Vikings used a banner with ravens, the birds of the god Odin. But the Raven Banner cannot be considered an early national flag of Denmark or the Nordic countries. We know very little about its use and what it looked like. The Bayeux Tapestry suggests that the Raven Banner was in use by Normans long after they became Christians.
Did the Vikings have a flag?
There is a depiction of the Raven Banner on the Bayeux Tapestry which was made in the 11th Century to commemorate the Norman invasion of England by William the Conqueror in 1066. Normans were the descendants of “Northmen” who came primarily from Denmark and settled in northwestern France in the 10th Century.
Two centuries before the Norman conquest of England, the Raven Banner is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 878 when a Viking army was defeated in southern England. “There also was taken a war-flag which they called “the Raven”, the chronicler tells. There are also other English sources which mention Raven Banners in connection with Viking armies.
Why was this banner called “the Raven”?
Ravens are intelligent and rather large birds. The wingspan of a common raven can be up to 150 cm. Ravens are iconic in Norse pagan religion and folklore as they are closely connected to the deity Odin. According to Norse mythology, he has two ravens, Huginn and Muninn. Their names mean “thought” and “memory” and they fly to all corners of the world and bring tidings to him. It is understandable that Viking warriors would want to fight under a symbol of their highest god.
What did the Raven Banner look like?
We don’t know exactly how it looked. Most likely, there was no standardized way to make a Raven Banner a thousand years ago. The Raven Banner in the Bayeux Tapestry seams to be rounded or slightly triangular in shape and it has gold fringes (the illustration above, left side). There is only one raven visible on the flag. Maybe it was believed that Huginn was the bird on “the front side” of the flag, and Muninn the bird on “the back side”.
In recent years, many Raven Banners have been reproduced. A high level of creative freedom is allowed as the medieval sources are so unclear when it comes to flag design. The Raven Banner made for the exhibition in the Natural History Museum in Aarhus, Denmark has a black raven in flight on a red background (the illustration above, right side).
Was the Raven Banner “a Viking national flag” or “an early flag of Denmark”?
No. The Raven Banner was not a national flag in the modern sense of the word. We don’t know if the banner was a war flag only, or if it also had a totemic meaning and perhaps a specific use in religious and cultic life. We don’t know if the banner was considered a personal symbol for kings and warlords, or if it represented, more broadly, all of the army or all of the people.
Was the Raven Banner replaced by the Dannebrog when Denmark became Christian?
No. Denmark became a Christian country in the 10th and 11th Centuries. The earliest depiction of the Dannebrog in colours, a banner with a white cross on a red background, is in a 14th Century armorial. In the 12th Century red flags with white crosses were used by crusader knights and kings and as a war banner by the Holy Roman Empire. However, for centuries Dannebrog was the personal banner of the King of Denmark and was used only by him and his armies and on board his warships.
Only in 1854 were Danish citizens allowed to use the flag as a civil national flag. During the time of the Schleswig Wars (1848-1852 and 1864) Dannebrog was widely used to show support for the fight against Germany and as a sign of a growing national sentiments.