Readers of this blog may know, if for no other reason than that I discuss it from time to time, that Odin’s two ravens are named Hugin and Munin, Thought and Memory respectively. As I’ve suggested before, in the myth of Odin’s two ravens we find thought and memory separate but intimately linked together: a clear understanding of memory as something much more than memorization and recall. One question we must ask about these ravens is whether or not it’s significant that they are ravens. Or, put another way, why ravens?

An easy answer to this question is to note that ravens are one of the three beasts of battle. (( In “The Theme of the Beasts of Battle in Anglo-Saxon Poetry.” (Neuphilologische Mittelungen 56 (1955): 81-90), Francis Magoun identified the use of the wolf, the eagle, and the raven as symbolic representations of battle in Old English poetry. )) Since Odin is a god of battle and the slain, one could argue that it is only natural that the birds be ravens. But why ravens rather than eagles?

Because we have in Odin a conflation of many ideas, and by this I mean there’s a whole lot of conceptual blending going on. He’s much more than a god of war and a god of the dead. He is also associated with poetry, with writing, and with occult knowledge. (( Interestingly enough, Odin’s connection to the origin of poetry involves him shape-shifting into an eagle. )) So, through the conceptual blending of various elements that come to be Odin as we know him, the ravens win out over the eagle as his companion bird of battle. While this might be because ravens are much more social animals than eagles and there are two of them, I want to suggest that it might be because ravens are highly intelligent. The two birds are, after all, named Thought and Memory.

While I really think of this as a cognitive poetic reading of the Hugin and Munin myth because of the conceptual blending (which, admittedly, I really need to unpack — I see it, but I need to explain it in detail), they myth is itself deeply connected to cognition. While in the past I’ve suggested that we find encoded in this myth an understanding of the interconnection between thought and memory, I’m now arguing that we also find within it a sophisticated understanding of bird intelligence as well. Consider, for instance, the first two paragraphs of Neurophilophy’s recent post on birds and cognition:

In the English language, the term “bird brain” is often used in reference to intellectually challenged individuals. This is, of course, based on the notion that birds are dim-witted creatures whose behaviour is largely based on instinct. The main assumption is that a six-layered neocortex, like that of humans, is a prerequisite for anything that might be classed as intelligent, and even ornithologists have generally believed that, because they have a “smooth” brain, birds aren’t too clever. However, it has in recent years become clear that we have grossly underestimated the cognitive abilities of birds. Some of the behaviours observed in birds are just as complex, if not more so, than those seen in non-human primates – and “birdbrain” no longer seems so much of an insult.

In humans, there is no correlation between brain size and intelligence. In birds, however, it would appear that there is some link between brain size and cognitive abilities. The most remarkable examples of avian cognition are seen in birds of the Corvidae family, which includes jays, ravens, rooks, and crows. Corvids live in large, complex hierarchical societies, consisting of permanent flocks containing up to several thousand individuals.Species of birds belonging to this family also have the largest brains in relation to body size all other types of birds. The crow’s brain, for example is the same relative size as a chimpanzee’s, and crows, along with jays, score best on an IQ test for birds devised by Louis Lefebvre, a professor of biology at MgCill University in Montreal.

Ravens, we’ve known for some time, are smart, but just how smart they are is now becoming clear. And that brings us back to the myth of Odin’s ravens Hugin and Munin. Thought and Memory. Cognition mythologized.