Cultural depictions of ravens

Common Ravens in the Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona.

There are many references to ravens in legends and literature. Most of these refer to the widespread common raven. Because of its black plumage, croaking call, and diet of carrion, the raven has long been considered a bird of ill omen and of interest to creators of myths and legends.

French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss proposed a structuralist theory that suggests the raven (like the coyote) obtained mythic status because it was a mediator animal between life and death.[1] As a carrion bird, ravens became associated with the dead and with lost souls. For example:

  • In Sweden, they are known as the ghosts of murdered persons.[2]
  • In many cultures, such as Aboriginal and Indian cultures, the raven is believed to have originally been white.

Official bird

It is the official bird of the Yukon and of the city of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

Symbolism and mythology by culture

"The Twa Corbies", Illustration by Arthur Rackham to Some British Ballads

The Raven has appeared in the mythology of many ancient people. Some of the more common stories are from those of Greek, Celtic, Norse, Pacific Northwest, and Roman mythology.

Greco-Roman antiquity

In Greek mythology, ravens are associated with Apollo, the god of prophecy. They are said to be a symbol of good luck, and were the god's messengers in the mortal world. According to the mythological narration, Apollo sent a white raven, or crow in some versions to spy on his lover, Coronis. When the raven brought back the news that Coronis has been unfaithful to him, Apollo scorched the raven in his fury, turning the animal's feathers black. That's why all ravens are black today.

According to Livy, the Roman general Marcus Valerius Corvus (c. 370-270 BC) had a raven settle on his helmet during a combat with a gigantic Gaul, which distracted the enemy's attention by flying in his face.[3]

Hebrew Bible and Judaism

A raven on the coat-of-arms of the Polish aristocratic Clan Ślepowron, to which Kazimierz Pułaski belonged

In the Bible, the Jewish and Christian holy book, ravens are mentioned on numerous occasions throughout the Old Testament. In the Book of Judges, one of Kings of the Midianites defeated by Gideon is called "Orev" (עורב) which means "Raven".

In the Talmud, the raven is described as having been only one of three beings on Noah's Ark that copulated during the flood and so was punished.[4] The Rabbis believed that the male raven was forced to ejaculate his seed into the female raven's mouth as a means of reproduction.[4] Interestingly, according to the Icelandic Landnámabók—a story similar to Noah and the Ark -- Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson used ravens to guide his ship from the Faroe Islands to Iceland.

In the Book of Kings 17:4-6, God commands the ravens to feed the prophet Elijah. The Book of Job ponders who feeds the ravens in Job 38:41. King Solomon is described as having hair as black as a raven in the Song of Songs 5:11. In the New Testament as well, ravens are used by Jesus as an illustration of God's provision in Luke 12:24.

Late antiquity and Christian Middle Ages

The ravens on the coat of arms of Lisbon recall the story of St. Vincent's ravens.

According to the legend of the fourth-century Iberian Christian martyr Saint Vincent of Saragossa, after St. Vincent was executed ravens protected his body from being devoured by wild animals, until his followers could recover the body. His body was taken to what is now known as Cape St. Vincent in southern Portugal. A shrine was erected over his grave, which continued to be guarded by flocks of ravens. The Arab geographer Al-Idrisi noted this constant guard by ravens, for which the place was named by him كنيسة الغراب "Kanīsah al-Ghurāb" (Church of the Raven). King Afonso Henriques (1139–1185) had the body of the saint exhumed in 1173 and brought it by ship to Lisbon, still accompanied by the ravens. This transfer of the relics is depicted on the coat of arms of Lisbon.

A raven is also said to have protected Saint Benedict of Nursia by taking away a loaf of bread poisoned by jealous monks after he blessed it.

In the legends about the German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, depicting him as sleeping along with his knights in a cave in the Kyffhäuser mountain in Thuringia or Mount Untersberg in Bavaria, it is told that when the ravens cease to fly around the mountain he will awake and restore Germany to its ancient greatness. According to the story, the Emperor's eyes are half closed in sleep, but now and then he raises his hand and sends a boy out to see if the ravens have stopped flying.[5]

Germanic cultures and Viking Age

An illustration from an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript depicting Huginn and Muninn sitting on the shoulders of Odin.

To the Germanic peoples, Odin was often associated with ravens. Examples include depictions of figures often identified as Odin appear flanked with two birds on a 6th-century bracteate and on a 7th-century helmet plate from Vendel, Sweden. In later Norse mythology, Odin is depicted as having two ravens Huginn and Muninn serving as his eyes and ears – Huginn being referred to as thought and Muninn as memory. Each day the ravens fly out from Hliðskjálf and bring Odin news from Midgard.

The Old English word for a raven was hræfn; in Old Norse it was hrafn; the word was frequently used in combinations as a kenning for bloodshed and battle.

The raven was a common device used by the Vikings. Ragnar Lodbrok had a raven banner called Reafan, embroidered with the device of a raven. It was said that if this banner fluttered, Lodbrok would carry the day, but if it hung lifeless the battle would be lost. King Harald Hardrada also had a raven banner, called Landeythan (land-waster). The bird also appears in the folklore of the Isle of Man, a former Viking colony, and it is used as a symbol on their coat of arms.

Insular Celtic traditions

In Irish mythology ravens are associated with warfare and the battleground in the figures of Badb and Morrígan. The goddess An Morrígan alighted on the hero Cú Chulainn's shoulder in the form of a raven after his death.[6]

Ravens were also associated with the Welsh god Bran the Blessed (the brother of Branwen), whose name translates to "raven." According to the Mabinogion, Bran's head was buried in the White Hill of London as a talisman against invasion.[7] The name of the god, Lugh, is also derived from a Celtic word for "raven." He is the god of the sun, and the creator of the arts and sciences.[8] He is depicted as giant and the King of the Britons in tale known as the Second Branch of the Mabinogi. Several other characters in Welsh mythology share his name, and ravens figure prominently in the 12th or 13th century text The Dream of Rhonabwy, as the army of King Arthur's knight Owain.

According to legend, the Kingdom of England will fall if the ravens of the Tower of London are removed.[9] It had been thought that there have been at least six ravens in residence at the tower for centuries. It was said that Charles II ordered their removal following complaints from John Flamsteed, the Royal Astronomer.[10] However, they were not removed because Charles was then told of the legend. Charles, following the time of the English Civil War, superstition or not, was not prepared to take the chance, and instead had the observatory moved to Greenwich.

The earliest known reference to a Tower raven is a picture in the newspaper The Pictorial World in 1883.[11] This and scattered subsequent references, both literary and visual, which appear in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, place them near the monument commemorating those beheaded at the tower, popularly known as the “scaffold.” This strongly suggests that the ravens, which are notorious for gathering at gallows, were originally used to dramatize tales of imprisonment and execution at the tower told to tourists by the Yeomen Warders.[12] There is evidence that the original ravens were donated to the tower by the Earls of Dunraven,[13] perhaps because of their association with the Celtic raven-god Bran.[14] However wild ravens, which were once abundant in London and often seen around meat markets (such as nearby Eastcheap) feasting for scraps, could have roosted at the Tower in earlier times.[15]

During the Second World War, most of the Tower's ravens perished through shock during bombing raids, leaving only a mated pair named "Mabel" and "Grip." Shortly before the Tower reopened to the public, Mabel flew away, leaving Grip despondent. A couple of weeks later, Grip also flew away, probably in search of his mate. The incident was reported in several newspapers, and some of the stories contained the first references in print to the legend that the British Empire would fall if the ravens left the tower.[16] Since the Empire was dismantled shortly afterward, those who are superstitious might interpret events as a confirmation of the legend. Before the tower reopened to the public on 1 January 1946, care was taken to ensure that a new set of ravens was in place.[13]

Middle East / Islamic culture

In the Qur'an's version of the story of Cain and Abel, the two sons of Adam, a raven is mentioned as the creature who taught Cain how to bury his murdered brother, in Al-Ma'ida (The Repast) 5:31. {Surah 5:27-31}[17]

Hindu / South Asia

Goddess Dhumavati riding a crow.

In the Story of Bhusunda, a chapter of the Yoga Vasistha, a very old sage in the form of a crow, Bhusunda, recalls a succession of epochs in the earth's history, as described in Hindu cosmology. He survived several destructions, living on a wish-fulfilling tree on Mount Meru.[18] Crows are also considered ancestors in Hinduism and during Śrāddha the practice of offering food or pinda to crows is still in vogue.[19]

The Hindu deity Shani is often represented as being mounted on a giant black raven or crow.[20] The crow (sometimes a raven or vulture) is Shani's Vahana. As protector of property, Shani is able to repress the thieving tendencies of these birds.

The Crow is considered by orthodox religious Hindus to be a messenger from the world of Pitrs (Manes/ancestors) and is ceremonially offered cooked rice in the annual Shraddha rite, after the Brahmins are fed. Every Brahmin household offers cooked rice daily to the crows, after it is first offered to God ( family deity) before any member takes their food. This is done by the lady of the house, whereus on the Shraddha day, it is the male performer of the rite who offers the rice balls, and calls the crows.

The crowing by the crow is also considered an omen or message- either that letter ( news ) will come from relatives not heard from for long, or that some unexpected guests/ visitors will arrive. Experienced oldsters can distinguish the exact type of message by the way the crow hops,or walks, on the roof, wall, etc. or from the exact tone and style of the crowing.

Crow flying low across one's path as one starts on an important errand or trip is also considered an omen, interpreted as favourable or not, depending on the direction it crosses e.g. left to right or vice versa.

The crow is cited in old Tamil literature as an example for getting up early before sun-rise, for mating beyond human sight, and for inviting friends and relatives to share food!

The raven is the national bird of Bhutan, and it adorns the royal hat, representing the deity Gonpo Jarodonchen (Mahakala with a Raven's head; one of the important guardian deities of

Natives of the North American Pacific Northwest

Raven at the Headwaters of Nass hat, Seattle Art Museum, attributed to Kadyisdu.axch', Tlingit, Kiks.ádi clan, active late 18th – early 19th century. There are human figures crouching within Raven's ears
A Nunivak Cup'ig man with raven maskette. The raven (Cup'ig tulukarug) is Ellam Cua or Creator god in the Cup’ig mythology
Main article: Raven Tales
A raven in a cemetery. Because they are scavengers, ravens have been associated with death.

The raven also has a prominent role in the mythologies of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, including the Tsimishian, Haida, Heiltsuk, Tlingit, Kwakwaka'wakw, Coast Salish, Koyukons, and Inuit. The raven in these indigenous peoples' mythology is the Creator of the world, but it is also considered a trickster god. For instance, in Tlingit culture, there are two different raven characters which can be identified, although they are not always clearly differentiated. One is the creator raven, responsible for bringing the world into being and who is sometimes considered to be the individual who brought light to the darkness. The other is the childish raven, always selfish, sly, conniving, and hungry. When the Great Spirit created all things he kept them separate and stored in cedar boxes. The Great Spirit gifted these boxes to the animals who existed before humans. When the animals opened the boxes all the things that comprise the world came into being. The boxes held such things as mountains, fire, water, wind and seeds for all the plants. One such box, which was given to Seagull, contained all the light of the world. Seagull coveted his box and refused to open it, clutching it under his wing. All the people asked Raven to persuade Seagull to open it and release the light. Despite begging, demanding, flattering and trying to trick him into opening the box, Seagull still refused. Finally Raven became angry and frustrated, and stuck a thorn in Seagull's foot. Raven pushed the thorn in deeper until the pain caused Seagull to drop the box. Then out of the box came the sun, moon and stars that brought light to the world and allowed the first day to begin.

Bill Reid created the sculpture of The Raven and The First Men depicting a scene from a Haida myth that unifies the Raven as both the trickster and the creator. According to this myth, the raven who was both bored and well fed, found and freed some creatures trapped in a clam. These scared and timid beings were the first men of the world, and they were coaxed out of the clam shell by the raven. Soon the raven was bored with these creatures and planned to return them to their shell. Instead, the raven decided to search for the female counterparts of these male beings. The raven found some female humans trapped in a chiton, freed them, and was entertained as the two sexes met and began to interact. The raven, always known as a trickster, was responsible for the pairing of humans and felt very protective of them. With the Raven perceived as the creator, many Haida myths and legends often suggest the raven as a provider to mankind.

Another raven story from the Puget Sound region describes the "Raven" as having originally lived in the land of spirits (literally bird land) that existed before the world of humans. One day the Raven became so bored with bird land that he flew away, carrying a stone in his beak. When the Raven became tired of carrying the stone and dropped it, the stone fell into the ocean and expanded until it formed the firmament on which humans now live.

One ancient story told on Haida Gwaii tells about how Raven helped to bring the Sun, Moon, Stars, Fresh Water, and Fire to the world:[21]

Other notable stories tell of the Raven stealing and releasing the sun, and of the Raven tempting the first humans out of a clam shell. Another story of the Kwakiutl or Kwakwaka'wakw of British Columbia who exposed boys' placentas to ravens to encourage future prophetic visions, thereby associating the raven with prophecy, similar to the traditions of Scandinavia.

In one legend Raven transformed himself into a pine needle which is swallowed by the unmarried daughter of the owner of the box of daylight, who then becomes pregnant and gives birth to Raven in disguise.[22]

Siberia, Northern Asia

The raven god or spirit Kutcha (or Kutkh, Russian: Кутх)) is important in the shamanic tradition of the Koryaks and other indigenous Chukotko-Kamchatkan peoples of the Russian Far East.[23][24]

Kutcha is traditionally revered in various forms by various peoples and appears in many legends: as a key figure in creation, as a fertile ancestor of mankind, as a mighty shaman and as a trickster. He is a popular subject of the animist stories of the Chukchi people and plays a central role in the mythology of the Koryaks and Itelmens of Kamchatka. Many of the stories regarding Kutkh are similar to those of the Raven among the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, indicating a long history of indirect cultural contact between Asian and North American peoples.

Two ravens or crows, flying over the warrior!s head in battle, symbolised in Yakut mythology the Ilbis Kyyha and Ohol Uola, two evil spirits of war and violence. Some other gods or spirits in yakut shamanism, including Uluu Suorun Toyon and Uluutuar Uluu Toyon, are described as "great raven of cloudy sky".

Modern literature

The raven is often depicted in the literature of the Western Canon.

  • In Susanna Clarke's novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004), the common title of the magician king of northern England, John Uskglass, is the Raven King. He often summoned flocks of ravens for dramatic effect during military campaigns, or when he magically appeared someplace.
  • In Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods, the ravens Huginn and Muginn play an important role.
  • Branwyn Rhodes' children’s book, Legend of the Ravens (2013), illustrated by Mike Kunde, is based on the legends about the Tower of London ravens during the reign of Charles II in the 1600s.[25]
  • William Shakespeare refers to the raven more often than to any other bird; works such as Othello (ca. 1603) and Macbeth (believed to have been written between 1599 and 1606) provide examples.
  • In Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (first installment published in 1590, and a second installment in 1596), the raven's darkly ominous image is employed.


  • In the well-known ballad The Three Ravens (published in 1611), a slain knight is depicted from the point of view of ravens who seek to eat him but are prevented by his loyal hawks, hounds and leman (lover).


  • The first name "Bram" is derived from a convergence of two separate etymological sources, one being an abbreviation of "Abraham", but the other being the Gaelic word "bran", meaning "raven".


  • Diablo appears in the film Maleficent (2014), where he is renamed Diaval and is transformed frequently into a human (played by Sam Riley), a dog, a horse, and a dragon as she feels is necessary. He is rescued by Maleficent from a hunter and his dog, when she first shape shifts him into a human. The act seems to leave him indebted to her and, while frequently sarcastic and disapproving of her actions, he supports and aids her.
  • In Disney's Sleeping Beauty (1959), Maleficent has a loyal pet raven named Diablo. He is Maleficent's most useful minion. Diablo manages to locate Aurora's hiding place in the Cottage in the Woods, along with the Three Fairies.
  • In Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the Evil Queen [Grimhilde] has a pet raven as her familiar. Grimhilde's raven is completely silent and unnamed; his fate remains uncertain. He is frightened of the Queen in her Witch Form and is only seen when the Queen is in her Laboratory underneath the



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  2. ^ Schwan, Mark (January 1990). "Raven: The Northern Bird of Paradox". Alaska Fish and Game. Retrieved 2007-02-12. 
  3. ^ Titus Livius. Periochae. Book 7:10.
  4. ^ a b Sanhedrin, 108b
  5. ^ Brown, R. A., The Origins of Modern Europe, Boydell Press, 1972, p. 172
  6. ^ “The Death of Cu Chulainn”. Celtic Literature Collective.
  7. ^ “Branwen daughter of Llŷr”. The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. Trans. for example by Patrick K. Ford, The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales (1977).
  8. ^ Sax, Boria. City of Ravens: London, Its Tower, and Its Famous Birds. London: Duckworth, 2011, p. 26-27.
  9. ^ "The Tower of London". Retrieved 2007-03-03. ...legend has it that, if they leave, the kingdom will fall. 
  10. ^ Camelot Village: Tower of London
  11. ^ Boria Sax, "How Ravens Came to the Tower of London," Society and Animals 15, no. 3 (2007b), pp. 272-274.
  12. ^ Boria Sax, "How Ravens Came to the Tower of London," Society and Animals 15, no. 3 (2007b), pp. 270-281.
  13. ^ a b Kennedy, Maev (November 15, 2004). "Tower’s Raven Mythology May Be a Victorian Flight of Fantasy". The Guardian. p. 1. 
  14. ^ Sax, Boria (2007). "Medievalism, Paganism, and the Tower Ravens". The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 9 (1): 71–73. doi:10.1558/pome.v9i1.62. 
  15. ^ Jerome, Fiona. Tales from the Tower: 2006. pp. 148-9
  16. ^ Sax, Boria (2010). "The Tower Ravens: Invented Tradition, Fakelore, or Modern Myth". Storytelling, Self, and Society 6 (3): 234. doi:10.1080/15505340.2010.504413. 
  17. ^
  18. ^ Cole, Juan R.I. Baha'u'llah on Hinduism and Zoroastrianism: The Tablet to Mirza Abu'l-Fadl Concerning the Questions of Manakji Limji Hataria.
  19. ^ "It's a crow's day". The Hindu. 2001-07-26. Retrieved 14 June 2013. 
  20. ^ Mythology of the Hindus By Charles Coleman p.134
  21. ^ Clark, Ella E.: Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest, University of California Press, 1953.
  22. ^ Singer, Eliot A. "Fakelore, Multiculturalism, and the Ethics of Children's Literature". 
  23. ^ Mann, PhD, Rachel (February 26, 2009). "Meeting the New Shamans". MettaKnowledge for Peace. Rachel Mann, PhD. Retrieved 14 June 2013. 
  24. ^ Turk, Jon (2010). The Raven's Gift: A Scientist, a Shaman, and Their Remarkable Journey Through the Siberian Wilderness. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 1429964707. Retrieved 14 June 2013. 
  25. ^ Rhodes, Branwyn & Kunde, Mike (July 26, 2013). Branwyn Rhodes. ASIN B00E6K8BLA.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  26. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1985). The Hobbit. Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-33207-5.