The Raven - Myth keeper, death messenger, joker

The Raven - Myth keeper, death messenger, joker - The Raven - Myth keeper, death messenger, joker
2023-01-12 17:12:00 /

"On the raven's cliffs pale boy's ribs and the moon creeps gloomily into the clouds ..."
(Singing a song at midnight, Heinrich Seidel). 

Granted: Compared to grandma's colourful budgie, the raven has a pitch-black image problem in this country. In Wilhelm Busch he appears as "Hans Huckebein the unlucky raven", Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" is worthy of an epic horror poem and the Brothers Grimm tell of the "Seven Ravens". Aesop's fable "The Fox and the Raven" has survived from Greek antiquity, and in Ovid's "Metamorphoses" Apollo's previously brilliant white raven brings bad news - since then it has had to wear mourning as a punishment.

Countless legends and stories have grown up around the bird, which often has a bad reputation: messenger of bad luck, scary bird, bird of the gallows. It is a symbol of mourning, death, melancholy and hopelessness, but also of arrogance and garrulity. Not surprisingly, popular belief associates the raven with occult powers. A great spotted woodpecker comes across as much more cheerful, but there is something special about the raven. It is hard to resist the fascination of this dark fellow. 

Flashing eyes, sharp gaze, eerie croaking call, shimmering blue-black plumage - devout Christians have always feared the dark bird. Until modern times, Corvus Corax, the Latin name of the common raven, stood for emptiness, death and dark powers in northern and central Europe. Enemy of the church, the personification of superstition par excellence. Hardly surprising that the raven likes to sit on the shoulders of witches and sorcerers. 

Quite a heavyweight, by the way. A full-grown raven weighs well over one kilo! Ravens can live for more than 30 years and recognise each other by their voice. They change their tone of voice towards conspecifics according to sympathy or familiarity: to strangers they react harshly and deeply, friends are greeted with a higher pitched voice. The impressive range of the "raven vocabulary" goes far beyond the typical "kraaah" or "rak, rak, kak". 

Wikipedia writes on the sound repertoire of the chatty blackcoats that it includes "`multisyllabic sounds reminiscent of screeches, grunts, burps, creaks, buzzes to bright xylophone sounds'; at least 34 different call types have been found with Central European ravens." Common ravens imitate sounds and calls of other animal species, e.g. the mating song of the capercaillie or even dogs barking. Reports about "talking ravens" are probably not a myth, because some of the highly intelligent birds in captivity can at least reproduce individual sounds of human speech. 

Ravens appear in so many stories not only because of their linguistic talent, but also because they are adept at "handling" objects, are extremely playful and put on entertaining acrobatic shows. Sledding" together in the snow is popular, as is rolling down a slope "caw-grawing". So is balancing or swinging vigorously on a branch, occasionally to the point of flipping over a giant rim type. Dune surfing has been observed and "funny slides" off tin roofs are also part of the ravens' fun-sport programme. These ravens are real jokers.

Being rather conservative as spouses, ravens stay together monogamously their whole life. During courtship, the pair feeds each other, cuddles their partner with their beak and cares for each other's feathers. Together they then circle over their territory. In doing so, they perform daring manoeuvres such as wave flights and flight rolls and let out calls like "wang", "raok" or a rich "klong! 
With a wingspan of up to 130 cm, the black flying artist is by far the largest corvid in Europe and was almost extinct in many places 80 years ago. The good news is that populations have now recovered somewhat. Corvus Corax is a protected species, and there are far fewer scary stories about it in the realm of myth.

In many cultures, the raven appears as a clever advisor. As a powerful magician, mediator between gods and humans or shrewd messenger of the heavens, he has fluttered from ancient Europe to Siberia and North America: in the cool coastal forests of the Pacific regions of Alaska and western Canada, he still embodies one of the highest gods of creation for the indigenous people. In the legends of the Haida Indians, he brought light into the darkness after the last end of the world and trickily helped in the birth of the first humans, who tried to crawl out of a shell on the beach. Totem poles, sculptures and other Native American artwork depict the raven in all kinds of actions and shamanic roles.
Black doesn't have to be scary, the Germanic tribes thought. For them, this "un-colour" also symbolised seriousness, reflection and knowledge. The one-eyed Germanic forefather and chief of the gods Odin kept two ravens as constant companions, named Hugin ('the thought') and Munin ('the memory'). They flew tirelessly through the whole world for the many-faceted god of wisdom and reported to him everything that happened between heaven and the underworld. Thus, in Europe, the common raven is associated with the "old pagan faith" and in some places is still revered today as the "last guardian of old Germanic religion".

Image problem? No way, forget about grandma's budgie! I love the raven. Corvus Corax is simply a magical master of myths and stories! A playful sage, a happy child of good raven parents and a knowing friend, even when the mood turns sombre. When I hear or see it, my heart swells. Even as a child, Christian Morgenstern's "Ralf the Raven" delighted me, and if I fall into the ditch - ok, then the ravens will eat me.*

* Translation of a line of text from the German children's verse "Hoppe, hoppe Reiter".

Text: Andreas M. Gross
Photo: shutterstock