The Raven Way

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Myths about ravens span the globe. In Norse myths, Odin had two companion ravens, one named Huginn (“Thought”) and the other named Muninn (“Memory”, or “Mind”) who flew around the world each morning and returned to report on the day’s state of affairs. In the earliest mythology from Western Europe, ravens were revered, symbols of wisdom, reason and thinking itself. 

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In the flow of time, the lofty place of ravens changed. In the Old Testament, Noah dispatches a raven to look for dry land — or perhaps to expunge Vice from the Ark; this is still the subject of discourse by Talmudic scholars — and then sent out a dove, a symbol of Virtue. 

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It was the Plague, the Black Death, that brought irrevocable tarnish to the raven’s character and erased the Norse reverence from the European mind, something that endures in many Western cultures to this day. As the Plague claimed its victims at an alarming rate (cats were systematically killed off in an hysterical effort to combat witchcraft, leaving floodgates open for rodent populations to explode, spreading fleas that carried the virus like a tsunami) human corpses accumulated in surreal numbers, which drew ravens. The raven population soared on this abundant food source. 

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While ravens are omnivorous, a prime food source is carrion. A frequently observed behavior around road kills are ravens pecking the dead animal and leaping six feet several times before eating. It is thought this is to see if the corpse is indeed deceased and therefore safe for the birds. To the uninitiated, it appears that the black birds take joy in death.

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The ravens’ obsidian-like blackness is another feature in Western mythology, as was the foreboding presence of the birds on gallows. 

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There are many other ways to view the raven.

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A decade or so ago I reread Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”, perhaps the first time since college. I found far greater complexity and nuance in the work than I remembered (ah, yes, one of the poem’s themes is Memory itself; one of Odin’s ravens was named Memory too). The bird arrives at night (unlikely, as ravens seldom fly at night) and perches on a bust of Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of Wisdom. And yet, the poem is filled with ominous reference as well, “the devil bird” and the bird’s origin in “the Night’s Plutonian shore”.

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Indigenous American beliefs discussed elsewhere in this website show profound reverence for these black birds and often ascribe the Devine to them. Many Native American cultures accurately see impressive intelligence in the birds, their problem-solving abilities, cooperative natures, endurance, and caring for each other. A remarkably common thread laces Native mythology throughout North America:  ravens have great wisdom; they will share this wisdom with us. They are sacred.

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Any discussion of ravens must reference the marvelous work and writing of Bernd Heinrich, in particular his Mind of the Raven:  Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-birds, a work of Science (Heinrich is a professor emeritus in Biology and the University of Vermont) as well as in its own manner, a lyrical narrative; this man loves ravens as I do. Naturally, I believe the title of his tome should have referenced coyotes rather than wolves. Raven reasoning and communication is fascinating… one very small example:  ravens engage in abstraction, such as signifying external objects to others by pointing with their beaks; it is thought that only humans and chimpanzees engage in similar behavior.

Ravens adapt. Ravens think. Ravens play. Ravens endure. Ravens improvise. Ravens thrive.

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Evermore.