The Raven’s False Greeting: Animal Language and Medieval Fable

Talking animals are a ubiquitous element in fables. They do not evoke wonder from human characters within the narrative, nor seem to require any explanation; this contrasts with other sorts of stories (everything from Marie de France’s Guigemar to contemporary fantasy novels) where the appearance of a talking animal signals the beginning of some rare adventure for humans. Notably, there is, however, one fable I can think of that seems to portray an animal whose ability to talk is liminal. That is, he can utter words, yet he is not really treated as a speaker. His status seems closer to that of a “real” animal who can mimic human speech, and that is in fact key to the story.

The fable in question is ascribed to Phaedrus, the author of the first extant literary fable collection. While Phaedrus wrote in the first century, his five books of fables were the basis for much of the “Romulus” tradition in prose and verse, which flourished in the Middle Ages. The aforementioned fable is called “The Traveler and the Raven” (Viator et corvus). The tale is found in “Perotti’s Appendix,” named for the Italian humanist, Niccolò Perotti (1429–80), who transmitted it; I offer a translation of it below, with the text based on Ben Edwin Perry’s edition.[1]

Manuscript illustration, from the 14th century Luttrell Psalter, of two humans and a horse harrowing a field, with two ravens hovering above them, British Library, Additional MS 42130, fol. 171r .

Quidam per agros devium carpens iter
AVE exaudivit, et moratus paululum,
adesse ut vidit nullum, corripuit gradum.
iterum salutat idem ex occulto sonus.
voce hospitali confirmatus restitit,
ut, quisquis esset, par officium reciperet.
cum circumspectans errore haesisset diu
et perdidisset tempus aliquot milium,
ostendit sese corvus et supervolans
AVE usque ingessit. tum se lusum intelligens
“At male tibi sit” inquit, “ales pessime,
qui festinantis sic detinuisti pedes.”

A certain man, taking a byway through the fields on a journey, heard “Hello!” and lingered for a moment, but when he saw that no one was there, he hastened the pace. Again, the same sound greeted him from some hidden place. He stopped, encouraged by the hospitable voice, so that whoever it was might receive an equal courtesy. When he had remained for a long time, looking around uncertainly, and lost enough time for several miles, a raven showed himself, and flying above him, incessantly repeated “Hello!” Then, realizing he had been tricked, the man said, “Damn you, wretched bird, for delaying my feet like that when I was in a hurry.”

Why did the man perceive the raven’s “hello” as a trick? (The word lusum, in line 10, comes from ludo, to play, and can suggest mockery or deception; I translated it as “tricked.”) Why did he not take this as a genuine greeting?

It seems that the man was expecting a human speaker, and was disappointed and annoyed to find out that the salutation came from a bird instead. But species difference doesn’t, in and of itself, seem like an adequate explanation, at least in the usual fable context where all sorts of creatures talk. Nor does the explanation for the man’s reaction lie in some perceived status imbalance between the two; reciprocity is expected in greetings, after all, even between parties of unequal standing, and it isn’t mockery for an inferior to greet a superior, or vice versa.

Complicating this is the fact that real birds can imitate human speech—parrots, most famously, but also corvids, including ravens. This raven repeats the same simple word, over and over, as a trained animal might. But the man simultaneously seems to impute malice or mischief to this animal and deny him as a legitimate interlocutor. The raven is capable of toying with him (and ravens have a longstanding, cross-cultural reputation for cleverness and tricks), but he is not capable of (or worthy of?) a conversation.

Manuscript illustration of a raven, from an early 14th century manuscript of Jacob van Maerlant’s Der Naturen Bloeme, British Library, Additional MS 11390, fol. 33r.

A traditional narrative about animal language is that it doesn’t exist—that the sounds that animals make (and this leaves aside non-aural communication, through movement, scent, etc.) are fundamentally different than human speech. Nonetheless, medieval grammarians and philosophers acknowledged that, say, a dog’s bark is not meaningless, that it might convey something of his emotional state, and that humans could pick up on this.[2] Some thinkers, too, suggested that animals can communicate with their own species in their own “language.” For example, says, Roger Bacon, hens can cluck to let their young know that food is near, or to warn them of a predator.[3]

So much for “real-life” animal language. In medieval literature, though, there may also be special talking animals (or humans gifted with a special ability to understand animals, e.g., the man who can translate between species in Culhwch and Olwen, or Canacee, with her magic ring, in Chaucer’s “Squire’s Tale”). In fables, animals’ capacity to speak is typically unremarkable, and conversations readily occur across species lines.

This fable, however, reflects none of the above scenarios. The raven doesn’t caw or croak—he says an intelligible word, in a human language, Latin. And what he says is “Ave,” a greeting. Ave is not far off from Latin avis, “bird,” although the words are etymologically unrelated; in modern Spanish and Portuguese ave means “bird”. Etymology aside, there is still the possibility of wordplay. Is the bird proclaiming what he is all along, without the man realizing it? Is that the “trick”? Was that what the bird really meant to do, or was it apt, but not necessarily done knowingly—is the raven a kind of natural sign who reiterates himself, both by appearing and by unwittingly speaking his own appearance?

In any case, the man doesn’t treat the raven’s “Ave” as a sincere speech-act from an animal who can, unsurprisingly, talk to him—he doesn’t treat it as a greeting, he treats it as a deception. (The opening moral, possibly added by Perotti, emphasizes this, declaring, “People are very often deceived by words,” Verbis saepenumero homines decipi solere).

What accounts for the man’s reaction to the raven? Fables often have talking animals, yes, but fundamentally, fables are didactic, using memorable narratives to get messages across. The raven’s real-life reputation for mischief, but above all his real-life ability to imitate speech, is what is being drawn on here. The raven in “The Traveler and the Raven” is not the genre-typical talking animal, because for him to be an actual, expected interlocutor goes against the point of the fable, which is about how words can deceive.[4] In conveying this point, “The Traveler and the Raven” both acknowledges certain animals as clever and strips a non-human character of his genre-typical linguistic capability.

Emily Mahan
PhD in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

[1] Ben Edwin Perry, ed. and trans., Babrius and Phaedrus, Loeb Classical Library 436 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), pp. 404–6.

[2] For an analysis of the shifting conceptions of the semiotics of dogs’ barking, from Aristotle to Roger Bacon, see Umberto Eco et al., “On Animal Language in the Medieval Classification of Signs,” in On the Medieval Theory of Signs, ed. Umberto Eco and Constantino Marmo (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1989), pp. 3–41.

[3] Quoted in Eco et al., “On Animal Language,” p. 36, n. 39.

[4] Fables tend to teach the “mistrust of words,” argues Jill Mann, in From Aesop to Reynard: Beast Literature in Medieval Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 96.

Wolves and Ravens and Bears, Oh My! The Northman and the Beasts of Battle

Animal symbolism is an important part of the visual imagery of Robert Eggers’ The Northman, released in 2022. But where do they come from? What do they mean?

King Aurvandill and young
 Hamleth take part in Heimir the Fool’s animalistic ritual in The Northman (2022).

Anyone who has seen The Northman knows that director Robert Eggers is interested in history and mythology. In a recent interview with Slate, he went into considerable detail about the archaeological and literary sources for many of the events and images of his latest film. Snippets of archaeological evidence from the Orkey isles, the Osberg tapestry, and Snorri’s Edda are all woven into his story.[1] It’s also no secret that Eggers’s films lean heavily on animal symbolism: goats and gulls are everywhere in The Vvitch and The Lighthouse.[2] I was therefore surprised that, in his Slate interview, Eggars didn’t touch on one area that seemed ubiquitous in his latest film: the motif known in Old English scholarship as ‘the beasts of battle.’

What are the Beasts of Battle?

Simply put, the ‘beasts of battle’ are the ravens, wolves, and eagles who come to devour the slain on the battlefield. Though they are staples of early Germanic literature, their purpose remains pretty mysterious. When Arnorr Jarlaskald, the 11th century Icelandic poet, commemorated the battle of Nesjar, fought between King Olav Haraldsson and Earl Svein Hakonsson of Lade in 1016, he wrote:

Sandy corpses of [the loser] Sveinn’s men are cast from the south onto the beaches; far and wide people see where bodies float off Jutland. The wolf drags a heap of slain from the water; Olav’s son made fasting forbidden for the eagle; the wolf tears a corpse in the bays.[3]

 Modern illustration of the Battle of Nesjar in 1016.

The beasts help themselves to the dead, and the dead are reduced to food for the beasts. In Egil’s saga, the 11th century poet Egil Skallagrimsson records that his father was a werewolf, who ripped out a man’s throat with his teeth and was nourished by the blood.[4] Even in the complex mythology of the Vikings, carrion eaters are there to consume corpses. The wolf Fenrir, son of Loki and the giantess Angerboda, will be magically chained until Ragnarok (the Norse Doomsday), at which point he will fight and swallow Odin. His purpose is foretold in the Edda, and the very act of chaining him points towards this dark day when he will devour the dead.

The beasts are also a feature of Old English poetry, one of the few markers that hint at literary traditions once shared across northern Europe and now sadly lost. In 991, near the town of Maldon in Essex, England, Earl Byrhtnoth of Mercia led an army into battle to repel his enemy Olaf’s Viking invasion. Byrhynoth suffered a major defeat, which was immortalized a century later in an anonymous poem called ‘The Battle of Maldon.’ In the poem, just before the armies clash, the poet writes that ‘Hremmas wundon, earn æses georn’ (‘ravens circled, eagles eager for food,’ 106-7).[5] They are a dark symbol of fate, of the inevitable slaughter of battle. In fact, the poet calls the Vikings ‘wælwulfas,’ ‘wolves of slaughter’ (96), a role that Amleth inhabits fully in Eggers’ The Northman. Griffith summarized the ‘beasts of battle’ trope thus: ‘in the wake of an army, the dark raven, the dewy-plumaged eagle and the wolf of the forest, eager for slaughter and carrion/food, give voice to their joy.’[6]

Modern illustration of the Battle of Maldon by Rory W. Stapledon.

The Meaning of the Beasts of Battle

But what do these beasts mean? Beyond their bloodlust, what function might they play? Clearly they are closely connected to battle, a terrifying and ever-present reminder of the ultimate price humanity pays for war. But they also seem to be about dying as an act of nourishment. Old Norse poetry was interested in the borders between human culture and the natural world typified by processes like ‘birth, the unpredictable tenor of life (where Fate was operative) and death.’[7] Death and eating carrion are both natural processes, but human conflict is not. By eating the dead, the wolves and ravens bring the human into their natural reality. Death feeds them so that they can thrive; it’s a process of naturalizing humans, but also about a cycle of death and life. One gives life to the other. Of course, the animals are also mythological. As we’ve seen, the wolves have a mythological counterpart in Fenrir, as well as Odin’s wolves Freki and Geri (‘Ravener’ and ‘Greed’). Thor’s ravens Hugin and Munin, who travel the earth each day to bring him wisdom and prophetic knowledge, are supernatural versions of the ravens who fly over the battlefield. So these beasts of battle are part of the mythological story of the Vikings, as well as the natural cycles of life and death.

Detail from the 10th century Gosforth Cross, showing Odin’s son Vidarr fighting the great wolf Fenrir.

In The Northman, Amleth and his father take on the wolf as a totemic animal. In his Slate interview, Eggers acknowledges that young Amleth’s coming-of-age wolf ceremony, led by the Fool in a cave, isn’t drawn from any specific Viking ritual. The setting is derived from a burial chamber found in the Orkney Isles, and the Fool’s ceremonial rattle comes from an archaeological find, and plenty of creative license is taken with them.[8] However, it establishes a connection between Amleth and the wolves from the very beginning of the film. We see him acting as a wolf-pup in the ritual deep in the earth, and then becoming a wolf as a berserker and, as though he were Egill’s own father, ripping out a man’s throat. Historically, berserkers were feared warriors whose ferocity on the battlefield was legendary: they were said to feel no pain. It’s not clear how Viking berserkers developed this immunity—Eggers accounts for it in his film via a trance-inducing ritual. As he torments his uncle, Amleth continues to embody the ferocity and cunning of the wolf. In a revenge tragedy like The Northman, it’s only fitting that the main character’s totemic animal is also a prophetic foretelling of his own death.

The Northman‘s Hamleth, with the ever-present raven (2022).

Amleth’s father is a nobleman called the Raven Lord, and at several moments a black raven appears to remind Amleth of his duty, as though his father is watching over him. His hero’s journey in The Northman is to avenge his father’s death. But the raven was a symbol of wisdom—a creature that can see the present and the future. Its presence hints at the death that follows Amleth. When he reaches Iceland, Amleth kills his uncle’s eldest son and Amleth’s half-brother, Thórir. When Fjölnir finds the body, it is surrounded by hundreds of ravens. Death has come for Fjölnir and his family. The Raven Lord’s vengeance is near at hand. But in the final showdown between Amleth and Fjölnir, there is no winner. Each kills the other. The ravens were waiting for both of them, and they will feed on them in death. Both men are absorbed into the natural world, and their deaths will nourish the carrion-eaters. In fact, their death also ensures the survival of Amleth’s own son and daughter, who are taken to safety by their mother Olga. But the blood that was spilled in their name—Fjölnir’s entire family, his soldiers, his friends—is inescapable.

The animals of The Northman are companions, tribal markers, but also dark omens of the inevitable death to come. Their presence reminds Amleth, and the audience, that death—his death—is always near at hand. Perhaps The Northman is a piece of Viking literature not because of its longships, Thor’s hammers, Valkyries, but because, in the end, the only certainty is Fate.

Early 7th century purse-lid from Sutton Hoo, decorated with wolves and birds of prey.

Will Beattie
PhD Candidate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

[1]Rebecca Onion, ‘The Real-Life Inspiration Behind The Northman’s Wildest Scenes,’ Slate [Accessed 5/15/22].

[2]Perri Nemiroff, ‘The Lighthouse Director Robert Eggers Teases What the Seagull Means,’ Collider [Accessed 5/12/22]; Padraig Cotter, ‘The Witch’s Black Philip Explained,’ Screenrant [Accessed 5/12/22].


[4]Egill’s saga.

[5]Battle of Maldon.

[6]M. S. Griffith, ‘Convention and Originality in the Old English “beasts of battle” typescene, Anglo-Saxon England 22 (1993), 184.

[7]Margaret Clunies Ross, A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics (2005), 93.

[8]Onion, ‘The Northman’s Wildest Scenes’ [Accessed 5/15/22].