Legendary Ravens

Ravens are majestic birds and thus inspire great and terrible legends, myths, folklore and superstitions. It is no wonder with their capacity for intelligence. Ravens have exactly the same brain-to-body ratio as dolphins and almost the same as humans. “If crows were human, their average IQ would be 135 (the average for humans is 100!)”1 With such a proclivity for intelligence it is no surprise many cultures have created elaborate myths, stories, legends, and superstitions about the raven.

The Raven in many mythological traditions was often reported to be the creator of the world. The raven is tied to the flood many thought once overtook the earth as well.

The Koyukon people, hunters living on the Koyukuk River in Alaska, believed that the great raven Dot-son-paa made the world, and that when the great flood came he placed two of every animal, bird, and insect upon a raft so that they would survive. To this day, the Koyukon people treat all wildlife with the courtesy that they accord to human beings, but make a special point of showing particular respect to the raven.

For the neighbors of the Koyukon people, the Tlingit Tribe, the raven is also important as is depicted in their beliefs.2

The [Tlingit Tribe] believed that the raven was the mythical ancestor of their race and performaned many deeds at the beginning of the world. Among these was deciding what particular task each bird should perform, where they should live and what colour their plumage was to be. One story relates that the raven decreed that the (American) Robin should give pleasure to man through its beauty, and the hummingbird through its song; another tells how he commanded all birds to dress differently so that they would be able to recognize each other—the blue jay, for example, was told to pile its hair high and tie it with a string. As for himself, the magical raven could transform himself into whatever shape he chose and could remove his feathers like a coat. As a spirit of creation he had no beginning and no end.

Ravens were worshipped and revered by the Vikings. The raven was the symbol of one of their Gods, Odin and it was said that the shields and banners of his men donned raven images. Such was the case with the Landeyda or Land ravager war banner which bore the emblem of the raven and was reputed to have been woven in one day by the granddaughter of Sigurd, a hero of Norse mythology who had the power to understand the language of the birds.((Tate, Peter (2008). Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend and Superstition. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.))

Odin owned two ravens named Hugin and Munin. Hugin represent thought and Munin, memory.  You can read more about them in this post. This myth is also belived in Ireland where the phrase ‘raven’s knowledge’ is still used to refer to anyone who appears to see and know all.3

The Vikings so admired the ravens powers of observation they even sang about them in this song:

How is it with you ravens, whence are you come

With gory beak at the dawning of the day?

You lodged last night I ween [suppose]

Where you knew the corpses were lying.

Many references in literature can be found that indicate the negative superstitions believed to be true about ravens such as found in Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta,

…the sad presaging raven, that tolls

The sick man’s passport in her hollow beak,

And in the shadow of the silent night

Doth shake contagion from her sable wings.

Or in Shakespeare’s Macbeth when Lady Macbeth welcomes the man she wishes dead, Duncan with these words:

The raven himself is hoarse

That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan

Under my battlements

This is definitely not all the legends, myths, folklores, superstitions or beliefs about the raven. We will write more in the future.

  1. Tate, Peter (2008). Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend and Superstition. New York, NY: Delacorte Press. []
  2. Tate, Peter (2008). Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend and Superstition. New York, NY: Delacorte Press. []
  3. Tate, Peter (2008). Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend and Superstition. New York, NY: Delacorte Press. []

Corvids play

Everything plays. Playing helps with motor and sensory skills as well as social behavior. It relieves stress. It teaches the young many important things needed for survival through the process of trial and error while they can still afford to make mistakes. It keeps relationships healthy. Social play helps children gain friends. Social play helps young lovers meet and flirt. Social play teaches us how to behave according to our social norms. It can give us solid practice on our role in society. Birds are no different than us. They play, although not all birds use social play. But young birds play more than fully grown birds. Bird play is often spontaneous and free-spirited. And corvids engage in all manners of play, including social play. It is easy to recognize a child playing. It can be just as easy to recognize a bird playing.

For example, when corvids play they often soar together on air currents, swoop down only to rise again over and over. It resembles a flying game of tag. Corvids also use ordinary objects as toys. They will often drop twigs, stones, leaves, or even their food midair and then catch them before they fall completely. Much like juggling or tossing a ball into the air. “One Hooded Crow repeated this performance dozens of times, catching his ‘toy’ after it had dropped about 36 feet (11 meters)”.1 He must have been one heck of a juggler. I can almost seem him as a human, throwing things up in the air and catching them in his mouth.

The following antics, corvid play was described in the Handbook of Bird Biology by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

Ravens have been observed taking turns sliding on their tails, feet first, down a snow bank as well as repeatedly sliding down smooth pieces of wood in their cages. Ravens have been seen playing with dogs, taking turns chasing it around a tree. One captive raven was observed tossing a rubber ball, pebbles, or snail shells into the air and catching them repeatedly. This same bird would often lay on its back and shift various playthings (toys) between its beak and its claws much like many children do with their toys. Other birds fell forward from a perch like an acrobat, in order to hang upside down by their feet, wings outstretched, then let go one foot at a time. While upside down, they would carry pieces of food, or shift items from beak to feet. One, while holding onto a branch with his feet, learned to propel himself around and around the perch by flapping his wings, like a gymnast on uneven parallel bars in a sort of ‘loop-the-loop. The same captive ravens also played balancing games: carefully walking out as far as possible to the end of a tiny branch until it bent downward, turning them upside down; or trying to stand on a stick or bone held in the feet, while balancing it on top of and parallel to a perch made from a thick, wooden dowel.

When given time and the resources birds will play. The corvids do. Perhaps it is the corvids extensive use of playing, allowing themselves and their young to learn and develop through playing that allows them to thrive when other bird populations are declining at an alarming rate.

Sources referenced

Podulka, Sandy, Ronald W. Rohrbaugh, Jr., and Rick Bonney, Editors. Handbook of Bird Biology. 2nd edition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2004.

  1. Podulka, Sandy, Ronald W. Rohrbaugh, Jr., and Rick Bonney, Editors. Handbook of Bird Biology. 2nd edition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2004. []