After the Bronze Age: Birds by Hilda Ellis Davidson (1969)

Source: ‘Part II: After the Bronze Age,’ Chariot of the Sun and Other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age, 1969, pp. 174-176.

The bird costumes of the Bronze Age are echoed in traditions of the later heathen period. The water birds, swans, ducks and geese, who are associated in the Bronze Age with the chariot of the sun, are found as occasional symbols, usually in connection with the dead. They are not so prominent, however, as in early Irish literature, where, as Anne Ross (pp. 234-42) points out, references to the swan appear to be based on memories of the cult objects of the Bronze Age. in particular, the chariot of the hero Cu Chulainn is drawn by swans and stags, while pairs of swan-maidens, with silver neck-rings fastened by gold chains to link each pair together, appear in both swan and human form.

Birds resembling swans or ducks are found occasionally on cremation urns of the Anglo-Saxons. They appear on an urn from Lackford in Suffolk (Lethbridge, p. 53), while a lost urn from the midlands is recorded as having had two small bird figures on its lid (Fig. 82). There are also two pairs of birds on the elaborate silver brooch from Sarre, Kent, in the British Museum. Birds of an unidentifiable kind are shown on bracteates of the Migration period, and they also appear on a number of small stones from Gotland dated by Lindqvist to about the sixth century A.D. On these memorial stones they are rather clumsily portrayed, but they resemble ducks or swans, sometimes in pairs, or sometimes shown singly with a ship.

Lärbro St. Hammars III (head section)
Stora Hammars III shows Odin in his eagle fetch (note the eagle’s beard), Gunnlöð holding the mead of poetry, and Suttungr.

After a time the eagle became the prominent bird symbol among the Germanic peoples, probably influenced by Roman models and the eagle which symbolized the emperor. The eagle was associated with the cult of Odin in the north, and eagles which appear on the Gotland stones of the Viking Age sometimes appear to represent the god in bird form (Davidson, 1967, pp. 124-5). The rider on the Vendel helmet plate who wears an eagle crest is attended by two birds, one with the curved beak of the eagle, and the other with the straight beak of the raven. The raven was also of great importance in both Germanic and Celtic tradition, in association with the god of battle. Raven and eagle feast on the slain and hold counsel together in the conventional battle-scenes of Germanic heroic poetry, and this convention would seem to be based on the traditions of the cult of Odin, whose emissaries decided who should leave the field of battle for his realm, and how victory should fall. In Celtic tradition the raven is associated with the god Lugus, a deity of the Mercury type, who carried a spear and uttered magic incantations, so that he bears some resemblance to the Germanic Wodan/Odin (Ross, pp. 249 ff.). He is shown with two ravens, speaking into his ears, and similarly Odin was said to have two raven messengers, who brought him tidings from all lands, and whose names, meaning Thought and Memory, seem to represent his power to send forth his spirit throughout the world. The sign of a raven meant that Odin would bring good fortune, and there is evidence for a raven banner used by famous warriors.

The Army of Ravens, a scene from 'The Dream of Rhonabwy', part of 'The Mabinogion'
The Army of Ravens, a scene from ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’ (Mabinogion) .

The raven army of Owein in the Mabinogion, which took cruel vengeance on Arthur’s men, is associated with the raising of a standard which brought the dead bird’s back to life; this may be derived from Scandinavian influence, or may be another example of parallel traditions in Scandinavian and Celtic sources going back to early times.

A plate from a Vendel era helmet featuring a figure riding a horse, holding a spear and shield, and confronted by a serpent. The rider is accompanied by two birds.
A plate from a Vendel era helmet featuring a figure riding a horse, holding a spear and shield, and confronted by a serpent. The rider is accompanied by two birds.

Both Odin and Freyja could take the form of a hawk for supernatural journeys, and we hear of the ‘feather form’ of Freyja, which could be lent to others. This gives interest to a tiny gold figure of the Migration period from Holbæk in Denmark, who seems to be wearing a feather cloak (Mackeprang, p. 242).

The flight of a bird was a symbol of the release of the spirit of the dead. Just as wings of birds were found in urns of the Bronze Age in Denmark, so in Anglo-Saxon cremation urns from Castle Acre in Norfolk, the small, thin bones of  a bird (possibly of a raven) were recorded (Norfolk and Norwich Archaeol. Soc., vol. XII, p. 100). Wings and feathers were placed in a bowl in a grave of the Merovingian period under Bonn Cathedral (Bonner Jahrbücher cxxxvi (1932), p. 22). Remains of hawks, cranes, ducks and geese were found in the ship-burials at Vendel, and a peacock in the Gokstad ship. There is a tenth-century account by the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitos of the sacrifice of live birds by Swedish settlers on the Volga. The victims were selected by lot, and the sacrifices, surrounded by a ring of spears, were made near a huge oak on an island on the River Dnieper, in the course of the voyage of the traders to Byzantium (Simpson, p. 192). At the tenth-century funeral ceremony on the Volga (p. 168 above), the slave girl who was to be put to death killed a cock and a hen, and threw the bodies into the ship. This reads like an echo of the story told by Saxo Grammaticus, the twelfth-century Danish historian, of how the hero Hadingus visited the underworld with a supernatural woman as his guide, saw her strangle a cock and fling the body over a high wall, and heard it crowing on the other side. In the Edda poems a cock is a bird of the underworld, and its crowing will wake the warriors in Valhalla for their last great battle. The cock is also one of the attributes of the Celtic god connected with the underworld (Ross, p. 74).

There seems a consistent link between the bird and the freed spirit in Scandinavian symbolism, either when the spirit leaves the body at death, or when the spirit is sent out to acquire hidden knowledge. The Deities who are said to travel in bird form, Odin and Freyja, both have connections with the world of the dead.

Mjonir by IAN (www.ian.m.dk)
Mjonir by IAN (www.ian.m.dk)

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