Begin, murderer, Pox, leave thy damnable faces and begin!
Come, the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge.
Hamlet, William Shakespeare
If you have ever been to the Tower of London you may have seen or certainly heard about the six or so ravens that are still kept there as it is said that the monarchy will fall and so the kingdom, if they should leave. You will have witnessed close at hand the sleek bluish/green tinge of their otherwise all black plumage; the massive, thick, black beak; maybe some shaggy throat feathers and the piercing, intelligence of their dark eyes. It is said that King Charles II wanted them there for his new kingdom’s protection; after what had happened to his own father and his kingdom, perhaps he was right to be a little nervous.
Rathfarnham’s very own “tower” – four towers to be precise, in the form of Rathfarnham Castle, seems to have no need for such a legend, although, who knows what would happen to it should the ever present jackdaws – one of the ravens cousins, leave it! Archbishop Adam Loftus, who founded Rathfarnham Castle back in 1583 would certainly have been familiar with them, living so close as he did to the Dublin mountains; indeed, in those days ravens would have been known in the very centre of Dublin. They no doubt feasted on the carcasses of any rotting deer that should have died in his deer park and perhaps he would have been impressed, maybe a little frightened as he observed these large, powerful black crows, gorging on fallen members of his herd. Many people and cultures have been over the millennia. For instance, in the Irish mythological legend of Cúchulainn, the hero died in battle, tied to a stone. Both his enemies and his followers were only convinced of his death when a raven finally landed on him as no bird would do that to anyone who was alive. No doubt, as with Adam’s deer, the raven was coming to help itself to the tasty remains of the unfortunate Cúchulainn. Clearly, this sight left it’s mark on those witnessing the scene.
Possibly no other bird or group of birds, with the exception perhaps of the robin, have been so associated with death, not to mention doom and destruction as have the raven and the rest of the crow family, to which it belongs. Why is this? What is it about a raven in particular and crows in general that gives them the reputation in the human psyche as harbingers of darkness? Maybe it is literally darkness; the black/blue plumage of the raven for instance. Maybe it is the deep throated, guttural, “kronking” or “korrp” sounding call. Maybe it is the huge bill, which is associated with their scavenging activities on battlefields where the dead and dying victims of war are used as a wonderful food source for these magnificent, dark feathered creatures, starting with the soft eyes of the corpses. Maybe it is the piercing, seemingly knowing intelligence of their own eyes, which appear to penetrate thorough to the very soul when eye contact is made. Maybe it is the fact that ravens tend to live in wild, mountainous places. Perhaps it is their own, genuinely, huge intelligence. The crow family have been studied extensively and been shown to be possibly the most intelligent of birds and to possess traits that we would normally associate with ourselves or other higher primates such as chimpanzees. Most likely it is a combination of some or all of these that make crows and the raven especially, one of the most charismatic, human like and portentous of birds.
Much of the folklore associated with them comes from Scandinavia and presumably arrived in Ireland and Britain with the arrival of the Vikings. The Norse god Odin kept a pair and named them Hugin and Munin, meaning thought and memory respectively, an indication that they were recognised for their cognitive abilities many centuries ago.
In Swedish mythology they are considered to be the ghosts of dead people and in German folklore they are the souls of the damned. In Celtic mythology ravens were seen as messengers of the enemy, perhaps reflecting their use by Odin as messengers and of course a raven is the first animal to be released to check for dry land in the story of Noah’s ark. They were thought to be able to travel to the Otherworld, although this is often associated with hell, it could also mean heaven and indeed, they were revered by the Druids and were presumed to be able to foretell the future. In Cornish folklore the spirit of King Arthur was said to dwell in ravens. It was perhaps this association with pagan religion that meant they were viewed somewhat differently with the arrival of Christianity and became associated with Satan. For instance, Gerald of Wales relates that St Kevin of Glendalough cursed them when they spilt his milk and as a result ravens in Glendalough are not able to land on the ground or take any food (the photo of the raven used here was taken at Glendalough as if to prove the point!) St Kevin seemed to like blackbirds a good deal more, as according to Gerald, one was allowed to nest in his hand!
In later centuries it was believed that ravens found near farm animals could prove fatal for the herd or that a baby would die if a raven’s eggs were stolen. Lady Jane Wilde (the mother of Oscar) following her interest in Irish folklore relates how it is possible to become invisible by getting a raven’s heart, cutting it open with a black-hafted knife and making three incisions, placing a black bean in each one. The heart was to be planted and placed in the mouth when the beans had sprouted whilst reciting “by virtue of Satan’s heart and by the strength of my great art, I desire to become invisible.” She also suggested it was possible to win a desired lover’s affection by writing a love charm with a raven’s quill dipped in the ring finger of the left hand.
Ravens like all members of the crow family (corvids) are highly intelligent and as is often the case with high intelligence, they are also social creatures. Ravens are known to play, in other words showing behaviour that seems to have no other survival value than sheer pleasure, although of course play is vital for learning. They have also been witnessed using weapons. A pair in Oregon, USA, defending their nestlings, hurled golf ball sized rocks at researchers investigating them. Behaviour which has been interpreted as an expression of consolation has been observed to be demonstrated by raven bystanders to the losers in disputes between others of their species. Attributes of a sense of fairness and reciprocity have been exhibited by leaving gifts to those that feed them and in experiments by refusing to cooperate if a reward is less attractive than that given to it’s colleague.
They have also been shown to have their own understanding of death; groups have been observed gathering in trees around a golf course where one of their own was killed by a golf ball and similarly, gathering around a pair that had been electrocuted whilst roosting on a power transformer. In experiments, a corvid’s hippocampus, the area in the brain responsible for the consolidation of learning has been shown to light up during scanning, when shown somebody holding a dead crow, indicating that they are learning something about the experience. In other words these birds may well feel loss at the death of another of their group but in addition as social animals, they are trying to work out what it means for themselves and the rest of their community.
Ravens and Halloween
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! Prophet still, if bird or devil!
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted,
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore,
Is there, is there balm in Gilead? Tell me, tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
The Raven, Edgar Allen Poe, 1845
It is perhaps Edgar Allen Poe’s 1845 poem The Raven that has done most to establish the modern association between the raven and malevolence, death and evil. As we have seen some folklore and attitudes to them in the past and in other cultures surrounding them and their corvid cousins is quite positive and this does not apply solely in Europe.. The raven is mythologised in cultures across the world, from Asia to the Americas. Perhaps this ambivalent, cultural attitude to them is a reflection of their intelligence and social cognition and makes them in many ways, so like us. It creates for us a simultaneous sense of foreboding and admiration; we revere and revile their natures because they hold up a mirror to to our own to some extent, which is why they truly scare us, whether at Halloween or any other time of year!
Ravens have been persecuted both as a result of cultural superstition and misplaced worries of farmers and gamekeepers and their habitats retreated to the wild, lonely, moorland and mountainous areas of the periphery. Thankfully in recent years a more curious, understanding and scientific attitude towards these wonderful birds has been adopted and much research undertaken into their intelligence and social behaviour. As a result of more enlightened attitudes and greater legal protection, this “king” of the crow family is making a return to areas that it once inhabited and was driven from by people.
So, if by chance you should, like Adam Loftus be walking through Rathfarnham Park or even in your own back garden or street and you hear a deep, “kronking” sound and you look up to see a large black bird with outspread “fingers” soaring overhead, you might be in luck and be witnessing a raven. Enjoy what you see and hear for it is one of the wonders and joys of the bird world and above all – don’t be scared!