This is from my old Witchvox article, from years ago. I’ve grown, changed, and evolved since then – but this article is still a gem in my research. This article was featured in the Beltane Papers.
We’ve all seen them – Crows, Magpies, Ravens, Rooks… Sometimes minding their own affairs, but more often than not they are into mischief or a part of our daily lives. Crows and Ravens are the creatures of the otherworld, and are also portents of omens, magic, war, death, regeneration, and prophecy. And in truth, anything black was considered a creature of the devil, such as black dogs (the howling of a dog was the announcement of death, and dogs have had a long deep association with death and the otherworld), black cats (up until the 19th century crows or ravens were seen as witches in disguise, a bad omen as ill-wished as the crow in seeing or crossing paths with like a black cat; and as well as up to 1922 in Somerset the black cat was considered to be a creature of the devil, but to own one was to have its owner looked upon as having a lucky talisman – showing the duality of the folklore), black horses, and also black birds of most types, such as magpies.
Two crows seen was called a “corbie coupling,”; from the latin word for crow (coracicus, corvinus). Its powers of omens stopped inaugurations of Archbishops (Such as with Adamson of St. Andrews in 1586 by a man named David Ferguson saying the crow was cawing “Corrupt!” in portent to the intended Archbishop) to battles, to births, peace, etc.
And later on, it is still linked to agriculture, as we have the scarecrows, and the folk art of the crow always with the harvest, and even in modern France there is a festival dedicated to this bird in the light of agriculture. And anyone who has lived with crows, knows them as more than mere birds, some call them “feathered humans”; in their ability to speak, and bond with humans.
Travelers would look to see a raven to foretell a fruitful journey, or one of ill-luck or death. In 40 B.C. Virgil writes in his Eclogue IX “If a timely raven on my left hand had not warned me at all costs to cut short this last dispute, neither your friend Moeris nor Menacles would be alive today.” As well as folkloric sayings of “As a crow flies” in relation to describing distance and time relations.
Using the bird’s gifts of omens and prophecy was against church law in the middle ages. The 12th century Bartholomew of Exeter’s “Penitential,” writes, “He who believes that anything comes out favorably or unfavorably because of the croaking of a young crow or raven – shall do penance for seven days.” And in 1748 Smollett wrote in ‘Roderick Random,’ “As this creature is reckoned in our country a common vehicle for the devil and witches to play their pranks in, I verily believed we were haunted, and, in a violent fright, shrunk under the bed-clothes.” And don’t think the Church condemned the bird in the beginning – St. Paul the hermit was fed by a crow himself. And Noah let forth a raven first, before a dove to see if the water was receeding.
In 1652 Gaule’s Mag-astro-mances writes, “To bode good or bad luck from a crow lighting from the right hand, or the left.”
And let us not forget the very old rhyme: “One crow for news, two for mirth, three crows a wedding, four a birth…” And sometimes it is interchanged with magpies as well. These creatures were looked at as omens for many generations, for one reason or another.
And interestingly enough, Celtic coins from the Roman period depict a crow riding on the back of horses, and thus linking such deities as Macha, Epona, Nantosuelta, Rhiannon, Morrigan, and others together. What that link is I think is best left to your own interpretations.
And in America, to “eat crow” comes from the war of 1812, from an altercation between the British and Americans, with the trespassing American shot a crow, and the British officer forced the trespasser to eat the bird he shot, and after the gun was returned, the American forced the British officer to eat part of the bird himself. It is a phrase referring to humiliation, as well as “eating your own words.”
Corvids are monogamous creatures, whom are very social and loyal to their flocks. They mate for life, and in such cases as Rooks they stay with their flock all year round. Ravens are the largest of this family of birds, and their intelligence and adaptability has been noted for generations, although, they tend to be solitary creatures, unlike crows and magpies. And modern scientists are realizing the immense intelligence of this bird, as it has been seen to have the intellectual capacities of a three year old child, in its ability to reason, comprehend, and even communicate indicating a vocabulary that would make any African-Grey parrot envious. And there are many humans who have bonded with these birds, some sit on their shoulders, others venture into their houses, and share lives as members of the family.
There are other aspects to this bird, such as its “funeral,” when one of the murder or unkindness dies. I myself had the honor of seeing this humbling and solemn event, and this is how it went: The entire flock (or murder, unkindness, etc.) gather, and caw very loudly in a chaotic mass of noise. Then suddenly silence, and the mate of the crow (Or so it seems, anyway – it is only a guess from my observations) caws alone, and there is a thunderous moment of silence, the one I witnessed lasting fifteen minutes. Then suddenly they just fly away, leaving the corpse to the elements, and I did not see them return to the body ever again – it was a very emotional experience that certainly opened my eyes to these complex birds.
Many have noticed the community feeling with crows and ravens, and have witnessed crows in the garbage cans or dumpsters, with one or two as “look-outs,” as they rummage. One even watched a crow figure out how to carry four cranberries in its beak at once, which amazed the woman at its impromptu thinking skills. My own bird-bath has been soiled by the food of crows, as they dampen the food to bring nourishment and water to the nest, in one trip. And of course, where there is food, there are crows.
There are many gods, and goddesses associated with this supernatural bird. Such deities as Eriu have connections to the raven, as does Odin (with Huginn meaning “memory”, and Muninn meaning “thought” on his shoulders – which apart from telling Odin of the happenings of the world, some say they represent the constructive principles of thought and memory itself), Sucellos (‘Great-Striker’) , Lugh, Badb (‘Raven’), Nantosuelta (‘She of the sun-warmed valley’), Morrigan (‘Great Queen’), Macha, Anu and even the Cailleach Bheure to name but a small few.
Throughout mythology the Raven is the great shape-shifter, the bearer of prophecy, and metamorphosis. It knows the laws of magic, the boundaries of the otherworld, and heralds when a spirit has left its body (such as when one perched on Cuchulainn’s shoulder, to herald his death was complete, as being seen on the battlefields, heralded the deaths of the fallen, as well as eating the flesh on the battlefield) as well as in the Mabinogion, the raven is associated with “Bran the Blessed.” And being able to find nourishment from even the most fowl of carcasses was an act of the supernatural in itself – turning death into life, linking it to regeneration.
The Raven is not only the totem of the warrior purely- but of the supernatural itself as well. Many who have been in battles would tell that it can be supernatural in themselves. Turning death into life, and can take you to meet the dead in the Otherworld, their sighting on the battlefield (along with wolves, wild dogs, buzzards, eagles and other carrion creatures) is in a Scottish folkloric maxim of “Going up the Crow Road,” and that implies the act of dying. The goddess Morrigan summoned the birds to feast on the fallen dead after a battle. So it is natural to be seen on a battlefield, with death, omens, and prophecies being heralded by the cawing of a Raven or Crow, as well as their associations in other mythologies such as the Native American mythology.
In Native American Mythology, the Raven is “Tulugaq,” and in his own myths he brings the alternating periods of day and night, after hunting down a whale-like beast that lived in the dark primeval waters off the coast of Alaska. The Raven in many Northwestern coast tribes was the trickster hero, using magic to win the day through cunning, and guile. And also in Native myths, the Raven brought fire to man, and thus was the savior of mankind by pecking the leather bag of which daylight was kept, being stolen by the guile of the Raven. Raven also stole water and created rivers and lakes on his flight away from the situation in Haida myths.
In other myths around the world also, Greece gave the crow as the animal symbol of Apollo and Athene, as well as Rome’s belief that the crow was cawing “Cras” which means “tomorrow,” – and was a prophecy. And also here Crow tells her story to Raven right before Aesculapius is born. Being the King’s daughter won the love of Poseidon (and in Roman myths it was Neptune). When Poseidon intended to take her forcefully, Aesculapius called to the gods, and Athene heard, and turned her into a crow to escape his wiles. And thus she became her attendant (and in Roman myth, it was Minerva).
In China it is shown on the solar disc with three legs, as an imperial symbol. It was said to be black because of its close relation to the sun, and even the rising and fall of the sun was said to be where a crow was. And in both China and Japan, the raven was a possible symbol of family unity and love. Shinto has the crow, with its role as the messenger and oracle. Africa has the raven, as a guide, who warns of dangers to people and their tribes.
All too often many carrion birds get a bad rap, because of their diet. Such birds as the Vulture, Starling, Raven, Crow, Falcons, Hawks, Kites, Eagles, Condors, Magpies and others are said in phrases such as “They shouldn’t be here” or “Evil,” because they are resourceful enough to find nourishment – from even human corpses, to animal corpses and even rotten food. The ancient peoples considered this an immense power, whereas many other animals cannot eat this flesh, these birds are not only able, but are rejuvenated by the meal.
The Raven was the symbol of prophesy, and was the messenger of the Gods in Irish and Welsh mythology. And in the Welsh mythology Afagddu who was the son of Cerridwen was also known as “Sea Raven,” or “Raven of the Sea;” and it was intended from his mother the gift of inspiration. Crows and Ravens are the masters of magic, life and of course, death. And not to be lastly mentioned, they are linked with sovereignty – as with the Tower of London, if the ravens fly away, England will fall; so their wings are clipped to prevent this from happening.
Dearg Corra, a figure from the Fenian Cycle of Irish literature has a blackbird sitting on his shoulder, many have speculated to be a crow or raven. In the lore it tells of Dearg being found by Finn after being banished from the camp through Finn’s jealousy. Dearg was sitting on top of a tree, with the bird on his right shoulder, a bronze vessel in his left hand, eating nuts and giving half of it to the blackbird, and ate the remaining half himself. At the base of the tree was a stag, who shared an apple with Dearg Corra, and the stag had the remaining half. Then lastly the stag, blackbird, and Dearg drank together from the bronze vessel.
Crows and ravens have a complex folklore, but too many only focus on one or another aspect of them – when it is a supernatural creature, which can encompass and possess many talents and gifts, thus many gods and goddesses were partial to them. They are no more evil than black dogs, black cats, owls (also a portent of evil, death, and conflict in folklore), or black horses. They are no more one thing than another, and it is in this light that many are missing the big picture – the crow or raven is a fascinating and multi-talented creature, capable of being taught or its talents called upon to do just about anything, from talk, to unlocking puzzles (and in the country, doors and windows too!) to cawing and alerting its unkindness’ members of danger, to many other things. Out in the rural areas of Colorado, into the corn-field seas of agrarian landscapes and you will see crows sitting on telephone wires, or fences, or in the local towns, rummaging in the dumpster. They are extremely adaptable, social (even with humans and other animals), and badly misunderstood.
So the next time you see a crow or raven, a local superstition from my small town that has crows hanging on the telephone wires, making them sag, say: To give them a bit to eat, and the act will bring good luck.