For centuries, the corvids, ravens and crows in particular (Corvus corax is the Latin name for the common raven and Corvus corone for the carrion and hooded crows), have had a special place in the mythology of various cultures. In modern times, this fascination has barely diminished. From Edgar Allen Poe’s literary classic to the film of James O’Barr’s cult graphic novel “The Crow”, these birds still exert a powerful hold over the psyche of a significant fraction of the population. The Goths who paint their faces with white make-up and the weekend warriors who expect Raven to take them to the Otherworld to meet the dead do not see the same animal as the farmers who set up decoys in order to shoot large numbers of them every year in late spring. This is, however, typical of a creature that presents a paradox wherever one looks.
Corvids are sociable birds. They tend to form social groups, and this can be seen particularly in the case of rooks, which stay in their flocks all year round. Ravens, the largest of the family, reaching as much as 3 feet from beak to tail, form groups as juveniles, pairing off into lifelong monogamous and extremely territorial relationships at around the age of three. The courtship can involve such fun and games as synchronized snow sliding, and, of course, the synchronized flight test. The corvids can be found all over the world, and are the largest of the passeriform ae, or songbirds. The common raven is widely distributed throughout the Northern hemisphere, and the adaptability and intelligence of this family have made it extremely successful.
As far as the mythology goes, the first confusion arises over the distinction between Crow and Raven, at least on the European side of the Atlantic. The two appear, in many instances, to be interchangeable, and the appearance of one or the other in a story depends as much on which author is transcribing it as it does on the story itself. Whereas John Matthews gives Bran the raven almost exclusively, Miranda Jane Green ascribes to the God’s companion animal either the crow or the raven, much as both authors do for the Morrigan. The confusion on the American side of the Atlantic is not so profound. There is a distinct geographical trend in the likelihood of Raven appearing in a story, and so we will start our examination there.
Whereas ravens appear almost exclusively as signatory animals for deities in Europe, in the shamanic cultures of aboriginal North American tribes Raven appears as a deity himself. From a dichotomy of cultures, we reach a dichotomy of characterisation, for Raven in America, particularly the Northwest coast region, is both demiurge and trickster, both hero and villain, and often at one and the same time. Raven appears as simple Raven, as Dotson’ Sa (Great Raven), as Nankilstlas (He Whose Voice Must Be Obeyed) and also, in a Tlingit creation myth, as Nascakiyetl (Raven-at-the-Head-of-Nass, the Nass being a river). In nearly every single creation myth of the region I have encountered, Raven, in one of his guises, is either the actual creator of the world or has a great part to play in it. In many, such as the Tlingit myth just mentioned, Raven appears in more than one of his guises – in this case both as Nascakiyetl, and as Yetl, the Raven. This is possible because of the personification of the animal characters in the culture. Animals can take on the human form without a second thought (although Raven is the greatest shapeshifter of them all, being able to change into anyone and anything to get what he wants), and can also lead human style lives. Orca, for instance, is the Chief of his own underwater city, and the drowned go to live there with the killer whales, according to the Haida people.
Raven’s character is very similar to that of Coyote – indeed, the two appear in stories carrying out very similar roles, the former in the North, the latter in the South. Both Coyote and Raven are driven by greed: Raven’s for food, Coyote’s for more carnal pleasures. A Tlingit storyteller says that “Raven never got full because he had eaten the black spots off his own toes. He learned about this after having inquired everywhere for some way of bringing such a state about. Then he wandered through all the world in search of things to eat.” The journeys of Raven form the basis of most of the myths in the region, and he travels around meeting animals of all descriptions and usually succeeds in contests of wit with them, either destroying and eating them or driving them off and securing their food. The Haida people make a distinction between the first part of the Raven cycle, in which he is truly creative, and the latter part, which consists of stories of his more risible behavior. Young men are not allowed to laugh during the early part of the cycle, which is referred to as “The Old Man Stories”. The Old Man Stories take in the creation of the world, sometimes a complex tale such as in the Tlingit and Tsimshian versions, sometimes a simple one, as in the Haida: “Not long ago no land was to be seen. Then there was a little thing on the ocean. This was all open sea. And Raven sat upon this. He said, ‘Become dust.’ And it became Earth.” They also cover one of the most widely known Raven stories, how he stole the Sun, the Stars and the Moon, and also fire (reflecting on the corvine fascination for shiny objects), and the almost universal flood tale, which brought about the end of the Age of Animal Beings and brings about the Age of Men, for which Raven is invariably responsible.
In this guise, as Great Raven, Dotson’ Sa, or Nankilstlas, the irrepressible greed is there, the sarcastic and laconic nature, the almost audible heavy sigh that starts off every conversation (see, for instance, Raven’s first words in the story of the whale transcribed by Joseph Campbell ), yet he is a character to be admired and respected, to whom homage is deserving. Although there is no evidence that Raven was ever worshiped, as such, it is said by some that the Northwest peoples did use to leave food out on the beaches for ravens. In this form he is capable of inspiring awe and terror, although always there is that twinkle in the eye and the knowledge that it can be only moments before he says something that will inspire laughter, albeit often irritated laughter as he hits the nail of truth well and truly, and sometimes uncomfortably, on the head. His creative nature usually shows itself through circumstance rather than intent, through the desire to satisfy his own needs, rather than any altruistic principles, but he seems genuinely fond of human beings, as related in “Raven finds the First Men”, amongst others. He is the great shapeshifter, creative magick personified.
In his later, perhaps younger guise, Raven, or Yetl/Yelth, is often the butt of his own jokes; these are the stories in which Raven is often undertaking a position taken by Coyote in the desert and plains regions of the South. In this guise, Raven is at his most devious and tricky, is also cruel, with little thought for anyone or anything other than his own stomach. He will go to great efforts to satisfy his appetite, from tricking his cousin Crow out of his entire Winter’s food supply, to tricking Deer into leaping onto some rocks so that he may be devoured, and even tricking an entire tribe into being killed by an avalanche so that he might eat their eyes. He is the Raven at whom the young Haida men are allowed to laugh but is also the Raven of whom to be most wary. He can be much crueler than his demiurge culture hero self. This Raven will have you in fits of laughter while he distracts you from the fact he is tricking you into doing something for him you may not actually want to do, and which may cost you dearly. This Raven is also a great shapeshifter and uses his ability to aid him in deceiving others to do as he wishes.
Some of the stories do have Crow as the main character, and the main difference appears to be that Crow stories concern the themes of justice rather than greed, even if justice is not always seen to be done, as in the story of Raven and Crow’s Potlatch, mentioned above.
The only time at which Raven’s position in the Northwest coast culture bears any similarity to that in European culture is in his guise as one of the servants of the medicine lodge tutelary Baxbakualanuchsiwae, the Kwakiutl Cannibal Spirit, whose initiates practice ritual anthropophagy. This is a comparatively recent trend in the culture and is not widely mentioned.
By comparison, the ravens of European mythology are invariably messengers or an alternate shape for various deities and spirits, the most widely known being Bran and the Morrigan, and of course Odin.
We are once again confronted by a dichotomy of character when we look at ravens and crows in European culture. Turning first to Odin’s ravens. Huginn and Muninn, we see at once a split between active and passive roles. Huginn is Thought, and Muninn is Memory, and Odin sends these two birds off around the world at daybreak, to bring him the daily news. In Grimnismal, Odin says: “For Hugin I fear lest he returns not home, but I am more anxious for Muninn”. This suggests that Odin valued memory more than thought, the passive act rather than the active, but that is an altogether more complex discussion. Interestingly, Odin’s wolves were Geri and Freki, whose names meant ‘The Raven’ and ‘The Glutton’ respectively. Both of these terms are extremely applicable to ravens – raven derives from raven – and echo the character of Raven in the tales of the Northwest Coast we have already considered. Wolves and ravens have an old and close relationship in the wild. In countries where both animals live together, a great deal of a ravens’ food comes from scavenging carcasses left by wolves, particularly in winter. Both animals would have been a common sight on the battlefield, scavenging on the bodies of the slain. Corvids were also connected with the Valkyries, as in “choughs of the Valkyries”. Whether a cough means chough (Latin name pyrrhocorid), in this case, or is an artistic rendering of a raven, it is difficult to say. Valkyries may have been reflections of the “shield-maids” or skjald-meyer of the Huns, and it is worth pointing out that some sources state that the Irish battle Goddesses were not represented by ravens, but by the crow, particularly the hooded crow, or “scald-crow”.
Many of the Celtic goddesses are linked with the raven or crow. In this mythology, the goddesses are the aggressive deities, those associated with war and death. Badb, Macha and Nemain are all associated with crows and/or ravens, as is Nantosuelta, a Gaulish water and healing goddess. The wife of the Fomorian sea-god, Tethra, was said to be a crow goddess who also hovered above battlefields, and Scottish myth has the Cailleach Bheure, who often appeared in crow form. The association of the birds with death and war is an obvious reflection of its tendency to eat carrion, plenty of which is to be found in the aftermath of the battle. This tendency led, eventually, to the persecution of the raven, as a harbinger of doom and destruction, and also to the common notion of modern European culture that the main attribute of Crow and Raven is their connection with the Otherworld. Upon Cuchulainn’s death, the Morrigan perched on his shoulder in the form of a raven
The other main characteristic of Raven in Irish and Welsh myth is that of prophecy. The Morrigan was prone to prophesying, predicting the outcome of the battle. King Cormac also came across the Badb as an old woman dressed in red garments (always a bad sign) who explained that she was washing the armor of a doomed king. Raven also acts as a messenger for the Irish/Welsh gods. Bran the Blessed (Bendigeidfran) is perhaps the best known of the Celtic gods associated with the raven, not least because of his association with the Tower of London, where ravens are still kept, wings clipped, in order to assure the safety of the realm. Bran’s head, which he ordered to be cut off after being mortally wounded in the foot, is said to be buried in the White Tower.
In “The Hawk of Achill” Cuchulainn’s father, Lugh, is spoken of in association with ravens and crows. Ravens warned Lugh of the Fomorians’ approach. Ravens tended Cuchulainn when he was very ill, which is about the only time Cuchulainn appears to have had anything approaching a good relationship with the birds, save for when he was announced by two Druidic ravens on his entrance to Elysium. He was responsible for killing a flock of magical sea ravens, which were large and able to swim in the sea (it is possible, from the description, that the birds were, in fact, cormorants, and not ravens at all. Cormorants also have a certain mythology associated with them). Also associated with ravens is the son of Cerridwen, Afagddu, who was also known as Morvan, or Sea Raven. Cerridwen ‘s intent had been to bestow the gift of Inspiration upon him.
A rather bizarre association is that of ravens and chess. In the Welsh “The Dream of Rhonabwy”, Owain ap Urien and Arthur were playing a game which is thought to have been a chess equivalent. Three hundred ravens are mentioned in this tale as belonging to Owain, a gift from Cenferchyn. Arthur’s men attacked the ravens during play, and eventually, Owain told them to retaliate, upon which they attacked Arthur’s men unmercifully. One of the pieces in chess is, of course, the rook, another member of the crow family (corvus frugilegus).
In Cervantes’ “Don Quixote”, the hero says that Arthur was not killed at all, but was turned into a raven. Arthur is also sometimes associated with the cult of Mithras, which was popular with the Roman legions. The cult organization was based upon seven ranks that a worshipper could pass through, and the first of these was Raven. The raven, reprising his most common role in terms of masculine European mythology, was Ahura-Mazda’s messenger and represented Mercury. Initiates are shown on frescoes and mosaics as holding a cup and the caduceus. Also along these lines, Lugus was a Gaulish god of intelligence, and a mighty warrior. A relief from Senlis shows Lugus with ravens and geese, and the ravens appear to be speaking to him. Both Lugus and Odin are also linked with the Roman Mercury, bringing us to the connection between ravens and the art of the healer.
In nearly all cultures, the raven or crow was originally white. In one of the Greek tales, Coronis, the daughter of Phlegyas was pregnant by Apollo. Apollo left a white crow (or raven) to watch over her, but, just before the birth, Coronis married Ischys. The crow informed Apollo of this, and Apollo was not impressed. He killed Coronis and Ischys and turned the crow black for being the bearer of bad news. Luckily, Apollo retrieved the unborn child at the funeral, for the child became Aesclepius, the father of medicine.
It is worth mentioning in passing Raven and Crow’s appearances in other cultures, if only briefly.
Dwarves that live on the slopes of Kilimanjaro are supposed to lay out bits of meat in banana groves when sacrificing to their ancestors, and these bits of meat roll down the slopes and turn into white-necked ravens. In Japanese mythology, the Karasu tengu, or minor tengu, is a supernatural being with the head and wings of a black crow. They serve Daitengu, which is fallen yamabuse (monks), tall men with big noses and red faces who can create tornadoes using fans of bird feathers they carry in their sandals. Raven appears as one of the forms of the god Ninsubur in Semitic tales, and the raven, crow and rook all appear in the flood tale of Siberian myth, not one of them returning to the ark, as they were far too busy eating carcasses of drowned animals. For this, they were cursed, as the dove was blessed for bringing back a twig, although it seems obvious that there had to be land somewhere if there were carcasses lying around. The Russian Lapps tell tales of the Seide, which are invisible spirits that have the power, like the dead, of appearing in the form of birds. They relate how a Seide often flew up out of a chasm in the mountains in the shape of a raven.
It seems obvious, taking all these things into consideration, that the reputation of crow and raven for being dark messengers of doom, and concerned solely with death and destruction and a black side of nature is ill-deserved. They do serve as couriers, it is true – an old Scots metaphor for death is a talk of someone as having gone “away’ up the Crow Road” – but Raven has his wily beak into nearly everything, from the birth of medicine to the game of chess. The only thing you can be sure of with this character is that he is to be found at the extremities. In Haida mythology, it is even one of Raven’s guides who determines the length of life of a new-born child. The constancy of Raven is his quest to fulfill an appetite – whether this is food, news, the sight of the slain on the battlefield, spirits of the dead for the Underworld, healing or prophecies of the future. The appetite is sometimes Raven’s, sometimes that of the deity he signifies, but the appetite is always there. He is a creature of need, of want, of greed and gluttony, and can also demonstrate a possessive and jealous nature, but from that need and want, from the satisfaction of that appetite, great acts of creativity arise. Those acts of creativity, his greatest acts of magic, are not usually under his control, are not generally by his design, but arise through his attempts to satisfy the hunger he has. The animal seeking to sate his hunger on the dead, linking him with the Otherworld, is one and the same as that which tries to fill his belly with the farmer’s crops, linking him with the 12-bore shotgun.
Raven can do almost anything, and will, but only if he gains by it. His smaller cousin, Crow, is a much more merciful and fair character. His concern is with justice, albeit oft times extreme justice, and he tempers Raven’s greed in the European myths. Raven, in particular, is a creature of paradox, and to take him at face value is to ignore his devious nature.
One last point. The collective nouns for crows and ravens are murder and unkindness respectively. You have been warned!