Ted Hughes on Oracular Corvids

 

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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.

Sources:

(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.