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Symbology >> Animals
common raven corvus corax, clarissa pinkola estes, women who run with the wolves, harbinger of death

The Raven: Balancing Man and Nature

Author: Cheryl Lynne Bradley

© Cheryl Lynne Bradley 2001, cannot be reproduced without author's consent.

"He likes bright abalone shells, silver beads, endless vittles, gossip and warm sleeps over the smoke hole. The Raven-ego is the lover-to-be who wants "a sure thing." The Raven-ego is afraid passion will end. He is afraid and tries to avoid the end of the meal, the end of the fire, the end of the day, and an end to pleasure. He becomes wily, and always to his detriment, for when he forgets his soul, he loses his power."

"Women Who Run with the Wolves" by Clarissa Pinkola-Estes

The raven creates a strong emotional reaction in people based on its historical perception as a harbinger of death. To dream of one is usually a forecast of coming sadness though not necessarily of grief. The raven is considered to be the most prophetic of all the birds and to have knowledge of private and public misfortunes. People born between September 23 and October 23 have the raven as their animal totem.

General Information

Before we deal with all the wonderful lore, mystery and superstitions about ravens, here is some basic information. The common raven (Corvus corax) is a member of a family of birds known as the Corvidae, which includes jays, crows, and magpies. The raven is found throughout most of the Northern Hemisphere in a variety of habitats. Ravens are abundant in Canada and the Rocky Mountains. Favoured habitat is remote, heavily-forested wilderness, seacoasts and wooded islands. The raven is a permanent resident in the Arctic, withstanding temperatures of -80 degrees Celsius. The Migratory Bird Treaty between the United States, Canada and Mexico was amended in 1972 to include the Corvids, thus giving federal protection to these species.

The raven is the largest species of songbird and largest all-black bird in the world. Ravens have large, stout bills, shaggy throat feathers, and wedge-shaped tails. Ravens are 20-25 inches in length, with a wingspread of about four feet. Their plumage is entirely black, with green and purple iridescence. Both sexes the same colour; males are generally larger than females. They will attack hawks, owls and eagles who intrude on their territory.

Ravens are excellent aerial acrobats and can soar to great heights. Ravens move quickly with seemingly slow wing beats. Their courtship display flight is quite dramatic and the courtship process requires the passing of many tests. Ravens first breed at 3 or 4 years of age and mate for life. Once they have bonded, a pair will seek out an isolated nesting spot, at least a mile away from other ravens. Nests are often built on cliffs or in the tops of large trees. Ravens will build a new nest on top of their previous nest.

Ravens begin courtship behavior in January, and by March adult pairs are roosting near their nesting locations. The female lays from 3 to 7 oval eggs, which are greenish and covered with brown or olive markings. Only the female incubates the eggs; she is tended by the male while on the nest. Young ravens leave the nest by the first week of June. Ravens consume a wide variety of both plant and animal matter and are scavengers who also prey on small animals. Ravens will hide or cache food supplies. They also have the habit of regurgitating undigestible food in the form of a pellet. Ravens are long-lived in the wild possibly up to 35 years; one captive bird died of old age at 29 years.

Come, night! come, Romeo! come, thou day in night!

For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night,

Whiter than new snow on a raven's back.

Come, gentle night; come, loving, black-browed night,

Give me my Romeo: and, when he shall die,

Take him and cut him out in little stars,

And he will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night,

And pay no worship to the garish sun.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare(1595) act 3, sc. 2, l. 17

There is no mistaking the raucous call of the raven; the deep, resonant "kaw" is its trademark. The raven can produce more than 30 distinct vocalizations. They fly with their mouths open during hot weather. Ravens are considered among the most intelligent of all birds. They learn to imitate a variety of sounds, including the human voice. Their calls include guttural croaks, gurgling noises, and a sharp, metallic "tock." Ornithologist John Terres states that corvids have "the highest degree of intelligence". Zoologist Bernd Heinrich shares that the raven is "assumed to be the brains of the bird world", while animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz gives the raven "the highest mental development". In a 1991 paper, Irene Pepperberg of the University of Arizona attests they may share "the cognitive capacities" of many primates.

"We saw a raven very high above us. It called out, and the dome of the sky seemed to echo the sound. It called again and again as it flew onwards, and the mountains gave back the sound, seeming as if from their centre; a musical bell-like answering to the bird's hoarse voice."

Dorothy Wordsworth

Myths, Stories and Legends

The raven has played important roles in cultures, myths and literature. Ravens disobeyed Noah by failing to return to the ark after being sent to search for land. The raven was used as an emblem by raiding Viking warriors. In Norse mythology, the god Odin used two ravens named Thought and Memory, to fly the world each day in order to inform him of what was happening. Ravens are also associated with many deities from different cultures: Apollo, the Greek God of the Arts, healing and light; Athena, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom, learning and war; Hera, the Greek Goddess of Childbirth, home and marriage and The Valkyries, the Norse Goddesses who selected those who would die in battle. Freyja, the wife of Odin and Goddess of Leadership, led The Valkyries and was able to take the form of a bird. It was said that she sent the trance state from which knowledge and wisdom emerged. The Roman College of Augurs revealed secrets told to them by ravens.

The story of Elijah the Tishbite, the prophet, being fed by the ravens is told in 1 Kings, Chapter 17. God commanded Elijah to tell King Ahab, the husband of Jezebel, that God was angered with him for allowing Jezebel to worship, and encourage others to worship, Baal, the Storm God The God of the Old Testament was a harsh God who demanded repression and denial of other faiths - One God above all Gods. God's punishment for Ahab and his people was drought that would last until God allowed rain again. God commanded Elijah to hide by a brook and that ravens would come and feed him every day while the drought took its toll. After the slaughter of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, God sent rain, thereby usurping the authority of Baal.

Verse 4: "And it shall be, that thou shalt drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there."

Verse 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."

The spiritual importance of the raven to Native peoples is still recognized. Many view the raven as the creator of the world and bringer of daylight. The myths of the raven are a strong social and religious element of their culture. In many myths, Raven is a wise guy, trickster and practical joker who instilled his greedy, mischievious spirit in everything he touched. He likes pleasure only and dislikes uncertainty. He is both cautious and greedy. Patience is not a strong point. The Raven in these myths was no ordinary bird. He had remarkable powers and could change into whatever form he wished. He could change from a bird to a man, could fly and walk, and swim underwater as fast as any fish. Ravens themselves are thought of as birds of balance between man and nature.

Almost every tribe has a legend about how Raven got his black . The Haida say that once, when Raven was white, he would go out at night and fly as high as he could in the midnight sky. One night when Raven was flying he didn't notice how high he was until he was lost. The further he flew the more lost he became. One day he finally saw the earth again and he returned. No one recognized him. Raven saw his friend the Rabbit but Rabbit didn't know him either. He told him he was Raven. Rabbit said that it couldn't be, as Raven was white. Rabbit encouraged him to look at his reflection in the stream and Raven saw that he was as black as the midnight sky. Raven knew he had stayed too long in the night sky and had become the same colour. That is how Raven got his black.

In Greenland the story is slightly different. The raven and the diver were once white birds. They were not happy and thought it was very dull to be white. They agreed to help each other by painting designs on each other. They took black lamp soot and the raven painted a nice black design on the diver. The diver was pleased and started to paint the raven black with white round patches. When the raven looked at the result he found a patch he thought was not good enough. He started to fix it himself, but it got worse and the raven got angry. In his anger, the raven ended up completely black as he covered himself with soot all over. Since then the raven still flies around, angry and black, shouting out loud.

In Cornish legend, King Arthur became a raven after his death - the bird associated with the Celtic War Goddesses. In the Welsh legend The Dream of Rhonahwy written in about 1200 AD, Rhonawy, a warrior, fell into a deep sleep while waiting to go to battle the Anglo Saxons at Mount Badon, and was transported into the dreamworld. In his dream, Owein (Yvain) was playing a game with King Arthur.

Celts loved quarrelling and infighting, if they had no enemy to fight they were quite content to fight with each other. As Arthur and Owein played their game, their two armies started to quarrel. Owein's army was made up of 300 ravens - some versions say his warriors shapeshifted into ravens. Arthur's men started harrassing the ravens, when Owein protested, Arthur said "Your move." A second report met with the same response. The third time Owein allowed the ravens to fight back. Arthur's men started to complain , Owein said "Play on." The last messenger came reporting that if any more of Arthur's men were killed he would be unable to defend Britain from the Anglo-Saxons. Owein called off his birds. The game was ended and so was the Battle of Badon, the foes had agreed to postpone the battle for one month. When Rhonawy awoke he had been asleep for three days and three nights and the battle had been postponed for one month.

Owein (Yvain) was the son of Morgan Le Fay who was born of the Irish Morrigan. The Morrigan is the most prominent of the Irish Mother Goddesses and is closely associated with sexual potency, war and death. She decided the fates of warriors in battles. The Morrigan was able to metamorphose into a raven or a crow and was said to hover over battlefields as fighting raged below. She often appears as The Washer at the Ford, the war Goddess who waited by rivers and streams,sometimes as a woman and sometimes as a raven, and determined the fate of each warrior as they passed by.

In the Mabinogion, we learn the story of Bendigeidfran or "Bran the Blessed" .He was a giant with superhuman strength associated with the Celtic cult of the head. He ended up being beheaded and his head, according to legend, still continues to speak. His head is buried under "White Mount" in London, which is assumed to be the Tower of London, and acts as an amulet of protection for the island of Britain. Bran means "raven" and his story is the possible source of the superstition that the kingdom would be safe as long as ravens are kept at the Tower. If they become lost or fly away the Royal Family would die and Britain would fall.

The sad tale of Deirdre of the Sorrows is contained in a manuscript from the 9th century. There were disputes between the Kingdom of Ulster and Queen Maeve of Connacht and her allies. Fergus, who had been King of Ulster, supported Connacht rather than his native Ulster during the raid. Fergus had desired to marry his brother's widow, Nessa. She would only agree if he allowed her son, Conchobar, to be King for one year. Deirdre was the daughter of the chief storyteller of Conchobar. The druid Cathbad, the new King's chief advisor, predicted her great beauty and that many Ulster warriors would die because of her. The men of Ulster wanted to kill her but Conchobar hid her under the care of a nurse as he intended to marry her.

One winter when she was old enough to marry, Deirdre saw a raven drinking the blood of a freshly slaughtered calf. "I could love a man with hair like the raven, cheeks like blood and skin like snow." and her nurse told her there was such a man. His name was Naoise, son of Usna. Deirdre and Naoise met and eloped to Scotland with his two brothers. Conchobar was furious but dispatched an offer of peace. They agreed to all return if Fergus accompanied them for safety. Conchobar had Fergus delayed and them all murdered with the exception of Deirdre. Fergus's son was travelling with them and he was also murdered. Fergus left Ulster and offered his services to Queen Maeve. Deirdre lived with Conchobar for a year but she never overcame her grief and killed herself by jumping from a chariot.

The Romany admire ravens for their loyalty to their tribe. The ravens are said to hold tribal councils and will gather in large groups, or murders, much the way crows do. If a raven goes against the laws of their tribe, they will commit suicide by diving into the ground from a high place.


There are a great many superstitions surrounding ravens. To some Native tribes they are a good omen but to others they are not. Some Native Americans view them as the "Messenger of Death" and this is a common theme among cultures. If one is heard croaking over a house it portends a death or an illness before long. If the bird actually flies around the chimney then the persons fate is sealed. Some theorize that this is because they have such an acute sense of smell they can sense decay from a remarkable distance. If ravens are seen flying towards each other, it is an omen of war to come. Scottish deerhunters view them as a sign of a good hunt. If they face in the direction of the clouded sun it is a prediction of hot weather on its way. If they are busy preening themselves it is a good indication of rainy weather.

In closing...

Ravens continue to awe, inspire and intrigue us as they balance between sky and earth; man and nature; knowledge and wisdom. Their tenacity, determination, intelligence, teamwork and extraordinary endurance are lessons in survival for us all in an increasingly uncertain world. They are certainly the stuff legends are made of. Now I must go, it's midnight and I think I hear someone gently rapping ....

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe, 1845


The Medicine Wheel

First Fireside Edition 1992

by Sun Bear and Wabun

ISBN 0-671-76420-9

A Dictionary of Omens and Superstitions

by Phillippa Waring

Souvenir Press 1978

ISBN 0-285-63396-1

Heroes of the Dawn: Celtic Myth

Duncan Baird Publishers 1996

ISBN 0-7054-2171-6

The Holy Bible

King James Version

Women Who Run with the Wolves

by Clarissa Pinkola-Estes

Ballantine Books NY 1992

ISBN 0-345-37744-3

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