In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn recites the names of a series of northern British warriors* whose deaths he attended ‘when ravens croaked on gore’.
I was there when Gwenddolau was slain,
Ceidio’s son, a pillar of poetry,
When ravens croaked on gore.
I was there when Bran was slain,
Ywerydd’s son of wide fame,
When battle-ravens croaked.
I was there when Llachau was slain
Arthur’s son, wondrous in wordcraft,
When ravens croaked on gore.
I was* there when Meurig was slain,
Careian’s son, honoured in praise,
When ravens croaked on flesh.
I was there when Gwallog was slain,
From a line of princes,
Grief of the Saxons, son of Lleynog.
The repetition of lines featuring croaking battle-ravens at the end of four of the five three line stanzas drives home the devastation wreaked upon the battlefields where these northern men were killed, some in internecine rivalry, some battling against the Anglo-Saxons. It shows few or none of the Britons on their side lived on to bury their dead, who were scorned by their enemies.
The image of battlefield ravens and other carrion birds along with wolves and/or dogs feasting on the corpses of the dead is common throughout the poetry of the ‘heroic age’ across Northern Europe and expresses the gristly reality of conflict and its aftermath, which few of us witness first hand today.
In it we find the expression of attitudes towards heroism, war, death, and the battle-dead. Although most of this poetry was composed after the pre-Christian peoples of Northern Europe had been converted to Christianity it is still possible to find hints of pre-Christian superstitions surrounding ravens and other carrion birds as ‘death-eaters’ who were associated with the death gods and goddesses.
The sense of Gwyn’s omnipresence on the battlefields where these northern British warriors died combined with our knowledge from other sources that he is a ruler of Annwn (‘the Deep’ – the Brythonic Otherworld) suggests he attended their deaths as a psychopomp to gather their souls back to his realm and that, like him and his hounds, the death-eating ravens served a role in their transition.
An examination of the literature surrounding battlefield ravens in the Brythonic and other Northern European cultures suggests they were viewed not only as carrion-eaters associated with the aftermath of battles but as manifestations of the death-gods, those who served them, and the dead.
In the Brythonic tradition there is a great deal of raven imagery in The Gododdin, which relates the tragic Battle of Catraeth, where over three hundred Brythonic warriors died fighting the Anglo-Saxons. Here a battle is referred to as a ‘raven’s feast’ and ‘raven’s gain’. Whilst one of the warriors ‘fed the ravens on the rampart of the fortress’ another became ‘food for ravens’ ‘benefit to the crow’. This reflects a possible heroic adage that the fate of a warrior was either to feed the ravens or become food for them. In ‘The Battles of Gwallog’ ‘there are… many stinking corpses, / and scattered crows’.
The rulers of the northern British kingdom of Rheged were associated with ravens. Three ravens appear on their coat of arms (designed in the Middle Ages) which might have been based on a raven banner**.
Having fed the ravens most of his life Urien Rheged becomes food for ravens after his assassination. Whilst his cousin, Llywarch Hen, rides away with his head, ‘on his white bosom the sable raven gluts.’
In Rhonabwy’s Dream, the warriors of Owain Rheged take the form of ravens and feast on their living enemies. After a defeat by Arthur’s men, the squire ‘raised the banner’, and they took revenge. ‘They carried off the heads of some, the eyes of others, the ears of others, and the arms of others and took them up into the air. There was a great commotion in the sky with the fluttering of jubilant ravens and their croaking, and another great commotion with the screaming of men being attacked’.
In the Irish myths ravens and crows are associated with the battle-goddesses the Badb and the Morrigan. The name Badb means ‘crow’. In ‘The War of the Irish with the Foreigners’ she appears as ‘a wild, impetuous, precipitate, furious, dark, frightful, voracious, merciless badb, screaming and fluttering over their heads’ with ‘ancient birds’, ‘destroying demons of the air’, and a ‘phantom host’. In The Tain, the Badb is invoked by the war-cry of Cú Chulainn along with ‘fiends of the air’ and it is only when the Morrigan settles as a raven on his shoulder that his enemies know he is dead.
In Anglo-Saxon literature the raven is one of three ‘beasts of battle’ with the eagle and wolf, hungry for, and feasting on the corpses of the dead. In ‘Judith’ ‘the dark raven’ is described as ‘a slaughter-greedy bird’. In ‘Elene’ ‘dark and slaughter-fierce’ it ‘rejoiced in its work’. In the Old English Exodus, in a verse that opens with screams of war-birds, it is described as ‘the dark chooser of the slain’.
This is interesting in relation to the lore surrounding ravens in Norse mythology. Two ravens named Huginn ‘thought’ and Muninn ‘memory’ fly across the world to gather information for Odin, the god who receives half the souls of the battle-dead in his hall, Valhalla, who are taken there by his valkyries.
The term valkyrie comes from valr (the battle-slain) and kjósa (to choose) and means ‘chooser of the slain’. Valkyries and ravens were frequently depicted together, such as in ‘Raven Song’, where a valkyrie asks a raven: ‘How is it with ye ravens? Whence are ye come with bloody beak at rithe dawning of the day? Torn flesh is hanging from your talons, and a reek of carrion comes from your mouths. I do not doubt that ye have passed the night amid a scene of carnage’. These companions may have been seen as shapeshifting into one another, as raven-woman figures, like the Badb.
Another intriguing figure, from Danish lore, is the valravn ‘raven of the slain’. These beings are described alternatively as ravens who gain the knowledge and form of men by eating the heart of a fallen king or as restless souls who can only be rid of their animal countenance by drinking the blood or eating the heart of a child. Sometimes they are described as half-raven, half-wolf.
Parallels with other sources suggest ‘the ravens who croak on gore’ who accompany Gwyn may be more than what they seem, that they might be shapeshifters, valkyrie or Babd or Morrigan-like deities.
In relation to this theory it is notable that Gwyn may be identified with Afallach, the father of Morgan. She appears in the Vita Merlini as one of nine sisters who ‘knows an art by which to change her shape, and to cleave the air on wings’. Morgan and her sisters may be the nine maidens whose breath kindles the fire beneath the Cauldron of the Head of Annwn in a poem attributed to Taliesin called ‘The Spoils of Annwn’. On the surface the names Morgan and Morrigan appear to be similar. However, mor in Welsh means ‘sea’ whereas mór in Irish means ‘great’ and rigan ‘queen’.
Afallach is also the father of Modron, who is raped by Urien Rheged, and bears Owain and Morfudd, in Peniarth MS. 70. Here we find further potential connections between the King of Annwn and the raven-rulers. Whether Morgan and Modron are the same goddess by different names I remain uncertain.
What my research has opened up is the possibility that whilst, on one level, the ravens in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ are physical beings partaking in the visceral reality of feasting on the battle-dead after tragic battles they might also be seen in other ways.
Perhaps they were shapeshifting goddesses who were daughters of Gwyn, valkyrie-like figures who served him, or embodiments of dead or living warriors. These meanings shift and overlap and open new paradigms for understanding the lines about warriors feeding and becoming food for ravens.
Their croaking over gore becomes increasingly sinister in our modern eyes, but may reflect an older worldview in which life feeds on life and the dead on death and to feed the ravens is not an insult but an honour.
* A possible exception being Arthur’s son, Llachau, unless there is an argument for a northern Arthur.
** It seems possible the rulers of Rheged had a raven banner with animistic qualities like those carried by Viking leaders. If the raven flapped its wings there would be victory and if it hung limp, defeat.
The image is ‘The Twa Corbies’, an illustration from Arthur Rackham’s Some British Ballads (2019). Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
A.O.H. Jarman (transl.), Aneirin – Gododdin, (Gomer Press, 1998)
Aaron K. Hostetter, Old English Poetry Project, https://oldenglishpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/
Ciaran Carson (transl.), The Tain, (Penguin, 2008)
John Jay Perry (transl.), Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini, (1925) https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/vm/index.htm
Greg Hill (transl.), ‘The Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, https://awenydd.cymru/the-conversation-between-gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Hugo Edward Britt, ‘The Beasts of Battle – Associative Connections of the wolf, eagle, and raven in Old English Poetry’, (The University of Melbourne, 2014)
Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)