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The raven has appeared in the myths and legends of many cultures, from ancient to present day. Whilst universally referenced, the large, black plumed bird is far from universally regarded. To some it has been seen as an omen of ill-fortune. To others the raven is a symbol of wisdom. In some legends the bird is described in godly terms, as a companion, messenger or even embodiment of a deity.
The raven in antiquity
The belief that ravens possess some sort of paranormal quality dates back to the Age of Antiquity.
In Greek mythology, ravens were thought of as the companions of Apollo, one of the most important and complex of the Olympian deities. As the god of the sun, truth and prophecy, Apollo’s association with ravens meant that the birds were thought to be able to divine the future. 1 Certainly, the raven’s throaty calls, combined with their ability to mimic human speech, gives them a human-like quality.2
Known to be intelligent creatures, even their movements were the subject of divinatory speculation. Augury – the interpretation of omens from birds – was practised by both the Greeks and Romans, and made the observation and interpretation of the direction in which ravens flew a mystical artform. A raven flying in from the east or south was considered a favourable omen. 3
Writing in the first century AD, Pliny attested to the reverence of the raven’s intellect when he described a talking raven that supposedly lived in a cobbler’s shop in Rome. According to the Roman author, the bird would visit the Forum each morning to salute the Emperor Tiberius. 4
Norse mythology: Huginn and Muninn
In Norse mythology the raven is regarded as equally knowledgeable.
Odin, one of the principal deities of the Norse pantheon, is often associated with ravens. According to legend, on his shoulders sit two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, meaning Thought and Memory respectively. As well as being birds of battle, the ravens are thought of as wisdom bearers, flying out each day to bring Odin news from the land of men. 5
The Raven Father
Far from simply appearing as the companions and messengers of deities, the raven has also been described in mythology as the very embodiment of some gods.
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To the Inuits, the raven is the principal creator figure, known as the Raven Father.
According to their legends, the raven was born out of darkness, and began life weak and lost. After wandering and experiencing the world, he grew to realise who he was – the Creator of All Life. Gathering up all his strength, the Raven Father flew to a new place which he called earth. There, he found a giant pea pod from which man emerged. The Raven Father taught man how to live and care for nature, and then created a female companion for him, providing them both with food and shelter. The Raven Father’s teachings were then passed down to man and woman’s children. 6
Brân the Blessed
In Welsh mythology, Brân the Blessed is a deity and high king of Britain, known in legend as the “Island of the Mighty”. In Welsh, the name “Brân” means raven.
The tale of Brân was first made known to the English-speaking world in the mid-nineteenth century. However, Brân had existed in Welsh ancestral memory for centuries, a figure of great heroism and wisdom. He appears as a central figure in the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh mythological texts written in Middle Welsh in the 14th and 15th centuries. 7
According to the legend, during a vicious battle with the Irish, Brân was wounded in the foot by a poisoned arrow. Knowing that death was imminent, the Welsh hero turned to his followers and ordered them to cut off his head and take it to the White Mount for burial. It was his request that his head should be placed so that it faced east, so that no foreigner may invade whilst it was there. 8
The Tower of London now stands on the site of the White Mount. It is said that ravens gather at this spot, even today, in order to honour Britain’s fallen raven king. And certainly, the ravens of the Tower of London have preserved and expanded upon their original symbolism, with it being rumoured that, should ravens ever leave the Tower, Britain will fall. 9
Ravens and the Tower of London
Today the British monarchy, who owns of the Tower of London, takes special precautions to ensure the ravens remain at the Tower.
Amongst the red-uniformed Beefeaters, the Yeomen Warders of the Tower of London, there is an appointed Ravenmaster, whose job it is to care for the Tower’s ravens. For up to two months the Ravenmaster cares for new fledglings, before moving them to their protected lodgings, where their wings are clipped to stop them from flying away. 10 It is also the Ravenmaster’s job to feed the ravens twice daily, on a diet of mice, chicks and other assorted raw meats. As a special treat, the birds are given biscuits soaked in blood. 11
Even during raids on the British capital in the 1940s, the birds were protected, for fear of what may happen to the country if the Tower became raven-less. Whilst many of the birds died from shock during the intensive raids, two ravens – a male, Grip, and his mate, Mabel – survived. Some have regarded their survival as having secured the British monarchy and kept invasion away. 12
However, the superstition surrounding the ravens reached a peak shortly after the end of the war, when one of the two surviving ravens, Mabel, flew away. A couple of weeks later, after much despondency, Grip also left, most likely in search of his mate. 13
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So strong was the belief that Britain faced peril without the protection of the raven that, when the Tower of London was re-opened to the public on 1st January 1946, ravens were somehow obtained and were back in place, despite the heart of the city lying in ruin. 14
Yet, the superstitious whispered that the damage had already been done. Without the paranormal guardianship of the raven king, Britain had been left defenseless. When the first steps towards dismantling the British Empire were made shortly afterward, to some it seemed an eerie confirmation of the legend.
Seven ravens live at the Tower of London today, and they are still very much regarded as guardians, tasked with continuing Brân the Blessed’s defense of Britain.
Native American ravens
The idea of a raven being a protector also appears in Native American legends.
Some tribes regard the raven as a “secret keeper”, a magical bird able to carry messages and prayers to spirits. Only those perceived worthy by the raven are to be trusted with its secret knowledge. 15
It is the raven’s association with the land of the dead which has, in other Native American tribes, given the bird a bad reputation.
To some, the raven was regarded as an omen of death, or even a stealer of souls. According to traditional legends, if a raven croaks near one’s home, the death of either yourself or a loved one is imminent. 16
Ravens as symbols of evil
The raven’s negative reputation possibly grew from observation of the raven’s scavenging nature. On the field of battle, ravens would be seen feasting on the fallen. It has even been suggested that ravens have such an acute sense of smell that they can sniff out decay from a great distance. 17
Whilst there are plenty of myths and legends which present the raven positively, its association with death, ill-omen and evil can be said to be far more prevalent. Even our lexical relationship with the bird is negative. Whilst other birds may be collectively described as a “flock”, the collective nouns for ravens are “a conspiracy” or “an unkindness of ravens”. 18
Noah and the raven
In the Abrahamic religions’ story of Noah, the raven is described as the first bird sent from the ark to find land. It was the dove, however, who returned.
According to a sixteenth century Arabic commentary on the flood story, thought to have been based on an earlier Hebrew text, the raven had been distracted from its task by dead bodies in the water. Rather than searching for land, as Noah had instructed, the bird stopped to feed on the floating carrion. When the raven finally returned three months later, an angry Noah cursed the creature, turning the birds once white feathers to black. 19
Ravens and witchcraft
At various points in European folklore, ravens have been associated with witchcraft.20
In Medieval and Early Modern periods, it was said that witches had the ability to shapeshift into the devious-looking birds. These creatures were known as familiar spirits – a supernatural entity that is the double or alter-ego of a witch, able to assist them in their practice of magic. An independent life force which remains closely linked to the witch, familiars were said to be able to take the form of animals – such as ravens.
So strong is this historical association, that even today many still regard ravens as suspicious. Undoubtedly, this reputation is undeserved, both in terms of their diverse mythological reputation and our current scientific understanding of the birds. We now know that the brains of common ravens count among the largest of any bird species, meaning that they possess advanced cognition, having demonstrated problem-solving abilities, imitation and even complex emotions like grief. Some scientists now consider these black-feathered birds’ position on the intelligence spectrum to be level with dogs.21
Whilst their negative reputation is no doubt misinformed, it is not difficult to see why ravens have fascinated mankind across the centuries.
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