Surely we have all heard the legends of raven. Raven, like coyote and other spirit beings of the Northwest mythology, was as fickle and unpredictable as nature and its seasons. Raven was a shape-shifter, who could assume any form – human or animal.
The Raven Stories are both entertaining – as raven’s mischief often backfired, but also instructive – teaching us about the Northwest Indians’ way of life and the origin of their customs. The raven is traditionally associated with death and blackness, acting as intermediaries between us and the afterlife, or associated them with sorrow and dying. In fact, carrion birds were usually the first scavengers on the scene after a death, and feasted on man and beast alike. Their reputation among such peoples was grim one, and many scorned the birds, or cursed their presence.
Click to listen to Raven cawing:
Among other peoples, however, it was the wit and curiosity these birds displayed which colored their spiritual significance. They were associated with joy and laughter, and a spirit of mischief. The native tribes of the pacific northwest were among the latter of these two. They called Raven the Great Trickster, and boasted that the creation of mankind was Raven’s doing. They also claimed that Raven’s tricks brought fire to mankind so they wouldn’t freeze in the darkness; Raven supplied water during a great drought; and Raven made Salmon for the people to eat (Of course that was after he stole it from the Beaver!). When totem poles were erected to honor the spiritual guardians of these tribes, Raven was a common feature on them. There are also totem poles which depict raven and beaver together, of course raven is on top!
The idea of Raven as a creator was not unique to North American peoples, even in Siberia there were myths and stories told of how Raven created the world. It appears that as humans we could watch and admire the raven for its creativity and fortitude. In Australia, kookaburra is the laughing trickster, so the raven (the story of Whan) has a slightly different role, a bird of sorrows. He takes the sadness from humanity, and flies away with it. The Australian raven’s mournful call reflects the burden he carries.
But when I read European mythology in doing comparison work I found that they were mostly messengers, or an alternate shape for various deities and spirits. The ones that I can call to mind are Bran, (whom I have met in my journeys both as god-form and raven form) the Morrigan, and of course Odin
A circle mate explained more to me about Odin’s ravens, Huginn and Muninn, when we were together for the Three Worlds workshop. I read a bit further and it seems that there is a split between active and passive roles; Huginn is Thought (active), and Muninn is Memory (passive), and Odin sends these two birds off around the world at daybreak, to bring him the daily news.
Wolves and ravens have an old and close relationship in the wild. In countries where both animals live together, a great deal of a raven’s food comes from scavenging carcasses left by wolves, particularly in winter. Both animals would have been a common sight on the battlefield, scavenging on the bodies of the slain
Ravens are fascinating birds. I guess what attracted our ancestors to them, still attracts modern people to them. Ravens are very common spirits in our circle. There are people who have taken the name Raven. Raven is still referred to as Grandfather by the Haida people. Raven is still considered a trickster when it arrives at pow wows and others ceremonies.
How could they not capture our imaginations? Ravens have been a part of our global history for over 3 million years, it is obviously embedded into the global psyche.
- Shaman’s Way Podcasts episodes on Raven: Part 1 and Part 2.
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