Thursday, October 24, 2013

Ancient Witchcraft: The Raven, Part 1

It seems that in ancient cultures and all around the world, the raven has played an important role in their lore.  It is the largest of the Crow family and has the largest brain of any bird.  It is renown for its cunning and problem-solving ability.  In this series, I want to explore this amazing bird and the place it holds in cultures.

In Cherokee folklore and myth, for instance, the raven is associated with witchcraft and death.   The Raven Mocker, Kalonu Ahkyeliski, is the most feared and dreaded of Cherokee witches.  This witch is the one that robs the dying man of life.  The Raven Mocker is capable of shape-shifting into the raven and flies across the sky in a fiery shape with arms outstretched like wings and sparks trailing behind.  

When a Raven Mocker comes into the house all invisible, he frightens and torments the sick man until he kills him.  Then he takes out his heart and eats it, and so adds to his own life as many days or years as he has taken from the dying man.

“In the shadows of the old gray standing stones of England, there have risen many songs and stories of supernatural power.  Folk singer Maddy Prior is an expert in such lore and in the dark depiction of Ravens.  “Because they’re seen so much around death and carnage, they have become associated in Northern Europe with death and they’ve become birds of ill omen.”

“And in medieval times, Ravens earned their sinister reputation.  It was the 14th century and the Bubonic Plague was sweeping across Europe.  One out of three people would die.  Entire towns were stricken with no one to bury the dead in the all but empty streets.   Enter the Raven.  Black birds gathering for the black death.

“To a Raven, a dead human was just another carcass—a grim opportunity for a meal.  The sight of a Raven evoked such dread it called up ancient pagan fears from long before the counting of centuries.
“The ancient Celts associated the raven with the Morrigan, goddess of death and battle.  And she could shape-shift, seemingly, into the raven.  When they saw the raven, they thought the Morrigan was there.

“But on the other side of the world, in the rugged Pacific Northwest, the view was just the opposite.  To many Native American tribes, the raven is a celebrated figure.  Half clown, half god, full of mischief but the giver of great gifts.  His image is everywhere.  His power reveals the true nature of things.  Clever and resourceful, Raven invented the world, the mountain and rivers were all his idea.  He even placed the sun in the sky.
“Before there was light, there was only twilight and darkness and Raven got tired of looking for food in the dark.  He heard of an old man in the sky who had a box that contained another box.  And inside that, another and another until inside the smallest one, there was light.  A light that Raven was determined to steal. 

“He tricked the old man into opening the box and flew off with the light in his beak.  But the old man chased him and in his hurry to escape, Raven threw the light into the sky where it hangs to this day.
“Raven is indeed a thief, but in his mischief, he brought a blessing to the whole world. 

“Fitting descendants of the original trickster, wild ravens display the same curiosity and cunning.  Conservation Biologist John Marzluff has been studying these extraordinary birds for more than ten years trying to understand their amazingly complex behavior.  For though the ravens may not have invented the world, they often act as though they own it.

“Ravens are such a fascinating animal that once you start studying any of the Corvids, you can’t go back to studying something of lesser quality, its impossible.  I think one of the thing that strikes me and others who work on these animals is that when you catch something like a robin and you look at it, its just a glossed over look and theres really nothing going on inside of a robin’s head, as far as I can tell. 

“A raven on the other hand, you hold a raven  and you look at the raven and its looking back at you.  It has a pupil that’s dilating and contracting just like ours is and that bird is obviously excited about you being that close to it and you have a real tight connection with an animal like that as opposed to one that is more of a blank slate.”

In the next article, we will look at tests on the raven that show its cleverness and look at a more current affect the raven has had in the culture of espionage.
Courtney Miller

Author of “The First Raven Mocker

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