Ravens are large and beautiful birds with shiny coats and silky feathers. Since ancient times they have been a part of various cultures, religions, myths, and traditions. Although not always seen in a positive light, they contain certain energy and power, making them one of the most impressive and feared birds in history. Let’s take a closer look at Ravens and their symbolic meanings in different cultures.
Ravens vs. Crows – What’s the Difference?
Let’s start by addressing a common issue people have when looking at ravens. Yes, they look very much like crows, but there are several differences between these two types of birds.
First, ravens are larger than crows. What’s more, they tend to travel in pairs, while crows travel in crowds. Another difference between the two is the shape of their tails and throats. Ravens have tails shaped like wedges whereas crows have tails that fan out. Ravens also have fancier throats than crows, with ruffled feathers.
Ravens are also more mysterious and magical than crows, thanks to all the attention they’ve received in literature, historical references and pop culture. Due to this, the raven is more popular, with many superstitions attached to it.
General Symbolism of Ravens
The symbolism of Ravens is complex, with the birds representing both negative and positive concepts. Here are some common meanings associated with the raven:
- Loss and Bad Omens – There are three main reasons Ravens are associated with ill omens. First, they’re carrion eaters and scavenge the dead. Second, their dark color associates them with all the negative symbolism of the color black. And third, the croaking sound they make is eerie, often associated with death and dying. Due to these reasons, the Raven is seen as a bird that signifies loss, death and ill omens.
- Insight and Prophecy – The Raven is a talking bird, and can mimic human speech. This ability has associated the Raven with insight, prophecy and wisdom. In Norse mythology, Ravens bring information and insight to Odin. Odin, himself a figure of wisdom, is almost always depicted with the two ravens.
Apart from this, the Raven also symbolizes the following:
Raven Symbolism in Different Cultures
In Greek mythology, Ravens were an emblem of bad luck and misfortune. They attained this title after the encounter with God Apollo. One day, Apollo sent a raven to spy on his lover Coronis, and the bird witnessed her unfaithfulness. From then on, the raven was seen as a bringer of bad news and misfortune. When the raven returned to Apollo and narrated what he saw, God turned the bird’s feathers black, out of anger and rage.
Ravens had a very strong presence in Celtic mythology. They were seen as a symbol of destruction and death. Celtic war deities such as Morrigan and Badbh often took on the form of a Raven. This majestic bird was also associated with the Welsh deity Bran, who protected Britain from invasion. Even today, Ravens are depicted as a symbol of defense, and six of them are placed in Tower Hill London as an extension of Bram’s protection.
In Indian folklore, ravens and crows are often represented as the ancestors of human beings. Many Indian families offer food to ravens during celebrations and festivals. Some even give them portions of their regular meal to obtain the blessings of their forefathers. In Hindu mythology, Ravens are also the vehicle for God Shani, who uses them to travel across the universe.
In Germanic traditions, there are many myths and stories associated with Ravens. For instance, in Norse mythology, the great god Odin was associated with the ravens Huginn and Muninn. These ravens assisted the deity by collecting news and information for him. They also aided Odin in his prophecies and were therefore seen as representations of his power to foretell.
In Slavic legends, blackbirds were collectively called voronyo and symbolized evil. But amongst all the dark birds, ravens were venerated as the wisest. They could foretell and predict impending death and danger. Ravens also guided humans by giving good advice, leading them to treasures, and providing them with information. It’s also believed that ravens revived people from the dead.
Ravens and crows appeared quite frequently in Japanese mythology. In one story, Yatagarasu, the three-legged raven was depicted as an incarnation of God Kamo Taketsunumi. This raven-god was a symbol of guidance and he aided the first Japanese emperor in crossing the mountains to establish his country.
Ravens had a strong presence in Abrahamic myths, folklore, and traditions. In Islam, they were a symbol of guidance and taught Cain how to bury his brother Abel. When Cain became confused about what to do with his brothers’ dead body, he noticed how a raven buried its mate. Inspired by this, he dug a hole and laid Abel within it.
Ravens are also represented in the book of Genesis as unreliable and undependable creatures. When Noah asked a raven to look out for dry land, the bird got distracted and didn’t return. While this is certainly one representation, other chapters of the Bible honor and venerate the birds. For instance, in the book of kings, God chose ravens to feed Elijah, and the birds symbolized the almighty’s care for the animal world and all his creations.
Native American Culture
In Native American culture, Ravens had various meanings and representations. They were depicted both as the creator of life and as untrustworthy figures.
On one hand, Ravens were seen as helpers who brought light into the world, but they were also pictured as selfish birds who only did things that benefitted them. Therefore, in Native American culture, Raven’s had a dual identity of being good and roguish.
Ravens were also mystical shapeshifters who stood as a symbol of change. They had the power to transform one’s thoughts and consciousness. Their feathers were a representation of this change and served as an encouragement for humans to adapt to their surroundings.
The Tlingit people of North America had varying representations of ravens. On one hand, the bird was venerated as a symbol of creation, but on the other, it was depicted as a devious creature. According to one creation myth, The Great Spirit of the Tinglit’s gifted boxes to the ancient animals. These animals were required to open the boxes and aid in the process of creation. The Seagull was given a box of light but selfishly refused to release the contents. Due to this, help was taken from the raven, who inserted a thorn in the seagulls’ foot and made him drop the box. When the box landed, the sun stars and the moon jumped out and brought light to the world. From this myth, the raven was seen as a bringer of light to a dark world.
Ravens in Literature and Artworks
Ravens are used in literature and artworks all over the world. Let’s take a quick look at what they symbolize in these fields.
In literature, Ravens have predominately stood as symbols of death and evil. In Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, The Raven, the bird is a representation of bad omens and death. Shakespeare also depicted Ravens in a similar light and they foreshadowed a death or murder. On the other hand, Charles Dickens and Aesop imagined Ravens as clever and intelligent creatures.
In art- pieces ravens have been depicted both as dangerous and intelligent creatures. Manypaintings were influenced by Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven and portrayed them in a dark light. But some artists like Odilon Redon extended their imagination and painted Raven’s to depict their inner conflicts. Redon’s Raven painting was considered the most mysterious of all his works. Additionally, Pablo Piccaso’s Woman with a Crow had also been through multiple interpretations. Many considered the crow/raven in the painting as a symbol of the woman’s wicked thoughts.
Ravens have been a part of many ancient cultures, traditions, and religions. They have held various meanings, interpretations, and symbolic meanings that are still prevalent even today. Although predominantly seen as sinister omens of bad luck and misfortune, these birds are also depicted as intelligent, brave and powerful.