Folklore and magic of crows and ravens6 min read
Both crows and ravens have appeared in a number of different mythologies throughout the ages. In some cases, these black-feathered birds are considered an omen of bad tidings, but in others, they may represent a message from the Divine.
But, above all, they have long been synonym of doom and devastation as they destroy crops, devour corpses, act as emissaries for soothsayers and gods, and are closely linked to human fortunes.
But not only, as they have long plagued farmers and gardeners by devouring their freshly planted seeds.
An old rhyme said: “One for the pigeon, one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow“.
In any case, a 16th century English Act decreed that “noyfull fowles and vermin“, including crows and rooks, were to have a bounty of twopence per dozen killed. As a result scarecrows and similar were placed in fields, and prior to the compulsory education laws of the 19th century, bird-scaring was often a rural child’s first employment.
A Gloucestershire farm labourer born in 1840 recounted how, aged four, he was paid a penny a day to scare the crows from the corn. He would stand in the fields for twelve hours a day through sun, wind or rain, without seeing a soul all day.
Farmers expected to hear the boys constantly shouting and singing and not napping under a hedge. A Warwickshire bird-scaring song ran:
“Ye pigeons and crows, away, away!
Why do you steal my master’s tea?
If he should come with his long gun,
You must fly and I must run.”
Although crows and ravens are part of the same family (Corvus), they’re not exactly the same bird. Typically, ravens are much bigger than their cousins, and they tend to be a bit “shaggier” looking.
The raven actually has more in common with hawks and other predatory birds than the standard, smaller-sized crow. In addition, although both birds have an impressive repertoire of calls and noises they make, the raven’s call is usually a bit deeper and more guttural sounding than that of the crow.
Rooks are unusual among the crow family as being gregarious and sociable.
An old saying states that “a flock of crows are rooks, and a rook on its own is a crow“. Rookeries containing hundreds of nests are found in wooded areas and sites are reused for years.
According to popular folklore, If a rookery is abandoned, the landowner’s death is imminent.
Moreover, If the nests are built high in the trees, it is a sign of a fine summer, while if they are built low, a wet and windy summer will come.
The jay is the most colourful of the crow family.
It features little in folklore but was of special importance to an ancient community in Latvia, whose graves dating from 8000-2000BCE often included articulated jay’s wings, whose feathers are a distinctive blue. The jay spends the autumn caching thousands of acorns for its winter food, while jackdaws and magpie are proverbial for collecting shiny objects. The scientific name of the jackdaw, Corvus monedula means, not by chance, “money corvid”.
Early Christian lore stated that corvids were originally white but turned black while mourning the Crucifixion, excepting the magpie which was too busy pilfering so remained partly white.
Crows and other corvids have long been considered an omen of ill-luck or death, while the magpie is still a herald of fortune.
This derives from their tendency to scavenge carrion and devour the slain on battlefields.
Carrion-eating birds it waw believed to be soul-guides, carrying the dead into the next world, and this dates back to prehistory, when the dead were excarnated, literally left for them to devour.
Crow and raven are traditionally considered wise, they are in fact among the most intelligent birds, and this wisdom stemmed from their connections to the otherworld and the divine laws of harmony known to the Anglo-Saxons as “wyrd”.
In Celtic mythology, the warrior goddess known as the Morrighan often appears in the form of a crow or is seen accompanied by a group of them. Typically, these birds appear in groups of three, and they are seen as a sign that the Morrighan is watching, or possibly getting ready to pay someone a visit.
In some tales of the Welsh myth cycle, the Mabinogion, the raven is a harbinger of death. Witches and sorcerers were believed to have the ability to transform themselves into ravens and fly away, thus enabling them to evade capture.
The Native Americans often saw the raven as a trickster, much like Coyote, and there are a number of tales regarding the mischief of Raven, who is sometimes seen also as a symbol of transformation. In the legends of various tribes, Raven is typically associated with everything from the creation of the world to the gift of sunlight to mankind, and some tribes knew the raven even as a stealer of souls.
Crows are also used as clan animals in some Native American cultures. Some include the Chippewa, the Hopi, the Tlingit, and the Pueblo tribes of the American Southwest.
For those who follow the Norse mythology, also god Odin had two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, meaning “thought” and “memory”, and their job was to serve as his spies, bringing him every secret seen or whispered each night from the land of men in every part of the world.
Anglo-Saxon wizards communicated with ravens and a once-famous Gloucestershire witch owned a jackdaw with prophetic powers.
The Welsh hero-king Bran (literally ‘raven’) who inspired many aspects of the later Arthur legends was buried at Tower Hill in London so his spirit would guard Britain, and the Tower of London’s ravens still have almost mythical status in reflecting Britain’s sovereignty.
In more recent times, jackdaws were considered sacred because of their propensity to nest in church steeples.
Crows sometimes appear also as a method of divination.
For the ancient Greeks, the crow was a symbol of Apollo in his role as god of prophecy. Augury, divination using birds, was popular among both the Greeks and the Romans, and augurs interpreted messages based on not only the color of a bird but the direction from which it flew.
For example, a crow flying in from the east or south was considered favorable.
In parts of the Appalachian mountains, a low-flying group of crows means that illness is coming—but if a crow flies over a house and calls three times, that means an impending death in the family.
If the crows call in the morning before the other birds get a chance to sing, it’s going to rain.
In some places, it’s not the sighting of a crow or raven itself, but the number that you see which is important: seeing a single crow is considered an omen of bad luck. Finding two crows, however, means good luck. Three crows mean health, and four crows mean wealth. Yet spotting five crows means sickness is coming, and witnessing six crows means death is nearby.
Even within the Christian religion, ravens hold a special significance. While they are referred to as “unclean” within the Bible, Genesis tells us that after the flood waters receded, the raven was the first bird Noah sent out from the ark to find land.
Also, in the Hebrew Talmud, ravens are credited with teaching mankind how to deal with death.
And, when Cain slew Abel, a raven showed Adam and Eve how to bury the body, because they had never done so before.
But, interestingly, despite their role as messengers of doom and gloom, it’s bad luck to kill a crow.
And, If you accidentally do so, you’re supposed to bury it. And be sure to wear black when you do!
For thousands of years, birds of the crow family have overseen our lives and our deaths. Today these beliefs are considered little more than folklore, but it would seem their original roles have little changed.
Images from web – Google Research