Raven Symbolism photo by Slideshow Bob on Flickr (click to view)
If you're looking for raven symbolism pertaining to ill omen, death or other gruesome turns of thought, look elsewhere. There are plenty sources to feed macabre minds, and malign the raven.
It's not that I'm a big advocate of raven energy, and even if I were, it wouldn't matter because the raven needs no champion. Content to move about its bizarre ways in solo-mode, the raven could care less if I'm pro or con for its symbolic status.
I just think the raven has more to offer than uneducated conjecture and superstition (most of which has only cropped up over the last few centuries).
A lot of negative raven symbolism comes about from their appearance on battlefields. They are scavengers (and curious to a fault), and are often seen picking at mangled remains of fallen warriors on battle grounds.
Spans of massacred bodies and gore besieged with glimmery black ravens with chiseled beaks driving coldly into the bloody mire can conjure some nightmarish connotations. I'm betting a lot of the darker raven symbolism came from these eerie appearances at sites with massive death tolls.
This is underscored by the raven's placement in Celtic animal symbolism because it is a bird closely connected with battle and the Celtic goddess Morrigan, who was a remarkable prophetess (connecting oracle themes with the raven).
Nevertheless, this page on raven symbolism will focus on the raven's higher attributes.
For example, the raven's intelligence is possibly its most winning feature. Indeed, these birds can be trained to speak. This speaking ability leads into the legend of ravens being the ultimate oracle.
In fact, the raven is often heard to cackle utterances that sound like "cras, cras." The actual word cras is tomorrow in Latin. This lends more fuel to the legendary fires that distinguish the raven as a bird who can foretell the future, and reveal omens and signs.
Countless cultures point to the raven as a harbinger of powerful secrets. Moreover, the raven is a messenger too, so its business is in both keeping and communicating deep mysteries.
Raven symbolism of wisdom and knowledge-keeping is connected with the Welsh hero Bran, the Blessed whose name means raven. Bran was the holder of ancestral memories, and his wisdom was legendary. So much so, that he had his head (the vessel of his powerful wisdom) removed and interred in the sacred White Mount in London. Ravens are still roosting there (in the Tower of London), and they're thought to keep Bran's wisdom protected and alive by their presence. I've written more about Bran on my Celtic skulls page here.
The raven is symbolic of mind, thought and wisdom according to Norse legend, as their god Odin was accompanied by two ravens: Hugin who represented the power of thought and active search for information. The other raven, Mugin represented the mind, and its ability to intuit meaning rather than hunting for it. Odin would send these two ravens out each day to soar across the lands. At day's end, they would return to Odin and speak to him of all they had spied upon and learned on their journeys.
Odin was also known as the Raven God. He had many daughters known as Valkyries who could transform into ravens . I like to think Valkyries would ride as ravens after a bloody battle and whisper to the souls of fallen Norse warriors to raise up from their bodies and come with them, where they would soar the skies to Valhalla. What a trip back home that would be.
There's more good news about raven symbolism from the ancient Greeks and Romans. In spite of its midnight-colored feathers, the raven was a solar animal in this culture, and was associated with both Athena and Apollo, both deities closely affiliated with the sun, and the light of wisdom .
Apollo was also a major oracular god, which makes its connection with the chatty and (and alarmingly human-like) conversational raven a smart match.
There are some Greco-Roman legends that say ravens were once all white. And, because the raven couldn't keep a secret to save its life, Apollo punished the raven by turning its bright white feathers black after it divulged too many secrets. There's also a version that said the owl replaced the raven by Athena's side as her associate of wisdom because of raven's blabber-mouthed tendencies.
Raven color changes are also mentioned in Christian lore when Noah sent a raven first to confirm the receding floodwaters. When the raven did not return, it was said God turned its feathers black for its failure, and Noah sent a dove out to do the raven's job. And since then, the raven has gotten a bad rap as being anti-mankind.
I'm not convinced. I rather think (as long as we're postulating over legends) the raven is very pro-mankind and its feathers turned black from sorrow - a heaviness in its heart to witness the floodwaters were still too high to accommodate the birthing ark.
Ravens are humanitarians in Native American symbolic legends too. In fact, the raven was a hero to many tribes. The Inuit for example believed the raven tricked a giant sea monster into submission, and to this day its body serves as the Alaskan mainland.
Other Native North American tribes saw the raven as the bringer of light. In fact, southwestern tribes (Hopi, Navajo, Zuni) felt the raven was flew out from the dark womb of the cosmos, and with it brought the light of the sun (dawning of understanding). Consequently, the raven is considered a venerated bird of creation, for without the raven, humans would forever live in darkness. I've written more about the symbolic meaning of raven from a Native American perspective here.
Dr. Carl Jung deemed raven symbolism to represent the shadow self, or the dark side of the psyche. I very much like this. Why? Because by acknowledging this dark side, we can effectively communicate with both halves of ourselves. This offers liberating balance, and facilitates tremendous wisdom (something the raven would be very pleased with).
In other words, through the consistent unveiling of inner depths, and the positive/active utilization of inner impulses the esoteric secrets become exposed to the light of our own consciousness. This is at the crux of what the raven speaks to me.
What does the raven whisper to you?
I hope you have enjoyed this post on raven symbolism.
Photo credit: Top raven image by Slideshow Bob on Flickr