Raven the Wise

The Times, February 2003

    We have never known how to take the raven. As the largest black bird in the world, unbroken glossy sable with a metallic sheen, ravens have always been associated with evil. And yet hundreds of myths and stories highlight their intelligence, and powers of mimicry, too.

   "Halloa halloa halloa. What's the matter here! Keep up your spirits. Never say die! Bow wow wow. I'm a devil, I'm a devil."

   This is Grip, Barnaby's pet raven, "exulting in his infernal character", in Dickens 1841 novel Barnaby Rudge.

    "He loves me," says Barnaby. "He makes me go where he will. He's the master and I'm the man."

"Strange companions," say uncomfortable observers. "The bird has all the wit."

    In myths from the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, Raven certainly had all the wit. He was creator of the world, bringer of daylight, and trickster. In northern folklore from Siberia to Old Norse, as well as American Indians, Crow and his big brother Raven are wise guys, jokers who created the world but were also greedy and irreverent. It is Raven's fault that animals have genitals: genitals were "Raven's greatest game". Many stories feature unpleasant ways in which Raven gets the better of a fox, a grizzly bear, or man. His opponent often dies.

   His croak has suggested doom in all societies north of the equator. "The raven himself is hoarse," says Lady Macbeth when she realizes that her kingmaking moment has come,  "that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan/ under my battlements." We say a "charm of finches", but a "murder of crows" and a "terror of ravens", In Swedish folklore, ravens are the ghosts of murdered men who had no Christian burial; in German folklore, they were damned souls. Ravens are carrion-eaters, and scavenged the dead all through Europe's plagues and wars. So in one English folksong, three ravens sit on a tree wondering where to take breakfast: then they spy a handy fallen knight. Inevitably, you saw ravens hanging round the executioner's block, so in English "ravenstone" means "place of execution", and German "rabenaas," raven's carrion, is someone who should be hanged.

      On the softer end of the disaster scale, Noah's raven failed to find dry land and, according to an ancient British rhyme,

If a raven cry just o'er his head
Some in the towne have lost their maidenhead.

      Edgar Allen Poe's famous raven symbolizes the poet's despair. It taps, enters, and perches doomily, prophetically, on the bust of Pallas, goddess of wisdom. The poet asks if there is any hope for him:

Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

He tries to evict the bird:

Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

But depression is unshiftable:

The raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!

        Yet Raven always had another side: intelligence-gathering, a messenger of power, a supernatural helper. In Finnish folklore it is a bird of ill omen, with the feather of fortune under its wing. In Tibetan legend, he is messenger of the Supreme Being. Disney's Sleeping Beauty elides raven ominousness with the raven messenger. The Bad Fairy's pet raven spies Beauty's hiding-place and reports back. But Irish myth says the raven is omniscient: "Raven's knowledge" means "knowing everything". In Norse myth, Odin had two ravens, Hugin and Munin, Thought and Memory, who flew round the world every day to learn the  news and returned to Odin to report. In tales from Germany, Siberia and Iceland, people learn things by speaking to ravens or eavesdropping on their conversation. Hans Andersen drew on this in "The Snow Queen". "Listen to me," says a raven to Gerda searching for her friend Kay. "But it is so difficult to speak your language! Do you undersand Ravenish? If so, I can tell you much better."

     Ravens also support gods and kings. In a Babylonian inscription, raven is "the bird that helps the gods". The crown of Bhutan is "the Raven Crown". As for Britain - when there are no more ravens in the Tower, the monarchy will fall. The 'astronomical observator' John Flamsteed (1646 - 1719), complained to Charles II that the Tower ravens got in the  way of his observations, so Charles ordered them to be destroyed. But then he heard the prophecy. He instantly decreed that at least six ravens should live at the Tower. Always.

Today there are seven: Hardey, Thor, Odin, Gwyllum, Cedric, Hugine and Munin. Six to preserve the monarchy plus a spare. Odin and Thor were rescue fledglings from the New Forest in 1997, and Thor became a brilliant mimic. He creates havoc by reproducing perfectly the voice of the Raven Master, who looks after them and clips their wings so they cannot escape. They eat 6oz. of raw meat and bird biscuits soaked in blood a day, supplemented by scraps from the Tower kitchen, an egg a week, and the occasional rabbit which they eat whole. Fur is good for them. Their favourite food, however, is fried bread.

Despite this luxury diet, they sometimes go missing. Grog lived at the Tower for twenty-one years but was last seen outside an East End pub, the Rose and Punchbowl, in 1981. And they can be dismissed. "On Saturday 13th September 1986," ran one stern memo, "Raven George, enlisted 1975, was posted to the Welsh Mountain Zoo. Conduct unsatisfactory. Service no longer required."

George had developed a taste for TV aerials.