Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 21: Raven

My computer shows signs of being on its last legs, so here’s an avian omen of death. In Anglo-Saxon poetry, in the build-up to a battle, three animals — the eagle, the raven and the wolf — turn up in an ominous foreshadowing of the bloodshed to come.

I’m pretty sure this literary trope didn’t arise from symbolism or metaphor, but from simple observation. Animals don’t need to be that clever to work out that following an army is a way to find meat.*

And ravens are actually pretty smart. Crows and parrots are the cleverest of birds, capable of problem-solving, playful and inquisitive.

Perhaps that’s why Odin had two ravens, Huginn and Muninn (‘thought’ and ‘mind’), which flew around the world each day, gathering information for him.

And North American folktales raise the raven even further, into the spirit who created the human world; but also a trickster, capricious and dangerous.

That’s my kind of creator: a raven creating the world out of boredom and mischief. That’s the trouble with Christianity; I guess I can live with a a god who is all-knowing and all-powerful, but does he have to be so damn pious?

* Even when there wasn’t human flesh available, there would be scraps of rubbish to pick at. It has been suggested that dogs were not intentionally domesticated by people; wolves domesticated themselves by switching to a diet of scavenged rubbish and becoming associated with human settlements.

» Photo Credits, from top to bottom: Common Raven (Corvus corax), © Derek Bakken, used under the CC attribution licence; Raven, © Atli Harðarson, used under the by-nd licence; Common Raven, © Paruula, used under the by-nc-sa licence.

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