Ted Hughes on Oracular Corvids


This morning, as I was wondering whether to write something about Ted Hughes in the context of recent hill walks on a rather bleak and exploited stretch of the Lancashire/Yorkshire border -a place he reportedly retreated to during the awful personal nadir from which Crow emerged- an e-mail arrived with a link to a documentary involving Hughes, made by the National Film Board of Canada (in 1994), called Seven Crows a Secret What follows is a brief recommendation of the film, and a footnote on a possible source for the idea of Cave Birds.

In the film a rather subdued and life worn Hughes (who only had another few years to live) reads from Crow and (towards the end) talks about the crow as ‘the totemic oracular god of Britain, a fact which has unfortunately been forgotten’.  Interestingly, given his views on the potential magical power of the photographic image, and doubtless also an understandable resistance to biographical exposure, he doesn’t look into the camera at any point.

The film opens slowly, but if you’re interested in Ted Hughes, crows, or bird lore, its worth persisting.  The first interviewee is Leonard Baskin, the sculptor and printmaker whose extraordinary drawings enliven the Viking Press edition of Cave Birds.  It was Baskin (who also had only a few years left to live when the film was made) who had found Hughes in a very depressed state and suggested he write some crow poems.  I don’t concur with the bleak view of birds, or the rest of nature, he expresses in the film, but I wouldn’t want to judge a Jewish artist renowned for his scupltures at the Ann Arbor Holocaust Memorial on that score.

The film also visited Bernd Heinrich, an engaging ornithologist who conducted influential research on ravens.  Heinrich kept pet crows from a young age, and several years before his major life project on ravens began, recorded a dream in which he heard ravens croaking, telling him that their nest was near.(2)  There’s some nice footage of ravens in the film, and the commentary highlights the widespread negative perception of corvids, pointing out that crows are ‘a model of monagmous devotion’, and loyal parents, and that ravens will give their nest over to their growing chicks, going elsewhere to roost in order to give them space.  This endearing habit has been misinterpreted in beliefs that ravens make bad parents.  Prejudice of this kind is contrasted with a Haida story of the raven ‘trickster’ who coaxed little creatures into the world with his beautiful soft voice, before the first Haida Indians were born.

It’s often assumed that birds don’t mourn, so I was pleased to hear about two ravens at the Tower of London, named Huggin and Munin after Odin’s raven emissaries.  After the female, Munnin, died from a heart attack, her partner Huggin mourned for two years before showing signs of interest in another bird.

After centuries of persecution ravens have benefitted greatly from legal protection in the U.K.   Since the 1990’s they have returned to most areas, including the Lancashire/Yorkshire Pennines.  Unfortunately, following a spate of predation by ravens on lambs in Scotland, farmers and gamekeepers are now calling for them to join other corvids on the list of species on the General Licence.  This would enable landowners to kill them without applying for permission each time (at present ‘destructive ravens’ can be shot or trapped under individual licences).  The R.S.P.B. and other conservation bodies are opposing this  move, which could precipitate an indiscriminate cull. (see here).  Gamekeepers, who clearly don’t regard the crow as an oracular totemic god, and who, ironically, often invoke pejorative lore about the ‘unkindness’ of ravens, justify this on ecological grounds.  Research shows, however, that the presence of ravens has not been a significant factor in the precipitous decline (by up to 50% in the last quarter of century) in populations of wading birds such as lapwing, dunlin, golden plover, snipe, and curlew. (see here and here).

Raven, Corax Corax.

Raven, Corax Corax. (Photo, Pixabay, Creative Commons).

Cave Birds?

I’m not a huge fan of Ted Hughes’s Crow collection.  Ironically, given that he clearly realised the harm done by negative lore and beliefs about corvids, Crow, which was truncated by the second appalling tragedy in his life, has been criticised for its unremitting and unredeemed bleakness.  I agree with those who prefer Hughes’s shamanistic sequel, Cave Birds, in which existential anguish is assuaged, if not resolved, in moments of beauty and ecstasy, though like Hughes, I feel ambivalent about its appropriation of ornithomorphic imagery to explore all-too-human concerns.

After writing about Cave Birds (here) I stumbled upon a reference to the use of actual ‘cave birds’ in Hittite divination.  The birds in question were thought to have been a kind of partridge, the tadorna, which were either sacrificed and subjected to haruspicy (the examination of their entrails) or an examination of superficial signs on their bodies, or released so that their flight could be interpreted.(1)  Ann Skea was unable to find the original sources (dated 1963, 1966, and 1975) in Ted Hughes’ library at Emory University, but thought he may have come across them at Cambridge University library, to which he kept returning (pers comm).

Whether or not Hughes was aware of this connection, there’s a tradition within astrology (and other esoteric disciplines) that names can be significant, even where significance was not intended.  Given that an autobiogaphical strand permeates Cave Birds, given that Ted Hughes’ life would be subjected to intense biographical scrutiny, and not least given the poems’ imagery of interrogation, judgement, disembowelling, lobotomy, and the skinning of souls, a co-incidental naming of the collection after birds who were sacrificed and had their entrails examined, would perhaps have been apt.

B.T 2/5/16 updated on 24/5/16.


(1) Michael Lowe and Carmen Blacker eds.  Divination and Oracles, London, George Allen and Unwin. 1981 pp 151 and 153-4 (and references on pp170-171).

(2) Bernd Heinrich, Mind of the Raven, Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds, Harper Perennial, 1999.

Also: Ted Hughes. Crow, From the Life and Songs of the Crow, Faber and Faber, 1970 and Cave Birds, Viking Press, 1978.

On alchemical symbolism in Cave Birds see Ann Skea, Ted Hughes, the Poetic Quest, University of New England Press (1994), also her web page on Crow.







Ted Hughes, Shaman of the Tribe?

Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes, Photo Malene, Creative Commons.

Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes, Photo Malene, Creative Commons.

As well as being a poet of the highest order, Ted Hughes was an early advocate of neo-Shamanism, an environmental campaigner, a pagan animist, and an astrologer.  He is celebrated as an influential eco-poet whose work combines exquisite naturalistic observation with an encyclopedic knowledge of lore, mythology, and esoteric traditions.  He also happens to be an important ancestral presence here in the Calder Valley, where I’ve spent the whole of my adult life.  So I often find myself walking in places he wrote powerfully about.

Ted Hughes’ life story has, of course, been tangled in controversy since the suicides of Sylvia Plath, and then of his subsequent partner, Assia Wevill.  When I worked for a psychiatric survivor led voluntary organisation I had a copy of Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Hanging Man’ on the wall behind my desk.  Ted Hughes endorsed her description of her encounter with modernist psychiatry as a grotesque parody of shamanic initiation, refused to medicalise her distress and madness, and supported her through the night terrors of its long aftermath.  I count myself amongst those readers who empathise with both Hughes and Plath, whilst recognising that both were human-all-too-human.  The hubbub of partisan biography shouldn’t distract us from appreciating and critically responding to Ted Hughes’s considerable achievements as an eco-animist poet.(1)  Nor should it prevent us from acknowledging that not all of his enormous ouvre is wonderful, and that there are a few problematic moments.

In her recent book The Bioregional Economy, Molly Scott Cato uses Max Weber’s influential critique of the disenchantment of the world.  After the protestant reformation God became wholly transcendent and otherworldly, and magic was banished from everyday life.  Once the world had been constructed as mechanical it could be rendered as raw material for capitalist exploitation.(2)  Reviewing Max Nicholson’s The Environmental Revolution in 1970, Ted Hughes made much the same argument.  “The fundamental guiding ideas of our Western Civilization … are based on the assumption that the earth is a heap of raw materials given to man by God for his exclusive profit and use.  The creepy crawlies which infest it are devils of dirt and without a soul, also put there for his exclusive profit and use.  By the skin of her teeth woman escaped the same role”.  The mediumistic artist, however, may be able to see ‘the draughty radiant paradise of the animals’, even Pan, ‘the vital, somewhat terrible spirit of natural life, which is new in every second.”  Some of what he wrote in that review, more than forty years ago, could easily be mistaken for the work of a contemporary animist: “…while the mice in the field are listening to the Universe, and moving in the body of nature, where every living cell is sacred to every other, and all are interdependent, the Developer is peering at the field through a visor …”.(3)

Not surprisingly, many critics describe Ted Hughes’ work as biocentric, and discuss his belief in ‘the shamanic healing power of poetry for a species alienated from its natural home’.(4)  When Hughes was appointed poet Laureate, his friend Seamus Heaney proclaimed him ‘shaman of the tribe’.  As a young man, Hughes had a visionary dream in which a theriomorphic fox figure came to him.  He recounted this experience in The Thought Fox, and may well have understood it as a threshold call.

The remarkable Cave Birds sequence evokes a male protagonist’s spirit journey through an underworld where he’s confronted by his own past, experiences judgement and dismemberment, marries a female figure who is both his ‘anima’ and the Goddess as Nature, and is eventually reborn.  The extra-ordinary power and beauty of these poems came into focus for me when I read some of them to my friend Peter during the last year of his life.  Terry Gifford regards Cave Birds as an exemplar of post-pastoral poetry, a key feature of which is that it attends, with a sense of awe, to the destructive as well as the creative aspect of Nature.  This perspective contrasts with that of some earlier critics who discuss shamanism in transcendental and dualistic terms.(5).  I’ve been re-reading Ted Hughes’s poems to see whether some of his underlying assumptions, notably his adoption of Jung’s essentialist conception of generic feminine and masculine principles, and his veneration of a Gravesian Goddess, get in the way.  For me, they mostly don’t seem to.

Ted Hughes said that angling connected him with ‘the stuff of the Earth, the whole of life’.(6)  Leonard Scigaj talks about Hughes’s ‘ecological animism’ in relation to the hydrological cycle.(7).  If you read Flesh of Light, The River, or October Salmon, you’ll see why.  Although Hughes may have been influenced by Mircea Eliade, his take on shamanism was always grounded by his fascination with, and respect for, flesh and blood animals, and by his concern with human healing.  His belief in the ‘real summoning force’ of poems, the capacity of carefully charged words to reach out and connect with non-human animals, resonates closely with David Abram’s account of shamanism as a process of relationship with more-than-human worlds.(8)

From my own practice I can confirm that such ‘showings’, as I like to call them, do happen from time to time.  Hughes may have exaggerated the power of poetry per se, but he was certainly not succumbing to the ‘pathetic fallacy’ (falsely imagining that Nature was responding to his inner states).  His own poetry drew upon an exceptional pool of life experience, and was often crafted with specific ‘spiritual’ and/or magical intent.  Ann Skea refers to his shamanic poetic magic, and locates him in the British bardic tradition.(9)  Jeanette Winterson writes: “the wild creature circling the tamed world comes as unknown energy, sensed but not seen.  The bound of the animal out of instinct and into consciousness, its ‘hot stink’, is what makes the poem happen.  For Hughes, poems happen in this meeting/mating between very different measures of energy – the raw feral of the instinctual life, and the channelled potency of consciousness.”(10)

Ted Hughes, painted by Reginald Gray.

Ted Hughes, painted by Reginald Gray.

Ted Hughes’s poems can be difficult, sometimes because of their complexity, sometimes because of their unflinching directness.  Alice Oswald comments “the disruption of comfort, the chance to concentrate utterly on what’s there, to see it in its own way and to say so without disturbing its strangeness is what Hughes’ offers”.(11)  Terry Gifford reports that he’s seen people in the audience faint when February 17th is read.  Transcribed from Ted Hughes’s farming notes, it records an occasion when he had to cut the head from a lamb that had been strangled during birth, in order to save the mother.  I’m reminded of Graham Harvey’s pointed query as to why, when there are so many urban workshops on shamanism, there are none on Pennine shepherding, or its associated religion.(12)

I recently went to an event in Ilkley commemorating the inaugural performance of Cave Birds there in 1975.  Keith Sagar, a literary critic and friend of Ted Hughes, who had been in dialogue with him during the writing of Cave Birds, and who was to have given the talk, had just died, so the event became a fitting tribute to him.

I’d been wondering whether the 1975 performance might have been, in some sense, a shamanic event.  Michael Dawson, who had commissioned Cave Birds, explained that the poems were read by actors who picked the running order ‘randomly’ from a box on the stage.  When a recording was played, I found that their declamatory Thespian style, booming across the years, didn’t work for me.  Something seems to have worked for one audience member at the time though.  Suddenly the reading was interrupted by a protracted and full blooded scream, emitted by a woman at the back of the auditorium, who, we were told, also vomited in the foyer.  The performers on stage assumed this had been a theatrical stunt, so continued as though nothing had happened.

The woman in question, who turned out to be one of Keith Sagar’s adult education pupils, reportedly laughed about it afterwards, and said the ‘involuntary howling’ that came upon her gradually had been triggered by one of the Leonard Baskin bird figures that were being projected on stage.  Ted Hughes later wrote about Baskin’s prints that it was ‘as though a calligraphy had been improvised from the knotted sigils and clavicles used for conjuring spirits’.  This trace element in his draughtsmanship suggested a psychic proclivity, ‘a passport between worlds usually kept closed to each other’.(13)  It also seems likely that the text of Cave Birds, evoking, as it does, the primal mysteries of birth, embodiment, death, and an afterlife, and our attendant human fears and disorientations, contributed to her reaction.  Strangely, the opening poem in the Viking Press edition of Cave Birds is called The Scream, and ends with a vomited screamThe poem had already been written at the time of the 1975 performance (14), but I’m not sure whether it was read on stage at Ilkley that evening.

Whilst this occurrence undoubtedly attests to the potential power of the poems and images, the event clearly hadn’t been, and almost certainly couldn’t have been, conceived as a shamanic performance (where provision would have been made to assist participants in negotiating their experience).  Following the 1970 publication of Arthur Janov’s Primal Scream, ‘therapeutic’ screaming was in the Zeitgeist at the time.  As someone who used to faint in cinemas, and on one occasion (in the late 60’s) refused an invitation to stay and discuss my needle-phobic reaction with an entire audience of film-goers, I have some sense of the difference between artistic and therapeutic environments, and of the ethical considerations that arise in respect of the latter.  Whatever happened that night in Ilkley, I can vouch for the consciousness-deepening and healing effect of many of Ted Hughes’s poems, when read in conducive circumstances to the right person.  When my friend died last year, I read A Green Mother, over and over.  It had been one his favourite poems.  Often tears came before they’re mentioned in the last line.   I was, of course, reading it from an earth-centred animist viewpoint, for someone who would have been excited to become a flower, a bird, or a worm.

B.T 7/11/13.

Here is a link to the final draft of Shaman of the Tribe, Ted Hughes and Contemporary Animism that appeared in the Journal of the Ted Hughes Society in 2014.

See also a series of posts entitled Notes From the Tuning Fork, Ted Hughes and the Calder Valley.

Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, Faber and Faber, 2003.

Christopher Reid, ed. The Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, 2007.

Ted Hughes, Cave Birds, An Alchemical Cave Drama, Viking Press, 1978, with drawings by Leonard Baskin.

Keith Sagar, Ted Hughes, Gaudete, Cave Birds, and the 1975 Ilkley Festival.

Other Sources:

1) Neil Roberts, The Plath Wars, in Ted Hughes, A Literary Life, Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.

2) Molly Scott-Cato, The Bioregional Economy, Earthscan/Routledge, 2013.

3) Ted Hughes, The Environmental Revolution, (1970) in Winter Pollen, Occasional Prose,, ed William Scammell, Faber and Faber, 1994.

4) Terry Gifford, Ted Hughes, Routledge, 2009.

5) Terry Gifford, Pastoral, Routledge, 1999.

6) quoted in Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes, A Literary Life, Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.

7) Leonard Scigaj, Ted Hughes, 1991, quoted in Terry Gifford, Ted Hughes, Routledge, 2009.

8) David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, Vintage, 1997.

9) Ann Skea Ted Hughes, The Poetic Quest, University of New England, 1994, and website.

10) Jeanette Winterson, Foreword to Great Poets of the Twentieth Century, No 5, Ted Hughes, The Guardian / Faber and Faber, 2008.

11) Alice Oswald, Guardian, 3/12/05, quoted by Terry Gifford, ibid.

12) Graham Harvey, Listening People, Speaking Earth, Contemporary Paganism, Hurst and Co, 2007.

13) Ted Hughes, The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly, Note for a Panegyric Ode on Leonard Baskin’s Collected Prints, in Winter Pollen, Occasional Prose, ed William Scammell, Faber and Faber, 1994.

14) Ann Skea, pers comm.

Two Corvid Stories, Ted Hughes’ Crow and the Battle of the Birds

Apollo with Black Bird, Delphi. Archaeological Museum Delphi. Photo: fingalo, CC2.

Apollo with Black Bird, Delphi. Archaeological Museum Delphi. Photo: fingalo, CC2.

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.

Peregrine Dreams – 1.

Horus. Photo by Zolakoma, Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0.

Horus. Photo by Zolakoma. Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0.

John Taylor ( no relation ) writes that the Ancient Egyptians ‘more than perhaps any other society, directed a vast amount of their material culture to counteracting death’.  Their literature on death and immortality is ‘the oldest comprehensive expression of human thought about the survival of the individual’.  ‘The Egyptian Book of the Dead’ (originally known as ‘The Spells for Coming Forth by Day’) includes several chapters of recitations designed to help the ba-soul transmigrate into bird form, so that the deceased could ‘go forth by day’ into the sunlit world.  Since this rejuvenation depended upon souls being accepted by the Sun God, many hymns invoke the rising Sun in Falcon form.

One of the Coffin Texts describes his birth.  Isis, whose lineage has been traced back to neolithic Bird Goddess figures, dreams that she is going to give birth to a son who will redeem the patrimony of Atum, and restore the rightful order of the world.  Having secured the protection of the gods, she prepares to give birth.  She then realises that the baby inside her body is a Falcon.  When Horus emerges he immediately flies up and takes control of his destiny.  ‘”Even the most ancient bird could not equal my first flight … no other God could do what I have done.  I have brought the ways of eternity to the twilight of morning.  I am unique in my flight”.  Isis, portrayed as an ornithomorphic female figure, shelters her son, her husband, kings, and their subjects, beneath huge outstretched wings.

Because my connection with birds was forged around and during the mysterious hiatus of bereavement, these archaic stories have considerable appeal.  ( see the-common-kingfisher and birds, liminality, and transformation ).  As an animist, however, my starting place is the living world around me.  I am interested in how the stories we tell reflect and shape relationships between human communities and their other-than-human-neighbours, here and now.

Peregrine Falcons returned to our part of the Pennines in the mid 1990’s, thanks to the concerted efforts of birders and conservationists who protected eyries against (ongoing) persecution.  The history of the species is well known.  Renowned conservationist Derek Ratcliffe led the first national survey of Peregrines in Britain and Ireland in 1961.  He found that their population was crashing, and discovered that DDT was implicated.  His meticulous scientific advocacy – measuring egg shells and taking on corporate vested interests – eventually led to the banning of DDT by the European Union.  Ratcliffe was clearly motivated by a lifetime passion for the bird.  His monograph on the species ends with a resounding call to action: ‘”Those to whom the Peregrine is a source of inspiration and wonder have a special duty of vigilance …  It is their responsibility to ensure that it survives, not just for its scientific, aesthetic, and other value, but in its own right as one of the most spectacular inhabitants of our planet”.

'Wild Peregrines Love the Wind'.  Photo: Mike Baird   (Creative Commons, attribution 2.0)

‘Wild Peregrines Love the Wind’. Photo: Mike Baird.  (Creative Commons, attribution 2.0).

The plight of Peregrines in the early 1960’s galvanised another hugely influential but very different storyteller.  J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine is justifiably revered.  It’s an extraordinary paean to a particular landscape as well as a particular bird.  Baker writes ‘my pagan head shall sink into the land and there be purified’.  The original meaning of ‘pagan’ was simply an inhabitant of a particular place, someone who knew an area, and worshiped at its local ancestral sites.  Baker talks about the qualities of directions, and of time – ‘the cold depths at the feet of the solstice’, and and describes moments of exhilaration in spiritual terms – ‘when the hawk is found, all is transfigured, as though the broken columns of a ruined temple had suddenly resumed their ancient splendour’.  He becomes ‘possessed’ by the Peregrine as an icon of the wild.  At one point the bird’s mastery of its element makes him ‘shout aloud and dance up and down with excitement’.  Mostly, however, he adheres to a rigorous routine designed to banish ‘the human taint’ and dispel the bird’s natural fear.  His descriptions of both the Peregrine’s unique powers of flight, and the phenomenology of communion are, I think, unparalleled.  ‘I shut my eyes and tried to crystallise my will into the light drenched prism of the hawk’s mind … I sank into the skin and blood and bones of the hawk’.

In his prologue to the 2005 edition Robert MacFarlane refers to John Keats’s doctrine of ‘negative capability’, “the ‘poetical’ capacity to empty yourself so totally into another being that you do not merely think like that being but are that being.”  Elsewhere he talks about the intensity of Baker’s language transforming the act of bird watching into something akin to shamanism.  But surely it was the intensity of Baker’s practice that forged the breathtaking luminosity of his prose?  His spell-binding poetic descriptions circumvent the rational mind, transporting the reader into a dream-like reverie, whilst somehow transmitting accurate evocations of wild nature.  Or do they?  There has been much debate about the veracity of The Peregrine.  Mark Cocker acknowledges some possible problems, but concludes that although John Baker fictionalised personal experience, he had ‘an almost forensic concern for truthfulness about his encounters.’

It scarcely seems to matter that the bird he established a rapport with might have been an escaped falconry bird, perhaps a Saker Falcon, or a cross, rather than a Peregrine.  What happened still astonishes, and enables Baker to initiate a discussion of intimacy between humans and other species in the wild.  His animism arguably accounts for the strength of his appeal to many Naturalists.

It may seem churlish to mention reservations about such a wonderful book, but there are some clunky bits, such as the anachronistic references to ‘primitive man’.  This is clearly an image of an empathetic indigenous hunter, but the sociologist in me wants to get back on his soapbox and complain about Baker’s fixation with hunting.  Nowadays we might wonder where all this ‘Man the Hunter’ stuff leaves Man the Nurse, Man the Father, Man the Dancer, and so forth.  More to the point, I’d rather celebrate John Baker as Man the Poet, Man the Conservationist, or Man the Animist.  The Peregrine suffers a related limitation imposed by the accident of geography, or by Baker’s lack of interest in overcoming it.  His local landscape only held over-wintering Falcons, so, sadly, he gives us no descriptions of the domestic aspect of the life of the species.

J.A.Baker’s writing has been compared to the poetry of Ted Hughes.  Both have been likened to shamans.  Baker was obsessed with the hunt, Hughes was an avid angler.  Both were deeply concerned about ecological issues, and human alienation from the natural world.  The protagonist of Hughes’ most intensely shamanic/alchemical poetic sequence Cave Birds, – the soul of Socrates – is accused of a crime (the murder of the Goddess) and undergoes various trials in the underworld, including decomposition, reassembly, and marriage with his female counterpart, before emerging transfigured in Falcon form – as Horus, ‘child and spouse of the Goddess’.  For Anne Skea the Falcon is ‘the ‘liberated’ spiritual gold, the protagonist’s diamond body.  Neil Roberts celebrates the Risen as ‘one of Hughes’ finest expressions of his sense of nature as both immanent and transcendent’.

( to be continued …. ).


John H. Taylor, ed.  Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, Journey Through the Afterlife, London, British Museum Press, 2010.

Rundle Clark, R. Symbol and Myth in Ancient Egypt, London, Thames and Hudson 1959/1995.

Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess, Evolution of an Image, London, Arkana 1991.

Derek Ratcliffe, The Peregrine Falcon, 2nd Edition, London, Poyser. 1980/1993.

J.A. Baker, The Peregrine, London, Collins, 1967.

Robert Macfarlane, Introduction, to The Peregrine, New York Review of B00ks, 2005.  Some what Macfarlane had been told, or surmised, later proved to be untrue. (pers comm, 2010).  See also:

Mark Cocker, Introduction, to John Fanshawe, ed. J.A. Baker, The Complete Works, The Peregrine, The Hill of Summer, and Diaries, London, Collins, 2010.

Connor Mark Jamieson, Silent Spring Revisited, London, Bloomsbury, 2012.

Christopher Reid, ed. Letters of Ted Hughes, London, Faber.

Anne Skea,  Ted Hughes, The Poetic Quest, University of New England, 1994.

Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes, A Literary Life, Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.