Ravens & Mythology


But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”
          — Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven

Most of our Halloween traditions are from the Celtic and other northern European peoples. Ravens figure heavily in Celtic mythology and legend and are linked to darkness and death – especially the death of warriors in battle. The Celtic war goddesses often took the form of a raven.

The Raven was the totem of the Welsh God, Bran the Blessed, the giant protector of the Brits. After the battle with Ireland, Bran was decapitated, and his head became an oracle. Eventually, Bran asked to have his head buried in what is now Tower Hill in London to protect Britain from invasion, or so the story goes. Seven of Bran's Ravens are kept there to this day, as protection against invasion; six are needed or the crown will fall. During World War II, Tower Hill was bombed, and the ravens were lost. Winston Churchill, knowing full well the legends, ordered the immediate replacement of ravens, and they were brought to Tower Hill from Celtic lands—the Welsh hills and Scottish Highlands. Historians now think the legend only goes back to the 1800’s, but it’s a good story.

In other myths, banshees can take the shape of a raven; one crying over your house is an omen of death. On the other hand, to many Native Americans, ravens are magical and a messenger spirit. The raven is also a bird of wisdom and prophecy.

In reality, ravens do eat a lot of carrion—part of the reason for the myths surrounding their role in death.

Ravens are one of the most intelligent animals, often considered smarter than many mammals. An ornithologist at the University of Vermont tied a piece of meat to a string to dangled it from a branch. Numerous ravens figured out how to pull the string up a few inches with their beak, then hold the string, then pull a few more inches, re-grasp the string and so on until they pulled up the meat.

Ravens will hide food for the future. If they think another raven is watching, they will pretend to hide the food in one place, while actually hiding in a different place. However, since as a whole, ravens are smart, the tricked raven will often find the food, anyway.

It’s well known that ravens and crows can recognize individual human faces and that they have complex languages.