“Crows devour the eyes of the dead, when the dead have no longer need of them. But flatterers destroy the souls of the living and blind their eyes.”Epictetus, Fragments of the Discourses of Epictetus, 1st century
Cover art by Moga Alexandru
Ravens and crows are quite magical birds and some of the most well known sacred consorts of the old gods and goddesses, particularly in Nordic and Celtic cultures. They are both in the genus Corvus which includes rooks as well. The largest raven species are the Common raven and Thick-billed raven with the largest crows typically being the Torresian crow and the Hooded crow. The Carrion crow and the American crow are the two most commonly well known and observed crow species. Ravens and crows are very common throughout the entire Northern hemisphere, incredibly intelligent, prolific and resilient. All birds in the Corvus genus are considered to be some of the most intelligent birds in the world. Both the raven and crow symbolize to some cross cultural extent, intelligence, magic, prophecy, war, death, transformation and the Otherworld.
Ultimately, the raven and crow seem to be the European cross cultural consorts of seers. Whether it was to divine a death, decide a location to build a town or to interpret their motions and unique song through augury, they were seemingly integral to seership. There is an undercurrent of the possibility as well of their being involved in death practices and rituals, either organically by choice in that they were common scavengers of the dead or inviting them in as witnesses to death and to aid in the crossing over to the Otherworld. This idealism is supported also by the fact that ravens or crows were often found in old burial pits with their wings outstretched lending to a possibility of their being messengers or carriers of the spirit. Bodies may have been purposefully left in organic excarnation for this purpose as well which was quoted as occurring in Gaul after a battle where it was believed that to be consumed by carrion birds would carry their soldiers more quickly to the Otherworld. In one specific example related to druids it was said that… “Nevertheless he had in his service a druid who interpreted for him dreams and omens and the notes of wrens and ravens, and who taught him the observances which were due to the Shee that they might be favorable to him in his affairs…”1 There is another reference to a Druidess named Ala using ravens as a means of divination in the Irish Song of Omens. She mentions that she knew “…by the deep voice of the raven… by the flight of the dark raven out before you…” which was relayed after the death of her husband and her two sons.2 It’s thought that a lot of cloaks or adornments the various seers and druids would have used and worn likely included raven or crow feathers. In the Metrical Dindshenchas, an Irish cloak called a cuilche, for example, was typically made using ravens’ plumage.3 It’s possible although speculative that raven or crow feathers (among other birds, namely the mallard) were included in the Irish tuigen worn by the head Filí or Ollamh as well.
In Gaulish culture (France and Germany into Iberia), ravens and crows appear more heavily than other wild birds in burial sites and were probably purposefully captured and buried as a means of a ritual offering or again, as a liminal messenger and mediator to the Otherworld.4 Many bronze figurines were also uncovered lending to the ritual significance of ravens and crows and they frequently appeared on coinage or battle gear. They were thought to be most heavily associated with war and death, likely due to their being scavengers and readily feeding on battlefield corpses of which is consistently and frequently mentioned throughout all old European historical literature from France to Britain and Scotland. A flock of ravens or crows was somewhat unanimously known as “an unkindness of ravens” or a “murder of crows” among many other negative connotations. One of the most famous Celtic war helmets discovered in Romania features a crow on the crown where when the warrior ran, the wings would have flapped in an unsettling manner meant to instill fear in the enemy. In one story told from antiquity concerning a particular battle between the Romans and Gauls, the Roman general Valerius had an eye pecked out during battle by a crow and survived the ordeal to take the last name Corvus afterwards. Ravens and crows were known to enjoy the eyes of corpses in particular. Having a negative connotation wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it could have and likely just meant the birds were to be well minded and respected. From another perspective, being a bad omen would give greater reason for warriors to wear them in battle, seemingly, in an attempt to bring the bad omen (themselves) onto their enemies.5 If flocks were seen before a battle, that may have been perceived as a good omen in that it meant a prophecy of death for the opposing enemy.6
An interesting event was recorded by Greek geographer Artemidorus of Ephesus that discussed a harbor in Gaul called “Two Crows” in which barley cakes of two opposing people in matters of disagreement were placed on a piece of wood in an elevated location. Black birds with white feathers would come to consume the cakes and it was said that whoever had their cakes scattered rather than eaten was the winner of his case. The white feathers indicate they were likely hooded crows.7 Additionally in Gaul, there was a tribe called Brannovices, “raven fighters”. The word for raven in Gaulish was lugos, hence the god Lugus’s association with ravens and the cognates in the Irish god Lugh or Welsh Lleu were also associated. Ravens or crows specifically served the Irish hero Lugh in warning of impending enemies and danger, in this case, the Fomorians. Cathubodua, Nantosuelta and Epona were Gaulish goddesses sometimes associated with ravens or crows.8 The name Cathubodua means “battle crow”. In ancient Gaul, it was also said that the women would often wear iron collars with crows affixed to them to where the crows would fall forward considerably over their forehead. They would then often wear a veil over their head and the crow so as to shade their entire face.9 Although it’s unclear if these women were seers, it is assumed, hypothetically so. The gods and goddesses associated with prophecy were often accompanied or had an affinity or relationship to ravens or crows as well. In Greek and Roman cultures, Apollo was associated with ravens and linked in with divination. In this instance, he was able to set ravens about to watch others and be his prophetic consorts.
Ravens and crows are most often attributed through both prophecy and war in Irish folklore to the Morrigán and her shapeshifted form as Badb, or the “Badbh Catha” which also means
“battle crow”. She was said to be able to take the form of a crow and fly over battlefields during war, scaring and distracting the enemy with her war cries or just warning them of their imminent death. Similarly, she appeared as a prophecy of death in the story of Cú Chulainn when Badb came to rest on his shoulder in the form of a hooded crow to witness his death as he passed away. There are other references of ravens and shapeshifting in various versions of the tales of Cú Chulainn and as another example there is a reference to two men shapeshifting to and fro in raven form as well as a reference to Cú Chulainn keeping two ravens that prophesied, being the ravens of “knowledge and destiny, with whom are the secrets of the druids.” Additionally, one of Medb’s “half-goblin, half-women, half-sprite creatures” shapeshifted into a raven to perch on Cú Chulainn’s shoulder and incite him to engage in battle.10 In Da Derga’s Hostel, the Morrigán appears again as a crow or crow-like old hag, prophesying King Conaire’s death. She appears of course in the Táin Bó Cúailnge as a battle crow as well while conversing with the Brown Bull of Ulster. There is an interesting Irish proverb possibly related to her that someone might have said to someone they did not like or wished ill on where they would declare “The Raven’s Curse on you.”11 The Irish god Midir had two white ravens which protected his sacred mounds and one of the Dagda’s sons was named Bodb Derg, “Red Raven”. In the famous tale of Deirdre of the Sorrows, Deirdre had a waking vision related to the love of her life when she saw a raven drinking blood on the snow. She imagined a man with hair as black as the raven and blood red lips. Her nurse, bard and druid, Leborcham recognized who she was referring to as a man named Noísiu. She took pity on her and introduced her to the man despite her being held hostage by Concobar Mac Nessa.
In both Ireland and Scotland, crows or ravens in general were often interpreted as being fairies in disguise.12 They were still considered a mysterious or bad omen to see hovering round you or your home, especially in a more Christian world and it was typical to then say a protective prayer in their wake such as “…evil is near, and a death may follow, or some great disaster; therefore to turn away ill luck, say at once: May fire and water be in you, O bird of evil, and may the curse of God be on your head for ever and ever.” In the great tale of Buile Suibhne, ravens were said to be “on thy heavy silence” and used in an instance to foretell the main character’s death. They were at minimum considered an agent in the fulfillment of what was meant to be, which was not necessarily favorable and garnered both respect and fear.13 Then again, another proverb popular around the same time period claimed that “There is wisdom in the raven’s head.”14 To have “raven’s knowledge” was to mean having a seer’s supernatural powers. Indeed, there was one old story that expressed this sentiment called The Mayo Robber and Feenish the Mare in which an unsavory person stole and boiled raven’s eggs to see what the wise raven would do to bring her eggs back to life. She flew to a neighboring mountain and found a magic stone which when placed in her nest brought her eggs and raven babies back to life. In time, the young ravens grew strong and flew away. The man stole the magic stone when he had the chance and used it for his own selfish gain where after rubbing it on himself, he could foresee events, force people to do his will and know if danger was near.15
In the telling of Caithréim Thoirdhealbhaigh, the Triumphs of Turlough it was mentioned that a flock of scallcrows, a clump of ravens and a pack of wolves accompanied the army of Brian Rua alluding to a continuance of the belief expressed in Gaul that crows or ravens were a good omen to have on your side during a battle.16 There is also a well loved story of a particular King of Leinster by the name of Brandubh, “black raven” who saved his wife’s honor and his province from the High King of Ireland at the time, Aedh (Hugh) Mac Ainmire and his son Caomusca. One of the most famous Irish heroes, Bran, meaning “raven” plays a central role in the famous immram tale The Voyage of Bran. That is to say that the raven was in essence to be feared yet respected and possibly energetically harnessed in the unique power and symbology they garnered which would lend one to be named after them.17 In old Ireland, crows and ravens were said to be kept as pets as well, which harkens me back to the possibility of being aids in death practices and for what is in modern terms a death doula.18 Very often in Irish literature, hair that was black was sometimes described lovingly as “black as a raven’s wing” which lends to some level of endearment.
There is an interesting Irish story of a crow that was conversing with Fintan recorded by Douglas Hyde in the early 1900’s that is worth quoting at least partially, in full.
“The following interesting story, which, so far as I know, has never been noted, has come down to us in a late Middle Irish text from which I now translate it for the first time… The bird asking Fintan “…since he was a poet and a prophet” to tell him the greatest evils he had ever experienced. We learn from the answer that the ancient salmon in our story was really a rebirth of Fintan himself…” He goes on to describe that a crow eating his eye was the worst thing he’d experienced and the crow admits to him that it was him who took out his eye. Fintan demanded his eye back but the crow refused and went on to describe the various battles he witnessed in Ireland. “As for the Battle of Moytura in Cong: It was there thy twelve sons fell; to see them awesome was the blow, and I gnawed off each fresh body, either a hand or one foot or one eye.” The old crow it was who carried off the hand of Nuadh covered with rings, which had been lopped off in the slaughter, and which was replaced later on by a silver hand… but his real hand was the plaything of the crows’ young for seven years. He recounts all the eyes he had picked out of heroes’ heads after famous fights. It was he too who perched upon Cuchulainn’s shoulder…”19
In Scotland, the crow was and is called Badb or badh-catha as well, which in Scottish cultural context often meant a witch form. In addition to fairies as already mentioned, they may have also been considered shapeshifted witches or old hags, similarly to the hare or deer. There is of course much overlap in those beliefs and symbology as just the fact that they were black in colour would lend to a possible negative connotation in this regard similarly to the stigma surrounding black cats or dogs as shapeshifted fairies or witches. A flock of crows in Scotland was fascinatingly called a Mol-macha. The raven and crow symbolized rage, fury, violence or lunacy and in this sense a word that was described in Scottish sources as a wild goddess like the Morrigán, “ruling over carnage and battlefields were ‘Macha’s fruit crop’ for the eating.” Also, in Scottish tradition, the ashes of a burnt crow were said to be a good cure for gout.20 Again, as in Irish folklore, the raven was often quoted in Scottish proverbs or incantations as having wisdom such as the one preserved in the Carmina Gadelica Vol. 3, where it is said “Power of the raven be thine.” or “Wisdom of the raven be thine.” Its worth mentioned another black and white bird that may have been associated with prophecy is the magpie which has many rhymes that still exist today in relation to its auspicious appearance. One of the most popular comes from Scotland that goes…
“One for sorrow, two for mirth, three for a wedding, four for as birth, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret not to be told, eight for heaven, nine for hell, and ten for the devil himself”
An interesting story was passed on in Scottish folklore regarding the famous Battle of Clontarf where Irish and Norse (Scottish on both sides) forces were pitted against one another on the largest and most renowned scale of the time. A raven banner was said to bring victory to the owner but death to the bearer…
“The famous battle of Clontarf was fought on Good Friday, April 23rd, 1014. The Irish were led by their celebrated wari-ior-king, Brian Boroimhe, monarch of all Ireland, and the Danes by their Celto-Danish prince. Earl Sigurd. There was indescribable havoc on botli sides. The slaughter, as seen from the walls of Dublin, is described as resembling the work of mad reapers in a field of corn. Earl Sigurd fell. This was foretold to him by his mother, Audna, daughter of Carroll, King of Ireland, when she gave him the ‘ Raven Banner of Battle ‘ at Skidda-myre, now Skidden, in Caithness. Audna told Sigurd that the Raven Banner would always bring victory to the owner, but death to the bearer. At the battle of Clontarf every man who took up the Raven Banner fell. At last no one would take it up. Seeing this, Sigurd himself seized the banner, saying, ‘ ‘Tis meetest that the beggar himself should bear his bag.’ Immediately thereafter Sigurd fell, and with him the Norse power in Ireland. The victorious Irish slaughtered the defeated Danes with all the concentrated hate of three centuries of cruel wrong. The fall of Earl Sigurd was made known to his friends in the North through the fore-knowledge of the Valkymar, the twelve weird sisters of Northern Mythology, of whom Gray sings in his ‘ Fatal Sisters.’”21
The English hero Beowulf was also associated with ravens as they served as again, a warning of impending enemies and danger. The Welsh giant and king, Bran the Blessed (Welsh name meaning raven as well) asked to be buried with his head facing France under the tower of London so that he will protect the country from invasion. In the spirit of this tale, the tower of London famously still keeps six ravens as a form of magical protection in relation to Bran. There is a long held superstition that “If the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the crown will fall and Britain with it.” King Arthur himself was said to have changed into the form of a raven after his death. The famous Welsh poet Taliesin referenced the raven saying, “I have fled in the shape of a raven, scarcely finding rest.” In the Mabinogi, and the Dream of Rhonabwy, Owain, prince of Rheged had a magical crow which always secured him victory in battle and was aided by three hundred other crows under its guidance.
In Nordic mythology and culture, ravens were also companions of prophecy most famously for the god Óðinn. Óðinn is also aptly called Hrafnaguð, “raven god” and skilled in the Norse prophetical art of Seidr taught to him by Freya. Óðinn’s two crows are named Huginn, “thought” and Muninn, “memory”. They fly all over the world at night and come to rest on his shoulders telling him what they have seen and heard. Norse Valkyries were associated with ravens and crows as well in that they were known to converse with them for being the spiritual and Otherworldly messengers they were and are. Valkyries, the “chooser of the slain” were the female warriors who guided worthy souls to Valhalla. Ravens are tightly linked with Norse mythology overall in general as well as the concepts of fylgja, keeping a supernatural consort connected to fate and hamingja, a female guardian spirit and shape shifter that impacted an individual or family’s luck and happiness. It was famously said that when one of the first Norsemen, Floki Vilgerdarson sailed to Iceland in 867, he took three ravens as guides.22 The raven banner was famously used (as already mentioned) by a number of Viking warlords in Norse tradition such as the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok.
As in times of old through to the present, the interpretation of the raven or crow being positive or negative would depend on the person, personal beliefs, context and perspective. It depends on how their energy is presenting and if we are recognizing their energy from a place of respect and empowerment or simply witnessing one in nature. A raven or crow could be a benign message or one of an omen and it’s up to ourselves to interpret and decide which they are relaying and which role they are playing in our life. Their role could be completely passive or integral, depending on our own spiritual beliefs and who and what we are calling in for ourselves. In the spirit of being associated with death, this could also be an association with transformation and the symbolic death of our prior selves. Similarly to death, personal and spiritual growth that is brought on by traumatic events in life, is often dark and painful, but necessary. Again, in association with the druids, other European seers and powerful sacred figures or archetypes, ravens and crows have a more nuanced role that is well steeped in equal parts light and darkness. They are undoubtedly a bird related to prophecy and liminality, of death practices and of the Otherworld. As in all other animals in nature, I give them a wide breadth and have deep respect for their intelligence, beauty and power.
- O’Grady, Standish. History of Ireland. London, Sampson Low, Seattle, Marston & Ribington, 1878. Pg. 253.
- Nall, Mr. and Mrs. S.C. Ireland, It’s Scenery, Character and History, Vol. 2. Boston, Francis A Niccolss & Company, 1911. Pg. 414.
- Gwynn, Edward. The Metrical Dindshenchas Vol. 3. Dublin, 1913. Pg. 524.
- Green, Miranda. Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. Pg. 52.
- Pliny the Elder. The Natural History. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. London. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855. 10.14.
- Cussans, Thomas. Farndon, John. Kay, Ann. Parker, Phillip. A History of Magic, Witchcraft and the Occult. DK London, 2020. Pg. 66.
- J.A. MacCulloch. The Religion of the Ancient Celts. 1911. Pg. 248.
- Matson, Gienna. Celtic Mythology A to Z, 2nd edition. Chelsea House, 2010. Pg. 10.
- Strabo. The Geography of Strabo. Literally translated, with notes, in three volumes. London. George Bell & Sons. 1903. Ch. 4. 3.4.
- Hull, Eleanor. Cuchulain, The Hound of Ulster. New York, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, Pg. 183, 256.
- O’ Sullivan, Patrick. Irish Superstitions and Legends of Animals and Birds. The Mercier Press, 1994. Pg. 35.
- O’ Sullivan, Patrick. Irish Superstitions and Legends of Animals and Birds. The Mercier Press, 1994. Pg. 38.
- Wood-martin, W.G. Pagan Ireland. London, Longmans, Green and Co., 1895. Pg. 128.
- Wilde, Lady. Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages of Ireland. London: Ward and Downey, 1890. Pg. 61.
- Wilde, Lady. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms & Superstitions of Ireland. London: Chatto & Windus, 1919. Pg. 273.
- Mac Ruaidhrí Mac Craith, Sean. Triumphs of Turlough. Trans. by Standish Hayes O’Grady. University College Cork. pg. 93, 99.
- Kennedy, Patrick. The Bardic Stories of Ireland. Dublin, 1871. Pg. 206.
- Joyce, P.W. A Social History Vol 2. Longmans Green and Co., 1903. Pg. 516.
- Hyde, D. Legends of Saints and Sinners. T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1915. Pg. 41 – 42.
- Forbes, Alexander Robert. Gaelic Names of Beasts. Edinburgh, 1905. Pg. 257.
- Carmichael, Alexander. Carmina Gaelic, Vol. 2. Edinburgh, 1900. Pg. 203.
- Cussans, Thomas. Farndon, John. Kay, Ann. Parker, Phillip. A History of Magic, Witchcraft and the Occult. DK London, 2020. Pg. 66.