The Raven

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


THE RAVEN


Then, this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore, "Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou ", I said, "art sure no craven, Ghastly, grim, and ancient Raven, wandering from the nightly shore: Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!" Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

Edgar Allan Poe

 When the Tower of London was bombed during the Second World War, all of the ravens that had lived there for centuries flew away. It had long been believed that when they deserted their nesting place, that place itself became doomed, and, according to legend, if they deserted the Tower of London, the whole of England would fall. This dire calamity was narrowly averted by a quick-witted Winston Churchill, who imported a large supply of young ravens from Scotland and Wales and clipped short their wings.

 The precaution was wise, for the raven has been hastening away from thickly settled areas for many hundreds of years. There is no arctic island too remote to be visited by it in the summer, and the great shadowed loneliness of the boreal forests finds an animated complement in the bird's solitary flight across the verdant desolation. Bird of omen, the raven delivers portents from a dark and far-off land and yet bears a profound symbolic message which has inspired warriors and shamans, prophets and poets, all over the world. Many have written, like George Peele, of "the fatal raven, that in his voice carries the dreadful summons of our death", and legion are the tales of its insatiable appetite and ravenous ways. But equally numerous are the rich traditions which associate the bird with heroes and solar gods and the light of the sun itself. Between two wings of a most ambivalent nature, the raven has soared and plummetted its way through human history. It "peeps forth from the mists of time and thickets of mythology as a bird of slaughter, a storm bird, a sun and fire bird, a messenger, an oracular figure and a craftsman or cultural hero".

 According to popular Christian interpretation, Edgar Allan Poe's famous poem about the raven casts the bird in the role of messenger reporting from the devil to the man who has sold his soul in a vain attempt to recover his dead love. This interpretation is in accord with the symbolism attached to the raven within the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, where the raven is often characterized as a veritable incarnation of sin. The raven sent out from the ark of Noah represents unrest and uncleanliness and is associated with the fall of Spirit into that which is impure and enjoys carnage. Added to this is the idea of deceitfulness and cunning, due to the fact that the raven did not return to the ark until the waters had dried up from the earth. The raven had defected from its entrusted duty of locating land and had fed its insatiable appetite upon the floating carrion instead. Even the cry of the raven, "Cras! Cras!" ("Tomorrow! Tomorrow!"), is seen in these traditions as standing for spiritual procrastination on the part of the sinner. As St. Augustine said: "I tell you, when you make a voice like a raven you destroy yourselves." The sinner was warned that the eyes of such as he would be picked out by the ravens of the valley or by the very devil himself.

 In its blackest-seeming role the raven is shown as thriving on bloodshed, panic and war. Old Norse poetry is filled with references to the raven who is eager for the carrion remains of war. But in the Nordic tradition, as in that of the Celtic and Teutonic, the 'Raven of Battle' was the name given to the hero associated with the goddesses of war (the Valkyries). Ravens assisted in the work of the Valkyries and flew to do their bidding, and some notable birds gained great fame for saving the lives of warrior-heroes. They would sit atop the warrior's shoulder or on his helmet and attack the eyes of any adversary. Others would hunt and peck away the eyes and flesh of the fallen, leaving only bones and scraps to tell the tale. The Zoroastrians of Persia observed this habit of the bird and thought of the raven as pure because it removed pollution from the face of the earth, whilst for this same reason the Jews and Christians considered it impure.

 Another characteristic contributing to the ambivalent nature of the raven's reputation is the widespread belief that the black raven was once white. When the raven did not return to Noah in his ark, it was turned black as sin for its defection. Greek tradition maintains that when Apollo's raven revealed to him the fateful news of the infidelity of the beautiful Thessalian nymph Koronis, the heart-broken god cursed the bird and turned his white plumage raven-black. Myths of American Indians, Eskimos, Arabs and Jews also contain equally quaint stories depicting this radical mutation, causing one to ponder the significance of the contrast between white and black in time, as well as in terms of the condition that might be symbolized by the presence and absence of light. Equally mysterious is the fact that even within the Christian tradition, where the raven's character has been especially blackened, the bird is associated with solitary saints whose lives are white with purity and who have received help and succour from attentive ravens. When the prophet Elijah hid from the wrath of Ahab, he was fed by ravens at the command of the Lord, and it was a raven who brought food and protected St. Benedict from the poisoned loaf.

 Despite its association with saints, the largely negative focus upon the raven in Christianity does reflect the Semitic obsession with purity and pollution and a Manichaean stress upon dualism. There is considerable focus upon clean or unclean animals to eat or to be sacrificed, and detailed instructions are given as to how to avoid unclean lives. The raven is depicted pecking out the eyes of a dead man, whilst the white dove flies back with the olive branch. The raven loves the gore of the battlefield, whilst the dove unfolds its snowy wings in the name of peace and harmony. Even the transformation of the white to the black raven can be interpreted as the passage from a Solar Age of truth and righteousness to a dark age of pollution and sin. Perhaps this is what the ancient Greeks were hinting at in the telling of the myth about Apollo and Koronis, whose loss of innocence is marked by the blackening of the bird. Such a dramatic transition suggests a strong sense of loss, the folk-memory of a fall from grace very much like that associated with the pollution of the Holy of Holies around which revolves the tenacious Karma of Israel.

 Seizing upon the raven symbolically to carry this burden has been a relatively easy course to adopt, for its association with warlike adventures was already well developed in classical times by the Mediterranean and Nordic peoples as well as the Hindus and Ceylonese. Two ravens led the expedition of Alexander the Great across the trackless desert to the oasis of Ammon, and many ancient warrior-navigators like the Vikings used to take ravens with them on their innumerable voyages through the fog-bound vastitudes of the seas. Confident that the birds would always guide them to land, they sailed further and further abroad and very often in the cause of plunder and war. The white dove of peace, symbolically linked with the human soul, easily stood in marked contrast to the hoarse croaking raven, whose ominous arrival from across the sea so frequently inspired an anxious watch of the ocean's curve for the cluster of tiny, ever-enlarging ships that might follow.

 In the story of the flood described in the Earth-Diver myths of the Woodland Indians, stress is laid upon the importance of the raven sent out by the Sun to measure the size and extent of the new world emerging out of the flood. This is reminiscent of many Siberian traditions like those of the Voguls, who believed that the raven was associated with the Divers in the remaking of the world. It was sent to fly around in progressively longer intervals in order to estimate and report on the increasing size of the emerging earth. The function of marking size and, correspondingly, cycles, is echoed in the Germanic legend about Frederick I Barbarossa, who is said to sleep under Raven's Hill at Kaiserlautern ready to come forth in the last emergency of his country. When a shepherd accidentally stumbled across him in his grotto, he awoke and asked: "Are the ravens still flying around the hill?" When the shepherd told him that they were, the king sighed: "Then I must sleep another hundred years." Attendant of gods and cultural heroes, ravens frequently play a part in the great cycles of the sun and the deluge. Raven mythology in this regard is strikingly homogeneous across Siberia, Kamchatka and into North America, as well as amongst Germanic and Celtic peoples. Such ideas must be very ancient and deeply embedded in the Race mind to have spread so far and lasted so long. Indeed, many thousands of years after a painter at Lascaux depicted a raven standing beside a dying hunter, a statue of another dying hero with a raven on his shoulder was erected to commemorate those executed in the Irish Rebellion of 1916.

Where bad priests become ravens,
Bad nuns become crows.

French Peasant Saying

 It has been said that "crows seem to have been all that the raven was, only, as befitting their size, in a lesser degree". And though there is truth to this, both zoologically and symbolically, there has been a traceable deterioration of the image of the crow in recent times. From noticeable tendencies to steal bright objects the general characteristic of cheating has been inferred. To 'rook' someone (the rook being a close relative of the raven and crow) is a term indicating a particularly devious way of setting up someone to be cheated. To have 'crow's feet' is undesirable, and certainly no one wants to be called an 'old crow'. It is significant that these allusions suggest indirect and feminine qualities as opposed to the warlike masculine raven, but cunning is indeed shared by both birds, though the raven's is most often exhibited singly. Crows tend to work together when embarked upon the business of getting food or taking what they want. Frequently one watches out whilst the other does the job, an arrangement illustrated in an amusing if lurid fashion in the ballad of "The Twa Corbies", where one crow instructs another:

Ye'll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I'll pike out his bonny blue een:
Wi' ae lock o' his gowden hair,
We'll theek our nest when it grows bare.

  The recurring theme of pecking out the eyes has a strange twist to it in the old Celtic belief that blind folk who are kind to ravens will regain their eyesight. The symbol of the eye is very closely connected with the occult symbolism of the solar orb itself. There can be little doubt that the raven's habits provide a link between the sun and its analogous counterpart in man as he goes through the process known as dying. Surely this is why during the Mithraic ceremony in which the migration and purification of the soul after death was represented, there was a flapping of wings and cawing of ravens. The followers of Mithra saw this as a corollary to the first stage of initiation into the Mysteries wherein the raven is regarded as the Messenger of the Sun. Indeed, it was called the Morning Bird of Joy and Light after assisting Beowulf in his spiritual victory over the monstrous Grendel. The Northwest Coast Indians have many myths telling how Raven stole the Sun and brought light to the dark world below. In several of these myths Raven pierces the ball of the solar light with his beak so as to release the spiritual fire from the confines of a heavenly realm. In a striking reversal of this process, the raven, hovering over the corpses of the dead, pierces their eyes and symbolically releases the fluid of life from the confines of the dying body. Perhaps the perception of a correspondence such as this led to the graphic depiction of the Raven of Death with the pine-cone and the torch of light and life. The raven carries the orb of light and shows the way back to Valhalla - back to the spiritual source. This is why it is said that the raven makes the complete journey to the end of the earth, to the boundary where the sun sinks into the sea, to the edge of the cycle where time ceases to be measured and the darkness of pralaya lies in waiting.

 The Tlingit say that in the beginning, before life as we know it, there was no daylight, and Raven-At-The-Head-Of-Nass (the One God) had a house with sun, moon and stars within. There also were two aged men called Old-Man-Who-Foresees-All-Trouble-In-The-World and He-Who-Knows-Everything-That-Happens, whilst Old-Woman-Underneath was the world itself as well as sister to the One God. Though Raven-At-The-Head-Of-Nass tried to prevent his sister from giving birth to a son, she circumvented his intent by swallowing a red-hot stone from which she gave birth to Yetl, the Raven Demiurge of the world. A Haida version of the myth describes how the god tries to destroy his sister's child by putting on a huge hat of rain clouds which flood the earth. Yetl is, nonetheless, born and flies heavenward as the hat of his uncle rises. When he reaches the limit of the sky, Yetl pushes his beak into it, piercing his way to the light. With his beak thus fixed, he pushes down upon the watery hat with his foot until, at last, his celestial uncle is drowned. After the deluge the surviving beings of the former age are transformed into animals, humans are created and the present order of the world is established by Yetl.

 The Bringer of Light, Raven is also the Transformer and Trickster. He is half Demiurge and half clown and characterized as greedy, selfish, gluttonous (he never gets full) and, yet, the supreme hero of mankind. He constantly destroys or chases other animals in order to take their food, and though sometimes slain in the myths, he continually returns to the realm of the living to recommence his awesomely autocratic but sometimes clownish role. In the old days people used to leave food on the beaches for Raven and he is still much talked about. But he is not an object of worship, being one of those hero-deities of the past about whom indecorous tales may be told without sullying the spirit of reverence shown to him. The Haida call him Nankilstlas or He-Whose-Voice-Must-Be-Obeyed, because whatever he told of came to pass and the utterance of his word was considered a creative act. The trickster element is closely related to transformation or shape-changing. The raven takes on any form and enters all worlds from dark to light and back again. Transcending the ordinary boundaries between light and darkness, black and white, he glides beyond the confines of worldly morality as well as the appeal of relative truth. As with Lord Krishna in the Hindu epics, what is the blackness of night to the raven is the light of day to mankind, and in their darkness he sees radiating light. Thus, what looks like cunning, trickery, greed and cheating is a kaleidoscopic reflection of something quite different from what it seems to be. The fact that the Semitic traditions have steadfastly failed to recognize such transformational subtleties, which, in fact, indicate levels of reality experienced in spiritual initiation, is explainable only in terms of their having lost the knowledge of the Mysteries, leaving them a two-dimensional perspective focussing back and forth on black and white.

 The idea that the Creator might take the form of a raven was not limited to the northwest coast of America. In the Pymander of Hermes, Seven Primeval Men are spoken of who are one and the same as those depicted on the Cuthah Tablets containing the Babylonian legend of creation, which was overseen by seven human prototypes having the faces of ravens. These are the Elohim, the Dhyanis and the Manus of other traditions, who represent the races of mankind to unfold on this globe. Such a perspective lends a remarkable significance to the role of the raven as totemic ancestor to a whole clan, as it is to the Raven people of the Haida tribe. Great heroes have been lent a primordial and godlike quality through their close association with ravens by the clans and races who identify with them. Thus it is said that King Arthur visits his favourite haunts in Cornwall and Wales in the guise of a raven, whose shape he assumes when flying from Avalon. The Celtic hero Bran's very name means 'Raven' and the bird was often identified as the familiar of both gods and heroes. No wonder the old Scots say "Nae gude ever cam' o' killin' black ravens", whilst Siberian folk went further and stated simply that anyone killing a raven would soon die. One could never know if the bird they saw was a mere animal or what the Haida call a sgana quedas, a werefolk or human being in raven form who is capable of assisting the human race with its magical power.

 To raven is to plunder. This is what the word means. To have a ravenous appetite suggests greed and lust and insatiable desires. It is not at all surprising that theologians of the dualistic Semitic traditions should be revolted by the habits of the bird so named. The Greek names for the raven do not detract from this nefarious reputation one bit. 'Adifagos' means 'glutton', 'aplistos' refers to being 'insatiable', 'arpazo' indicates 'to seize or carry away', 'hemovoros' means 'bloodthirsty', and 'korakas' is the bird's generic name, referring to its unpleasant voice and literally means 'to croak'. Indeed, its hoarse cry seems to match its salacious appetites and can be truly alarming, bellowing forth from a body measuring up to twenty-five inches in length, held aloft in flight by a wing-spread of up to fifty-six inches, and topped off with a very large head and beak. Amongst the biggest of perching birds, the raven is a member of the family Corvidae and distinguishable from the crow by its greater size and shaggier plumage about the throat. Being keen-sighted, extremely sagacious and notably wary, the raven survives by its wits; it has never been protected by law. It is a hardy bird thought to live as long as a hundred years largely on the periphery of populated areas. Shunning man's greater numbers, the raven cleaves to the northerly wild areas where it builds gigantic nests of sticks on the edges of cliffs or the tops of very large trees. Ravens have a spectacular courtship flight involving all manner of aerial acrobatics, the wild twists and tricks of which are largely unwitnessed by humankind. They are noisy and aggressive omnivores who will feed happily on carrion and whose feathers are so black as to cast a purplish iridescence, rendering their total absence of colour a source of indigo light. They are passerine predators and soar like true hawks, their intelligent aim never missing its mark, never blurring the unrelenting nature of their intent.

 When a Siberian shaman conjures up the spirit of a raven, the spirit speaks in a human tongue, unlike other spirits which have their own languages. The ability of the raven to acquire human speech is linked by many people to the belief that it is a messenger of the gods. There are many references to talking ravens in classical literature wherein the raven's oratorical talents are usually linked with prophecy. Porphyrius declared that sixty-four different intonations of the raven's cry were interpreted by soothsayers of his day, but Pliny described a raven that uttered whole sentences of several words each whilst "frequently learning still more words in addition". The great fascination of such a talented bird lies in its presumed powers of prophecy rather than its clever ability to mimic. As with the Haida He-Whose-Voice-Is-Obeyed, things uttered were believed to come to pass. The raven spoke of that which was and would be with the same unrelenting intent as it displayed in its action as an insatiable predator. The raven of Apollo did not blur the biting truth of the infidelity of Koronis. It did not miss the target, the eyeball, the scorching sun of truth. Thus, the voice of the raven was dreaded even whilst it fascinated, even whilst it imparted the unwanted truth.

 In A Fable for Critics, James Russell Lowell suggested that the raven of Edgar Allan Poe was really the bedraggled pet raven called Grip belonging to Charles Dickens. With his own unrelenting brand of critical wit, he wrote: "There comes Poe with his raven like Barnaby Rudge, three-fifths of him genius, and two-fifths sheer fudge." But Poe did succeed in capturing the ominous power of what the Celtics call 'raven's knowledge', which sees and knows all about the living as well as the dead. The unwanted truth, like the doleful knell of unalterable fate, intones throughout the poem.

"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.". . . "Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! prophet still, if bird or devil! By that Heaven that bends above us, by that God we both adore, Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn, It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore: Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore." Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

 Death, war and endless loss are cold thrusts from the beak of Karma-Nemesis, but there is never any assurance of comfort in the bald truth. Like necessity operating under law through nature, disintegration, loss and death follow as closely upon the heels of birth and growth and life as does a shining black bird pecking at seeds dropped along the ground one by one. Its appetite is insatiable and it never misses a seed. It does not stop to wonder if anyone would like it to lose the trail or leave a few for a later time. To the rough dweller of the North who worshipped force instead of aesthetic subtleties, the sable raven of powerful wing and unyielding nature was an awesome and admirable creature. The hardships of their lives were facts unflinchingly embraced and they lived as though they were agents of Nemesis - standard-bearers of the raven's unwanted truth. It is not surprising that the more aesthetic southern peoples looked to the north with dread and combined in their thoughts the raven, the cold of winter and the boisterous savagery of the barbarians who descended from those boreal wastes from time to time.

 To the Norsemen the raven was the emissary of the Supreme Odin, god of force, intellect and initiation. It is not surprising then - "that a bird black as night and its mysteries, a familiar of the lightning-riven pine and the storm-beaten crag, a ghoulish attendant of battling men and feasting on their slain, muttering strange soliloquies, and diabolically cunning withal" - that such a creature should have appeal to Odin's Vikings. Did not that god bear the name of Raafna Gud ('Raven-god') and did he not have as ministers two ravens called Hugin and Munin ('Reflection' and 'Memory') who ranged everywhere and reported to him all that was and was to be? These ravens, then, were the emblem of the Vikings, their standard on the banners carried by them and borne by their ships. The Danes called their standard Landeyda ('Land-waster') and believed implicitly in its miraculous virtues. They said that if they were to win a fight, the raven in the midst of their flag would flutter, as if it were alive. Britain and other lands came to know only too well that dread flag. In the words of James Thomson: "The Danish raven, lured by annual prey, Hung o'er the land incessant." Ravens on the battlefield were seen as men and birds and both seemed to lust after the carnage of it all. In the blackened soil of such fields the Ravens of the Valkyries ('the Choosers of the slain') pecked out the eyes of those selected to die and to cross the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla.

 Victims of such onslaughts could never have shared this sense of glory in such a death, and indeed no people are so pure in motive as to justify their acting as collective instruments of Divine Will. But a faithful though worldly reflection of the great mythic struggles involving the pledge of Odin's eye to gain knowledge, and the ceaseless battles with the forces of the nether world, were often mirrored in the attitudes of the Vikings as well as of others who shared in the broader Eddie mythical tradition. The loss of an eye or both eyes was commonly associated with initiation into a life of spiritual vision. In myths the raven loses an eye and then imparts magical craftsmanship. Man loses an eye to the world only to understand hidden things which are revealed to him. In the Irish sagas the god Lug was father of the raven-hero Cuchulainn, whose eye was struck out whilst dying, and Lug himself, along with Odin, Ogmios and Tochmarc Etaine, were all one-eyed gods and heroes gifted with spiritual sight and magical craftmanship. The eye that remains with the world is the eye of Time but the eye that is pledged is that of Eternity, the orb of Prophecy filled with the pure wisdom-light of the sun. The raven flies to and fro between the solar orb of eternal life and the dying eyes of man in time. He mercilessly pecks away at the delusions formed like veils over the cornea's shield until he penetrates to the darkness of the pupil's cavity and releases the invisible light within.

 Odin the Raafna Gud was, like Brahma in the Hindu tradition, born in and out of time. He, like the raven, knows this and the other worlds, and thus, the past and future are one to him, and the cycles of life reduced in complexity to a simple circle whose centre is everywhere. How prophetic, then, are the songs of the three Norse goddesses "to whom the names of Odin whisper of the past and the future, as they flutter around their abode of crystal beneath the flowing river". They tell of the renewal of the world in terms of the past which is yet to be. The unwanted Truth is told and its insatiable desire to express itself may produce terror and loathing in one who is not prepared to give up all to its insistent glare. In anguish, Poe's protagonist attempts to release himself from the compelling fate embodied in the raven's presence.

"Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked upstarting: "Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore! Leave no black plume as a token of that He thy soul hath spoken! Leave my loneliness unbroken! quit the bust above my door! Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!" Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

 The raven will not take its beak from out his heart through which, in the poem, his eye has seen. The loss of love is the loss of a dream replaced with the cold light of an arctic dawning. That which knows the beginnings and endings of vast cycles does not pause to embalm the fancies of a lover's romance. Whatever essence of truth lies at its core will rise like the Bird of Joy and Light when the delusive and earth-bound elements are abandoned in the field. The raven's beak pierced the heart of the eye just as it pierced the heavens in the Haida myth, boring its way through the firmament to the realm beyond the world where the blackest dark is pregnant with iridescent light. The soul reaches up and rests between the great bird's arching wings. But they are black! And the neck of this raven bird is not long and sleek but thick and ragged to the touch. The Raven warns its rider: "It is not into a dream we fly but over fields of soon-to-be-broken illusions and openly wanton carnage right to the end of the world. Be sure you are ready for alt this before choosing to come with me." "I come," the soul replies, "because of all the hopes and fearful desires that have bound and tried to consume me, there is one which, beyond them all, is far greater." "And what is that?" asked the Raven. "It is the desire to know what is and what will be. To know the Truth which is True through all time and space. To see the future in the past and the beginning in the end. To fear nothing and hope for nothing but welcome utterly the penetrating light of Eternal Truth." "So be it. Then come along," quoth the Raven, "and ye shall know it ever more."

 Thus, the black wings arched aloft and began their wandering to the edge of the world - to the limits of manvantara and the beginnings of pralaya, where black becomes white and black as night again. Whispering of the past and future, hoarsely echoing the prophecy of antique ages yet to come, the great bird courses on along the current of primeval wisdom flowing out of the precosmic Source of all. He is one of the raven-faced Host of Dhyan Chohans beyond which all is darkness. He is Odin, born in and out of time, and his great wing traces the feathered edge of darkness slowly receding before the beginnings of a new day.

In larger spheres the Raven flies, Small floods will not detain him. His prophecies know broader skies, The Earth cannot contain them. Nor could his flight be curbed by day, But night would fast surround it. Blending with his blackened wing, Till light could ne'er have found it. And yet his hoarsely whispered cry, Echoes within my hearing. Into the dark woods I would fly, Beyond the realm of fearing. Soaring, beyond the realm of time.