Legends of the Raven’s caw

Latin speakers interpreted the raven's call "Cras! Cras!" to mean "Tomorrow! Tomorrow!" And this soon became the symbol of the foolish sinner who puts off conversion. While others thought it symbolized the hope of something new or a better day. Here is an example from the 15th century depiction of a crow saying "cras cras", which is not only an onomatopoeia but also means, according to the author, in Latin: “Tomorrow… you’ll die”. Actually it can be translated by an ominous “Tomorrow, tomorrow” and again, what this meant to different people could be very different. This picture makes it a little more ominous!   To the North American Eskimos, the raven's cry sounded like "Kak, kak, kak!" which means 'a deer-skin blanket.' According to their legends, the raven's cries warned people not to forget their blankets when they moved.
Photo by Kotsuis Hohhug
As intelligent as these birds are, it isn't such a stretch of the imagination that the ravens could have been trying to help the Eskimos so they could survive. If they survived, then the ravens could eat the carcasses of the animals hunted. They could live near by and thus reduce their own work hunting. Who knows?

St. Kevin and Crows

Art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

After learning all about Saint Benedict of Nursia and his affiliation with crows, I did some research on other saints and crows. I found St. Kevin, the Patron Saint of Crows! How cool is that? Who knew? Well, apparently some people. He was born in 498 and reportedly died 120 years later in 618. He is also the Patron Saint of Ireland, Dublin, Glendalough and crows to be exact. Saint Kevin of Glendalough. He is often depicted with crows and is said to have preferred the company of animals to humans. So strong was his preference for animals, songs with his story tell of him drowning a woman who tried to seduce him. Yet, he was said to have infinite patience and kindness?1 Even deemed the "gentle one". Legend says he once allowed a crow to lay an egg in his palm and he held it safely until the egg hatched and the little bird flew away. It would seem those who thought him gentle were much more impressed by his skills with animals than his people skills.

Seamus Heaney wrote the following about St. Kevin,2
"And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird. The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside His cell, but the cell is narrow, so One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands and Lays in it and settles down to nest."
Art by LINDA JAQUES
  Sources: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/lasi/lasi03.htm http://patriarts.com/Kevin/Kevin%20manuscript1.htm http://asinnersguidetothesaints.blogspot.com/2010/06/st-kevin-of-glendalough-498-to-june-3.html http://patriarts.com/Kevin/Kevin.htm http://saintspreserved.com/Kevin/St_Kevin.htm http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kevin_of_Glendalough http://saints.sqpn.com/saint-kevin-of-glendalough/
  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kevin_of_Glendalough []
  2. http://asinnersguidetothesaints.blogspot.com/2010/06/st-kevin-of-glendalough-498-to-june-3.html []

Saint Benedict of Nursia

Original photo from the Saint Martin's University website.
    While driving around a beautiful university campus I came across a monastery with a lovely statue in front. It was a bronze statue of Saint Benedict of Nursia with a book in one hand a crow on his shoulder. I had not previously read about this saint or his story. But I found it interesting that he is depicted most times with crows. Here are a couple pictures of the statue I saw on the lawn near the abbey at Saint Martin's University in Olympia, Washington. (They are not the greatest because I felt rude going on the lawn to get head on shots. Maybe next time I go I will ask if for permission.)
Bronze statue of Saint Benedict of Nursia seen at the Saint Martin's University in Olympia, WA.
   

According to the Saint Martin's University website,1

The dynamic, larger-than-life, bronze statue of Saint Benedict of Nursia, Father of Western monasticism and patron saint of the Catholic Benedictine order, stands near the Abbey Church. The statue, by Russian-born artist Simon Kogan, is a reminder of the 1,500-year-old Benedictine heritage that is part of the fabric of Saint Martin's. Among the hallmarks are hospitality, service and a commitment to work, prayer and learning.

 
Bronze statue of Saint Benedict of Nursia seen at the Saint Martin's University in Olympia, WA.
  Crows were important to Saint Benedict of Nursia according to the French legend of the monk, Benedict of Nursia, who is known as the father of the monastic rule of the Benedictines. In French, a saying, "D'or aux trois corbeaux de sable posés deux et un" which translates into "Of gold, three sand crows posed two and one" denotes this very legend. It was said that Saint Benedict lived within a cave far away from the people and shared his food faithfully with a crow who visited him daily. This crow grew to love the monk and Saint Benedict grew to love the crow(s). A jealous priest sent poisoned bread to kill Saint Benedict but he was wise and gave it to the crows telling them to throw in a place far, far, far from any man. And so the crows did as he said and became the symbol of obligingness, intelligence and fidelity.23456 Another spin on the legend makes it Saint Benedict and the raven from the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great,7  
When as the foresaid monasteries were zealous in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, and their fame dispersed far and near, and many gave over the secular life, and subdued the passions of their soul, under the light yoke of our Saviour: then (as the manner of wicked people is, to envy at that virtue which themselves desire not to follow) one Florentius, Priest of a church nearby, and grandfather to Florentius our sub-deacon, possessed with diabolical malice, began to envy the holy man's [Benedict's] virtues, to back-bite his manner of living, and to withdraw as many as he could from going to visit him. When he saw that he could not hinder his virtuous proceedings, but that, on the contrary, the fame of his holy life increased, and many daily, on the very report of his sanctity, took themselves to a better state of life : burning more and more with the coals of envy, he became far worse; and though he desired not to imitate his commendable life, yet fain he would have had the reputation of his virtuous conversation. In conclusion so much did malicious envy blind him, and so far did he wade in that sin, that he poisoned a loaf and sent it to the servant of almighty God, as it were for a holy present. The man of God received it with great thanks, yet not ignorant of that which was hidden within. At dinner time, a crow daily used to come to him from the next wood, which took bread at his hands; coming that day after his manner, the man of God threw him the loaf which the Priest had sent him, giving him this charge: "In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, take up that loaf, and leave it in some such place where no man may find it." Then the crow, opening his mouth, and lifting up his wings, began to hop up and down about the loaf, and after his manner to cry out, as though he would have said that he was willing to obey, and yet could not do what he was commanded. The man of God again and again bide him, saying: "Take it up without fear, and throw it where no man may find it." At length, with much ado, the crow took it up, and flew away, and after three hours, having dispatched the loaf, he returned again, and received his usual allowance from the man of God.
 
Bronze statue of Saint Benedict of Nursia seen at the Saint Martin's University in Olympia, WA.
  In my research on Saint Benedict of Nursia, I found this other statue depicting him with crows, as well. The legends all include his love for crows and how he helps them and they help him. This makes him a memorable saint for me. An old-school corvid lover. =)
"Saint Benedict" by Br. David Paul Lange OSB - Photo: Mary van Balen
  1. http://www.stmartin.edu/about/tour/BenedictStatue.aspx []
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoenheim []
  3. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02467b.htm []
  4. http://www.idahomonks.org/sect501.htm []
  5. http://ionarts.blogspot.com/2008/07/feast-of-st-benedict.html []
  6. http://www.indiana.edu/~engs/benpamphlet.html []
  7. http://www.fisheaters.com/animals4.html []

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. []

Rooks, Easter Lore and More

Like many in the corvid family Rooks are attached to many legends, myths, lore and superstitions. In Shropshire, it was believed that rooks never carried sticks to their nests on Sundays or Ascension Day, but simply sat quietly on trees and did not work. It was also believed to be futile to wear new clothes on Easter because the rooks would fly above and poop on them. Quite the opposite was said to be true as well. Some believed if you were hit by bird poop it was because you did not wear new or nice enough clothes on Easter. It was the Rook that was believed to make the decision if your Easter attire was nice enough. And it was the Rook who would carry out the punishment as well. It was a dirty job but somebody had to keep those English people well dressed on Easter. Rooks deserting a rookery were (and in some places still are) also thought to be an indication of a death coming. They were also looked to for predicting weather conditions for many. Such was the case in Devon, England where it was assumed that should the Rooks stay in the vicinity of their nests in the middle of the day, or return to the rookery early, then rain would follow, but if they flew far away, then fine weather would follow instead. And in Yorkshire, the saying went that if the rooks congreated on dead branches of trees, rain wuold come before nightfall, but if they perched on live branches it would be fine and dry.1 The rook is a predatory bird, cunning and intelligent, it will do most anything to survive. This is true for most corvids. But because of its sneaky nature it has gotten a reputation. The root of its name "rook" means 'to rook' or cheat someone. The distrust for rooks has long since held true in many places. In 19th century London a criminal ladened slums in the East End were referred to as a 'rookery'. This was indicative of the rook's sneaky nature but also a comment on the way they build their nests very close together---crowding in---similar to the slums. The name Rook is descendant of the Latin word frugilegus which means acquisitive. Fitting for the bird as Rooks often like to take objects including twigs and other nesting materials from other nests.2
  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. []

Magpie (pica pica) Rhymes

One for sorrow Two for joy Three for a girl Four for a boy Five for silver Six for gold Seven for a secret never to be told. _____________________________________ One for sorrow Two for mirth Three for a wedding Four for a birth Five for heaven Six for hell Seven you'll see the de'il himsel' _______________________________ One for sorrow, two for joy; Three for a girl, four for a boy; Five for silver, six for gold; Seven for a secret, never to be told; Eight for a wish, nine for a kiss; Ten for a bird that's best to miss. _________________________________ I cross the magpie The magpie crosses me, Back luck to the magpie, And good luck to me. ________________________________

Ravens in Norse Mythology

Ravens have often been featured in myths and legends, stories, poems, and religious beliefs. For example, the Norse God Odin was said to have a pair of ravens, Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory). They were said to travel the world from early morning to late into the evening each and every day in search of information and news from every corner of this planet to bring back to Odin. Upon their return every evening they would whisper what they learned into his ear as they perched upon his shoulder. It is the story of Huginn and Muninn from which Odin's nickname, the raven-god was born. In Grímnismál the ravens are mentioned:
The whole world wide, every day,
fly Huginn and Muninn;
I worry lest Huginn should fall in flight,
yet more I fear for Muninn.
Another translation reads, Every morning the two ravens Huginn and Muninn, are loosed and fly over Midgard; I always fear that Thought may not wing his way home, but my fear for Memory is greater.1
  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugin_and_Munin []

Uncatchable

According to a story in Ovid's Metamorphoses, there once was a virgin princess, a girl so beautiful that she attracted the attention of the lecherous sea god, Poseidon. When sweet words failed to seduce her, the hot-blooded Poseidon attempted to take her by force, and the girl called to the heavens for help. Her plea was answered by the virgin Athena, goddess of wisdom and war, who turned the vulnerable princess into a hard-to-catch crow. "I was stretching out my arms to the sky," Crow says, in Ovid's telling;"those arms began to darken with soft plumage. I tried to lift my cloak from my shoulders but it had turned to feathers with roots deep in my skin. I tried to beat my naked breast with my hands but found that I had neither hands nor naked breast." Once airborne, Crow escaped with her virtue intact and entered Athena's service.1
  1. Savage, Candace. Crows : Encounters with the Wise Guys. New York: Greystone Books, 2005. Via Ovid's Metamorphoses. []

Demon Bird

Creative Commons -- I did NOT take this photograph
During the witch craze in Western Europe, ravens and crows were sometimes feared as demons. In Strathnaver, Scotland, for example, in the seventeenth century, an entire congregation of prayerful souls was seized with dread when they sensed a spectral raven in the house with them. Evil emanated from this shadowy presence, and the people were paralyzed with fear. A day passed and then another, and the group decided to sacrifice the house-holder's son to the bird spirit. And so they would have done had it not been for the intervention of a servant. Eventually, neighbors rallied to tear the roof off the house, and the raven's dire spell was broken.1
  1. Source: Savage, Candace. Crows : Encounters with the Wise Guys. New York: Greystone Books, 2005. []