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The Raven flag


Last modified: 2000-01-21 by phil nelson
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[the Raven flag]
by Dave Martucci

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The Raven Flag

Everything I've read about the Raven Banner says it had a white background with a black raven on it. Supposedly it was made for Jarl Sigurd by his mother, and he had it with him when he went to Ireland. Another legend about the banner was that it brought victory while it was carried, but its bearer died. The story goes, that at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, against Brian Boru's forces, two of Sigurd's men who were carrying the banner had died, and the third one he asked refused to take it up. Thereupon, Sigurd wrapped it around his waist, but was killed by an Irish spear. It was at this same battle that Brian was ambushed and slain.
Lou Stewart, 1998-APR-20

"... That the flag actually bore a raven is evident from the illustrations on coins of the tenth century which have been found in England and Ireland. These coins also clearly show that the shape of the flag (see below) was an irregular triangle, not the rectangle which modern artists use in illustrating 'the Viking flag.' We do not know what colors were used for the raven and border of the flag, but the field was white."

From: Smith, Whitney, The Flag Book of the United States, 1975, p. 11
Jon Radel, 28 April 1998

In 1969, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the 3ICV where the esteemed Captain E. M. C. Barraclough delivered a paper that, among other topics, detailed his research on the Raven Flag. It was published in Vol X No 2-3 of the Flag Bulletin.

He stated that indications were the Raven never flew in North America as it was a war flag of the Danish Vikings and the explorers of America were Norwegian Vikings on a trading and settlement mission.

Anyway, he quotes Asser's "Life of King Alfred" referring to an event in 878 Britain where the "Christians" had captured the Vikings things, among which was "the flag they call the Raven." Of this flag they Asser states

"... in every battle wherever the flag went before them, if they were to gain the victory a live raven would appear flying in the middle of the flag, but if they were doomed to be defeated it would hang down motionless..."

The Captain also makes several references to the Bayeux Tapestry where a flag looking very much like the Raven is shown in conjunction with William the Conquerer, who after all is the Norman leader (Norman being a corruption of "Northman" which is a reference to the Vikings of earlier times).
David Martucci, 22 April 1998

Though I agree with Barraclough that the Raven banner never reached North America, I think it is wrong to think that this was because of the 'nationality' of the Norse explorers that reached the continent (they were in fact from Iceland and Greenland, both of which were free commonwealths at the time, independent of Norway).

The Raven banner is known from several literary sources, and it is clear that it was not exclusively a Danish banner. Both Norwegians and other Norse noblemen in the British Isles had Raven banners. The Raven banner is always in the possession of a King or an aristocratic war lord, and it is only mentioned in connection with war in the British Isles.

And here, I think, is there reason why it never flew in America: It simply wasn't a common Viking emblem. It wasn't the Viking flag that would be carried by people on a "trading and settlement mission", to use the words of attributed to Barraclough. The Norse expansion in the North Atlantic was a peaceful colonization unlike that in The British Isles and on the continent. The explorers of and colonizers of Iceland, Greenland and Vinland were the average kind of Norse farmer. There is no evidence to suggest that any of them possessed a Raven banner.
Jan Oskar Engene, 22 April 1998

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