What do Odin's ravens symbolize?
We have all heard of Odin’s two ravens, Hugin and Munin, a pair of ravens that fly all over the world, Midgard, and bring information to the god Odin. Huginn and Muninn are attested in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources: the Prose Edda and Heimskringla, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson; in the Third Grammatical Treatise, compiled in the 13th century by Óláfr Þórðarson; and in the poetry of skalds. The names of the ravens are sometimes modernly anglicized as Hugin and Munin.
But did you know that they actually symbolize the human mind? They do, and as it often is with Norse mythology, there is wisdom here that is more relevant than ever.
Traditionally, Hugin symbolizes the thought while Munin represents a memory. However, we have good reason to believe that Munin is derived from munr rather than minni (memory). And while many like to translate munr into desire, the truth is that we don’t really have a word for munr today. It embodies desire, will, passion and enthusiasm. Munr is plans and ambitions, wishes and hopes.
So while the húg or hugr (thought) is the more objective, sensible part of your mind, it is pretty useless without a good portion of munr. If you lose your munr, you lose your «drive», your desire. I believe that’s what often happens to people who depend too much on the so-called modern society, and we tend to call it depression. That being said, depression is not necessarily linked to our industrialized society – even our ancestors struggled. In the poetic Edda (Benjamin Thorpe’s translation), Odin says:
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.
Why was there such a longstanding and intense connection between Odin and the raven, of all species? As those kennings suggest, the answer largely has to do with Odin’s roles as a god of war and death. Ravens, like carrion birds, was present when a battle took place and was some of its prime beneficiaries. To slay someone in battle was, in a sense, to give the 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). But the gift of a dead man also went to Odin, due to his role as the ruler of the dead in Valhalla and the common practice of symbolically sacrificing an enemy host to Odin before a battle. Thus, the association between the raven and Odin was only natural for the Norse.
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.
This aspect of the connection is indicated by the names of Hugin and Munin. Hugin (Old Norse Huginn) comes from the word hugr, “thought.” Munin (Old Norse Muninn) comes from the word munr, 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. 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.
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 detached parts are frequently imagined in an animal form that corresponds to 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.
This also explains why Odin fears that Hugin and Munin might not return to him. Whenever a practitioner of magic sent out a part of himself (or, more commonly, herself) on some quest or another, there was some risk that the parts would become separated from each other, or that injuries suffered by the emissary would also be inflicted upon the rest of the person who had sent it out. Such magical powers certainly didn’t come without their dangers, and even a god-like Odin wasn’t exempt from them.