Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The Unkindness of Ravens Blog Post by Rob Bayliss

Raven - From

Corvus Corax, the Raven, is a widespread Corvine found throughout the northern hemisphere. It is the largest member of the crow family and may live for over 20 years and may mate for life. Being opportunistic omnivores they have lived side by side with humanity for thousands of years. With their all black appearance, taste for carrion, and their high levels of intelligence, it perhaps isn’t surprising that they have earned a cultural and spiritual significance in our folklore that is still to be found in modern literature. In Tolkien’s The Hobbit the Ravens of Erebor could speak and would convey news from afar to their allies, the Dwarves under the Lonely Mountain, in return for gold and trinkets. In GRR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, ravens are used as messenger birds and as such messages are seldom good gave rise to the saying “Dark wings, dark words”.

Ravens are intelligent birds, able to solve problems that goes beyond mere trial and error. This suggests that they have the ability to not only imitate but also have a degree of insight and can, in effect, invent solutions. There is a very great possibility that Ravens have a highly developed language within their croaks and caws. Studies by linguist Derek Bickerton following research by biologist Bernd Heinrich suggest that ravens have the very rare ability to convey displacement - the ability to communicate about objects and events in time and space. Young, unpaired Ravens roost together but forage alone. However if a young raven discovers a fresh carcass guarded by an adult pair it appears that it will communicate the discovery to its peers and the next day the young ravens will go to the carcass, in large enough numbers to chase off the adults. They are one of only four species that have this ability - the others including bees, ants and of course ourselves. Ravens have also been observed alerting wolves to the presence of recent carrion, perhaps so that the larger carnivores can open up the carcass so that choice scraps become available to the birds.

Ravens will store food for later but are not verse to stealing each others’ cache if the opportunity arises. Aware of this, ravens will actually make false food stores to confuse other ravens that might be spying on them.

Young ravens are keen to play and will play with objects, such as twigs for toys an even engage in play with other species such as wolves, otters and dogs. Juveniles will also hoard shiny objects such as metal, purely because they spark their curiosity. Older, mature Ravens will show an active aversion to new objects and experiences, so perhaps its not just old dogs that you cant teach new tricks!

In the British Isles Ravens can be found in both the Celtic and Germanic folklore traditions. The Raven and Hooded Crow was sacred to the Celtic goddess Morrigan. In her warlike aspect the goddess would take the form of the Battle Raven (Babd Catha), as an omen of war or to feast on the aftermath of a battles’ slaughter.

Morrigan -

In Welsh mythology we see the raven mentioned around Bran the Blessed (Bran itself is Welsh for raven). It was said that Bran’s head was buried at where the Tower of London now stands to ward off foreign invasion from the continent. Its tantalising to ponder whether this is the true origin of the keeping of ravens by the yeomen of the tower; that should the ravens ever abandon the Tower of London, the realm would fall.

In the Anglo Saxon, Norse mythology two ravens, Huginn (thought) and Muninn (Mind) are companions of Woden / Odin, the All Father. They fly over Midgard (the world) throughout the day to return to the god’s shoulders each evening and tell him what they had seen.

Huginn & Muninn perch atop Odin's shoulders - From an C18th Icelandic manuscript

In the Poetic Edda the wanderings of the ravens are described by Woden:

Huginn and Muninn fly each day
over the spacious earth.
I fear for Huginn, that he come not back,
yet more anxious am I for Muninn

Its been suggested that this may be a hint of shamanic practices, that Woden fears not being able to return from a trance-like state, that his thoughts and mind will be lost to him. This may be borne out in the name Woden itself is related to Old Norse óðr, 'mad, frantic, furious', and Old English wōd 'mad'. There is a clear difference between thinking and thought, and the mind - the sum total of experience and knowledge; hence Woden’s greater fear of losing Muninn.

Alas we may never know the true meaning of Huginn and Muninn but we do know that Woden, the one-eyed wanderer who spoke only in poetry, also had two wolves - Geri and Freki - as companions. Perhaps the legend of Woden and his wolf and raven companions is based on an old symbiosis between the three species during the hunt. Mankind of course adopted the wolf to become his canine companion the dog. The raven however lives for the most part on the edge of humanity and retained its sinister mystery, its collective nouns being an “unkindness” and a “conspiracy”.

Maybe only the raven knows, with its hoard of stolen trinkets, relating ancient tales to its young in its language of croaks and caws…

Rob Bayliss is a reviewer at The Review and is currently writing his own fantasy series. Information on his writing projects can be found at Flint & Steel, Fire & Shadow.


JRR Tolkien : The Hobbit

GRR Martin : A Storm of Swords

Bernd Heinrich: Mind of the Raven

Derek Bickerton: Adam’s Tongue

Poetic Edda Grimnismal
The Mabinogion


  1. What a fascinating post, Rob, i love your knowledge of the olde world and nature. Beautiful!

  2. I enjoyed this blog tremendously! Along with starlings, they are way up there for their intelligence. Fascinating facts Rob.

  3. Good stuff! Ravens are amazing creatures.

  4. My son in Berlin is a naturl ornothologist and has managed to get close to a pair of ravens nesting in the forest near his village. He is employed at a hotel and has access to left overs. The ravens expect him to come to feed them, but to leave his offerings on a nearby stump.