Wolves and ravens. Romanticized, vilified and deified, these intriguing creatures reflect our dreams and shadows like few others. One source of their fame in popular imagination began in ancient Scandinavia, where reverence for wolves and ravens was not only pragmatic, such as the symbiotic relationship in which the animals led hunters to prey and shared in the spoils; but also pantheistic, by connecting to and identifying with the animals as helpers, shamanic totems, and messengers of the gods.
Enter Odin, the Allfather in the Norse pantheon. A deity par excellence, Odin is the one-eyed, all-seeing god of war, magic and wisdom. He is a complex and enigmatic figure, associated with poetry and inspiration, madness and battle fury. He hungers for knowledge. A notorious shapeshifter, he is known as a trickster who might grant favor to a devoted follower only to vanish when most needed. Odin is a patron of shamans, poets and magicians who, in their search for truth and pattern, endure grueling trials of hardship and isolation.
Wolves and ravens are Odin’s familiars, of a sort.
Among the many names attributed to Odin is Raven God. The connection between Odin and ravens is deep and ancient, existing before the Viking Age. A god of death and war, Odin was naturally associated with these carrion birds, the beneficiaries of sacrifices and battlefields, and harbingers of the god’s favor. In keeping with Odin’s intellectual nature, ravens are also extremely intelligent. Two of these birds, Hugin (thought) and Munin (desire), fly over the land and tell him of all they see and hear.
In traditional animal lore, crows and ravens are given the honor of belonging to both the seen and unseen realms. They are creatures of the hinterlands, mysterious, powerful and devious. That these birds tend to accompany death also makes them ominous, both feared and revered by their presence on the carcasses of animals, the condemned, or fallen warriors. They are omens, symbols of the implacability of death, and bringers of information from the other side.
Odin is also accompanied by two wolves, Geri and Freki (both meaning “ravenous” or “greedy one”). He gives his wolves all of his food, and drinks only wine. The wolves are said to roam over battlefields, devouring carnage. As the ruler and bestower of battle madness, Odin is the patron god of berserkers and warrior shamans called úlfheðnar (wolf-hides), who underwent powerful initiations in the wilds, living like wolves, to reach a state of possession and thereby acquire the beasts’ strength, fearlessness, and fury—much to the terror and dismay of their enemies.
On the flip side, Odin is the enemy of Fenrir, a monstrous wolf sired by Loki, a wily and ambivalent trickster god. When Fenrir grows out of control, the gods are compelled to chain the wolf using deception, a stunt that comes with a great sacrifice. Fenrir will break free at Ragnarok, the fall of the cosmos, and devour everything in his path, including Odin. Another story tells of Fenrir’s sons Skoll (One Who Mocks) and Hati (One Who Hates), wargs that chase the sun and moon through the sky in hopes of devouring them. At Ragnarok, they will catch their prey, and the sky and earth will darken and collapse.
The wolf, with its ferocious and apocalyptic reputation in Norse mythology, its prowess and grace in nature, and a distinctive howl that puts a primordial chill on the flesh, is an exemplary metaphor, an antagonist in many a dark tale, and a patron of warriors.
Given the frequent appearance of wolves and ravens in mythology, legends, folk and fairy tales throughout the ages, and their remarkable natural traits, it’s easy to see why they are so common in works of fantasy. Battle prowess, cunning, guile, mystery, trickery and darkness—imagery and metaphors abound. My own work is no exception; a love of Northern European mythology and the grim and sublime traits of wolves and ravens inspire me to no end.
In the Chronicles of Ealiron, an ancient hierarchy of wizards holds the raven as the highest level of attainment in the magical arts. The wolf takes on its spookier characteristics in the lore of the Old One, a goddess of life, death, and transformation. In her darkest aspect, the Destroyer, she appears in the shape of a wolf. Water Dark, a novella that takes place in the world of Ealiron, delves deeply into the shadowy, fickle nature of this being, who commands a high price for being summoned, good or ill.
Lorth of Ostarin, the driving force in the Chronicles of Ealiron, is an assassin raised by a wizard. He has the eyes of a wolf and an affinity for ravens, which, being the opportunistic creatures they are, tend to follow him around in much the same way they follow wolves, and for the same reason: to clean up the mess. Lorth and his grim companions also appear in “The Om Tree,” a short story told by an ancient tree that gets its best gossip from—you guessed it—ravens.
The Norse gods haunt many worlds, not just Earth. In Outpost, Book One in The Fylking, Odin, in keeping with his nature, appears at strange times and in strange ways, leaving our protagonists to wonder what he is and whose side he’s on. He goes by many names: Hooded One, Wanderer, Magician. He is served by the Fylking, immortal, Viking-like warriors who take the shapes of wolves and ravens, among other things, though even they can’t guess his agenda. The Wolf Lords, Book Two, delves into the Fenrir Brotherhood, an ancient order of sorcerers who serve the Wolf Gods of the North, including, it is said, Loki himself. Fenrir is their patron, a force used in a variety of nasty ways that don’t always serve the ones who summon him.
Odin, of course, lurks in the shadows, watching and waiting.
If you’d like to see something beautiful about the value of wolves in nature, watch this: How Wolves Change Rivers
And if ravens fascinate you, do check out the work of Bernd Heinrich, a naturalist who has done fantastic research on ravens in the wild:
Ravens in Winter
Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds
Norse mythology? Here’s a good website, and it includes a reading list: Norse Mythology for Smart People
© F.T. McKinstry 2018. All Rights Reserved.