Ravens are perhaps the most common bird symbol in the mythologies and religions of ancient cultures. They assume a variety of roles, ranging from messengers of deities and sages to oracles and tricksters. They play a central part in many creation myths and are typically associated with the supernatural realms lying beyond the ordinary experience. What is so lurid about these black-feathered creatures and why does the sight of them send a wave of shivers down one’s spine? Studying the folklore of different cultures may unravel the motives underlying the superstitious beliefs and religious faiths.
In most North European mythologies birds such as ravens, vultures and others feeding on carrion—the flesh of the dead—commonly pass as symbols of war, death, and misfortune. Celtic and Irish goddesses were believed to appear in the form of a crow or a raven, gathering over the battlefields, where they would feed on the flesh of the fallen warriors. Also, seeing a raven or a crow before going into a battle gave a sense of foreboding and meant that the army would be defeated. When the giant Bran, king of Britain in Welsh mythology, was mortally wounded while warring against the Irish, he commanded his followers to behead him and carry his head to the Tower of London for his burial and as a sign of protection of Britain. A popular superstition arose declaring that if the ravens ever fled the Tower of London, the monarchy would fall. As long as they nested there, Britain would never be successfully invaded. In medieval times, these pagan legends resulted in demonetization of crows and ravens, which were consequently depicted as familiars of witches.
The history of ravens as mythical birds can be traced as far as the 1000-year-old Norse mythology. Under the entry “Raven” the encyclopedia of Norse myths describes this bird as a common sign of evil due to its habits of a scavenger. However, raven as a symbol, the authors further explain, acquires also a positive interpretation. The omniscient god Odin, one of the chief gods in Norse mythology, had a pair ravens called Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Mind) perching on his shoulders. Each daybreak they were sent out into the world to observe what was happening and question everybody, even the dead. By sunrise, they would come back to whisper their master what they had seen and learned. Since they embodied Odin’s mind and thoughts, they symbolized his ability to see into the future. The book also makes a mention of an early Norse poem HRAFNAGALDUR ODIN (Odin’s Raven Chant), in which Odin sends the ravens to the Underworld to investigate the disappearance of the lost goddess Idunn. Sometimes Odin himself would turn into a raven.
In North, American folklore ravens are the creators of the world. Details of the creation tale differ, but essentially “the Raven”—a creature with the human body and raven’s beak—is believed to have made the world. He gave light to people, taught them to take care of themselves, make clothes, canoes and houses. He also brought vegetation, animals, and other benefits for the human kind. Raven assumes the role of Noah from the biblical story of Great Flood—he is said to have taken animals two by two on a big raft in order to save them. After all, he had done for the humans, he wished to marry a woman in turn, but her family refused to let her go. As a revenge, the myth says, the Raven created mosquitoes from crushed leaves to pester the humans forever.
The belief in intelligence and cunning of ravens or crows is unquestionable and stories paying a tribute to this “winged wisdom” may be found both in European and North American mythologies. A fable about the crow’s cunning usually attributed to Aesop “The Crow and the Pitcher” is just one of the countless instances. It tells about a thirsty crow that was vainly looking for something to drink on a deserted land. When it came upon a pitcher, it found out its beak was too short to reach the water in it. It knew that if it had tipped the pitcher over, the water would spill. It dawned on it to throw pebbles in the pitcher until the water rose and reached the top. The moral arising from the fable “Necessity is the mother of invention,” depicts crows as intelligent and ingenious beings.
Among the native tribes of the New World the raven is depicted both as a sage and as a trickster. Of particular interest is the story of how there was no light in the world. Though there are certain variations, the story is the same: the light was kept in a box by the chief of Heaven and people lived in darkness. The raven didn’t like it and conceived a plan to steal it. It took a shape of a leaf floating in a stream where the chief’s daughter came to drink. She then gave birth to him and as an infant, the raven played in the house of the chief. He soon began to cry for the box with the light, and the chief, charmed by his little grandson, gave it to him. The Raven changed into his bird shape and carried the box through the sky. However, he dropped it, and the light broke into tiny fragments giving rise to the stars, the moon, and the sun. In the North American mythology raven is a personification of a supreme being. When it flaps its wings, it creates the wind, the lightning, and the thunder. And it is also the raven who is responsible for the rhythm of seasons and providing the shamans with their visionary and healing powers.
North American and Canadian mythology abound in stories depicting the raven as a rascal or a trickster. Apart from the creation raven is believed to have changed the world afterward to a less “cushy” place so that the life for humans would not be so easy. Watching humans struggle with its complexities and strenuous lots the fate dealt them was supposed to be a source of amusement for the raven.
Speaking of European cultures and Christian religion, over the centuries ravens have become symbols of something ungodly, having an evil repute. In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, the ominous atmosphere is pierced by the raven’s croak foreboding “the fatal entrance of Duncan.” In Othello, the raven flies ”o’er the infected house.” Both of these quotes have clear evil connotations. However, in Bible we may find ambiguous instances of ravens both doing good deeds and having a special intimacy with God on the one hand, such as feeding holy hermits during a time of turmoil and drought (King 17:6), and being described as “unclean” or a flaw in God’s plan on the other hand (Gen 7:8).
While peoples of the Old World have persecuted ravens with the zeal of the witch hunters, the Natives in the New World have always held them in reverence. Drawing from this fact, their attitude contrasts the dark European perceptions. In Alaska killing a raven was an ultimate taboo bringing on the assailant nothing less than harm. Suzetta Tucker illustrates the case with an example of an archeological excavation carried out on St. Lawrence Island during which bones of 45 bird types were found, excluding those of a raven. The experts on mythology and folklore have thus suggested that the 1100-year-old Eskimo civilization has long revered the raven. That might also clarify the fact why the ravens are so tame in this area. Furthermore, the author adds that in Ireland raven used to be domesticated for use in divination practices. Various cases of worship might readily attest to an honored position of ravens amounting to that of a supreme entity.
Stories about the origin of the raven’s black feathers may be found both in the Christian tradition and North American mythology likewise although these are without clear parallels. The well-known biblical story of Great Flood goes that after it had stopped raining, Noah sent a white raven to explore the sea and look for a dry piece of land. Instead of coming back to inform Noah the bird “kept going to and fro until the waters had dried up from the earth.” So Noah sent a white dove which came back with an olive branch. The raven was summoned to come back by force and was blackened and condemned to feed on carrion as a punishment.
According to a Ukrainian legend, the raven is believed to have had beautifully colored feathers and a lovely voice before the Fall of Angels from heaven after which their plumage turned black and they lost their voices. It is also believed that their former beauty will be returned to them after the Paradise is restored on Earth.
Candace Savage explains in her book Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays the origin of raven’s black plumage according to the North American tribal lore:
“In the olden days, the raven and the peacock were close friends who lived on a plantation. One day, the two birds decided to amuse themselves by painting each other’s feathers. The raven set willingly to work and so surpassed itself that the peacock became, as it is today, one of the most beautiful birds on earth. Unwillingly to share its glory even with its friend, the mean-spirited peacock painted the raven plain black.”
Other variations of this story suggest the raven exhausted all the color on the peacock, leaving only black for itself.
Popular folk superstitions myths are based on the belief that when someone dies, his/her soul goes to the land of the dead, in Celtic known as “Otherworld” or in some parts of Africa as “Underworld”. If someone died earlier then he/she was supposed to, they would come back after death to complete their interrupted fate, the murdered would return for revenge, and those who were not buried in holy grounds would return to have their coffins moved to a more peaceful place. Dead people would return as animals. E.A. Poe’s The Raven may serve as an illustration of this folklorist tradition.
In Christian tradition ravens were believed to have a special taste for criminals, and to enjoy plucking out the eyes of sinners. They were thus thought of as carriers the souls of the damned and as companions of the Satan. While for Christians raven symbolizes the evil opposite of the innocent dove, in most of the North American traditions raven is seen as the mediator between the land of the living and the land of the dead, accompanying the dead souls on their final journey. Indian tribes in the American Southwest, worshipers of the Ghost Dance religion engaged in an ecstatic dance to bring about the regeneration of the earth. They would decorate themselves with crow feathers, paint crows on their clothes and sing to the crow. Sometimes they would sing of their shaman, Wewoka, flying around the world in the form of a crow.
Raven commonly appears as an oracular bird, bringing messages from the other world. In E.A. Poe’s poem, the narrator asks the Raven, which had flown into his chamber, whether he will ever be reunited with his beloved deceased Lenore, but the Raven only gazes placidly as befits a messenger from the world beyond. The same theme recurs in the film The Crow by Alex Proyas, in which the crow brings back the dead soul of Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) to avenge his and his fiancee’s death. Eric assumes his former body—he is resurrected and rises from his own grave, being watched intently by the crow. Also, the crow helps him by dispersing warnings thanks to its keen sight. Eric thoughtfully quotes Poe’s The Raven: “…suddenly there came a tapping / As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door,” thereby stamping the story with the Gothic quality of E.A. Poe’s artful pen.
Having only skimmed the easily accessible sources, one may draw clear parallels between the lore of the ravens in North American mythology and the European religious and folklore tradition with the assertion that the tribal myths are more varied and perhaps a little more humorous than that of Europe. The recurring themes of death, trickery and wisdom appear to be more or less the same. The characteristics attributed to this bird have been resurfacing in literature, film, and art over the centuries. From what I have learned, I dare to say that raven whether as a foreboding messenger, aide of the devil or as a playful trickster plays an important role in the tribal religions and mythologies of North America as in Christian religious traditions and European folklore.