Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The Valraven / Valravnen

Ravens hold a special place in the oldest Scandinavian legends ... raven imagery often features in viking-age artwork, ravens are famous as a battlefield bird associated with death, and ravens named thought and memory are strongly associated with the god Odin. And as we can see here, there are raven stories in more recent Scandinavian folklore as well!

The Danish ballad I am writing about here tells a story of shapeshifting into the form of a raven (and another bird), and what must be done to escape from this curse and regain human form.

The ballad is called Valravnen, or The Valraven. The word valravn seems to come from this ballad, and it is used to mean a raven that is actually a human in raven form. (One of the tales in Winther's Danske Folkeeventyr tells a similar story, and is also called Valravn, but Grundtvig supposes that this tale could be based on the ballad.) The second part of the name, ravn, means raven. This much is clear. The first part, val, is sometimes taken to mean "of the slain", in a similar way to the Old Norse names Valhalla and Valkyrie. But this part of the name is very inconstant across the different versions of the ballad, and it seems to have been misunderstood and distorted. I won't list all of the variations here. Grundtvig speculates about various alternative interpretations of the name to do with shapeshifting, including var-ravn (were-raven, cf varulv, werewolf).

The ballad is pretty gruesome ... but carry on reading, I'm sure it'll all be all right in the end. Remember, in a world where you accept that people are transformed into birds, other far-out magical things are also going to happen.

The Boy and the Raven by John Bauer


The ballad begins with a verse about the raven before the action proper starts: The raven flies in the evening, he may not fly by day, and he will have bad luck if he cannot have good. And this thought of the sinister raven is remembered throughout the ballad as the repeated chorus (omkväde) line is just the same as the first line: But the raven flies in the evening.

The action starts with a maiden, Ermeline, standing in the high loft, looking out wide across the land, and seeing the valraven flying. She calls the valraven to her, promising to tell him her secret sorrows. She then explains what has happened (you will understand that the valraven was surely aware of at least some of this already!).

She tells of how her father remarried. Unfortunately the stepmother turned out to be an evil troll who turned Ermeline's brother into the valraven, and how he must remain unhappily in that shape until Ermeline has a daughter and until the girl can talk. Not only this, the stepmother also turned Ermeline's lover into another bird, silver and golden, and he must remain in that shape until he has drunk Ermeline's heart-blood. Not only that, but the stepmother also sent Ermeline away to an island to marry the stepmother's sister's son ... not a very attractive prospect.

The valraven then tells Ermeline that if she gives him the first child that she has, then he will take her to the land where her lover is. She agrees. So Ermeline gets onto the valraven's back, and they fly far away until they reach the land where her lover is flying in the sky like a bird.

As soon as the lover (a bird, remember) sees Ermeline, he strikes her with both his legs, and tears her into two pieces. He then drinks her heart-blood, and is at once transformed into a big strong knight.

Well ... the valraven puts the girl onto his back, and flies to a certain spring. He dips her into the water there, and Ermeline stands up, all healthy once again. So again she gets onto the valraven's back, and again he flies off across the wild sea. And he lands on a mountain top where Ermeline's lover is waiting. Ermeline and the knight apparently get on well, despite what has just happened. She thanks the valraven, and tells him to fly away, and that she will keep her promise.

Not long after that, Ermeline has a baby girl, and she gives it to the valraven. The valraven wishes that the baby girl could talk, and she does speak ... and at that, the valraven is at once transformed into a good strong knight.

So things finish off well for Ermeline in the end: she gets her brother, her child, and her lover.

Other versions of this ballad have some significant variations of the plot: typically, it is only the brother who is transformed into the valraven – the lover remains in human form and is merely sent away by the stepmother to a faraway land. (So the episode in which Ermeline is killed is absent.) The valraven again demands the firstborn child as payment for carrying the maiden to her lover. But now rather than waiting for the child to talk, the valraven must drink the baby's heart-blood to be transformed back into a man. The valraven does this (after pecking out the baby's eye!), and is duly transformed, and the baby is brought back to life again, so things all turn out all right again ...

Full texts for two versions of the ballad from old Danish manuscripts are given here and here.

A very famous illustration by Arthur Rackham of another ballad. The Two Corbies.
Veering off topic somewhat, but that ballad was actually translated into Danish by Grundtvig (as Ravnene)


A Danish melody for the ballad is given: Valravnen, Berggreen (Danish), No. 24.


These four renditions all use basically the same melody (very close to the one given above), but showcase rather diverse musical styles. As is typical, the ballad texts are all rather abbreviated from the versions found in the early manuscripts, but where it is possible to discern, they seem to be based on versions of the story with only one bird transformation ...

Gny - Valravnen: a rendition from the Danish medieval music group Gny

Sorten Muld - Ravnen. Sorten Muld have a rather original approach to traditional ballads (the name of the band means black soil, and is one of those phrases that shows up often in ballads ... for example as a suitable place for burying dead bodies). The style is called folktronica. Ravnen was something of a hit for this band, and versions appeared on both of their first two albums. If this traditional dance tune deserves a modern dance rendition then it has found it here!

Krauka - Valravnen: a rendition from the Danish viking folk music group Krauka

Dronningens Livstykke – Valravnen: from Dronningens Livstykke's album Katten i Sækken.


S. Grundtvig, Danmarks Gamle Folkeviser, vol. 2, Copenhagen, 1856, No. 60.
A. P. Berggreen, Danske Folke-sange og Melodier, Copenhagen, 1860, No. 24.

No comments:

Post a Comment