Raven Mythology

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For centuries the corvids, ravens and crows in particular (corvus corax is the Latin name for the common raven and corvus corone for the carrion and hooded crows), have had a special place in the mythology of various cultures. In modern times this fascination has barely diminished. From Edgar Allen Poe’s literary classic to the film of James O’Barr’s cult graphic novel “The Crow”, these birds still exert a powerful hold over the psyche of a significant fraction of the population. The Goths who paint their faces with white make-up and the weekend warriors who expect Raven to take them to the Otherworld to meet the dead do not see the same animal as the farmers who set up decoys in order to shoot large numbers of them every year in late spring. This is, however, typical of a creature that presents a paradox wherever one looks.

Corvids are sociable birds. They tend to form social groups, and this can be seen particularly in the case of rooks, which stay in their flocks all year round. Ravens, the largest of the family, reaching as much as 3 feet from beak to tail, form groups as juveniles, pairing off into lifelong monogamous and extremely territorial relationships at around the age of three. The courtship can involve such fun and games as synchronised snow sliding, and, of course, the synchronised flight test. The corvids can be found all over the world, and are the largest of the passeriformae, or songbirds. The common raven is widely distributed throughout the Northern hemisphere, and the adaptability and intelligence of this family have made it extremely successful.
As far as the mythology goes, the first confusion arises over the distinction between Crow and Raven, at least on the European side of the Atlantic. The two appear, in many instances, to be interchangeable, and the appearance of one or the other in a story depends as much on which author is transcribing it as it does on story itself. Whereas John Matthews 1 gives Bran the raven almost exclusively, Miranda Jane Green 2 ascribes to the God’s companion animal either the crow or the raven, much as both authors do for the Morrigan. The confusion on the American side of the Atlantic is not so profound. There is a distinct geographical trend in the likelihood of Raven appearing in a story, and so we will start our examination there.

Whereas ravens appear almost exclusively as signatory animals for deities in Europe, in the shamanic cultures of aboriginal North American tribes Raven appears as deity himself. From a dichotomy of cultures, we reach a dichotomy of characterisation, for Raven in America, particularly the Northwest coast region, is both demiurge and trickster, both hero and villain, and often at one and the same time.

Raven appears as simple Raven, as Dotson’ Sa (Great Raven), as Nankilstlas (He Whose Voice Must Be Obeyed) and also, in a Tlingit creation myth, as Nascakiyetl (Raven-at-the-Head-of-Nass, the Nass being a river). In nearly every single creation myth of the region I have encountered, Raven, in one of his guises, is either the actual creator of the world, or has a great part to play in it. In many, such as the Tlingit myth just mentioned, Raven appears in more than one of his guises – in this case both as Nascakiyetl, and as Yetl, the Raven. This is possible because of the personification of the animal characters in the culture. Animals can take on human form without a second thought (although Raven is the greatest shapeshifter of them all, being able to change into anyone and anything to get what he wants), and can also lead human style lives. Orca, for instance, is the Chief of his own underwater city, and the drowned go to live there with the killer whales, according to the Haida people.

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