Throughout history, across many cultures, animals have been omens of a spiritual nature, for good or for ill. It is a fairly commonplace practice in Earth based, nature worshipping cultures to assign properties of deity to the living creatures in the world. In this article, you will learn about the animal spirits and magic of two avian animals: the raven, and the crow.
These two birds are mistaken for one another frequently, due to the shared characteristics of their bodies. Both ravens and crows feature sleek black feathers all over their bodies. The difference between these two close cousins of the Corvus family is primarily size, the shape of their bill, and the shape of their wings, which is only slightly different from the raven.
Notable Crows in Mythology
In Greek mythology, the story of Ischys tells how Apollo changed the crow from a bird with white feathers to a black feathers after the crow tells Apollo his lover was committing adultery. A greedy princess, Arne, was changed into a crow because she accepted a bribe from King Minos.
The Chinese have a story about the archer Houyi, sent by the gods to shoot down nine crows from the sky. The crows in the story were the ten suns that each rose one at a time, and were shot down after crops were obliterated because they all rose at once. One crow was saved from this fate, and this is why there is only one sun in the sky.
Celtic beliefs popularly claim a few magical aspects to the crow. A bird attributed with the heralding of one's death, with chaos and alignment with The Morrigan, the crow was an omen signalling the approach of death, or war - though war tends to bring death, too. In fact, most cultures assigning magical properties to the crow assign seemingly negative themes to the crow. Harbinger of death, war, or trouble, the crow has a few less malicious attributes in animal magic. They are frequently seen as tricksters, shapechangers, and in historical Europe, were believed to be a physical manifestation of those souls that had passed on to Purgatory, awaiting the end of days.
The main trouble with animal magic from the Corvus family is the similarity between the birds lends to a blending of the mythology surrounding the birds. For instance, a popular counting rhyme which has featured itself in song, story, and movie format over the years is argued to have begun as a rhyme about magpies, though crows are placed in the rhyme with greater frequency.
One for sorrow, two for joy,
Three for a girl, four for a boy,
Five for silver, Six for Gold
Seven for a secret not to be told,
Eight for heaven, Nine for hell,
Ten for the very devil himself.
Interestingly, some versions of this counting rhyme are more sweet, while others are more superstitious or dogmatic. For instance, some rhymes end after seven, implying the remaining meanings of crow/magpies are the secret, or that the rhyme speaker wishes to silence themselves for fear of revealing the secret itself.
Notable Ravens in Mythology
Huginn and Muninn were the deliverers to Odin of the world's news and happenings. They represented thought and memory, and Odin feared for them and was anxious over them. At the end of each day, the ravens would return to Odin with all the news from the nine worlds and whisper it into his ear.
In German legends, the late Emperor Barbarossa is told to be sleeping, waiting for the day when the ravens circle no more around Bavarian Mount Untersberg. When they cease their flight around the mountain, legend says he will rise from his slumber (not death) and bring about a new era of greatness for Germany.
Ravens are quickly social animals, form monogamous relationships, and are technically songbirds as well. In many cultures, the raven is lauded as the Creator. Their role in legend identifies them as tricksters like the Coyote is favored in other tales, and yet they are also attributed greed, competitive spiritedness, and a sarcastic nature. It becomes interesting to note that even though crows and ravens are very close in the Corvid family, the way legends treat them is vastly different. While The Morrigan holds crows as creatures of chaos and the like, Odin and his ravens go a more cerebral route.
Quite possibly the most famous work that involves the Raven, Edgar Allen Poe crafted a clever use of the animal by drawing from legend and alliteration to create a supernatural moment of horror and lamentation for a grieving lover. The Raven is used as a device of memory, and of omen, and its repeated "Nevermore" pushes the narrator of the poem into a keen madness. Poe features many other recognizable devices into this work, but the iconic cultural device is also the titular one.
For two birds to have such varying legendary heritage and yet be so closely tied to one another in reality, the question comes to mind: What makes them so different aside from size? Crows and ravens have been used in legend and myth throughout history, throughout dozens of cultures, and these stories have helped in some way or another shape our modern perception of the birds. Do yourself a favor and find a new story to read that you haven't read before, these are fascinating creatures and well represented in ancient folk lore.
The Fox and the Crow - Aesop's Fables
A Fox once saw a Crow fly off with a piece of cheese in its beak and settle on a branch of a tree.
"That's for me, as I am a Fox," said Master Reynard, and he walked up to the foot of the tree.
"Good day, Mistress Crow," he cried. "How well you are looking today: how glossy your feathers; how bright your eye. I feel sure your voice must surpass that of other birds, just as your figure does; let me hear but one song from you that I may greet you as the Queen of Birds."
The Crow lifted up her head and began to caw her best, but the moment she opened her mouth the piece of cheese fell to the ground, only to be snapped up by Master Fox.
"That will do," said he. "That was all I wanted. In exchange for your cheese I will give you a piece of advice for the future: "Do not trust flatterers."
Mackenzie Sage Wright on October 08, 2013:
I love reading about animals and never really knew the difference between ravens and crows. Great hub.