Feathered Tricksters Since the Dawn of Time
In the Bible, crows and their close cousins, ravens, were called “unclean” and with this unshakable spiritual grey cloud these bullied birds have subsequently been associated with the occult, witchcraft, and death. Neither does Islam offer these homeless birds a safe perch to land, as it holds them as one of the five animals we are “allowed” to destroy.
These two major world religions have mostly rebranded the ancient corvids as being dirty, aggressive, noisy, and destructive creatures. (See, for example, Job 38:41) However, these negative attributes mask the bird’s cleverness and problem-solving skills. Keeping a safe distance from humans is a great example of their wit - and it might be this aloofness that has caused them to penetrate so deeply into social myths, cultural folktales, philosophies, and religions of so many ancient peoples.
It is the case that when we look beyond the beliefs of these two relatively modern religions into the creation myths and folkloric systems of comparative religions, we find a time when these birds were not thought of as being spiritual and environmental menaces. In fact, before falling from grace crows and ravens were ancient superstars, key players in creation stories of the universe, carriers of divine light, and the bringers of life force.
Crows and ravens have not always been seen in a negative light. ( CC0)
Spiritual Links Between Humans and Ravens and Crows
In creation myths crows and ravens are always magical, semi-divine and able to shape-change into human or animal form, and sometimes into inanimate objects and even pure light. Often perceived as the keepers of secrets, these birds frequently played “the trickster” archetype, focusing on satisfying their own greed, regardless of the requirements of the greater community. But this wasn’t always as negative as it might sound, because in ancient cultures the trickster was the survivor, the wriest and wittiest, and the most charming and inventive.
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As far back as 15,000 BC, human beings living in what is now Europe perceived some kind of spiritual relationship with crows and ravens. This is evident in a painting in Lascaux cave in France. Depicting a person with a crow’s head, archeologists see this crow-man as an insight into the totemic beliefs of the people and how they perceived the journey of the soul after death.
The famous shaft scene of Lascaux depicting a man with a crow’s head looking at a bison. (Peter80/ CC BY SA 2.5 )
In the ambitious 2005 BBC television series, How Art Made the World, professor of classical art and archeology at the University of Cambridge, Nigel Spivey, postulated that “dot and lattice patterns overlapping the representational images of animals are very similar to hallucinations provoked by sensory-deprivation.” He went so far as to say that “culturally important animals and these hallucinations led to the invention of image-making, or the art of drawing.” (S.W. Gray)
From all the thousands of birds, beasts, insects, and reptiles in their environment, the people of Lascaux chose to paint a human transitioning into crow - and this fact alone cements the importance of these birds in European prehistory.
Textually, the earliest reference to crows and ravens appears in ancient Mesopotamian mythology in the famous poem that is considered the first great work of literature - The Epic of Gilgamesh. Here, crows appear in the creation of humanity after the great flood, when Utnapishtim sent out a pigeon and a raven to find land. The pigeon returned empty-handed and the raven didn’t return at all; indicating its success in finding land and founding new life on Earth.
Neo-Assyrian clay tablet. Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 11: Story of the Flood. Known as the "Flood Tablet" From the Library of Ashurbanipal, 7th century BC. (Fæ/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Tracking the Birds’ Flight Path Through Time
In ancient Greece and Rome, the crow represented the god Apollo, and it was he who changed the color of its feathers from white to black in myths. The flight paths of these birds were important for the augurs, ancient priests who derived their prophecies from the birds’ routes. Apollo sent out two crows, one east and one west, to establish the position for the scared Omphalos stone which represented the center of the ancient Greek world at Delphi.
In the 1602 works of Spanish friar and professor, Simon Pedro, we learn that this very same creation dynamic is reflected in South America, in Chibcha creation mythologies, where the creator god Chiminigague cast out two black ravens, east and west, spreading light across the world.
In Celtic mythology, similarly to Scandinavian, two ravens are aspects of the Goddess Morrígan, who flew over battling warriors. And in Welsh mythology, the mythical king of Britain, Brân the Blessed, was represented by two crows or ravens.
A representation of the Goddess Morrigan with a raven. (André Koehne/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
In Norse myths recorded in The Poetic Edda, two ravens named Huginn (spirit) and Muninn (memory) were aspects of the father of all gods, Odin . Flying all over the world (Midgard) they gathered and delivered information for their master Odin. But where in Norwegian mythology ravens were thought of as divine messengers, in Sweden they were the angry ghosts of murder victims and in Denmark they were exorcised spirits.
The one-eyed Odin with his ravens Hugin and Munin and his weapons. ( Public Domain )
The 2013 edition of The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism informs us that in both ancient Hinduism and Buddhism, crows and ravens symbolized ancestral beings, a belief shared on the other side of the world in Australian Aboriginal mythology. Crows were held as being highly-sacred in the Tibetan branch of Buddhism, the Vajrayana, and this bird was seen as “the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt” and the earthly manifestation of Mahakala, the protector and sustainer of righteousness on Earth. In Hinduism they were offered food during Śrāddha, an ancient ancestor ritual still practiced today.
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An Intervening Trickster
There is a tri-pedal jungle raven featured in Korean, Japanese, and Chinese mythologies known as Yatagarasu, Samjokgo, and Sanzuwu, respectively. Said to “divinely intervene” in human affairs, in all three myth systems crows and ravens were symbols of the Sun.
In the ancient Americas the raven/black crow was a popular totem symbol and the bird was most often described as a trickster, a thief of fire, light, and souls.
Japanese tri-pedal crow kamon. Three-legged crow commonly found in mythology and art. (Mekugi/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
If we were to choose the most appropriate Jungian archetype to define the role of crows and ravens in world myths, that would most definitely be the "trickster". It's that well-meaning, but mischievous character the crow who causes action and creates consequences. Without a little trickery and setback, we would hardly appreciate our successes in life so much.
Top Image: Ravens and Crows have been symbols and played a role in myth since ancient times. Source: CC0
By Ashley Cowie
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