Ravens are perhaps the most common bird symbol in the mythologies and religions of ancient cultures. They assume a variety of roles, ranging from messengers of deities and sages to oracles and tricksters. They play a central part in many creation myths and are typically associated with the supernatural realms lying beyond the ordinary experience. What is so lurid about these black-feathered creatures and why does the sight of them send a wave of shivers down one’s spine? Studying the folklore of different cultures may unravel the motives underlying the superstitious beliefs and religious faiths.
In most North European mythologies birds such as ravens, vultures and others feeding on carrion—the flesh of the dead—commonly pass as symbols of war, death, and misfortune. Celtic and Irish goddesses were believed to appear in the form of a crow or a raven, gathering over the battlefields, where they would feed on the flesh of the fallen warriors. Also, seeing a raven or a crow before going into a battle gave a sense of foreboding and meant that the army would be defeated. When the giant Bran, king of Britain in Welsh mythology, was mortally wounded while warring against the Irish, he commanded his followers to behead him and carry his head to the Tower of London for his burial and as a sign of protection of Britain. A popular superstition arose declaring that if the ravens ever fled the Tower of London, the monarchy would fall. As long as they nested there, Britain would never be successfully invaded. In medieval times, these pagan legends resulted in demonetization of crows and ravens, which were consequently depicted as familiars of witches.
However, the raven as a symbol, also have a positive interpretation. The omniscient god Odin, one of the chief gods in Norse mythology, had a pair ravens called Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Mind) perching on his shoulders. Each daybreak they were sent out into the world to observe what was happening and question everybody, even the dead. By sunrise, they would come back to whisper their master what they had seen and learned. Since they embodied Odin’s mind and thoughts, they symbolized his ability to see into the future. The book also makes a mention of an early Norse poem Hrafnagaldur Óðins (Odin’s Raven Chant), in which Odin sends the ravens to the Underworld to investigate the disappearance of the lost goddess Idunn. Sometimes Odin himself would turn into a raven.
In North American folklore ravens are the creators of the world. Details of the creation tale differ, but essentially “the Raven”—a creature with the human body and raven’s beak—is believed to have made the world. He gave light to people, taught them to take care of themselves, make clothes, canoes and houses. He also brought vegetation, animals, and other benefits for the human kind. Much like the biblical story of Noah, he is said to have taken animals two by two on a big raft in order to save them from a massive flood. After all, he had done for the humans, he wished to marry a woman in turn, but her family refused to let her go. As a revenge, the myth says, the Raven created mosquitoes from crushed leaves to pester the humans forever.
Learn more about the raven in folklore, myths and spiritual meaning below.