Norse Mythology for Smart People


A warrior, likely Odin, flanked by two ravens on an Iron Age helmet from what is now Sweden

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Hugin and Munin (pronounced “HOO-gin” and “MOO-nin”; Old Norse Huginn and Muninn, the meaning of which will be discussed below) are two ravens in Norse mythology who are helping spirits of the god Odin. According to the medieval Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson,

Two ravens sit on his (Odin’s) shoulders and whisper all the news which they see and hear into his ear; they are called Huginn and Muninn. They fly around the globe in the morning, returning to their homes by breakfast. Thus, he finds out many new things and this is why he is called ‘raven-god’ (hrafnaguð).[1]

Snorri’s main source for this passage seems to be an evocative stanza in the Eddic poem Grímnismál,[2] in which Odin says:

Hugin and Munin Fly every day Over all the world; I worry for Hugin That he might not return, But I worry more for Munin.[3]

The relationship between Odin, ravens and each other is deep and long-standing. Images of Odin on helmets, jewelry, and other objects depict him with one or more ravens. These images were made between the sixth and seventh centuries AD.[4]

Many kennings involving ravens were used in the Viking Age’s skaldic poetry to refer specifically to Odin. (A kenning is a common Old Norse literary device that uses images from a body of traditional lore to refer to something rather than calling it by its everyday name.) Odin is called the “raven-god” (Hrafnaguð or Hrafnáss), the “raven-tempter” (Hrafnfreistuðr), or “the priest of the raven sacrifice” (Hrafnblóts Goði; this is surely a poetic way of describing fallen warriors as “sacrifices” to the ravens and other carrion birds, with Odin as a decider of who lives and who dies in battle). In the same vein, ravens are called “the greedy hawks of Odin” (átfrekir Óðins haukar), or else his “swan” (Yggs svanr), his “seagull” (Yggjar már), or – showing how far the bird equivalencies could be stretched – his “cuckoo” (Gauts gaukr).[5]

Sometimes kennings use “Hugin” as a substitute for “raven.” Blood is designated as “Hugin’s sea” (Hugins vör) or “Hugin’s drink” (Hugins drekka). The warrior in battle is “the reddener of Hugin’s claws” (fetrjóðr Hugins) or “the reddener of Hugin’s bill” (munnrjóðr Hugins). Battle is “Hugin’s feast” (Hugins jól). The poets occasionally use Munin’s name in the same way, but Hugin’s is far more common.[6]

Also, Odin believed that seeing ravens right after a sacrifice was a sign the god had accepted the offering.[7]

What was the reason for such a strong and long-standing connection between Odin, the raven and all other species? As those kennings suggest, the answer largely has to do with Odin’s roles as a god of war and death. The prime beneficiaries of a battle were the Ravens, which were carrion birds. In a sense, to kill someone in battle was to give ravens a gift. Countless kennings express this concept: to cite but two, the warrior is the “feeder of the raven” (hrafngrennir) and the “fattener of the battle-starling” (folkstara feitir). Odin received the gift of a deceased man due to his position as ruler of the dead at Valhalla, and the practice of symbolically offering an enemy host to Odin prior to a battle. Thus, the association between the raven and Odin was only natural for the Norse.[8]

Yet there’s still more to this connection. Ravens aren’t only birds of gore and carnage; they’re also exceptionally intellectual birds, and Odin is an exceptionally intellectual god.

Hugin and Munin are both names that indicate this connection. Hugin (Old Norse Huginn) comes from the word hugr,[9] “thought.” Munin (Old Norse Muninn) comes from the word munr,[10] which is more difficult to translate, but can encompass the concepts of “thought,” “desire,” and “emotion.” (The two ravens’ names are often translated as “Thought” and “Memory” in popular works on Norse mythology, and “Thought” is quite accurate, but “Memory” is at best imprecise and rather arbitrary.) The two names therefore can’t be neatly distinguished from one another; they overlap to the point of being virtually synonymous.[11] This reflects the fact that, in the sources, Hugin and Munin don’t have distinct personalities. They’re a duplicate form of the same underlying idea.

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More specifically, their names refer to their being concrete visualized forms of the “thought” of Odin. In the Norse worldview, the self is comprised of numerous different parts that are semi-autonomous and can detach from one another under certain circumstances. These separated parts are often imagined in animal forms that correspond with their underlying character. In the case of Hugin and Munin, they’re Odin’s intellectual/spiritual capabilities journeying outward in the form of fittingly intelligent and curious birds that also resonate with Odin’s roles as a battle god and death god.

The sending forth of spiritual aspects of oneself to accomplish particular tasks – in the case of Hugin and Munin, the gathering of additional wisdom and knowledge to add to Odin’s already-prodigious store – was a common practice by historical Norse shamans and sorcerers. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise that Odin, the divine sorcerer and shaman, did exactly the same.[12]

Odin also fears that Hugin, Munin, and others might not return. There was always a risk that a magician would send a part of him or herself out on a quest. In either case, the injuries sustained by the emissary could also be inflicted on the rest of the person who sent it out.[13] Such magical powers certainly didn’t come without their dangers, and even a god like Odin wasn’t exempt from them.

Looking for more great information on Norse mythology and religion? While this site provides the ultimate online introduction to the topic, my book The Viking Spirit provides the ultimate introduction to Norse mythology and religion period. I’ve also written a popular list of The 10 Best Norse Mythology Books, which you’ll probably find helpful in your pursuit.

The Viking Spirit Daniel McCoy


[1] As quoted/translated in:

Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Angela Hall has translated. p.

[2] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p.

[3] The Poetic Edda. Grímnismál, stanza 20. My translation. The original Old Norse verse reads:

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Huginn ok Muninn fljúga hverjan dag Jörmungrund yfir; óumk ek of Hugin, at hann aftr né komi-t, þó sjámk meir of Munin.

[4] Rudolf Simek. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Angela Hall has translated. p.

[5] Turville-Petre, E.O.G. 1964. Myth and Religion of the North: Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. p.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. p. 60.

[8] Ibid. pp. 58–59.

[9] Ibid. Ibid., p.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Price, Neil. 2002. The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron-Age Scandinavia. p.

[13] Ibid. Ibid., p. 329-388.

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