January’s folklore article for the North Clare Local.
Birds are at once familiar and strange. While we see them every day, they are creatures utterly different to us; feathered, hollowed-boned flying dinosaurs. Unsurprisingly, they feature heavily in myth and legend.
In the West, we label owls as wise; the charming collective term for them is a parliament. The wise Greek goddess Athena (who gives her name to the Greek capital) was often depicted with owls.
However, in other parts of the world they are not so beloved. Across Africa, their hooting was believed to be an omen of death; they are also seen as messengers to the spirit world. Their association with death was also prevalent in Mesoamerican cultures. The Aztec god of death, Mictlantecuhtli, was associated with them. The Mexican saying “When an owl cries, an Indian dies” is still use. In North America, they were also seen as bad news by many Native American nations; with parents even telling their children to behave lest the owls get them.
Despite the association with wisdom, owls were not always seen positively in Europe. The Romans saw them as a bad omen, and their association with death was prevalent in Britain also. The French divide owls into “eared” and “earless”- the eared were wise and the earless unlucky.
The Finns thought owls were stupid, and the word for owl, pöllö, is synonymous with “idiot”. The Inuit of Greenland however saw them as symbols of guidance.
Ravens, the largest of the crow family, have long been seen as an omen of death. These impressive birds are carrion feeders and essentially live off the scraps of others’ prey. They are often associated with wolves (another animal which attracts a large amount of misconceptions) and battle fields. Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss suggested that the raven attracted so much cultural attention as they act as a mediator between life and death; they use the death of other creatures to survive.
There are a number of stories which explain how ravens got their distinctive features. The Greek god Apollo sent a raven to spy on his lover. The raven reported back with bad news; the lover was unfaithful, and in the ultimate act of shooting the messenger, Apollo burnt the raven to cinders in his fury. That is why today the raven’s feathers are black.
One of Aesop’s fables relates the tale of a clever raven who gets a drink by using stones to raise the level of water in a pitcher. This has been observed many times in many crow types; they are a highly intelligent species.
The Norse god Odin had two ravens (Hugin and Munin, often translated into English as Thought and Memory) who advised him. Our own Cu Chulainn, tied to a standing pole to fight, was only alerted that death was near when a raven landed on his shoulder. This is beautifully depicted in Oliver Sheppard’s sculpture, now on display at the GPO in Dublin.
Later on in Germany, it was said that the medieval Emperor Frederick Barbarossa would arise from his slumber in a Bavarian mountain when the local ravens stop flying. Better known in the English-speaking world is the legend of the ravens of the Tower of London. The story goes that if the ravens leave the Tower, it will fall and so will England. Today you can see the birds hopping around with clipped wings, which rather feels like cheating.
Sadly, this may be less ancient superstition and more a Victorian affectation (perhaps based on the more genuine Frederick Barbarossa legend). Ravens were very popular in the wake of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven, published in 1845, and the original birds may have been pets. It’s said that Charles II ordered the ravens to be kept in the Tower. One version says he ordered them to remain for England’s protection.
There were a lot more ravens around in those days, and a lot more corpses in the Tower of London. Another version says the king was so fed up of birds’ droppings on his telescope that he ordered the ravens to be killed. A courtier told him it was bad luck to harm a raven, so he decided to leave the birds where they were and move the observatory to Greenwich.
Whether a recent thing or not, the raven legend is taken very seriously these days. During WWII only one raven survived the Blitz, and Winston Churchill ordered more to be brought in. It’s also said that the ravens did leave the Tower in the chaotic days following the war’s end. Today a flock of seven birds are kept permanently in the tower and are actually employed as soldiers; they can be dismissed if their conduct is unsatisfactory.
I’ve only scratched the surface of man’s fascination with birds. Next month, I’ll be writing more about our feathered friends.