*Honestly. I’m astounded I even have to add this disclaimer. However, certain parties seem to think that this article entices hatred of ravens. If they had read it properly they’d have realised it was intended to inform readers of the mythology attached to these birds. It is not in any way supposed to be what I personally think about them. I love ravens. They’re great. Very intelligent. Happy?
The raven, a bird from the crow family, has long been considered a bird of ill omen. From ancient texts through to modern times, writers have often associated these creatures with death and the supernatural. It is thought one main reason for this is that ravens are carrion birds. This means they eat the decaying flesh of corpses, usually animals, but they were also connected to battles in mythology – it is likely fallen soldiers were fed upon too. They are associated with The Morrigan, Celtic war goddess, whose name may derive from the old English word maere (the word survives in nightmare). Her name is often translated as “phantom queen”. Take a walk around any cemetery and you are guaranteed to find a crow or raven hopping about or perched upon a tombstone. They sense death is nearby…
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, there is a tale called The Raven and The Crow. It is about a raven who was once a white bird, but whose “chattering tongue” was his downfall. Coronis, beloved of Phoebus the sun god, has been unfaithful to him. As the raven is on his way to tell Phoebus, he meets a crow who warns him he might be better just to keep his beak shut. The crow tells the raven that she was once in a similar situation, and had been turned first into a crow, when she was saved by Pallas (Athena, goddess of wisdom), but then banished by her after telling tales. The raven ignores the crow’s warnings and carries on to tell Phoebus about his beloved’s infidelity. Phoebus immediately shoots Coronis through the heart with his arrow, but immediately regrets it. As she dies, she tells him that she carries their child, and they will now die together. Before Coronis is burned on the funeral pyre, Phoebus snatches his son from her womb and carries him off to Chiron, the centaur and tutor of many Greek heroes. Even though the raven had been truthful, nevertheless Phoebus turns him black and banishes him from all the breeds of birds that are white.
The crow tells the raven two attempted rape stories, the first is skimmed over when the crow simply states that “once upon a time a baby, Erichthonius, was born without a mother.” In fact, this was the attempted rape of Minerva (Gr. Athena) by Vulcan (Gr. Hephaestus), whereby his seed falls on the ground and Erichthonius (“very earthy”) is born. The names of Cecrops’ three unmarried daughters are Pandrosos, Herse and Aglauros. Their names mean “bedewed”, “dew” and “clearwater”, which reflect the connection to fertility. The snake that is seen is a reference to the earth-cults. Erichthonius was worshipped in this guise at Athens (Kenney 1998). Interestingly, the son that is born from the murdered Coronus, is Aesclepius, god of healing and medicine, whose emblem is also a snake.
Indulge my ravings…. This seems to me to be, not just a tale of caution about keeping schtum, but also a story explaining the landscape, possibly of the areas in and around Athens. “Born without a mother”, so hardly likely to be animal. Erichthonius’ name means literally “very earthy”, so possibly not even plant, simply the earth itself and how it lies on the land. He was conceived when Vulcan (god of volcanoes) erupted (!) on Minerva (whose Greek name is Athena, symbolic of many things including the city of Athens). She wiped his seed on the ground (i.e. the surrounding land). This sounds to me like an erupting volcano has carved the Athenian landscape. Aglauros aka “Clearwater” is the only one to sneak a look at the “earth”, which could indicate a river(s) or stream(s) in the area. Volcanic eruptions cause the land to become more fertile and draw in migrants. In this case, the migrants who moved into the area were earth cults, whose totems were snakes. They also, more than likely, brought knowledge of medicine.
Furthermore, all four elements are mentioned in this tale: earth (Erichthonius), fire (funeral pyre where Aesclepius is snatched before his mother is cremated; Phoebus Apollo also represents the sun, a symbol of fire), water (Cecrops’ daughters) and air (the birds).
If you disagree, or know more, please do comment at the end of this blog! I would love to hear your opinions.
I recorded a reading of The Raven and The Crow for you.
One of my favourite poems is The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe. It’s a delight to both read and listen to, so I’ve included both the poem itself and a reading by Christopher Lee (who else?! I couldn’t resist that voice!):
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore–
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door–
Only this and nothing more.”
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;–vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow–sorrow for the lost Lenore–
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore–
Nameless here for evermore.
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me–filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door–
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;
This it is and nothing more.”
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”–here I opened wide the door–
Darkness there and nothing more.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”–
Merely this and nothing more.
Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping something louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is and this mystery explore–
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;–
‘Tis the wind and nothing more.
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he,
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door–
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door–
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then the 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.”
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning–little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door–
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”
But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if its soul in that one word he did outpour
Nothing farther then he uttered; not a feather then he fluttered–
Till I scarcely more than muttered: “Other friends have flown before–
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”
Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore–
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
But the Raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore–
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er
She shall press, ah, nevermore!
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee–by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite–respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
“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.”
“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 lie thy soul has 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.”
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadows on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted–nevermore!
Here is a reading by Christopher Lee:
Lenore is the main focus of the poem, the beloved of the narrator and apparently now no longer living since only the angels know her name now. Poe uses alliteration throughout the poem. The first time Lenore is mentioned he describes her as “rare and radiant”. According to all sources I could find, Lenore literally means “light” or “torch”. Lenore, therefore, is not simply a beloved woman, she is symbolic of all that is bright, his guiding light in life. She is more than mortal. She is an ideal.
This is contrasted by the image of the raven. The bird appears to be almost a part of the darkness of the night from which he emerges. Initially, the raven is asked what his name is and replies “Nevermore”, much to the amusement of the enquirer. However, the more the raven says this the horrified man begins to feel like it is a prophecy. As the narrator asks for the birds “lordly” name he may well be regarding the bird as the “king of the night” himself. Certainly, as the poem continues, the narrator feels ever more threatened by this night visitor.
“Night’s Plutonian shore”, is a wonderful three word description, as it sets a scene and tells us all we need to know! The action is taking place at night: darkness and night often symbolising mystery, danger and frightening powers. Plutonian is a reference to the Roman god of the Underworld, Pluto (Gr. Hades), and all the associations that go along with that: death, darkness, decay. Shore could be a metaphor of the night as an ocean washing up at his chamber door. He describes each night as being a “Nightly shore” in the previous line. Perhaps the narrator sees himself as residing on or near a shore.
The narrator assumes the bird will leave him at daybreak, but the bird again answers him “Nevermore”. As the speaker ponders on this, the memory of Lenore comes back. The idea of nepenthe comes to him, as he imagines the room filling with perfume. In the Odyssey, Homer describes this mythological drink as a potion that takes away all grief and sadness. However, as the bird keeps assuring the narrator that “Nevermore” will he be free from grief, he descends into madness and hopelessness.
The reference to Pallas is another name for Athena, goddess of wisdom, the symbol of the ideal woman. Perhaps this raven speaks the dark truth, the only knowledge he possesses, like that of the raven in the previous poem. It is of little comfort to our narrator, whose soul is lost forever in the shadow of the raven….
Until next week. Your friend, A.D.
Ovid, The Raven and The Crow in “Metamorphoses” (c.1-8 CE) (trans. Melville, A. D.; notes and intro. Kenney, E. J. 1998 Oxford Uni Press)
Rosalind Clark (1990) The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses from the Morrígan to Cathleen Ní Houlihan (Irish Literary Studies, Book 34)