Ravens are by far one of my favorite animals, and it probably helps that they’re the sacred animal of the goddess I follow. These large black birds have a reputation and are commonly associated with death and war. Often confused with crows, while they look similar, there are subtle differences between the two birds. To begin with, the raven is larger than the crow, with shaggy feathers around their thicker neck. When flying, ravens also have a wedge shaped tail and longer, thinner wingtips. Ravens are also more slender than crows and less social, usually showing up either solo or in pairs unless around food. Both birds are extremely smart though, known to create complex solutions for problems that affect them. Ravens generally mate for life and will return the same nesting site year after year. These birds also have a form of play and can sometimes be seen rolling around in the snow for fun.
(Crow next to a raven)
Myths and Legends
The raven is associated with many different gods and goddesses across the world. In Greek legend they were associated with the god Apollo and believed to be signs of good luck and messengers to the otherworld. In Greek legends the raven was originally white, but this changed with Apollo sent it to spy on his lover, Coronis. When the raven informed the god that his lover was unfaithful, Apollo scorched the bird’s feathers black. Way to shoot the messenger, Apollo.
The Norse god Odin had two ravens that served as his eyes and ears in the mortal world. Named Huginn (thought) and Munninn (memory) they are often depicted sitting on each of Odin’s shoulders. Vikings used ravens in many of their symbols; both Ragnar Lodbrok and King Harald Hardrada have raven banners.
In England, ravens are closely tied with the Tower of London. The legend goes that if the ravens ever leave the tower, then the empire will fall. The first record of these ravens is in 1883, though due to the executions held there, wild ones were probably abundant before that. When Charles II was in power, he almost removed the ravens when the head astronomers kept complaining that bird poop on the lenses made it impossible to use their telescopes. However, when Charles II was informed of the legend surrounding the birds, he had the astronomy center moved instead. After World War II, the bombings of London had only left two ravens alive, a mating pair named Mabel and Grip. However, Mabel left and a few weeks later, so did Grip. Soon after this, the British Empire’s colonial holdings crumbled.
Celtic lore closely ties the raven to war and the goddess Morrígan, the goddess of war and death. During the story of Cú Chulainn, she appears many times, the first being when she is driving a cow across his land. Not recognizing her, Cú Chulainn takes this as a challenge to his sovereignty and curses her. At this moment she turns into a raven and flies to a tree. Realizing who the woman was, Cú Chulainn states that, if he had known it was her, they would not have had to part in anger, to which Morrígan replies that he would gain bad luck either way. She later appears to him in the form of a young woman and offers her company for the night, an offer he refuses. In the battle the next day, she appears in three forms, an eel, a wolf, and a red-eared cow, attempting to disrupt the battle. Cú Chulainn wounds her in each form, only to heal her when she appears in front of him as an old woman milking a cow. She gives him three drinks of milk and he blesses her with each, thus healing her, a move he regrets. Before his final battle, she is seen washing his bloody armor in the river, a sure sign that he will die. Yet, his enemies did not believe he was truly dead until Morrígan, in the form of a raven, landed on his shoulder.
In the mythology of the American Pacific Northwest, the raven plays a key role, where it is believed to be the creator of the world, but also a trickster. Like many tricksters in mythology, it was the raven who brought light to the world. When the Great Spirit created the world, he crafted boxes that kept everything separate, which he then gifted to the animals. Most of the animals opened their boxes and shared the contents, such as wind, seeds, and mountains, with the world. However the seagull, who had the box filled with light, refused to share his treasure, keeping it under his wing. Humans begged the raven to help them and so he went over to where seagull was and attempted to flatter him into giving up the box. When the seagull refused, raven got so annoyed that he drove a thorn into the other bird’s foot, causing seagull to drop the box and release the sun, moon, and stars into the world. Another story is how the raven first found humans, in a clam shell, and freed them to roam the world.