Ravens and crows have long been regarded as oracular birds par excellence. According to one story, Zeus sited the oracle at Delphi where the flight paths of his two Ravens crossed. Odin also has two Ravens, of course.(1) When the bodies of ravens and crows were left as offerings in pits at the Iron Age British hill fort at Danebury, one raven wing was carefully placed on a platform of flint and chalk (2 ). The Celts are said to have brought divination to Ireland, where a text from c900-1200 A.D gives twenty eight prognostications based on raven behaviour, and a further seven based on their calls.(3) Ninth century Tibetan commentaries on Buddhist scriptures include a detailed manual of crow divination.(4)
I’ve been wondering to what extent stories about birds enhance or detract from our ability to understand and appreciate flesh and blood birds. With this question in mind I want to reconsider two corvid stories.
Ted Hughes’ Crow.
My favourite poet, Ted Hughes, spent a formative childhood here in the Calder Valley (in the North of England). Remarkably for a neo-Pagan with a strong interest in shamanism, he became Poet Laureate between 1984 and 1998. Hughes was also an environmental educator and campaigner whose deeply animistic work has been celebrated for its engagement with ecological crisis. Terry Gifford, for example, based his notion of post-pastoral poetry on Ted Hughes’ work (particularly Cave Birds).(5) My feeling is that Hughes was drawn to birds because he experienced an exceptional sequence of bereavements. It was during this extended life-crisis that he became pre-occupied with the figure of Crow.
The first thing to say about Crow is that even supportive critics have found it problematic. There are ‘too many facile poems of violence and apocalypse’,(6) and some gratuitous images of all-too-gendered human violence, that may reflect Hughes’ response to the circumstances under which he was writing. Moreover, the sequence was truncated by a second major tragedy in the poet’s life. That said, Crow marks the beginning of a period of intense engagement with bird imagery.
Ted Hughes was inspired, in part, by Native American creation stories from the Pacific Northwest, in which a Trickster deity -called Dotson ‘sa, or Great Raven, by the Koyukon people- creates and re-creates the world(7), and by the comparable figure of the Guiser in English folk lore. His disturbingly bleak ‘epic folk-tale’, forged from, though not reducible to, the raw psychic material of personal crisis, needs both an accompanying explanatory text (such as that provided by Ann Skea), and the resolution found in later poems, particularly Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days (from Cave Birds, a shamanistic continuation of Crow).
In Cave Birds, An Alchemical Cave Drama a cock-sure protagonist undergoes a period of Nigredo (blackening), during which his hardened persona is broken down by descent into numb darkness before he can be transformed. The Nigredo stage was referred to by alchemists as the Raven’s Head, and is personified here in the figure of The Executioner, drawn by Leonard Baskin as a puffed-up and pitch black raven, and described by Hughes as the Sun god in his ‘aspect of judgement’.(8) Hughes also invoked European raven lore, notably the lurid story of Apollo and Coronis (Apollo turned a white raven black when the oracular bird insisted on bringing him unwelcome news), and that of the Raven God Bran, and his wife Branwen (White Raven).
One of the many achievements Ted Hughes’ has been credited with is significantly widening the cultural range of English poetry. He likened mythology to a thesaurus of symbols.(9) Although he was influenced by the neo-Platonic tradition, Robert Graves, and Carl Jung, Hughes expressed his craft in such a distinctive, committed, and locally grounded voice, that he probably honoured and re-payed any borrowings. Respectful eclecticism arguably raises awareness and provokes creative dialogue.
Was Crow fair to crow-people though? I’m not sure about this. Some naturalists have been keen on the work of the ‘Yorkshire shaman’. Paul Evans says that his younger self liked the fact that Crow ‘shat on the sensibilities of those for whom Nature was somehow set apart from the world as we live it, to be preserved as chocolate box landscapes inhabited by cuddly animals’. Hughes’ voice ‘articulated wild life’, and described the vitality, the ‘dangerous manners’, of nature beyond human governance. Where ‘natural history and scientific ecology tries to banish poetic metaphor’, Hughes embraced mythology. His Crow and the Birds works as an antidote to ‘the RSPB view of nature’.(10)
Because most of Crow is concerned with human existential angst in the wake of the multiple cataclysmic tragedies of the Second World War however, my feeling is that many of Ted Hughes’ other bird poems –Snipe, A Swallow, Bullfinch, Wren, Treecreper, The Moorhen, Tern, The Kingfisher, A Cormorant- come closer to the lives of actual birds, whilst often commenting wryly on human parallels. There are some very powerful poems elsewhere that evoke ornithomorphic figures, such as The Angel in Remains of Elmet, And the Phoenix has Come from Adam and the Sacred Nine, or A Flayed Crow in the Hall of Judgement in Cave Birds. Perhaps these are more successful because they suggest neither avian nor human consciousness but various primal hybrid states beneath and beyond either. Some of Hughes’ later poems, particularly the River collection, are widely regarded as his most profound celebrations of Nature.
According to Richard Nelson, Koyukon people have an ambivalent attitude towards ravens, but make more ‘prayers’ to them than to any other animals because their powerful spirits show benevolence towards humans.(11) Corvids are noted for their wit and resilience. Ravens have a reputation for teasing other animals. They scavenge, feast on roadkill, and peck the eyes out of dying and otherwise vulnerable animals, so its quite reasonable to associate them with the katabolic, death-facing, aspect of deity. What is not reasonable surely, is to appropriate that part of their lives in order to stereotype them as mascots of war or harbingers of misfortune.(12) As Esther Wolfson puts it ‘the battlefield drew (and no doubt draws) crows to feed, yet human disgust is for the feeding birds, not for the pointlessness of war, for the instigators, the paymasters, the makers of arms, or indeed the apparently insatiable human desire for the often illusory attainment gained only by conflict’.(13) I doubt whether ravens are any more likely to accompany death than other species of birds.
We humans have a lot more in common with corvids than we may think. John Marzluff and Tony Angell point out that humans and crows are both family orientated, gregarious, long-lived, diurnal, vocally and visually astute, reliant on memory and individual recognition, and generalists who utilize many links in the food chain. Crows and ravens care for each other, form largely monogamous pair bonds, show mutual affection (groom each other more than other birds), engage in foreplay, sunbathe, make tools (use ants as insecticide), have complex family relationships, and co-operate to sleep in safety.(14) In other words, they are self-evidently other-than-human-people. Furthermore, Marzluff and Angell report two extra-ordinary soul bird stories involving crows.
There are some beautiful descriptions of raven flight ‘displays’, as ornithologists like to call them, in which pairs (sometimes two pairs) of ravens perform synchronised aerial dances.(15) I have been privileged to witness some very moving raven performances, and can only say that I find their emotions, including love for each other, palpable.
The Battle of the Birds.
We had a hot dry spell here recently. The ground was parched and the grass was like bleached straw. Farmers gathered in the hay. Then there was a great storm. Thunder, lightning, torrential rain, and flooding. Roads became rivers. Then came Lughnasad (Loafmass, or Lammas), our (northern hemisphere) festival of First Fruits. So it was against a backdrop of dramatic weather that I came across a Scottish harvest story, Cath nan Eun, the Battle of the Birds, featuring a magical raven.
Although various versions were collected and translated from Gaelic in the mid nineteenth century, the story is said to have been handed down through previous generations.(16) It begins with a wren who offers to help protect a farmer’s crops, and is challenged by a mouse. The wren musters an army of birds, and the mouse summons a tribe of rodents and crawling creatures. When the protagonist, Mac Righ Cathair Shioman, a King’s son, arrives, the only combatants left are a Great Black Raven and a Serpent. The Serpent is coiled round the raven’s neck, but the raven grips the Serpent’s throat in his beak. Neither dare move. The King’s son decides to help the raven by slaying the serpent, and is given various gifts in return. “For thy kindness to me this day I will give thee a sight. Come up now on the root of my two wings”. So the King’s son rides on the Raven’s back ‘over nine bens, nine glens, and nine mountain moors’, and in one version the bird takes him on his first hunting expedition as well. The raven then helps him overcome a Giant and marry the Giant’s daughter.
As the adventure begins, the King’s son is told he must ‘keep tryst’ with the raven. ‘ Be sure that thou meetest me tomorrow morning, here in this place. ‘ But on the third morning a mist descends and the raven cannot be found. In his place a ‘beautiful yellow ringletted man, with a golden comb in one hand and a silver comb in the other’ appears. The King’s son enquires whether he has ever seen a big black raven, and is told “thou wilt never see the raven again for I am that raven.” The young man then hands the King’s son a magical bundle, and the story continues.
Alexei Kondratieff makes some intriguing connections between Cath nan Eun and the Celtic god Lugh, who was concerned with sovereignty, and venerated as guardian of the crops at Lughnasad. Many-gifted Lugh seems to have been associated with both the wren (the etymology of his name suggests he is Lu, little, and the wren becomes King of the Birds through trickery, by riding on an Eagle’s back) and, as Lugus, with the raven. In Iron Age Britain Lugus is thought to have been assimilated into the Roman figure of “Mercury”, protector of travellers and patron of trade, but also god of language, winged messenger (he wore winged golden sandals), and psychopomp. Like Mercury, Lugus was linked with oracular birds. Three ravens, with white feathers, are said to have flown down at the time of the founding of Lugdunum, inspiring the establishment of an oracular shrine. Odin’s ravens (Odin may have been a variant of Romano-Celtic ‘Mercury’) are, of course, messengers associated with faculties of mind.(17)
What appeals to me in the Battle of the Birds is how vividly the agency of other-than-human-persons, and dialogue between humans, deities, and the rest of Nature is evoked. The imagery of metamorphosis would be no less striking if we were to read it as a strong expression of existential equivalence, empathy, and communion between humans and birds. However, the golden haired young man in the story, who had been ‘laid under spells by a bad Druidh’, identifies himself as ‘the black humpy raven, Fitheach Crom Dubh’, ‘the Bent Black One’. In Irish Celtic literature Crom Dubh appears at Lughnasad, bent under the weight of the sheaf of grain he carries up from the underworld. He then fights, and is killed by, or becomes, Lugh, who releases the harvest from the spirits of the land. Interestingly, in the Scottish story, the raven, a manifestation of Crom Dubh, carries the young prince on his back, and helps him to become King.
The wren, whose Welsh name dryw also means ‘seer’ (though the plural is different), and is similar to derwydd druid(18), and whose Irish Gaelic name dreoilin may derive from draio ean druid bird(19), is also associated with ornithomancy. Lugh’s association with magical birds is echoed in the Welsh story of the death of Llew, who is transformed into an eagle, and back again.
Ted Hughes made much of the fact that the Calder Valley was part of the ancient Kingdom of Elmet, the last outpost of the Celts in England. I like to think that the kind of sensibility expressed in these stories would have been familiar to those who lived here many generations ago. For me, though, the real test of the value of such stories is whether they reflect and encourage respectful relationship with flesh and blood birds. For an urban twenty first century readership, alienated from the land, such stories may, of course, exacerbate a tendency to exoticise and romanticise both birds, and non-ordinary states. Its important, therefore, that we don’t let them become a rigid filter through which we perceive the natural world. That said, I hope that stories such as the Battle of the Birds can still work as allegorical reminders of the possibility of subtle and intimate connection between ourselves and our avian neighbours.
1) Beryl Rowland, Birds with Human Souls, a Guide to Bird Symbolism, University of Tennessee Press. 1978.
2) Dale Serjeantson, Ravens and Crows in Iraon Age Britain, the Danebury Corvids Reconsidered, in W. Prummel, D.C. Drinkhuizen, and J. Zeller, eds Birds in Archaeology, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, 2008.
3) Glynn Anderson, The Birds of Ireland, Facts, Folklore, and History, The Collins Press, 2008, citing Best R.I. Prognostications from the Raven and Wren, Eriu, Dublin, 1916.
4) Lama Chime Radha Rinpoche, Tibet, in Michael Lowe and Carmen Backer, eds. Divination and Oracles, George Allen and Unwin, 1981.
5) Terry Gifford, Pastoral, Routledge, 1999. Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, Faber, 2003.
6) Terry Gifford and Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes, A Critical Reader, Faber and Faber, 19981.
7) Richard K. Nelson, Make Prayers to the Raven, A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest, University of Chicago Press, 1983.
8) Ted Hughes, Cave Birds, an Alchemical Cave Drama, Viking Press, 1978.
9) Ann Skea, Ted Hughes and the Poetic Quest, University of New England, 1994. And see her website.
10) Paul Evans, Crow Nation, Guardian 4/11/98.
11) Richard Nelson, the Watchful World, in Graham Harvey, ed Readings in Indigenous Religions, Continuum, 2002.
12) Edward Armstrong The Folklore of Birds, Houghton Mifflin, 1959.
13) Esther Wolfson, Corvus, A Life with Birds, Granta, 2008.
14) John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell, In the Company of Crows and Ravens, Yale University, 2005.
15) Derek Ratcliffe, The Raven, A Natural History of Britain and Ireland, T. and A.D. Poyser, 1997. e.g. pp108-9, quotes Ryves, 1948.
16) J.F. Campell, Popular Tales of the West Highlands, Orally Collected, Vol 1, Edmonston and Douglas, 1860. (the full text is can be found in Google Books)
17) Alexei Kondratieff, Lugus: The Many-Gifted Lord, An Trìbhís Mhór, The IMBAS Journal of Celtic recontructionists, Lúnasa 1997.
18) Mark Cocker, Birds and People, Jonathan Cape, 2013, quoting Jim Perrin.
19) Peter Wood, The Wren, 1997.
20) Edward Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds, Houghton Miffin, 1959, says that the wren was known in Ireland as ‘magnus avium’, that Cormac’s Glossary describes it as a druid bird that can give predictions, and that wren oracles survive.