Cynthia is a digital marketer, writer, and artist. She writes about a variety of topics, especially digital marketing, languages & culture.
The Remarkable Raven
Years ago in high school, I memorized most of Edgar Allen Poe's poem "The Raven." I never gave much thought to the raven of the poem saying, "Nevermore," and the superstitions regarding this animal until the last couple of years.
Then, the raven seemed to become ubiquitous. For some reason, I began to notice it and its behavior a lot more. I am not sure why. Groups of ravens seemed to regularly land in my yard. I even painted an homage to it influenced by Native American artwork.
Being the curious literary type, I began to research more about the history, symbolism, and superstitions surrounding this creature.
The Raven Is Not the Crow
When I began my research, I had no idea that ravens and crows were different. (I admit my lack of scientific prowess here.) I only knew that I preferred to call these black birds ravens and not crows, thinking they were one and the same.
In this article, you will find:
- The differences between crows and ravens
- Native American symbolism of the raven
- Celtic symbolism of the raven
- Superstitions about both crows and ravens
- Debunking the myths
The Differences between Crows and Ravens
The crow, especially the American crow, is a common bird found throughout North America.
- They are smaller than the raven, and you see them more frequently around cities.
- They are rather opportunistic birds, feeding off anything and everything they can find that is edible.
- They have a rounded tail.
Because of their ability to adapt, crows are often regarded as quite intelligent. They have a different bird call than the call of the raven (click the links to hear their sounds).This bird inhabits North America, although other subspecies inhabit other parts of the world.
The raven, on the other hand, is a larger bird, often rivaling the size of a hawk.
The other morning, a flock of about seven of them were scavenging in my yard. While I watched from the window, I noted their immense size. I knew they were ravens and not crows not only because of their size, but also because:
- Ravens like to hang out in wilder areas and woodlands. I definitely do not live near a city, and my house is surrounded by national forest.
- Raven feathers have pointier ends than do crow feathers.
- They sometimes look quite "ruffly" when they puff up their feathers, commonly called a "ruff."
- These birds are also found throughout the northern hemisphere.
Native American Symbolism of the Raven
Native Americans had great respect for this bird.
Several southwestern tribes heralded the raven as the bringer of light that escaped from the darkness of the cosmos. Thus, they associate this bird with creation because it brought light where there was none.
Other tribes looked upon this bird as a trickster or even a shape-shifter because of its high intelligence and ability to adapt to different situations.
Even today Native Americans say they are good signs and counter the effects of bad spirits, such as the owl. They are a sign that danger has passed and will bring good luck.
Because they fly high toward the heavens, they can take prayers from the people to the spiritual realm and, in turn, bring messages back.
Celtic Symbolism of the Raven
Samhain was the Celtic new year, which survives to this day as Halloween.
As part of the Samhain celebration, the goddess Morrigan presides over the festivities, bestowing those born on the holiday with oracular traits. Morrigan assumes the shape of a raven during the celebrations. As such, the bird was believed to have special visionary powers.
Superstitions about Both Crows and Ravens
Many in Western cultures associate the raven (or the crow) with bad luck and death.
This is probably because it swooped down onto military battlefields, picking at the dead. These birds were smart enough to find food wherever and whenever they could, even if the circumstances were quite morbid.
Another reason why ravens and crows may be considered unlucky is that dark-colored animals have often been perceived as threatening or harboring superstition. Think about how Westerners view black cats and darkly-clad witches, or how the villains in many a Hollywood movie—Frankenstein, Dracula, and Voldemort, to name a few—are often dressed in black. It seems it wouldn't be a far stretch to include the dark-colored raven among these dubious ranks.
Debunking the Myths
If you look past the nefarious history of the raven, they are actually pretty remarkable birds.
Did you know that they can be trained to speak?
This is another reason they're often portrayed as seers.
The raven call, "cras, cras," translates as tomorrow in the dead language Latin. So it's not hard to imagine that someone who spoke Latin would make the connection that perhaps this bird was constantly referring to the future.
Some cultures also associated this bird with light.
I have already mentioned certain Native American tribes that revered this animal as a bringer of light.
In ancient Greek culture, the gods Athena (a goddess of wisdom and watchfulness) and Apollo (the sun deity) kept ravens. These gods turned the birds black when they couldn't keep secrets; they originally had white feathers, according to lore.
Thus, after reading so much on these beautiful birds, they have earned my respect.
When I see one, I think about them as seers and bringers of good luck.
The other day, when an entire flock was only feet from where I was standing, I immediately felt gratitude for having made it through another year—with a new one about to begin.
Whether they have anything to do with luck is really anyone's guess, but I always smile when I come across these avian creatures now.
© 2011 Cynthia Calhoun
Peggy Codella on October 25, 2020:
Here is my crow story: When I was pregnant with my second son we were living in cold and snowy Duluth, Minnesota. A crow kept visiting an old tree that winter in my yard. He seemed to be looking at me. Since my first son had a stroke at birth I started to worry that this child would also have problems. Was the crow bringing me bad luck I wondered? I started doing research and read that when a crow visits you again and again you will have something good will occur. I started to calm myself and felt everything was going to be ok with the second child. Fast forward: all was fine. I told my son this story as he grew and started to collect wooden crows and primitive crow art. Twenty-five years later I have a shelf devoted to crows!
Mairead Ashcroft on January 11, 2020:
I have a tattoo of a crow on my forearm. I am a survivor of sexual abuse through the Catholic church and asked for the help of the Celtic triple goddess, the Morrigan, to help me fight my battle. I felt that I needed some assistance from my pagan roots. She brings babies from the underworld into new life and old people back into the underworld through death completing the cycle of life. I human form, she is the goddess of war and strategy. Shape shifting into the beautiful black bird that we know, she will fly vast heights, seeing the big picture of situations. After much anguish and many years of traumatic court and police appointments, I won my case, and Br Bernard Joseph Hartman was put into jail. I did exposure therapy after the case was won by going into the monastery where I was first abused. When I came out, a blue/black crow was luminescent in the sun, sitting proudly on the roof of my car, waiting to welcome me and take me home.
Sally Browning Pearson on July 01, 2019:
Thank you for you article, I learned a lot more about Crows and Ravens. I have recently been painting these birds in my watercolor landscapes. I will now be more discriminating when I depict them. (I always thought they were about the same). I wish I could show you what I painted and get your opinion. Some people say they are too big. ??