Raving About Ravens

written by Kerry E.B. Black


raven-and-ringThe brilliant corvid inspires.

To some, the raven is a witch’s familiar or the spying eyes of the Norse god Odin. Certainly Edgar Allen Poe found a muse in the raven’s inky quills.

In England, a “constable” of ravens keep watch at the Tower of London. These birds are acknowledged protectors of the English aristocracy. Handlers band and name the protected birds, and they clip their flight feathers. The Tower Ravens are considered enlisted soldiers, and they provide delight for many tourists. Ravens imitate speech and one famously played dead to garner attention. The birds’ numbers dwindled during World War II when they served as unofficial spotters for enemy bombs and planes during the Blitzes against England. Sir Winston Churchill ordered a fresh influx of wild ravens to replenish their numbers.

One theory of the origin of the Tower Ravens is the scent from executions on the Tower green attracted their wild ancestors. One historic account credits the Tower Ravens with respectful silence at Queen Anne Boleyn’s execution, while another tells of their glee in eating Lady Jane Grey’s eyes from her decapitated head.

Bad luck follows anyone who kills a raven. To steal a raven’s egg brought death to a child in the family of the thief. In some areas, folk tipped their hats to the big birds to show respect. The birds’ imposing stature, dark plumage, and carrion diet add to its mystique, as does the raven’s croaking call and ability to imitate human speech and other animals’ calls. Ravens are intelligent birds. They are said to mourn the loss of one of their group.

Some legends claim King Arthur turned into a raven, hence the raven’s royal protecting role. Others fear the dark-plumed fowl, claiming it as part of the Devil’s flock. In Yorkshire, children were warned of a great black raven that carried off the naughty.

A raven circling a house in Scotland foretold a death in that family, while in Wales, a raven perched on a house was an omen of prosperity. Ravens fed Job in the Christian old testament, and ravens protected the body of St. Vincent of Saragossa after his execution. Ravens stole poisoned bread to protect St. Benedict of Nursia.

The raven is said to be a mediator between life and death. It sometimes represents murdered souls in Scandinavia. In Greek myths, ravens were sacred to Apollo, the god of prophecy. In Irish myths, the raven was a warrior associated with Badb and the Morrigan. The Welsh god Bran the Blessed associated with ravens, too. Odin’s ravens, Hugin and Munnin mean thought and memory. Vikings admired ravens and incorporated their imagery into their art.

The Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, including the Coastal Salish, credit the raven with creating the world. However, to many Native tribes, the raven is a trickster. Raven brought together the human sexes, hung the stars, the sun, and the moon, and protected humans. To many Native Americans, raven began as an admired white bird, but became soot-stained and hoarse-voiced by providing fire to humans.

Baltimore adopted the Raven as the name for their football team. A raven graces the coat-of-arms of the Polish Clan Slepowron and the Lisbon coat-of-arms. It is the national bird of Bhutan.

Edgar Allen Poe found the raven an intriguing muse, as did other authors. Charles Dickens incorporated a raven named Grip in “Barnaby Rudge.” William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlow, and Edmund Spenser include ravens in their works, and the ballad “The Three Ravens” from the early 1600’s tells the story of birds intent on eating a slain knight. J.R.R. Tolkien includes in his Ring trilogy a leader of the Ravens of the Lonely Mountains, and the All-father’s raven friends are featured in Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods.” Modern writer Anna Dobritt of Ravynwyng Publishing has a series in which ravens play key roles. Maleficent from Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” has a pet raven, as does the evil queen Grimhilde in “Snow White.” Ravens factored heavily into the “Omen” film series.

People sometimes call gatherings of ravens an “unkindness of ravens” or a “conspiracy.” Many people confuse ravens and crows. They are from the same scientific family, but ravens are larger than crows and have wedge-shaped tails.

Be it for good or ill, the raven continues to inspire.