Ravens on My Mind

It’s a gorgeous summer day in Colorado, so I’ve been trying to spend more time outside rather than work in my office. Today is no exception, and I’ve brought one of my cats outside to enjoy the fresh air with me.


This is Genghis Khat. He’s huge, but he’s a big sweetie. He’s been begging me all summer to let him come out while I work, so I finally broke down and got him a harness.

Meanwhile, my other cats are glaring at me from inside the house.

But as I sat at my patio grading with Genghis lounging in the grass, a sudden and loud cawing caught our attention. A large black bird had settled in the lower branches of one of our pine trees and was quite displeased to find a cat in the backyard. I’ve worked out back several times this summer, and this is the first time that I’ve seen a black bird of that size. It sat in the tree for a minute or so, insistently berating us. I’ve seen enough amateur videos of birds dive-bombing cats, so I was ready to fly to Genghis’s defense if needed (the bird was about his size), but there was no need. The bird switched to a neighboring pine, glanced at us once more, and then launched itself to the neighbor’s roof. The last sight I had of it was as it was being chased out of the neighborhood by a group of smaller birds.

The question that came to mind, though, was whether we had seen a raven or a crow. I knew it was too big to be a grackle (and later, a grackle settled on the fence, its incandescently midnight blue body a slender fraction of the size of the earlier blackbird). Years ago, I saw the famous ravens at Tower Hill in London, and for some reason, I thought ravens were not indigenous to this area–at least, that one wouldn’t encounter one within city limits. Turns out that (far from the first time) I’m wrong. There are a few types of ravens quite common throughout the US, and while they prefer non-urban areas, they are quite adaptive. So what did I see?

This bird was quite large–larger than most of the black birds I’ve seen on my walks in the neighborhood–and had a fairly deep croak. I had always thought the main difference between crows and ravens was one of size, but apparently not. Crows can get up to approximately 20″ in length with a wingspan of 36″. The common raven *is* slightly larger–often 27″ in length with a wingspan of 46″ (source), but when you consider that a robin is typically no more than 11″ in length with a wingspan of about 15″ (source), both crows and ravens are going to appear to the untrained eye (such as mine) as rather large birds, especially if they aren’t accommodating enough to sit side-by-side with their counterpart.

Apparently, the shape of the bird’s tail while in flight can also determine the type, but I didn’t have the right angle to be able to determine if it was a crow (fan) or a raven (wedge) (source). Perhaps the best indicator, then, is the sound. A crow typically caws whereas a raven croaks. So I think the bird that came to visit us, alas, was just a crow.

Odin with Hugin and Munin. 18th century Icelandic manuscript "SÁM 66", Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland.

Odin with Hugin and Munin. 18th century Icelandic manuscript “SÁM 66”, Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland.

It would have been much cooler if it had been a raven, but neither Huginn nor Muninn was out collecting intel on my activities to report back to Odin. Not that they would have anything interesting to report.

I vaguely recall writing a short analytical essay on Ben Jonson’s early seventeenth-century play Volpone for a graduate class on literary comedies, looking at the animal imagery of the characters’ names–Volpone as the fox, Corbaccio the raven, and Corvino the crow, just to name a few. I doubt I had anything original (or particularly interesting) to say in that essay, but my encounter with the crow this afternoon is encouraging me to think about just how widespread ravens are in English culture. A brief glance at the etymology of the word itself shows in particular just how pervasive and significant this word was in Germanic cultures:

Etymology of "raven, n.1 and adj." from the Oxford English Dictionary

Etymology of “raven, n.1 and adj.” from the Oxford English Dictionary

There’s the legend that King Arthur has been resurrected as a raven–hence some prohibitions about killing ravens in England (you can read more about this here), and in the Middle Welsh story The Dream of Rhonabwy, Owain mab Urien (perhaps more commonly known in his French manifestation as Ywain) is accompanied by a large flock of ravens that wreck havoc upon some of Arthur’s men (you can read Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Guest’s translation here).

In fact, ravens appear throughout medieval literature–particularly those martial and/or mythological in nature–which is not surprising given that they are scavengers; along with the wolf and the eagle, ravens appear in the trope described by F.P. Magoun as the “beasts of battle” in both Old English and Old Norse literature. Geoffrey Chaucer echoes Ovid’s story of how the raven received its dark plumage in The Manciple’s Tale. Ravens can also be masculine or feminine–for example, in the Irish epics, the Irish battle goddess the Morrígan often takes the form of a crow or raven when encountering the hero Cúchulainn.

"The Dying Cuchulain" by Oliver Sheppard (1911), now at the GPO, Dublin.

“The Dying Cuchulain” by Oliver Sheppard (1911), now at the GPO, Dublin. Notice the crow perched on the hero’s shoulder.

And the number of heraldic devices containing ravens–yikes–probably way too many to count! The image of the raven appears in the Middle English romance Richard Coer de Lyon, for example, and even further back in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as the banners of the Northmen.

And of course, ravens now play significant roles in modern fantasy, thanks to J. R. R. Tolkien’s use in The Hobbit. I love that George R. R. Martin chose ravens to be messengers in his Song of Fire and Ice series as opposed to pigeons or other birds. Ravens are, after all, some of the most intelligent birds–there’s a reason why Odin chooses them to be his eyes and ears. Just check out all of the details on Wikipedia about their capacity to communicate and learn! And the History Channel’s show The Vikings has done a great job working ravens into their storyline in subtle ways.

And the range of possible literary interpretations! Isidore of Seville and Bartholomeus Anglicus both discuss ravens, and most bestiaries echo their ideas. The Aberdeen Bestiary, for example, offers that ravens can be omens of sin or bringers of salvation:

Iterum per corvum quilibet peccator intelli\gitur, qui quasi peccatorum plumis nigrescentibus vestitur. [Again, the raven can be taken to mean a sinner, since it is clad, so to speak, with the dark plumage of sin.]

. . . .

Sed in bona significatione corvus accipitur, ut per corvum quilibet\ doctus predicator intelligatur. Unde per beatum Job dicitur: Quis preparat\ corvo escam suam, quando pulli eius ad dominum clamant, vagantes eo quod\ non habeat cibos? Corvus sicut ait beatus Gregorius, est quisque predi\cator doctus, qui magna voce clamat, dum peccatorum suorum\ memoriam quasi quandam coloris nigredinem portat. [But the raven can also be interpreted in a good sense, as a learned preacher. On this subject, it says in the book of the blessed Job: ‘Who provideth for the raven his food? when his young ones cry unto God, they wander for lack of meat’ (38:41). The raven, as the blessed Gregory says, is the learned teacher who cries out in a loud voice, carrying the memory of his sins like blackness around him.] (source)

Ravens refuse to feed their young until their feather grow and become black, and the parents can recognize them as their own. Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 79r.

Ravens refuse to feed their young until their feather grow and become black, and the parents can recognize them as their own. Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 79r.

Just as it can be difficult to distinguish a raven from a crow, so too might it be difficult to understand the significance of a raven within a literary work. Messenger from the gods? Harbinger of death? (And I haven’t even mentioned the biblical ravens or Native American ravens!) Mirrors of humanity? They are intelligent creatures who have learned to adapt to a wide variety of ecosystems. While they lack the ability to manipulate their surroundings (which distinguishes them from humanity), what can we learn from them, including what we might learn about ourselves?

And now a squirrel attempts to look nonchalant as it perches warily on the fence, watching Genghis as he sunbathes. It appears I’m being quite the disruptive force in the neighborhood today.


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