Two cultures view these big black birds entirely differently. Native North Americans have seen ravens as bringers of light and are the foundation of their creation stories. In many European cultures they are thought to be malevolent heralds of death.
Ravens: The Facts
- Ravens are really smart, with a similar level of intelligence to that of dolphins and chimpanzees.
- The birds are found throughout Canada, Western United States, Central America, Northern Europe, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent (shown in red below).
- Sometimes, ravens will roll around on an ant nest. By squashing or chewing the ants they may be releasing an insecticide or herbicide from the insects.
- Ravens have been known to live for 45 years although their usual lifespan is 25 to 30 years.
- Ravens are playful. They have been observed dropping sticks in mid-air for another bird to catch or to catch themselves.
- The birds can learn to imitate human speech and they have been known to copy the sound of foxes and wolves. They do this to attract these animals to a carcass so they can rip it apart. The ravens then wait until the canines have had their fill and then swoop in for leftovers.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven, the bird visits a man who is going mad with grief over the loss of his love, Lenore. The raven says the single word “nevermore” throughout the poem as if to taunt the man that he will never again see his beloved.
The Raven’s Dark Side
Poe’s poem sums up much of the Caucasian view of ravens; dark, foreboding, and menacing. Their status in the minds of English speakers is fixed by the collective noun that describes them – “unkindness.” The smaller cousin of the raven, the crow, fares even worse, being known collectively as a “murder.”
Celtic mythology gives ravens a very bad press. They are linked to death, especially that of warriors in battle. Several Celtic goddesses and gods were believed to take the form of ravens and their appearance on the battlefield was a very bad omen. However, it’s not entirely clear to which side in the fight the raven brought misfortune.
In Welsh folklore, sorcerers and witches were thought to be able to transform themselves into ravens so they could take flight and evade capture and punishment over evil spells they may have cast.
The Norse god, Odin, had a couple of ravens on his shoulders; one was called Hugin (thought) and the other Munin (mind). The two birds would fly away in the morning and find out what was going on. In the evening, they would return and tell their master all the news. Odin was also thought to be able to take on the guise of a raven. So, to the Norse, ravens were not entirely bleak predictors of something horrible.
On the other side of the Atlantic ravens are seen quite differently.
The Creator and Trickster
To the Indian peoples of the Pacific Northwest, the raven is a trickster and creator. In many stories, the raven is the founder of the world who stole light from the Sun.
Zuzana Starovecká (Canadian North) writes that the raven taught people “to take care of themselves, make clothes, canoes, and houses. He also brought vegetation, animals, and other benefits for the human kind.” And, ravens were believed to have picked up salmon and to have then dropped them in rivers all over the world.
North America’s first inhabitants recognized the raven’s intelligence and knew the bird is wise but also mischievous. Raven the trickster looked at the world he had created and thought maybe it was too pleasant for people to live in. So, the raven messed things up a bit in order that people would have to struggle more to survive. This is supposed to have amused the raven.
The Inuit people of the Arctic also have several trickster stories about the raven. Usually, the bird behaves in a way that offends to norms of society but the story is wrapped up with a happy ending.
In Inuit culture ravens are rarely killed but sometimes dead birds are put to use. If parents wanted their child to be a good hunter, and in the Arctic successful hunting was a matter of survival, a newborn baby boy would be dressed in clothes made from a raven’s skin. This was to confer on the child the raven’s ability to always find food.
The Raven’s Colour
Numerous legends have developed to explain why ravens have black feathers. In Greek and Roman mythology the bird was white, but it was turned black because it was telling tales.
As the rains of the great flood abated, the Old Testament tells us, Noah sent out a white raven to look for land. But, according to one legend, the bird found food, gorged itself, and forgot to return to the Ark. When the raven remembered its mission and went back Noah was angry. He turned the bird’s plumage black and changed its beautiful song into an ugly croak.
In Ukrainian legend, ravens were birds with brightly coloured feathers and they had an attractive song. But then, the angels were expelled from Heaven and God turned the ravens black and took away their voices. When paradise returns to Earth, ravens will be restored to their former beauty.
And, there’s a North American folk story that peacocks and ravens were once friends. The playful birds decided one day to paint each other’s feathers. The raven did a splendid job and created the vibrantly coloured peacock we see today. But, the peacock was jealous and didn’t want to share his magnificence with anyone, so he painted the raven black.
But, the joke may be on the peacock; he often made an appearance on the banquet tables of medieval aristocracy.
- Bran was the mythological king of Wales and England. In a battle with the Irish he was gravely wounded so he ordered his soldiers to finish the job by cutting off his head. His followers carried to severed noggin to Tower Hill in London for burial. The Tower of London, which stands on the site, is home to a minimum of six ravens and the legend is that if the birds ever leave the British Empire/Britain/the British monarchy (take your pick) will fall. As an insurance against this catastrophe, the ravens are pampered and well fed by their custodian Beefeater, and, just in case they are planning an escape, their wings are clipped.
- William Shakespeare used the raven as a symbol of evil portent. As Lady Macbeth plans the murder of King Duncan she says “The Raven himself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements.” In another of his tragedies, Hamlet, the Bard has his title character say “Begin, murderer. Pox, leave thy damnable faces, and begin! Come, the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge.”
- Let’s meet Pliny Moody. He was a Massachusetts farmer who, in 1802, found large three-toed tracks on sandstone rock. The local pastor was called in and he declared the imprints to be those of the raven that Noah had set loose. Hmm? Ravens have four toes and the prints were later identified as those of a dinosaur known as anomoepus minor.
- “Mythology and Folklore of the Raven.” Treesforlife.org.uk, undated.
- “5 Fascinating Facts About Ravens.” Deborah Tukua, Farmer’s Almanac, undated.
- “The Magic of Crows and Ravens.” Patti Wigington, Learn Religions, June 25, 2019.
- “Ravens and Crows in Mythology, Folklore and Religion.” Zuzana Starovecká, Canadian North, June 2010.
- “Noah’s Raven: Whose Flight of Fancy?” Susan McCarthy, The Guardian, September 27, 2010.
- “The Myths and Legends of the Mythical Raven.” Elizabeth Hopkinson, The Silver Petticoat Review, July 18, 2015.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor