I. A. Ashcroft's Blog: Myths, Magic, and Curios

Myths, Magic, and Curios: A Blog

Ravens in Mythology and Literature: Part 1

Happy Halloween, friends! This post is the first in a series studying the real-life enigmatic creatures that populate the world of the Inoki's Game books: beginning with the raven, harbinger of the story's dark, magical visions. The original version of my article was featured at To Read or Not to Read, though it has since been edited and expanded upon for use here.

Imagine the clicking of talons, a rustle of shiny black feathers.

You hear a laugh, eerily like a human giggle—but alien. Unsettling.

Behold: the raven.

Perhaps you see the creature in an apothecary. Perhaps it's perched atop a fresh corpse on the battlefield. But the image begins to form, easy, quick. Very few beings have lodged themselves so firmly in our minds' eyes as ravens have (and in our stories). They are symbols of death, rebirth, war, knowledge, the occult, luck, and so much more—creatures that hold mythological immortality.

Perhaps you're hearing a quirky, rough voice coming from your imagined raven now: "Nevermore!", it cries. Edgar Allen Poe's tragic and chilling poetry featured these creatures in a way that endured through decades of imagination. But the world's love affair with these feathered portents of fate began thousands of years before Poe.

Let us first remember the Norse god Odin's two companions: Huginn ("thought") and Muninn ("memory" or "desire", depending on your source). They travel the world on his behalf, bringing back knowledge and news. Wise Odin sometimes fears for them on their far-reaching travels: he says one day, they may not return, and though he would grieve Huginn's loss, he would miss Muninn the most.

Gerhard Munthe: Illustration for Harald Hårfagres saga, 1899

Odin has never been a god of trifling matters; his tales are steeped in blood and magic and prophecy. That the ravens should be some of his closest companions is telling. Even more so is that their very species name in Old Norse, hrafn, was used as a kenning to speak of bloodshed. Odin's other favorite animal allies were wolves, and both followed the battlefields by his side, gorging themselves on the spectacles of war he presided over.

As above, so below. Ravens and wolves share a kinship even in the mortal plane. When ravens find kills they cannot open themselves, they have been known to use their astonishing powers of mimicry to draw nearby wolf packs, getting them to rip open a carcass for all to enjoy. Frighteningly intelligent creatures, these god companions. Did you know they regularly use tools? Did you know that ravens may have as many neurons in their brains as a primate? They simply pack them in more densely. So now you know where those keen, clever looks come from as they watch you, calculating.

Perhaps you will feel uneasy the next time a neighbor decides to try and exterminate them as pests. You see, they remember who is cruel to them, and who is kind. A friend to a raven often makes a friend for life.

But who else have they served? Beyond Odin, there was another god with a yen for prophecy that enjoyed the creature's company: Apollo of Greco-Roman lore. The raven was Apollo's messenger, and was said to bring luck. But there was one important distinction to be made in these tales: this raven's feathers were a pristine white!

Unfortunately for this faithful feathered companion, Apollo (like all his family) was subject to rages and jealousies, just as the mortals beneath Olympus. And one day, Apollo took a lover, the princess Coronis. She herself, however, fell for a mortal prince, and when Apollo's raven brought the news back to its master, the god scorched the bird's feathers black in his rage. He felt the raven ought to have pecked out the prince's eyes as punishment for daring to steal Coronis's gaze.

Perhaps this was unfair. Still, the raven's loyalty did not falter, and it continued its service. Maybe this is why it was set in the night sky as the constellation Corvus. Or, perhaps it found its place there from an even more ancient time. Did you know the Babylonians also held fast to the raven? In their mythology, it clings to the tail of the Serpent, which in the Greek stories became the Hydra. And where Corvus rests in the sky, you can see the constellation Hydra in its claws.

Luck and omens, death and life: there is more to tell. For hundreds of years, ravens have perched around the Tower of London. We don't know exactly when the British began keeping them there in captivity. But, we do know why: legend has it that there is a prophecy, one that says that Great Britain will fall should the ravens of the tower ever leave. So there they sit, keeping to their perches, stately and well-fed by the official Raven Keepers. Let's hope they don't decide to get a job elsewhere one day.

"Jubilee" and "Munin", Tower of London

Ravens are the often portrayed as the harbingers of downfall, of our deaths… dark wings, dark words, as G. R. R. Martin writes in Game of Thrones. But perhaps they have something to teach us about the dead; perhaps, like in Poe's story, they are messengers forcing us to confront that which we would rather not.

In Islam, it is actually the raven who taught humans how to bury their deceased. The Quran presents a version of the story of the siblings Cain and Abel, Abel lying murdered by his brother's hand. Cain and his wife didn't know what to do with the body, since humanity was so young, and there were no rituals around the dead yet invented. Then, Cain witnessed a raven burying one of its own, and decided to do the same. In Jewish folklore, there is a somewhat similar story, though this time it is Cain's father Adam learning these funeral rites.

And so, the children of these people continued to bury their loved ones for generations.

Perhaps there is always truth in a good tale. Did you know ravens really have been observed to hold "funerals"? They call out and cluster around their dead, as if saying goodbye.

And where there is death, there is life. There is a promise of rebirth. In Kenyan lore, meat offerings left to ancestors on Kilimanjaro may be reborn as the white-necked ravens native to the land. In the Bible, ravens are responsible for sustaining the prophet Elijah, bringing him food while he was in hiding after all else failed. In an Athabaskan tale from North America, it was Raven who formed the first human lives from clay (though when he tried to marry one of the women he created, the men refused it, and so he also created mosquitos as revenge.)

Haida carving, walrus ivory and shell inlay, mid-19th century

There are some who cast the clever raven as the reason we have a beautiful, livable world at all: the raven as Prometheus, bringer of fire. The Haida peoples of North America tell us this: the raven brought the world light itself, and was forever changed for it. Clever Raven was once so beautiful in his regal white feathers, catching the eye of Gray Eagle's daughter. But when he entered her family's longhouse, he saw the treasures her father Eagle hoarded: fresh water, the sun, the moon, and the very stars. Meanwhile, the people below lived in darkness, no fire nor water to comfort them. So, he stole everything, including a fire brand Eagle kept, and escaped. He hung the sun, moon, and stars in the sky. He dropped the fire brand into the rocks below (so rocks would make fire when struck). But, in the course of his journey, the smoke from the fire brand scorched his feathers pitch black.

And so his feathers remain. Perhaps you see a similarity to the tale of Apollo, the raven burned. The raven has been transformed from white to black in countless stories across the world. Why do we remember it so?

Of course, a raven isn't all black, not really. The ones who call Europe and North America home are more like something that slid out of an oil slick. They have an ethereal, blue-indigo illumination. You need to get close to see it, but it's there, beauty in the night of their form. And there is playfulness too, because ravens aren't as somber and grave as so many make them out to be. They are children; they are pranksters. They are known to treat the world as a game, outfoxing traps researchers put out for them. They cavort around in flight, taking heart-stopping dives and bounding back through the air for no reason other than pure amusement. They've been seen loitering around on a winter's day, finding a car buried by the weather—and off they go, tumbling ass over teakettle down the snowy windshield slope, chittering, laughing, dancing as if they want to do it again. They are bubbly and wild. The verve of a raven is something that must be witnessed to be believed, and it never fails to bring a smile.

Frederick Barnard: Illustration for Charles Dickens's Barnaby Rudge, 1874

And this is why they've been popular companions throughout the years to gods and mortals alike. Charles Dickens kept several in his life, loving their play and expressiveness, perhaps inspired by their stories. His favorite, Grip, made a merry game of biting his children's ankles (they did not appreciate this). Grip spent his days swaggering about, chattering, and learning new words ("Hallo old girl!" was said to be his favorite phrase). This creature inspired Dickens so much that he was allowed to strut right into the story Barnaby Rudge… a book that became a muse to a man who was about to put another talking raven to pen… a man named Poe.

So a tale comes full circle.

Beloved and inspiring, feared and respected, exterminated cruelly as pests, and treated like royalty: the raven. There is something both mystical and incorrigible in their dances, something that commands us to weave them into our stories forevermore. A hundred tales I could tell, but as raven teaches us, life does not go on forever.

Look closely in those dark, shiny eyes, and listen to their laughter… do you not see that magic spark?

~ I. A. Ashcroft

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I. A. Ashcroft lives in the American Southwest alongside a wonderful tale-spinner and two increasingly deranged cats. The author enjoys reading and pretending to be other people while rolling dice and wearing fancy hats.