Corvids, a genus of birds ranging across the world whose number include crows, ravens, and magpies, play significant roles in a variety of global religions. In Chinese Folklore, once a year flocks of magpies form a bridge to allow tragically separate lovers, Chang’e and Houyi to meet again for just one night. In some legends of the Russian Koryaks, the Raven-God Kutkh is responsible for creating the lands and rivers and lakes. Tales of the Lenape people say the Rainbow Crow once made an arduous journey into the heavens to beg fire from the gods in order to see his friends through a harsh winter. During the journey back, the soot of the fire stained the crows beautiful multicoloured feathers a stark black.
While these particular legends paint these birds as the heroic, selfless creatures completing arduous tasks for the wellbeing of others, or at least morally ambiguous (as was the case of Kutkh, who either willingly gave the world the sun and the moon or had to be tricked into releasing them depending on which version of the legend you read) there are many other legends that paint them in a far darker light.
In many cultures, ravens, crows, and magpies are most commonly associated with death, trickery, and misfortune. In Britain, the magpie is a creature of superstition, and to see a single magpie is to invite bad luck, as immortalised in the popular folk-rhyme ‘one for sorrow, two for joy.’ There are a variety of ways to allay this misfortune – tipping your hat, spinning three times, saluting, or saying the phrase ‘good morning, Mr Magpie, where’s your wife?’ indicating that there is a second magpie nearby. This is one of Britain’s most enduring superstitions, and there are still people, to this day, who are unable to see a magpie without saluting. Magpies often mate for life, so a single magpie is thought to be widowed, which may have led to the legends about its unluckiness.
In Christian lore, the magpie has a slew of other crimes to its name. It was said to have been the only creature not to enter Noah’s ark, instead sitting outside and chattering, as well as the only bird not to sing to comfort Jesus as he hung on the cross. The church also once stated that the magpie had a drop of the devil’s blood on its tongue. Victorians were encouraged to cut out a magpie’s tongue to release the blood, after which the magpie would be capable of human speech. This last one may not have been entirely ridiculous – magpies (along with some other corvids) are capable of mimicking human speech.
The magpie is not the only corvid to have been vilified. Crows and ravens also have a long history of being associated with death. In Hindi myth, Dhumavati, a goddess associated with death, transformation, and unattractive things was often depicted as riding on the back of a crow. In Egypt, Nephytys was another death goddess seen depicted with a crow, while in Britain, The Morrigan (a goddess of war and death) was said to be able to assume the form of a raven. Interestingly, not only are these all deities associated with death, they are also all female.
In addition to this corvids were thought to be able predict death – in particular, ravens and crows. Crows were said to go to go to the window of a house to indicate the death of an inhabitant, and both crows and ravens were said to be able to know when death and war was coming.
Their reputation for predicting death most likely comes from the bird’s intelligence. Corvids are remarkably intelligent creatures, with a proved ability to solve puzzles and remember patterns. They are even thought to alert predators such as wolves to where their prey is, in order to scavage the remnants of the kill. As scavengers – they would find battlefields a great source of food, both from the dead after the battle and from the food waste that the army discarded on their journey. Due to their skill with memorisation and puzzle-solving, ravens and crows would have learned that large armies marching was generally a call to feast. In response they would follow them, vast flocks amassing above armies who – with no idea of the bird’s intelligence – must have assumed a supernatural cause to this phenomena. And so, ravens and crows gained a reputation for having a knowledge of the future, and being able to foresee tragedy, war and death.
Another thing that likely contributed to the blackened reputation of corvids is that they are scavengers and carrion birds. They are perfectly happy to feast on any dead body that they come across, be that rabbit, cow, or even human. This scavenging was not limited to battlefields - they would also lurk near hospitals and gallows – where anyone might see them waiting for someone to die. This helped give them a reputation for existing in the liminal spaces between life and death – much like jackals in Ancient Egypt, who would lurk near graveyards and dig up the dead.
Many cultures had strict burial practices, a lot of them believing that the state of your body once you died reflected on the afterlife that you had. If your body was not whole when it was interred, it would have a devastating impact on your soul. Corvids would therefore be a threat to a persons immortal soul. They would also be associated with the abandoned or unburied dead and so a terrifying reminder of these restless spirits, who may wish to find vengeance for the state their bodies were left in.
Nowadays there are not so many avid believers in the unluckiness of ravens, crows and other corvids, though their reputation, has not particularly improved. A group of crows is called a murder, while a flock of ravens is known as an unkindness – not flattering descriptors by anyone’s standards. They occupy a strong foothold in the horror industry, serving as a perfect way to make a scene more atmospheric and ominous. And famously, in Edgar Allen Poe’s gothic poem, the titular raven drives a poor widower to insanity through its relentless knocking.
If there is one place, other than fiction, that corvids remain creatures of deep superstition and luck, then it is in London. More specifically, the Tower of London. The Tower is said to have been built above the hill where the severed head of Welsh king and prophet, Bran the Blessed (Bran being the Welsh word for raven) was buried. The tower is home to several families of ravens, cared for by the Tower’s very own Raven Master. Popular myth states that should these ravens ever abandon the tower than England and the monarchy will fall.
While individual ravens have come and gone, (either leaving themselves or being kidnapped!) the Tower rules state that their must always be a minimum of six in attendance. The Tower typically keeps seven official ravens. One in reserve in case one of the others dies suddenly. The closest the London came to losing the ravens of the Tower was during the second World War – all but one of the ravens either fled or died of shock as a result of the bombings. This, naturally, only strengthened the superstitions.
Fortunately, the Raven Masters at the Tower of London have a quick and easy way to cheat the odds and protect against this old superstition. The current ravens have all had their flight feathers clipped – preventing them from flying away and so preventing this prediction from coming true!
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