A distinctive black shape often seen in the updraughts of a misty mountain crag, their ‘gronking’ call is an evocative sound of Britain’s uplands. The raven is the largest member of the crow family and one of the world’s most intelligent and playful birds.
In the realm of myth, folklore and fable it is a bird of paradox. It was seen at times as a guardian. Unfortunately it also had a reputation as a bird of ill-omen. Its harsh call and its presence at scenes of death made people look upon it with fear. The old collective noun for a group of ravens is an ‘unkindness’. It’s a shame how humans have projected their own fears onto this fascinating and beautiful bird.
The Gaelic word for raven is fitheach. A number of Scottish place names contain the words ‘an Fhithich or ‘nam Fitheach’, meaning ‘of the ravens’.
This large crow appears with great frequency in Celtic lore. In Welsh mythology, the god Bran the Blessed was a guardian of the British Isles whose totem is a raven. Bran ordered his own decapitation, after which his head could still speak words of prophecy.
Legend claims that Bran’s head was buried beneath Tower Hill, by the Tower of London. The presence of ravens at the Tower reflects this legend. A prophecy says that if the ravens ever leave the tower, Britain will fall. In order to protect against this eventuality, their wings are clipped just in case! Bran is Welsh and Irish for raven.
Arthur, another legendary guardian of Britain, is also associated with ravens. In Cornwall it held that Arthur did not die, but was transformed by magic into this bird.
The Celts were no strangers to war and the presence of ravens on the battlefield would have been very familiar to them. The Irish goddess Morrighan had a number of different guises. In her aspect as goddess of war, warriors believed she was there on the battlefield in the form of a raven.
One Scottish legend tells of a hag called Cailleach. She took the form of a number of birds, including the raven, and feasted on men’s bodies. In Celtic folklore the raven is regarded as an ill omen and a sign of death.
Odin, the chief of the Norse gods, was accompanied by two ravens. Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory) would fly far and wide to bring news to Odin. One of Odin’s names, Hrafnagud, means the ‘Raven God’. Consequently, in Norse mythology the raven is viewed far more positively as a symbol of wisdom.
In the Old Testament, the raven is the first bird Noah sent to look for land, and the prophet Elijah is described as being provided with food by ravens whilst he was persecuted. To Christians, the birds are, therefore, seen as a symbol of God’s providence.
Our ancestors would certainly have noticed the keen intelligence of this bird which is on a par with dolphins and chimpanzees. Ravens had a relationship with wolves. The birds would follow wolves around taking advantage of their kills. There are instances where modern deer-stalkers report that ravens help them to locate deer. This is because the birds know that they will receive the guts after the deer is killed.
Today British ravens are usually spotted in upland regions because persecution has driven them out of they have just been driven out of other areas, although sightings indicate their range is expanding once again.
There is a lot of raven folklore in the British Isles. While some of this is somewhat sinister, the more we get to know this playful and intelligent bird, the more respect we might realise it deserves.