AGE OF HEROES - 4: BANNERS AND STANDARDS - Links with the Supernatural

Dragon drinking horn from the animated 'Beowulf starring a physically enhanced Ray Winstone as Beowulf and Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother
Dragon drinking horn from the animated 'Beowulf starring a physically enhanced Ray Winstone as Beowulf and Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother | Source
Hrafnsmerki - the Raven standard as borne by Harald Sigurddson in his fateful Northumbrian campaign supporting Tostig Godwinson's bid for reinstatement as Earl of Northumbria...
Hrafnsmerki - the Raven standard as borne by Harald Sigurddson in his fateful Northumbrian campaign supporting Tostig Godwinson's bid for reinstatement as Earl of Northumbria...
Flapping raven banner of Jarl Sigurd crafted for him by his sorceress mother
Flapping raven banner of Jarl Sigurd crafted for him by his sorceress mother

As they did into the Napoleonic Wars, early armies went into battle following a standard bearer, and heaven help you if you lost the king's 'colours'!.

Early war banners showed fanged, winged monsters. Even the Christian Olaf Tryggvason had a traditional Norse serpent banner. The widest use of animal motifs was that of the raven. Another Christian king, Knut 'the Great' had a raven-bedecked white silk banner which was borne ahead of the Danes at Ashingdon in AD 1016.

In the Saxon Chronicles there is a mention of a 'Reafan' standard (O.E., O.N. was Hrafn) in AD 878. In the Annals of St. Neots in Huntingdonshire if the Reafan was held aloft it indicated a Danish victory. If the banner drooped the Danes had lost.

Supernatural characteristics were attributed to the Raven Banner of Earl Sigurd of Orkney, made for him by his mother who was thought to be a witch or sorceress. The motif was ingeniously stitched in the manner of a flapping raven which 'should bring victory to the man who follows it'. (No mention of what would happen to the bearer). It appeared to flap its wings when the wind filled it, but in the first fight it was borne into Earl Sigurd's standard bearer was killed almost as soon as the fighting began. The earl told another of his followers to take up the standard but the next bearer was also dead before long. Three standard bearers were cut down by the time Sigurd won the battle.

Years later the same banner was borne ahead of Earl Sigurd at Clontarf. In Njal's Saga we are told of how Kerthjalfad - a foster son of Brian Boru - burst through the Orkneymen's ranks and slew the standard bearer, repeating his action each time the banner was taken up again. When Earl Sigurd told Thorstein Hallason to carry the raven banner Amundi 'the White' told him not to take it, as each bearer had fallen. Sigurd then told Hrafn 'the Red' to take his raven banner.

'You take it!' Hrafn answered tersely. 'Carry your own devil - a beggar should carry his own bundle!' So saying he ripped the banner from its staff and tucked it under his shirt. Amundi was slain a little later, and the earl himself was speared through.

As Sigurd's raven banner was woven by his mother, the 'Reafan' standard taken by the West Saxons in AD 878 is said to have been created for Ubbi Ragnarsson by his sisters, thought to have been 'supernaturally gifted'. Their charms may have been more physical than metaphysical, as the standard fell into the hands of his foes after his downfall in North Devon.

Notwithstanding the raven was thought to have had powers of its own, giving victory to those who bore or followed it. As the bird of Odin - god of kings, nobles and warriors - it was associated with the field of war all around the Germanic world. Even in Christian times, when the kings themselves followed the new faith the raven banner or standard was borne into battle, as with Harald Sigurdsson's 'Land-Oda' (Land-Waster or Land-Ravager). Again although the banner brought him victory over Earl Morkere's Northumbrians at Gate Fulford near York, it seems to have let him down at Stamford Bridge, further east. Harald was struck down by an arrow through his windpipe.

William, Duke of Normandy - surprisingly? - had his own raven banner when fighting King Harold on Caldbec Hill near Hastings. He was blessed with a victory, and fulfilled its quota of the dead around the kingdom from AD 1066. In AD 1075 King Maelcolm 'Canmore' of Scotland was brought to the negotiating table at Abernethy, However, the banner failed him at London Bridge, when he and five hundred knights were repulsed from Southwark by the Middlesex fyrd led by Eadgar 'the aetheling' and Ansgar 'the Staller'. As the inheritor of Norse blood ties, William lived up to his legacy and his raven banner flew - almost - wherever disaster struck at those unlucky enough to fall prey to a new kind of warfare.

The Viking had come of age. Learning new warfaring skills from their Frankish overlords the Normans adopted cavalry warfare - the mediaeval equivalent of 'Blitzkrieg'. Notwithstanding his Christian piety, Duke William still had a raven banner and it was borne before him into battle on Caldbec Hill on that fateful day, 14th October, AD 1066. When he had his castle built by the Thames, King William had ravens installed to 'protect' his kingdom (the story goes, that should the ravens forsake the tower the kingdom will fall. The ravens' flight feathers are cut to keep them there, and as they mate 'on the wing' the raven master has to see to new birds being acquired periodically)..

Next - 4: The Way of the Warrior

Before the Vikings first came to Britain late in the 8th, the Jutes, Angles and Saxons landed in the 5th Century. Ideologies changed, Christianity came. By the 7th Century most were Christian in the Anglian and Saxon kingdoms of the East Angles, Kentishmen, Mercians, Northumbrians, West Saxons and the other Saxon kingdoms that would be swallowed up by Cerdic's Wessex. The coming of the Norsemen to Lindisfarne was the first shock...

The Cerne Abbas giant, the design copied by Harold for his personal banner, the figure outlined in precious stones
The Cerne Abbas giant, the design copied by Harold for his personal banner, the figure outlined in precious stones | Source
The Roman 'draco' banner,(same idea as a Norse serpent), a windsock that emitted an eerie wail when borne on horseback at a canter, filled with the wind.
The Roman 'draco' banner,(same idea as a Norse serpent), a windsock that emitted an eerie wail when borne on horseback at a canter, filled with the wind. | Source

When Harold stood his men to at the crest of Caldbec Hill...

When Harold stood his men to on Caldbec Hill, inland of Hastings on the London road, Harold's own banners flapped close behind him. On one side was his personal banner, 'the Fighting Man', the man's figure lined out in precious stones. William had this banner sent to the Pontiff Alexander in Rome in thanks for his support. The banner is still in the Vatican, perhaps on show. By rights it should be here in England, as William had no right to send it. The banner should have been given to Gytha, or Eadgytha 'Swan-neck' as his common-law in wife.

The other banner was more a 'wind sock', in the style of the dragons carried by Roman cavalrymen that emitted an eerie noise when filled by the wind.

Next: 5: Call to Arms

The uncanny plays a great part in Norse mythology, not in the way it did in Christian societies. Norse mythology taught men to be wary of witchcraft and witches, but not afraid. Shape-shifting is as much a part of Norse belief - there is a great deal of this in respect of berserkers and other elements that operated outside of society at large - and no-one could be sure the gods did not walk amongst men. Respect of strangers rested on this outlook, and when a warrior was killed in battle he would be amongst the gods with his comrades, forever fighting by day, carousing by night with the Valkyries. It's a grand life as long as you don't weaken!

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Comments 4 comments

valleyforge84 profile image

valleyforge84 4 years ago

interesting.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Thanks valleyforge84. Wasn't Valley Forge a staging post in the War of Independence before Yorktown?

Plenty more of the mediaeval in store here yet, watch this space... I've just finished another one about the rebellion against William in 1069. (Isn't it about time we declared UDI from Normandy? Bit late for that since 1944, I suppose)


jmartin1344 profile image

jmartin1344 4 years ago from Royal Oak, Michigan

Finally back and reading again, thought I should get back on with the Age of Heroes! Interesting read, you always see in the films and documentaries the front runners carrying the "flag" or "banner" so it's interesting to see a little detail into the origins of one such banner!


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Many of these Norsemen were superstitious - as were and are fighting men since - the greatest attribute a warrior could have was, and is still, luck. Even Sir Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington) during the Peninsular War in Spain, when asked of a commander, retorted something like, "I don't care if he is efficient or well-connected, is he lucky?"

The supernatural entered the equation often enough. Harald Sigurdsson's banner, Hrafnsmerki seemed to have a life of its own after its owner's demise in East Yorkshire, as you've read above.

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