Symbols - What does heaven look like
The Raven takes on all the symbolism from birds. In all other respects it takes its symbolism from its characteristics.
Over the centuries, it has been the subject of mythology, folklore, art and literature. In many indigenous cultures, including those of Scandinavia, ancient Ireland and Wales, Bhutan, the northwest coast of North America, Siberia and northeast Asia, the Common Raven has been revered as a spiritual figure or god. The intelligence and resourcefulness of ravens has led to it being used as a symbol in areas where it once had mythological status: as the National Bird of Bhutan [it is an aspect of Mahakala in Bhutanese mythology],Official Bird of the Yukon territory, and on the Coat of Arms of the Isle of Man (once a Viking colony).
It is the bird of choice for the magician. It is sometimes associated with sorcerors.
The Common Raven (Corvus corax), also known as the Northern Raven, is a large, all-black passerine bird in the crow family. It is one of the two largest corvids, alongside the Thick-billed Raven, and is possibly the heaviest passerine bird; at maturity, the Common Raven is between 56 and 69 cm (22 to 27 inches) in length, with recorded weights ranging from 0.69 to 1.63 kg (1.5 to 3.6 pounds).
Thus symbolically the Raven is the most powerful of all the birds apart from birds like the Swan and the Eagle.
But the raven has one thing neither the Swan or Eagle have symbolically – it is black – and black here does not [repeat not] mean evil, it means high Intellect. In the symbolism of Darkness and Light, darkness is the world of the Intellect – the Raven is thus a very very clever bird symbolically.
And what is interesting perhaps is that in ‘real life’ the raven is a very clever bird. Common Ravens are extremely versatile and opportunistic in finding sources of nutrition feeding on carrion, insects, cereal grains, berries, fruit, small animals, and food waste. Furthermore, some remarkable feats of problem-solving have been observed in the species.
One experiment designed to evaluate insight and problem-solving ability involved a piece of meat attached to a string hanging from a perch. To reach the food, the bird needed to stand on the perch, pull the string up a little at a time, and step on the loops to gradually shorten the string. Four of five Common Ravens eventually succeeded, and "the transition from no success (ignoring the food or merely yanking at the string) to constant reliable access (pulling up the meat) occurred with no demonstrable trial-and-error learning".
Common Ravens have been observed to manipulate others into doing work for them, such as by calling wolves and coyotes to the site of dead animals. The canines open the carcass, making it more accessible to the birds. They watch where other Common Ravens bury their food and remember the locations of each other's food caches, so they can steal from them. This type of theft occurs so regularly that Common Ravens will fly extra distances from a food source to find better hiding places for food. They have also been observed pretending to make a cache without actually depositing the food, presumably to confuse onlookers.
It also has a very wide and complex vocabulary including a high, knocking toc-toc-toc, a dry, grating kraa, a low guttural rattle and some calls of an almost musical nature. As such this again reinforces the belief that it is clever and can communicate complex ideas.
This LINK will take you to a fascinating film about this family of birds.
Ravens also live a long time in ‘real life’. Common Ravens typically live about 10 to 15 years in the wild, although lifespans of up to 40 years have been recorded. Thus they are the ideal shamanic bird, with the 150 year old shaman using the symbolism!
Symbolically there is also a link between the Raven and Treasure, again this is entirely due to its actual behaviour.
A raven on the coat-of-arms of the Polish aristocratic Clan Slepowron, to which Kazimierz Pulaski belonged.
Common Ravens are known to steal and cache shiny objects such as pebbles, pieces of metal, and golf balls. One theory is that they hoard shiny objects to impress other ravens. Other research indicates that juveniles are deeply curious about all new things, and that Common Ravens retain an attraction to bright, round objects.
Mischievous and playful
In recent years, biologists have recognized that birds engage in play. Juvenile Common Ravens are among the most playful of bird species. They have been observed to slide down snowbanks, apparently purely for fun. They even engage in games with other species, such as playing catch-me-if-you-can with wolves and dogs. Common Ravens are known for spectacular acrobatic displays, such as flying in loops or interlocking talons with each other in flight. They are also one of only a few species who make their own toys. They have been observed breaking off twigs to play with socially.
But symbolically this side is often extended to mean that they can be viewed as ‘tricky’ characters using their cleverness and wile to trick others and gain advantage over them, with less of an inclination to do things themselves. They may be manipulators and sharp operators. They may even look down on their fellow beings regarding them as easily led and rather naïve. There is just the hint of disdain about the way they view others, just a slight hint of disrespect in they way they treat them.
Left: In this highly symbol filled photo collage, the raven perches on the apple, near a pitcher of water whilst a tender flighty little butterfly rests vulnerably below.
The raven as the symbol of death and decay
It is their reputation for scavenging the dead carcasses of animals that has led the raven to be associated in myth and legend with death, decay and decomposition as well as destruction. They appeared after battles and fed on the bodies of dead warriors, which gave them a particularly gruesome reputation. But here the connotations are not entirely negative.
Death is inevitable, decay is inevitable, decomposition is a necessary part of the removal of the old to make way for the new. For creation to work there also has to be destruction. In all the cycles of life, death is a precursor to new life. Old civilisations die and may gradually decompose, but whilst they collapse, room is then made for new civilisations to flourish.
The work done in nature has to be mirrored in life and raven people help destroy, clean up and remove the vestiges of the dying systems of life. They destroy in order that creation can take place.
Ravens and rebirth
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- Khunrath, Heinrich - Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeterna 1602
- Lethbridge, T C - A Step in the Dark – Ridgeways and the role of Lucifer
- Lyall Watson - The Lightning Bird
- Mircea Eliade - On Abaris
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