Saturday, October 31, 2015

My Fascination with Crows and Ravens

St. Luke 12:24: Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them; how much more are ye better than the fowls? (From The Bible, St. James Version. 1958)

My Dad loved to bake bread, but sometimes the raw dough went wrong (sometimes, I think, on purpose), and he would put it in the backyard where the crows would come and eat it. He would watch their antics, claiming sometimes they became drunk because yeast dough forms alcohol as it ages. Moreover, one ‘boss’ crow seemed to have charge over the other crows. Somehow its mannerisms reminded him of his father, so he called that crow Jake (for Jacobs). The crow crew became Jake and the boys. Dad was known as Jake, too, so when in died on Halloween in 1995, at his funeral someone sent flowers with tiny paper crows in it, indicating he was now with Jake and the boys.

I’ve always found crows and ravens interesting birds. Ravens are largest, the size of hawks; and crows are the size of pigeons, still large birds. When seeing them in flight you can tell the difference in their tails. Raven tail feathers take on an ovate shape, crows more of a fan shape. The raven also has a rounded, ‘Roman,’ nose, and perhaps look a little scruffier. Most are a glossy black, making them look very dramatic in the daylight. They are two different species of the genus Corvus, which in Latin means raven, but are often considered interchangeable in lore and mythology.

Some societies believe them signs of bad luck, others as bringers of goodwill and wisdom. The call of the raven, that deep, gravely, cras-cras sound? It means tomorrow in Latin (crās). So if an ancient Roman were walking and pondering looming events and heard a raven’s call predicting tomorrow, and perchance his thoughts came true, then the legend would arise that ravens were oracles or message carriers from the gods, which is part of the lore.

That glossy black color? When tied to its scavenging nature, it led to some nefarious associations with witchcraft, demonism, and the devil in some societies. We associate the color black with many evil connotations. Maybe because the blackness of night diminishes our vision and is just naturally scary. Therefore, for some, crows and ravens became evil spirits. Yet for others, they thwart evil spirits. Many North American Native American tribes believed the raven was the bringer of light and the world's creator. Isn’t it strange that Lucifer was also a bringer of light before his fall?

The fact that Corvus eat carrion, including human bodies, probably led to their becoming associated with death. Since they most likely settled down to eat after the chaos of battle had finished, they became signs that danger was over, but they also became associated with death. This death affinity might have led to their becoming known as carriers of souls to the spiritual world. For some, if crows and ravens could carry souls to the spiritual world, then they could return with messages from the same realm.

It’s not too far a leap from battle to murder, or for the soul carrier to become the soul, so in some societies, their association extended to murdered persons with the raven becoming the ghost of the murdered person. In any event, ancient warriors didn’t want to see a crow or raven before a battle, as it might predict imminent demise. It also gives an interesting take on Odin’s ravens Huginn and Maninn. Could they have represented mythical Valkyries carrying warriors to Valhalla?

Could this have also led to how they are represented at the Tower of London in England? “The guardians of the Tower: ‘If the ravens leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall…’ Ravens have contradictory lore messages. From the amount of mythology and folklore, it seems these birds have interested humans forever. Perhaps through the eons, humans noticed their intelligence. In recent years, tests for intelligence have proven raven's innate ability to solve simple problems, even that the test birds were capable of using a tool to achieve their aims. Perhaps ancients saw this intelligent bird perform a thoughtful feat to get to some food and named him the trickster believing them some god in disguise.

The Roman gods Athena and Apollo both had raven companions, as did the Norse god Odin. As mentioned, Odin’s ravens were Huginn, meaning thought, and Maninn, with some thinking it meant memory, and others who thought it meant desire. Ravens have respectable roles in the Christain Bible, too. Consider what God told Elijah the Tishbite from Gilead: I Kings 17: (4) And it shall be, that thou shalt drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there. (5) So he went and did according unto the word of the Lord: for he went and dwelt by the brook Cherith that is before Jordan. (6) And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook. (From the Bible, St. James Version. 1958.)

All in all, crows and ravens are just other inhabitants of our world, living according to their own rules with nary a thought for what humans think of them. That's how it should be. Whatever symbolic signs we accord them belong to us, not them.

After my dad’s funeral, my family flew back to Missouri. Arriving home, I stood in the driveway and looked at a large black silhouette in the leafless, old sycamore tree towering over the house from the backyard. For the first time ever I saw a crow in this suburban area, a rare event. One sat at the very top branch of the tree. I knew he was Jake, and have treasured both crows and ravens ever since.

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