigurd’s defeat at the battle of Clontarf, in Ireland.
Interpretation of the Evidence
As mentioned above, there is solid evidence to suggest that Raven Flags were a thing and were actually used by some armies of the Norsemen. However, the evidence is inconclusive in regards to the broader, general questions regarding the banners, such as: how widespread was the banner’s use? Who among the Scandinavians used the flag? Did it represent more than one ruler?
As far as we may tell from the evidence, the banners were only used in England in the later stages of the Viking Age. No flag has survived the test of time, which is curious insofar as we do have some clothing remains that were recovered from burial ships, and it would stand to reason that a king or earl would have wanted to be buried with a flag if the flag’s use was of importance. Therefore, we cannot really know how common the use of the Raven Flag was, nor can we say for certain how culturally relevant it was in Viking Age Norse society.
Not unlike the curious case of the Viking helmet, the Raven Flag is something of an enigma. We know it was used, but we don’t know how much or how long. It cannot be said that it was a major feature of Norse armies of the time other than those who sought to conquer England, and even then we cannot be entirely sure if the flags mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle belonged to the whole army, or one subset under the command of an independent earl.
Invariably, until more evidence is found, the Raven Flag will remain an uncertain topic in the study of the Viking Age.
If you know of any more evidence that I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments section with a link and I’ll add it to the evidence list.