A distinct black shape, tumbling in the updrafts of a mountain crag - a raven at play. The 'gronking' call of a raven is one of the most evocative sounds of Britain's uplands. The raven is probably the world's most intelligent and playful bird. In the world of myth, it is a bird of paradox, and something of a dark clown. Its association with playful intelligence is perhaps exceeded by its image as a bird of death. Its harsh call, and its presence in remote wild places and at scenes of death, has earned it a reputation as a bird of ill-omen. After all, the old collective noun for a group of ravens is an 'unkindness'. Yet there is so much more to the raven.
An old Scottish name for the raven is 'corbie', which is thought to have been derived from the Latin 'corvus'. One Scottish legend reflects the dark beliefs about this bird. It tells of an evil hag called Cailleach who appeared in the form of a number of birds, including the raven, and feasted on men's bodies.
This large crow appears again and again in Celtic lore. In Welsh folklore, Bran the Blessed (Bran is Welsh for raven) is a kind of primordial deity and guardian of Britain whose totem is a raven. Bran ordered for his own head to be cut off, after which it could still speak words of prophecy. Eventually it was said to have been buried beneath Tower Hill, at the Tower of London. The presence of ravens at the Tower is an echo of this legend and the prophecy says that if the ravens ever leave the tower, Britain will fall (hence their wings are clipped, just in case!). Interestingly this Welsh word appears in Scotland, and Strath Bran, in the north of the Trees for Life Target Area translates as 'Strath' or Valley of the Raven. They are still present there today.
Arthur, another legendary guardian of Britain, is also associated with ravens. In Cornwall, which is also steeped in Celtic lore, it was believed that Arthur didn't really die, but was magically transformed into this bird.
The Celts were a warlike people, and the presence of ravens on the battlefield would have been very familiar to them. The Irish goddess, Morrighan, had a number of different guises. In her aspect as bloodthirsty goddess of war, she was thought to be present on the battlefield in the form of a raven.
Odin, the chief of the Norse gods, was accompanied by a pair of ravens, Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory), who would fly far and wide to bring news to Odin. One of Odin's names, Hrafnagud, means the 'Raven God'.
In the Old Testament, the raven is the first bird Noah sent to look for land, and Elijah is described as being provided for by ravens. They are used as a symbol of God's providence in both the New Testament and in Christian art.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have observed the keen intelligence of this bird. It has a well-documented habit of deliberately revealing the whereabouts of deer, so that wolves can find their quarry, and leave spoils, which the ravens could eat. Even some modern deer-stalkers report that ravens will help them to locate deer, as the birds know that they will receive the 'gralloch' or guts after the deer is killed. However, there was apparently a belief among some stalkers that three ravens was a bad omen.
The indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest of North America were well aware of the raven's multifaceted nature, and Raven was revered as a major deity and something of a trickster. He features frequently in the distinctive artwork of these people.
There is probably more folklore concerning the raven than any other bird in Britain. While some of this is somewhat sinister, the more we get to know this playful and intelligent bird, the more respect we might realise it deserves.
Sources and further reading:
Anon, Gantz, J. (translator).(1976). The Mabinogion. Penguin: London.
Buczacki, S. (2002) Fauna Britannica. Hamlyn: London
Sturluson, S. 2006. The Prose Edda - Norse Mythology. Penguin: London.
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