symbolism of the raven

Long considered a magickal symbol or omen or portent, the raven has captivated humans since before we could even paint images of it on cave walls.

Ravens have been symbols of messages, growth, and guidance to humans across various cultures. Depending on where in the world the raven was seen, it may be a bad omen, a wise sage, or a neutral messenger.

In general, birds are viewed by most cultures as messengers of some sort, as they are able to traverse long distances, arrive from seemingly distant lands, and are seemingly not subject to the same laws of gravity and movement as humans. They are usually considered prophetic, even if they are seen to only bring bad prophecies in some cultures.

Some people viewed them as sneaky, or opportunists, and others viewed them simply as artfully witty birds, finding and taking what they wanted. Yet others viewed them as tricksters, ready to steal your shiny beads and laundry hung on the line to dry.

And, yet other cultures compared or attributed them to daemons, all-knowing spirits with powers beyond human comprehension, and capable of imparting immense wisdom, if only you could see past your own prejudices and contrived myths.

It also doesn’t help the image or reputation of these birds that the plural or name for a group of crows is a ‘murder of crows’ and, this I didn’t know, the name for a group of ravens is an ‘unkindness of ravens.’

These terms may simply stem from the fact that both of these types of birds are known to eat carrion (dead or rotting corpses of previously living humans/animals), which is also perhaps why they became associated with bad omens in many parts of the world.

Also, ravens were associated with the dead and the afterlife by many cultures, as they were thought to either be mediators between this world and the world of the dead, or as actual spirits of the dead whose souls were damned (based on Christian iconography in Europe, mostly).

Across all cultures, however, there does definitely seem to be an association with ravens/crows and magick and witches. Perhaps we see them as kindred spirits, misunderstood and wrongly assumed to be ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ simply because they live for themselves, take what they want from the world, and are highly intelligent.

Ravens and crows are also sometimes considered shape-shifter spirits, or animals that witches or wizards can shape-shift into.

I also want to note here that in many places, no distinction appears to be made between crows and ravens, as some cultures viewed them as similar enough to have the same qualities or symbolism, or, in historical texts, records, or archeological finds, it is not possible to distinguish whether the bird depicted is a crow or a raven.

Of the two birds, crows are physically smaller and more sociable, living or traveling in larger groups, and ravens are more likely to be seen alone or traveling in pairs.

Ravens in North American Cultures and Beliefs

The Northwest Pacific Coast Indians (including, but probably not limited to Tsimishians, Haidas, Heiltsuks, Tlingits, Kwakwaka’wakw, Coast Salish, Koyukons, and the Inuit) referred to a particular raven as “Real Chief,” “The Great Inventor,” and “the One Whose Voice is to be Obeyed.”

In this setting, the raven was very much viewed as a wise spirit, a perceptive being, bringing tidings, predictions, or other advice deemed important to the people of the area.

Ravens in many of those cultural groups also saw the raven as the creator spirit, with myths centering around the raven bringing the world into existence, and bringing light into the darkness, as the raven, despite its dark plumage, is typically associated with the sun, or solar energy.

Another raven myth of NWPC Indian peoples involves the raven finding a clamshell, or many clamshells, and opening them, to find the first human men trapped inside. Upon letting them out, he became bored with them, and went in search of their female counterparts. He found them trapped inside a chiton (another type of mollusk).

After he brought the two sexes together, he derived great entertainment watching them mix and interact (I’m not so silently laughing at this because, for real, if you were some other species watching human men and women interact, you’d be pretty fucking entertained too).

Ravens in Asian Cultures and Beliefs

The most well-known legend involving a crow or raven in cultures of East and Southeast Asia (areas including China, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan) is by far the three-legged crow or raven.

The earliest known depictions or written instances of this occur in China, and are usually of the Jīnwū, or Golden Crow. It is actually depicted as a red crow, rather than black, or, as the name implies, gold.

This crow is associated with the sun, and even considered a type of solar energy, or solar deity in some areas.

In Japan, the raven named Yatagarasu is a very large black bird, also referred to as a crow-god or raven-god, symbolizing important news from god or the gods, intervening in human affairs. It is also thought to be a symbol of rebirth, perhaps due to its aforementioned affinity for eating animal remains, which is associated with rebirthing the spirit of those dead.

In Korea, a similar three-legged black bird is called Samjogo, a crow that lives in the sun and was all powerful.

Ravens in Afro-Caribean Cultures and Beliefs

Reliable or documented information from African and Caribbean cultures and beliefs about ravens and crows is hard to find, so if you are reading this and happen to know more about these geographic areas and their connections, myths, stories, and beliefs about ravens/crows, please let me know! I spent a LONG time combing through sources on the internet and didn’t come up with much other than northern African cultures like the Egyptians, and even there, I couldn’t find much.

Ravens and crows definitely do exist on the African continent and on the Caribbean islands, though.

Most African cultures appear to have considered ravens as guides, or spiritual guides. They carry wisdom and are to be consulted, or may appear to us as guides, in times of trouble.

Ravens in Celtic and European Cultures and Beliefs

Perhaps one of the best known examples of ravens in religio-cultural history in northern Europe are the two ravens of Odin, Hugin and Munin (which translate to “Thought” and “Memory”). They are said to fly through the nine realms daily and bring news back to Odin.

Another famed Norseman, although not a god, whose tale has been even more popularized by the History Channel series ‘Vikings, was Ragnar Lothbrok, whose banner called Reafan depicted a raven.

The crow is associated with the Greek god Apollo, and is his divinatory animal, bringing reports of what will come. It is also said that crows were originally white, but when one brought bad tidings to Apollo, angered, he turned the bird’s feathers black.

Ravens commonly seen in Celtic depictions include those associated with the goddesses Macha, Badb, and Anu (the triple goddess comprising the Morrigan). Here, they are omens, but also representations of war and battle, as well as death.

Roman priests would often make predictions for the future based on the flight patterns or shapes of flocks of crows or ravens.

Ravens, even to this day, are considered the guards of the Tower of London, and it is said that if the ravens ever leave, the tower will fall.

A well-known legend involving the martyr Saint Vincent says that after he was executed, ravens protected his body from other wild animals devouring it. They then took up their posts protecting his body when it was laid to rest under a shrine in Portugal. That shrine was eventually named Kanīsah al-Ghurāb, or “Church of the Raven.” Even after St Vincent’s body was exhumed in the 12th century, it was still followed and protected by ravens.

One other interesting theory or legend is that the mythical King Arthur didn’t really die, but was transformed into a raven.

Ravens in Middle Eastern or South Asian Cultures and Beliefs

The Q’uran actually mentions a raven as the bird that teaches Cain how to bury his brother Able in The Repast 5:31. He watched a raven digging a hole in the ground in which to bury its dead mate or companion (also a raven), and then he did the same for his brother.

In the Hebrew Bible, ravens are the first birds mentioned, as well as the first animal to leave the Ark when Noah sends one out to test if the great flood waters have receded enough to disembark back to land. The raven was said not to have returned, which symbolized there was land somewhere nearby.

However, some interpretations say that the raven did not return because it was selfish, and then God turned its feathers black, symbolizing Satan. The Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer, however, theorized that the raven did not return because it had many corpses of the drowned on which to feed after the flood.

In the New Testament Book of Luke, Jesus called the ravens God’s provision for man.

In Hinduism, crows are associated with ancestors and there is also a goddess named Shani who rides a crow or raven.