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The Raven Banner and Other Viking Banners 

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

Did the Vikings use banners or flags? If so, who was allowed to display them?

(signed) Vexillated

Gentle Reader:

One of the most famous, yet least-known symbols of the Viking Age was the Raven Banner. In this article, I hope to explore the misconceptions surrounding the Raven Banner, as well as looking at the literary and art-historical evidence for this Viking Age symbol. Finally, I'll discuss modern reconstructions of the Raven Banner.

Common Misconceptions Regarding the Raven Banner 

A whole host of misconceptions exist about the Raven Banner. Many people assume that this was "the Viking flag", universally flown by all Vikings everywhere. This is not so: the Raven Banner is always described as being the personal banner of a specific Viking chieftain or leader. The Viking Age predates the formation of the various Scandinavian nations. Thus without a nation, there was not a "national flag". Nor was there a monolithic "Viking Nation" -- when nations were formed, they became Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

Next, the Raven Banner was not a "flag" as modern minds often picture it. Thus modern depictions of a rectangular piece of fabric embellished with a raven is incorrect. Contemporary artwork provides guidelines for how the Raven Banner may have appeared, and will be discussed below.

A third misconception is that Viking explorers brought the Raven Banner to Vinland, on the shores of America. It is unclear how this misconception developed, since in none of the saga sources nor archaeological finds has any indication been found that any of the Viking explorers of the New World carried a Raven Banner at any time.

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Literary Accounts Describing the Raven Banner

The accounts of the Raven Banners of the Vikings all emphasize the magical and prophetic powers of the sigil:

... one can conjecture that the Danes regarded the raven symbol as signifying that the god of war, Óðinn, was on their side, and that the Anglo-Saxons regarded the raven banners of the Danes as mighty power symbols since they stress the magical qualities of the banners. The Anglo-Saxons probably thought that the banners were imbued with the evil powers of pagan idols, since the Anglo-Saxons were aware of the significance of Óðinn and his ravens in Norse mythology. (Hrafnhildur Bodvarsdottir, p.112)

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Anglo-Saxon sources provide the earliest mention the Viking raven banner. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for the year 878 records:

Her hine bestæl se here on midne winter ofer Twelftan niht to Cippanhamme, 7 geridon Westseaxna land 7 gesæton, 7 mycel þeos folces ofer sæ adræfdon, 7 þæs oþres þone mæstan dæl hi geridon butan þam cyninge ælfrede, 7 he lytle wærede unyðelice æfter wudum for 7 on morfæstenum. 7 þæs ylcan wintra wæs Iweres broþor 7 Healdænes on Westseaxum on Defenascire, 7 hine mon þær sloh 7 .dccc. monna mid him 7 .xl. monna his heres, 7 þær wæs se guðfana genumen ðe hi Hræfn hæton.

A.D. 878. This year about mid-winter, after twelfth-night, the Danish army stole out to Chippenham, and rode over the land of the West-Saxons; where they settled, and drove many of the people over sea; and of the rest the greatest part they rode down, and subdued to their will; -- all but Alfred the king. He, with a little band, uneasily sought the woods and fastnesses of the moors. And in the winter of this same year the brother of Ívarr and Hálfdan landed in Wessex, in Devonshire, with 23 ships, and there was he slain, and 800 men with him, and 40 of his army. There also was taken the war-flag (guðfani), which they called "Raven".

The Annals of St. Neots

The Annals of St. Neots (written ca. 1105) describes the same event, but the author describes the magical properties of the Raven Banner as well:

It is said that three sisters of Hingwar and Habba (Ívarr and Ubbe), i.e., the daughters of Ragnar loðbrókr, had woven that banner and gotten it ready during one single midday's time. Further it is said that if they were going to win a battle in which they followed that signum, there was to be seen, in the center of the signum, a raven, gaily flapping its wings. But if they were going to be defeated, the raven dropped motionless. And this always proved true. (Lukman, p. 141)

Asser's Life of King Alfred (Vita Alfredi Regis)

A similar account appears in Asser's Life of King Alfred:
...vexillum quod reafan vocant. Dicunt enim quod tres sorores Hungari et Habbae, filiae videlicet Lodebrochi illud vexillum texuerunt, et totum paraverunt illud uno meridiano tempore. Dicunt etiam quod in omni bello, ubi praecederet idem signum, si victoriam adepturi essent, appareret in medio signi quasi corvus vivus volitans; sin vero vincendi in futuro fuissent, penderet directe nihil movens: et hoc saepe probatum est. (Jakob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, ch. 35)

... the war-banner (vexillum) which they called "Raven". It is said that three sisters of Hungar and Habba (Ívarr and Ubbe), the daughters of Loðbrókr, had woven that banner and completely prepared it during one single midday's time. It also is said that in any battle where the signum was borne before them, if they were to obtain the victory one would see in the middle of the signum a living raven flying; but if they were about to be defeated, it hung straight without movement: and this always proved to be true.

The Encomium Emmæ Reginæ or Gesta Cnutonis Regis

The Encomium Emmæ Reginæ, also known as the Gesta Cnutonis Regis (written ca. 1043), mentions that the Viking forces under King Knut bore a Raven Banner at the Battle of Ashington (1016 AD):

Erat namque eis uexillum miri portenti, quod licet credam posse esse incredibile lectori, tamen, quia uerum est, ueræ inseram lectioni. Enim uero dum esset implicissimo candidissimoque intextum serico, nulliusque figure in eo inserta esset imago, tempore belli semper in eo videbatur coruus ac se intextus, in uictoria suorum quasi hians ore excutiensque alas, instabilisque totoque corpore demissus.

For the Danes had a banner possessed of a wonderful property, which although I believe it will seem incredible to the reader, nevertheless, because it is true, I will insert it for him for the sake of truth. For although it was woven of a very plain bright silk and had no figure embroidered on it yet always in time of war a raven seemed as it were to appear on it, in victory opening its beak and beating its wings, restless in its feet, but very quiet and drooping in its whole body in defeat. (Hrafnhildur Bodvarsdottir, p.111)

Estorie des Engles

Geffrei Gaimar's Estorie des Engles (written ca. 1140), mentions the Raven Banner at the battle at Cynuit in 878 AD:

The Raven was Ubbe's banner (gumfanun). He was the brother of Iware (Ívarr); he was buried by the Danes in a very big mound in Devonshire, called Ubbelawe. (Lukman, pp. 141-142)

Lives of Waltheof and his Father Sivard Digri (The Stout), the Earl of Northumberland or Vita et Passio Valdevi

William Ramsay, Bishop of Crowland (d. 1180) in his Lives of Waltheof and his Father Sivard Digri (The Stout), the Earl of Northumberland (also known as the Vita et Passio Valdevi) mentions the Raven Banner as well. The tale recounts how Sivard (Sigvarðr digri) left Denmark, then travelled past the Orkneys before he arrived at the Northumbrian coast, which was being devastated by a dragon:

Sivard left his men at the ships and went in search of the dragon's den. On top of the hill he found an old man and asked him where to find the dragon. "Sivard, you will not find any dragon! Return to your men instead and continue southwards to the Thames, enter the service of King Edward and he will soon give you land!"

"Surely my men will not believe what you say!" Then the old man, who, mysteriously, had addressed the young foreigner by his proper name, drew forth a banner from his bosom and gave it to Sivard as a proof to the men, and he called the banner Ravenlandeye. (Lukman, p. 148)

The author goes on to explain:

Ravenlandeye, quod interpretatur corvus terrae terror.

Raven-Land-Eye, which means, "Raven, Terror of the Land".
(Hrafnhildur Bodvarsdottir, p.112)

One author interprets "pursuing a dragon" as a poetical description of a campaign against the Saxons or Welsh, who used a dragon banner -- unlikely, as the Sivard in this tale is said to be the same who defeated Macbeth in Scotland in 1054 AD. More likely the story of the Northumbrian earl has been conflated with the tale of the Norse god Óðinn offering advice to Sigurðr the Völsung in Reginsmál.

Heimskringla: Haralds saga Sigurðarsonar

The Norwegian king Haraldr harðráði Sigurðarson (Harald harðráði or Haraldr Hard-Ruler) also bore a Raven Banner known as Landøyðan ("Land-Waster" or "Land-Destroyer") (Lukman, p. 149). The story appears in Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla (written ca. 1220-1240) in Haralds saga Sigurðarsonar. The Raven Banner first appears in a conversation recorded between Haraldr and the Danish King Sveinn tjúguskegg ("forkbeard"):

Spurði Sveinn hverja gripi Haraldr hefði, þá er honum væri virkt mest á. Hann svarar svo að það var merki hans, Landeyðan. Þá spurði Sveinn hvað merkinu fylgdi, þess er það var svo mikil gersemi. Haraldr segir að það var mælt að sá mundi hafa sigr er merkið er fyrir borið, segir að svo hafði orðið síðan er hann fékk það. Sveinn segir: "Þá mun eg trúa að sú náttúra fylgi merkinu ef þú átt þrjár orustur við Magnús konung frænda þinn og hefir þú sigr í öllum."

Sveinn asked Haraldr which of his possessions of his he valued most highly. He answered that it was his banner (merki), Landøyðan. Thereupon Sveinn asked what virtue it had to be accounted so valuable. Haraldr replied that it was prophecied that victory would be his before whom this banner was borne; and added that this had been the case ever since he had obtained it. Thereupon Sveinn said, "I shall believe that your flag has this virtue if you fight three battles with King Magnús, your kinsman, and are victorious in all." (Haralds saga Sigurðarsonar, Chapter 22)

This leads to a quarrel between Haraldr and Sveinn. A second mention of this Raven Banner appears when King Haraldr and his forces oppose the Earls of York, Môrukári and Valþjófr, just before the Battle of Stamford Bridge:

En er Haraldr konungur sá að fylking enskra manna var komin ofan með díkinu gegnt þeim þá lét hann blása herbl࣎sturinn og eggjaði herinn ákaflega, lét þá fram bera merkið Landeyðuna, snaraði þá atgônguna svo harða að allt hrôkk fyrir.

But when King Haraldr saw that the battle array of the English had come down along the ditch right opposite them, he had the trumpets blown and sharply urged his men to the attack, raising his banner called Landøyðan. And there so strong an attack was made by him that nothing held against it. (Haralds saga Sigurðarsonar, Chapter 85)

After defeating the forces from York, Haraldr encamped at Stamford Bridge, where the town of York surrendered to the Norwegian forces. But on Monday, September 26, 1066, the army of the English King Harold Godwinsson was sighted, and the Norwegians must stand to battle against the approaching English army:

Þá svarar Haraldr konungur: "Annað ráð vil eg hafa, að setja hina skjótustu hesta undir þrjá vaska drengi og ríði þeir sem hvatlegast og segi liði voru, mun þá skjótt koma oss liðveisla, fyrir þá sôk að Englismenn skulu eiga hinnar snôrpustu hríðar von heldr en vér berum hinn lægra hlut." Þá segir jarl, bað konung ráða þessu sem ôðru, lést og vera eigi gjarn að flýja. Þá lét Haraldr konungr setja upp merki sitt Landeyðuna. Frírekur hét sá er merkið bar.

Síðan fylkti Haraldur konungr liði sínu, lét fylkingina langa og ekki þykkva. Þá beygði hann armana aftr á bak svo að saman tóku. Var það þá víður hringr og þykkr og jafn ôllum megin utan, skjôldr við skjôld og svo fyrir ofan, en konungssveitin var fyrir innan hringinn og þar merki. Það var valið lið. Í ôðrum stað var Tósti jarl með sína sveit. Hafði hann annað merki.

King Haraldr replied, "I mean to follow another plan: Let us put three of our best men on the fastest horses and let them ride with all speed to inform our men, and they will quickly come to our help -- because the English shall have to expect the hardest fight rather than we suffer defeat." Then the earl said that the king should have his way in this as in other matters, and that he too was unwilling to flee. Then King Haraldr had his banner Landøyðan raised. Frírek was the name of the man who bore the banner. (Haralds saga Sigurðarsonar, Chapter 88)

Thereupon King Haraldr put his army in battle array, with the lines long and not deep. He bent the wings back so that they touched, so as to form a wide and thick ring everywhere even on the outside, shield by shield, and one above the other. The king with his retinue was inside the ring, with the banner -- a picked force. At another place stood Earl Tostig with his troops. He had a different banner. (Haralds saga Sigurðarsonar, Chapters 88-89)

Despite bearing the Raven Banner, which King Haraldr valued above all his other possessions as a sigil of certain victory, the Norwegian forces were not to triumph. First Haraldr's black horse fell with him as he rode to review his troops -- an omen which Haraldr explained away by saying, "A fall betokens luck on the journey!" When Harald Godwinsson saw this, he remarked it to his men, and stated that he thought the Norwegian's luck had fled.

Next the English king tried to split the Norwegian force by offering the rulership of Northumbria to Earl Tostig, who refused the offer. Finally the battle was joined in earnest, with Haraldr harðráði leading the Norwegian warriors and fighting berserk. But a stray arrow caught the Norwegian king in the throat, and he fell:

Haraldr konungr Sigurðarson var lostinn ôru í óstinn. Það var hans banasár. Féll hann þá og ôll sveit sú er fram gekk með honum nema þeir er aftr opuðu og héldu þeir merkinu. Var þá enn hinn harðasti bardagi. Gekk þá Tósti jarl undir konungsmerki.

King Haraldr Sigurðarson was struck in the throat by an arrow. That was his death wound. He fell, and with him all the men who had advanced to the front with him, except those who retreated; and they held onto the banner. Then again ensued the fiercest struggle. Earl Tostig had the king's banner raised over him. (Haralds saga Sigurðarsonar, Chapter 92)

There came a long pause in the battle, and again Harold Godwinsson offered quarter to Earl Tostig and the surviving Norwegians, but the offer was refused. One last glimmer of hope shone for the Norwegians:

Eysteinn orri kom í því bili frá skipum með því liði er honum fylgdi. Voru þeir albrynjaðir. Fékk Eysteinn þá merki Haralds konungs Landeyðuna. Varð nú orusta hið þriðja sinn og var sú hin snarpasta. Féllu þá mjôg enskir menn og var við sjálft að þeir mundu flýja. Sú orusta var kôlluð Orrahríð. Þeir Eysteinn hôfðu farið svo ákaflega frá skipunum að þeir voru fyrr svo móðir að nálega voru þeir ófærir áður en þeir kæmu til orustu en síðan voru þeir svo óðir að þeir hlífðu sér ekki meðan þeir máttu upp standa. Að lyktum steyptust þeir af hringabrynjunum. Var þá enskum mônnum hægt að finna hôggstaði á þeim en sumir sprungu með ôllu og dóu ósárir. Féll nálega allt stórmenni Norðmanna. Þetta var hinn efra hlut dags. Var það sem von var, að þar voru enn eigi allir jafnir, margir flýðu, margir og þeir er svo komust undan að ýmsir báru auðnu til. Gerði og myrkt um kveldið áður en lokið var ôllum manndrápum.

Just then Eysteinn orri and his men arrived from the ships. They were in full armor. Eysteinn then seized hold of Landøyðan, the banner of King Haraldr. And now battle was joined for the third time,and most grimly. Many of the English fell, and they came close to fleeing. This engagement is called Orri's Charge (Orra-hrið). Eystein and his men had marched in such haste that they were so tired to start with that they were nearly undone, but later on they were so frenzied that they did not shield themselves solongas they could stand upright. Finally they shed their coats of ring-mail. Then it was easy for the English to find their unprotected parts; but some died unwounded from sheer exhaustion. Nearly all men of rank among the Norwegians succumbed. This happened in the latter part of the day. As was to be expected, not all were equally brave, many fled, and many were fortunate enough to escape. Also, it grew dark in the evening before the slaughter came to an end. (Haralds saga Sigurðarsonar, Chapter 93)

Thus the Raven Banner failed in its magic, and the victory came to the English at Stamford Bridge. Still, it was not enough, for shortly afterwards Harold Godwinsson would fall to the Norman forces of William the Conqueror, and Harald harðráði would have his vengeance.

Orkneyingasaga and Njáls saga

The sigil of the Orkney Earls was the famous Raven Banner or Hrafnsmerki. Accounts of this banner appear in Orkneyingasaga, Þórsteins saga Síðu Hallssonar, and Njáls saga, in connection with the Battle of Clontarf (1014 AD). The Raven Banner in these accounts was first created for Sigurðr Hlôðvisson:

One summer it happened that a Scottish earl called Finnleik challenged Sigurðr to fight him on a particular day at Skitten. Sigurðr's mother was a sorceress so he went to consult her, telling her that the odds against him were heavy, at least seven to one.

'Had I thought you might live forever,' she said, 'I'd have reared you in my wool-basket. But lifetimes are shaped by what will be, not by where you are. Now, take this banner. I've made it for you with all the skill I have, and my belief is this: that it will bring victory to the man it's carried before, but death to the one who carries it.' It was a finely made banner, very cleverly embroidered with the figure of a raven, and when the banner fluttered in the breeze, the raven seemed to be flying ahead.

Earl Sigurðr lost his temper at his mother's words. He got the support of the Orkney farmers by giving them back their land-rights, then set out for Skittern to confront Earl Finnleik. The two sides formed up, but the moment they clashed Sigurðr's standard-bearer was struck dead. The Earl told another man to pick up the banner but before long he'd been killed too. The Earl lost three standard bearers, but he won the battle and the farmers of Orkney got back their land rights. (Orkneyingasaga, Chapter 11)

It seems that the prophecy about the banner was always true, and eventually the banner became Sigurðr's bane:

Earl Sigurðr arrived at Dublin with all his army on Palm Sunday.... The armies clashed, and there was bitter fighting.... Earl Sigurðr had a fierce struggle with Kerthjalfad, who advanced with such vigour that he felled all those in the forefront. He burst through Earl Sigurðr's ranks right up to the banner, and killed the standard-bearer. The Earl ordered someone else to carry the standard, and the fighting flared up again. Kerthjalfad at once killed the new standard-bearer and all those who were near him. Earl Sigurðr ordered Þórstein Hallson to carry the standard, and Þórstein was about to take it when Ámund hvíti (Ámund the White) said, "Don't take the banner, Þórstein! All those who bear it get killed!"

"Hrafn the Red," said the Earl, "you take the standard." "Carry your own devil yourself," said Hrafn.

The Earl said, "A beggar should carry his own bundle": he ripped the flag from its staff and tucked it under his clothing. A little while later Ámund hvíti was killed, and then the Earl himself died with a spear through him. (Njal's Saga, Chapter 157)

Darraðarljóð from Njal's Saga

Perhaps illustrating the magical principles which cause the Raven Banners to prophecy victory is the poem Darraðarljóð from Njal's Saga. Here the sorcerous weavers of the banner of prophecy are the Valkyries themselves, and within their predictive weaving they mention the banner of Sigurðr, the vé vaða or "sacred banner" that protects the Earl's life:

Vítt er orpit   fyri valfalli
rifs reiðiský   rignir blóði;
nú er fyri geirrum   grár upp kominn
vefr verþjóðar   er þær vinur fylla
rauðum vepti   Randvés bana.

Blood rains   from the cloudy web
On the broad loom   of slaughter.
The web of man   grey as armor
Is now being woven;   the Valkyries
Will cross it   with a crimson weft.

Sjá er orpinn vefr   ýta þörmum
ok harðkléaðr   höfðum manna
eru dreyrrekin   dörr at sköptum
járnvarðr yllir   enn örum hrælat
skulum slá sverðum   sigrvef þenna.

The warp is made   of human entrails;
Human heads   are used as heddle-weights;
The heddle rods   are blood-wet spears;
The shafts are iron-bound   and arrows are the shuttles.
With swords we will weave   this web of battle.

Gengr hildr vefa   ok hjörþrimul
sangríðr svipul   sverðum svipul
skapt mun gnesta   skjöldr mun bresta
mun hjálmgagarr   í hlíf koma.

The Valkyries go weaving   with drawn swords,
Hildr and Hjörþrimul,   Sangríðr and Svipul.
Spears will shatter   shields will splinter,
Swords will gnaw   like wolves through armor.

Vindum vindum   vef Darraðar
sá er ungr konungr   átti fyrri
fram skulum ganga   ok í fólk vaða
þar er vinir várir   vápnum skipta.

Let us now wind   the web of war
Which the young king   once waged.
Let us advance   and wade through the ranks,
Where friends of ours   are exchanging blows.

Vindum vindum   vef Darraðar
ok siklingi   síðan fylgjum
þar sjá bragnar   blóðgar randir
Gunnr ok Göndul   þær er grami hlíðu.

Let us now wind   the web of war
And then follow   the king to battle
Gunnr and Göndul   can see there
The blood-spattered shields   that guarded the king.

Vindum vindum   vef Darraðar
þar er vé vaða   vígra manna
látum eigi   líf hans faraz
eigu valkyrjur   vals um kosti.

Let us now wind   the web of war
Where the sacred banner   is forging forward
Let his life   not be taken;
Only the Valkyries   can choose the slain.

Þeir munu lýðir   löndum ráða
er útskaga   áðr um byggðu
kveð ek ríkum gram   ráðinn dauða
nú er fyrir oddum   jarlmaðr hniginn.

Lands will be ruled   by new peoples
Who once inhabited   outlying headlands.
We pronounce a great king   destined to die;
Now an earl   is felled by spears.

Ok munu Írar   angr um bíða
þat er aldri mun   ýtum fyrnaz
nú er vefr roðinn   munu um lönd fara
læspjöll gota.

The men of Ireland   will suffer a grief
That will never grow old   in the minds of men.
The web is now woven   and the battlefield reddened;
The news of disaster   will spread through lands.

Nú er ógurligt   um at litaz
er deyrug ský   dregr með himni
mun lopt litat   lýða blóði
er sóknvarðar   syngja kunnu.

It is horrible now   to look around
As a blood-red cloud   darkens the sky.
The heavens are stained   with the blood of men,
As the Valyries   sing their song.

Vel keðu vér   um konung ungan
sigrhljóða fjöld   syngjum heilar
enn inn nemi   er heyrir á
geirfljóða hljóð   ok gumum segi.

We sang well   victory songs
For the young king;   hail to our singing!
Let him who listens   to our Valkyrie song
Learn it well   and tell it to others.

Ríðum hestum   hart út berum
bregðum sverðum   á braut héðan.

Let us ride our horses   hard on bare backs,
With swords unsheathed   away from here!

And then they tore the woven cloth from the loom and ripped it to pieces, each keeping the shred she held in her hands... The women mounted their horses and rode away, six to the south and six to the north.

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Artistic Sources Which May Show the Raven Banner

Anlaf Sihtricsson Coin, 924

The only surviving contemporary depiction of the flag is a coin minted at York showing the raven banner. The coin has been dated to 924, minted under Anlaf Sihtricsson. On the Anlaf coin, the banner does seem to depict a bird, head up and pointed at the top of the banner staff, wings extended, and tail below. While it cannot be said with certainty that this is a raven, it is certainly tempting to think so. The design appears to show a border framing the edge of the banner, with rectangular tabs or tassels dependent from the lower edge.

Banners of the The Bayeux Tapestry

As seen from the account in Haralds saga Sigurðarsonar, the Raven Banner had a prominent place in the events of 1066 when Harold Godwinsson fought and defeated the Viking forces under the Norwegian King Haraldr harðráði, only to fall afterwards to the Norman army of William the Conqueror. Perhaps the best-known visual representation of these events comes from the Bayeaux Tapestry, commissioned by Bishop Odo of Bayeaux, half-brother to William, Duke of Normandy. Of course, the Bayeaux Tapestry dates between 1066 and 1077 AD, after the end of the Viking Age.

The Bayeux Tapestry depicts a number of banners. At least one, and possibly two of these banners may be representations of a Raven Banner.

The first instance occurs as the Normans ride into battle. Following William is a Norman knight carrying a lance bearing a semicircular flag, on which is depicted a standing bird, framed in a gold border decorated with sun-rays or some sort of tabs or tassels.

There are clear similarities to the banner depicted on the coin above. There are also differences. On the Anlaf coin, the banner is shown as a triangle with rectangular tabs or ribbons dependent from the lower edge, and if the device depicted on the banner is in fact a bird or raven, it is shown flying upward at an angle, wings outspread. The Bayeaux Tapestry banner is semi-circular, and the dependent tabs appear to be triangular, like sun-rays, and here the raven is shown standing.

Some scholars have questioned why the Bayeaux Tapestry should depict a Raven Banner in the hands of a Norman warrior. It is felt that since the Tapestry was was made on the orders of Bishop Odo, who was present at the battle and who supervised the work on the Tapestry that an error of fact is unlikely. However, the literary and historical records make no mention of Viking troops or a Viking ruler among the invading Norman forces. Suggestions explaining this banner include an unrecorded Viking leader among William's troops; the banner may be an oblique reference to the Normans' own origin as Vikings under Hrolf der Ganger (Rollo); it has also been suggested that the banner is a reference to Harald harðráði's Landøyðan and his defeat at Stamford Bridge which helped create the conditions that allowed the Normans to conquer in turn.

Elsewhere in the Bayeaux Tapestry, in the scene where the brothers of Harold Godwinsson are slain, another interesting banner is depicted, falling under the hooves of the horses. This banner is triangular, and closely resembles the banner from the Anlaf coin above, though no design is shown on the face of the flag. Here it is interesting to note that the rectangles projecting from the bottom of the banner are shown to have ribbons or tassels dependent from the bottoms of these rectangular tabs. Again, it is unknown what this banner may represent.

Viking "Windvanes"

Related to the Raven Banners seen here are the "windvanes" or prow-ornaments from Viking ships that were later reused ashore as wind-vanes, surviving to the present day.

The Heggen prow-ornament, from Modum, Akershus, Norway. Opposite side of the Heggen prow-ornament.

Some sources claim that these ornaments would have been affixed to the ship's mast, however illustrations from a carved stick from thirteenth century Bryggen (Bergen, Norway), which depicts a fleet of some forty-odd ships shows three bearing these ornaments at their prows, not the mast-head.There are seven of these prow-ornaments that have survived to the modern day. The surviving examples all bear designs in the Ringerike style, which places their date from late 10th century to as late as the 12th century.

Design from carved stick from 13th century Bryggen showing ships with prow-ornaments.

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Reconstructing the Raven Banner  

The Raven Banner has continued to capture the imaginations of generations up through the present day, just as it did for all the medieval authors quoted above. And as a result, many people wish to own or create their own Raven Banner, whether for its sense of history, for the rich mythological and prophetic associations, or even to announce their pride in their Scandinavian heritage.

Accordingly, some flag companies have begun offering "Raven Banners" for purchase. Unfortunately, a number of these are based on the modern notion of flag = rectangle. Since the iconographic evidence of the Viking Age and after strongly suggests a triangular or semi-circular banner, ornamented with tabs, rays, tassels and/or streamers, this would seem to present the best pattern for modern reconstructions. A couple of flag companies offering various types of Raven Banners are listed in the Bibliography below.

However, the Raven Banner design need not be limited to the Raven device of myth and history. Modern Viking Age reenactors and medieval recreationists may find that this type of banner design, substituting their own designs, devices, or coats of arms, makes an excellent and atmosphere-enhancing means of adding to one's personal display and event ornamentation. For those looking for means of increasing the pomp and atmosphere of their medieval events, I suggest taking a few minutes to read the excellent article by Mistress Þóra Sharptooth, Personal Display for Viking Age Personae: A Primer for Use in the SCA.

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  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. (English translation). Online Medieval and Classical Library Release #17. Berkeley DL SunSITE. Accessed Accessed 2 December 2005.

  • American Flag and Gift. Historical Flags -- Viking Banner. Accessed 2 December 2005.

  • Barraclough, Captain E.M.C. "The Raven Flag". Flag Bulletin. Winchester, MA: The Flag Research Center (FRC). ISSN 0015-3370.

  • Cynnwys Hawlfraint, Menter Mon and Cyswllt Cyf. Before The Battle. Gwyl Llychlynwyr Amlwch 1998 Viking Festival Webpage. Accessed 22 September 2000. (Link dead as of 12/02/05. The page may still be accessed via the Wayback Machine).

  • Doyle, Debra and Melissa Williamson (Malkin Grey and Peregrynne Windrider). Raven Banner. (Song, includes MIDI file). Calontir Songs Webpage. Accessed 2 December 2005.

  • Dumville, David and Michael Lapidge, eds. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Vol 17: The Annals of St. Neots with Vita Prima Sancti Neoti. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer. 1985.
    Buy this book from Buy this book today!

  • Garmonsway, G.N. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. 1953. Reprint, London: Everyman Press. 1972.
    Buy this book from Buy this book today!

  • Grimm, Jakob. Teutonic Mythology. 4 vols. Trans. James Steven Stallybras. London. Reprinted New York: Dover. 2004.
    Buy this book from Buy this book today!

  • Grout, James. Gonfannon. Brittania: A Selective History from the Expedition of Caesar to the Norman Conquest Website. Accessed 22 September 2000. (Link dead as of 12/02/05. The page may still be accessed via the Wayback Machine).

  • Hrafnhildur Bodvarsdottir. The Function of the Beasts of Battle in Old English Poetry. PhD Dissertation, 1976, University of New York at Stony Brook. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International. 1989.

  • Jebson, Tony. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. (Old English). Accessed 2 December 2005.

  • Keynes, Simon, trans. Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred & Other Contemporary Sources. New York: Penguin. 1983.
    Buy this book from Buy this book today!

  • Lukman, N. "The Raven Banner and the Changing Ravens: A Viking Miracle from Carolingian Court Poetry to Saga and Arthurian Romance." Classica et Medievalia 19 (1958): p. 133-151.

  • Norsefolk Yahoo Groups Forum. Viking Banners Thread. Includes messages 1627, 1628, 1629, 1630, 1631, 1632, 1642, 1643, 1645, 1646, 1654, 1661, 1662. 12 September 2000 through 14 September 2000.

  • Priest-Dorman, Carolyn (Mistress Þóra Sharptooth). Personal Display for Viking Age Personae: A Primer for Use in the SCA. Þóra's Viking Resources Webpage. 1994 with updates and additions in 1997, 2000. Accessed 2 December 2005.

  • Rooth, Anna B. The Raven and the Carcass. FF Communications 186. Helsinki: Academia Scientarum Fennica. 1962.

  • Sturluson, Snorri. Heimskringla: Or the Lives of the Norse Kings. 1932; New York: Dover. 1990.
    Buy this book from Buy the book today!

  • Sturluson, Snorri. Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway. Lee M. Hollander, trans. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1964. Paperback 1991.
    Buy this book from Buy this book today!

  • Thorskegga Thorn of Thorshof. Banner Making. Accessed 2 December 2005.

  • Wright, C.E. The Cultivation of Saga in Anglo-Saxon England. London: Oliver & Boyd. 1939.

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