Raven and crow symbolism - myths and stories of ravens and crows

Raven and crow symbolism – myths and stories of ravens and crows

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Raven and crow symbolism

I have been fascinated by ravens and crows ever since and it seems that I am not the only one. These beautiful and intelligent animals play a major role in mythologies of many ancient peoples and are important spiritual and shamanic animals. I am photographing ravens and crows for a long time already and love to study their behavior. Recently I have started doing researches on raven and crow symbolism and would like to share what I have found so far. I love stories and therefore I have tried to pick out interesting tales of the various cultures to give an idea on raven and crow symbolism during those times.

If ravens and crows are important to you, regardless of religious or spiritual or symbolic beliefs, I would love to here back from you.

Table of content

The difference between ravens and crows

People often use the words raven and crow as a synonym whereas one tends to call the larger animals ravens and the smaller ones crows. In taxonomy ravens and crows form the genus corvus that consists of approx. 40 species. In Europe the most common species are the carrion crow (Corvus corone), the hooded crow (Corvus cornix), the rook (Corvus frugilegus) and the majestic common raven (Corvus corax). Please note that the hooded crow and the carrion crow sometimes are listed as individual species and sometimes as two different subspecies of the carrion crow. If so, the carrion crow is classified as Corvus corone corone and the hooded crow as Corvus corone cornix.

The eurasian jackdaw (Coloeus monedula), eurasian magpie (Pica pica) as well as the colorful eurasian jay (Garrulus glandarius) also belong to the corvidae family but don’t belong to genus corvus. It explains however, why those animals share very similar behavior and intelligence with ravens and crows.

I have added a few images of those amazing birds. You can see it isn’t that easy to always tell the difference between the various species.

Raven and crow symbolism in mythologies

Raven and crow symbolism can be found in many different mythologies of ancient peoples. Even if mostly ravens are named both ravens and crows likely are interchangeable. People might not have been able to distinguish between the various species or during the transcription a raven all of a sudden became a crow. We should keep in mind that the first book on bird taxonomy was released in 1676 (Latin) and 1678 (English) under the title „The Ornithology of Francis Willughby by John Ray“ and maybe before that people didn’t know the difference between the various birds (this of course is just a possible explaination but might not be true for all time epochs).

It’s interesting that in some mythologies raven and crows are associated with good things (such us luck or life) whereas in some others they stand exactly for the opposite, for the bad and death.

Norse mythology

Raven and crow symbolism
Wägner, Wilhelm. 1882. “Nordisch-germanische Götter und Helden“. Otto Spamer, Leipzig & Berlin. Page 7

In Norse mythology Odin the God of thunder had two ravens sitting on his shoulders. The speech is of Hugin and Munin. The myth says that these two birds were not only deeply connected with Odin but also his eyes and ears. They were flying out and came back with news about everything they saw and heard. Hugin stands for „thought“ whereas Munin stands for „memory“ or „mind„. One of Odin’s many names was Hrafnagud that translates to „Raven God“. There is a tale about Nordic Viking clans that went to war under a raven banner. An idea that many people share is that the Vikings were invoking Odin’s power by carrying a banner with his spiritual animal.

I can imagine that many ravens and crows were found at battlefields as they were feeding from death corpses. Likely people therefore associated these majestic birds as a harbinger of death. They may have thought that when seeing ravens death will be close.

Celtic mythology

In Celtic mythology people believed that Morrighan the Goddess of war had control over the outcome of battles. There are tales that Morrighan was flying over the battlefield in form of a raven. Celts therefore associated ravens with warfare and death.

I found however a story that explains the Cornish coat of arms. It contains of a red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocora) that is in taxonomy a member of the corvidae family. There is a tale that the spirit of the great King Arthur left his earthly humanly body and entered a chough. The story says that the birds red bill and feet signifying Arthur’s violent and bloody end.

Greek mythology

Raven and crow symbolism
Antonio Tempesta (Italian, Florence 1555–1630 Rome)

In Greek mythology crows (depending on the source it sometimes says crow and sometimes raven – in this case it however makes sense that the myth is about crows because of the derivation of the scientific name Corvus corone from Coronis that is explained further down) are associated with the anger of the God Apollo, son of Zeus the father of the Gods. There is a tale that once all crows were white birds. However after having received bad news from a crow about the betrayal of his lover Coronis he cursed the animal by changing his plumage entirely black. From that time onwards all crows were black. The scientific name of the carrion crow is Corvus corone. Corone is derived from the name of Apollos lover Coronis. In one version Apollo is killing Coronis whereas there is another version where Coronis turned into a crow herself.

Native American mythology

In Native American Indian cultures ravens occur in many different tales and are used as different symbols. The raven is a very powerful figure that transforms the world. Some stories have the raven as the trickster character. He is the creator of the sun, moon and stars and he controls the tides. The bird is a creature of metamorphosis and symbolizes change and transformation.

Japanese mythology

In Japanese mythology Yatagarasu is a three-legged crow (some sources talk about crow and some sources talk about raven) and an important figure in Japanese myths. According to the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest written history, Yatagarasu is an incarnation of the God Kamo Taketsunumi. In the tale he (the incarated God in form of a crow) led Japans first emperor Jimmu through the mountains to establish his country.

Raven and crow symbolism in spirituality and shamanism

Raven and crow symbolismRaven and crow are important and powerful spiritual animals not only to our generations but also mainly to many cultures before us. Hence the below most probably is valid for all of the above discussed raven and crow symbolism in mythologies. From what I have been reading I believe that both ravens and crows are interchangeable as spiritual animals but there are meanings that are unique to the raven and some unique to crows. I have tried to isolate those differences but somehow always ended up that both raven and crow symbolism are equal. Therefore in the below paragraph raven also includes crows.

Ravens are „Keeper of Secrets“ and messenger between heaven and earth, the dead and the living and man and gods . The raven stands for a lot of things such as magic, (self-) knowledge, healing and rebirth (the list goes quite on). Ravens have a different meaning depending on how they appear e.g. if they are visiting you while you are awake or if they are entering your dreams. Some people are mislead by the idea that raven’s stand for death but in spirituality ravens visit you, when something positive or negative is about to transform your life. The raven is the spiritual animal that guides you through the ambiguity and supports the transformation. The connection between raven and death probably dates back to the time when ravens attended battlefields and people started to believe that the appearance of those birds indicates near death.

Raven and crow symbolism in the Quran

When Cain (the oldest son of Adam and Eve) killed Abel (the second oldest son) Allah sent a raven that showed him how to hide the dead corps of his brother. I didn’t find the raven in the Bible nor the Torah and therefore believe that this specific raven appearance is unique to the Quran. The fratricide is mankind’s first murder according to the holy scriptures and a raven is associated with the death. Could be that this is one of the reason people connect the black birds with bad news.

Raven and crow symbolism in the Bible

Hebrew Bible and old testament

Raven and crow symbolism
© Sweet Publishing | FreeBibleimages.org

In the book of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible and the old testament ravens make an important appearance. When Noah’s ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat (Genesis 8:4) Moses sent forth a raven. It went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. (Genesis 8:7). Then he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground. (Genesis 8:8). But the dove found no place to set her foot, and she returned to him to the ark (…) (Genesis 8:9).

The question here is why the raven didn’t come back whereas the dove did come back to Moses. While looking for an answer I found out that I am not the only one asking this question but that there is even entire books about this specific scene. As ravens are scavengers it makes sense that the raven didn’t return as it easily could find food from rotting carcass. I found an article saying that the raven is not making sense and is out of place in the text. But looking from a symbolic perspective it can be interpreted that the raven didn’t succeed in his mission because he is an unclean bird (Leviticus 11:13-15).

In the Book of Kings of the Hebrew Bible God was sending ravens to feed Elijah who was a fugitive in the wilderness. The passage reads as follows: Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. You will drink from the brook, and I have directed the ravens to supply you with food there.” (1 Kings 17:2-4).

If I interpret this correctly then ravens have been Gods messenger. I found here an article where it says that the raven was a symbol for God’s care of the animal world and the „tool“ God used to care for Elijah when he was in need.

New testament

In the gospel passage from Luke (Luke 12:24) it says: Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Masanobu Fukuoka uses this passage in his book „The one straw revolution“ as a metaphor of his „do-nothing“ sustainable farming technique. If you are not familiar with Fukuoka’s books and work I encourage you to read them.

I like this gospel a lot as even it’s saying that God will take care of humans it also has the symbol of God taking care of ravens regardless that they are considered as unclean birds.

Raven and crow symbolism in fairy tales, fables, poems and literature

Ravens and crow are used in many fairy tales, fables, poems and literature all around the world. I have picked out a few that I remember from my childhood and like a lot. I encourage you to read those and therefore I won’t spoil you with too much information.

Aesop

As a child, I loved fables as they are stories about animals. I didn’t necessary understood the deeper meaning behind those but just loved the way on how many different animals interacted with each other. The Greek storyteller Aesop has many fables with crows and ravens. „The fox and the crow“ and „The crow and the raven“ are two of my favorites of him. It is difficult (for me) however to understand whether the birds are placed because of raven or crow symbolism or if the birds could be exchanged with any other animal. The fables contain a message that is carried out by the animals behavior and not by their symbolic meaning (I would assume). The crow and the raven is a very interesting fable for this article. Not because of its content but about the fact that Aesop who lived 600BC made a difference between crow and raven.

Brothers Grimm

The seven raven

The stories of the Brothers Grimm were one of my favorite stories and I still love them. The Brothers have used ravens and crows in many of their stories. „The seven ravens“ and „The Raven“ are two popular fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. Both fairy tales share similarities. In the first one a father curses (with faulty accusations) his seven sons and they turn into ravens. In the second tale an inpatient Queen turns her screaming daughter (more or less unwillingly) into a raven.

I find it quite interesting that ravens are used as a symbol for cursed beings. But maybe this is a wrong interpretation as ravens stand for transformation and this is the exact reason they have been used.

Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock’s the „The birds“ is a widely known American horror thriller classic movie where flocks of seabirds and a murder of crows are attacking and terrifying the people of a small town. Please note that a murder of crows is the collective noun of a group of crows. It is uniquely used for crows whereas for other birds a flock of birds is the common definition. The story is based on a real world event where seabirds attacked people somewhere in the 1960s in Californian. Back than people blamed the birds for being evil but A couple of years ago researches believe to have found the reason for the bizzare attacks. The theory is that seabirds have been poisoned by toxic plankton that would explains their action. Likely Hitchcock used next to seabirds also crows in the movie as these birds are very intelligent and therefore good to work with. I can imagine that the black birds also added quite some dramatic effect to the movie. In the original event crows weren’t part of the attacks (as far as I know)

Ottrfied Preussler

Krabat and the Sorcerer’s Mill was my favorite book when I was younger. The book tells the story of Krabat, a boy that starts an apprenticeship as a miller’s man – at least this is what he thinks. He soon realizes that in fact he is learning black magic. His first magical act is to turn himself into a raven. I won’t say no more, the book is a great read (not only for children).

Edgar Allan Poe

raven and crow symbolismThe Raven is a famous American poem by Edgar Allan Poe. Unlike the ones above I didn’t know this one but stepped over it during research. While reading I kind of liked it and decided to add it here. It tells the story of a men suffering from the death of his wife that is visited by a raven which represents ill-omen throughout the poem. I found here an interesting interpretation of the poem.

What do ravens and crows mean to me

I am fascinated by ravens and crows and the more I observe them the more I love them. After having photographed these beautiful and majestic animals for a long time I am currently learning on how to communicate with those birds. There is still a long way to go but I know that one day a crow or a raven will accompany on my path.

Sources

Let me know your thoughts

Of course there are much more myths and tales about raven and crow symbolism and I will continue reading those. I hope this article was helpful for you. I would love to hear back from you on what ravens and crows mean to you.

If there is anything you are looking for, please let me know and I try to find examples to discuss. Feel free to use the Q&A form to submit questions.

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