Thursday, October 31, 2013

Ancient Witchcraft: The Raven, Part 2

Common North American Raven
The raven, the largest bird in the Crow family, also carries the largest brain in the bird world.  It has captured the imagination of all cultures in all times and has become an integral part of folklore.  Perhaps it’s the raven’s eyes—so human looking, so inquisitive, so devious.  Perhaps it is the raven’s association with carcasses and death that contributes to the fear and often revulsion we have for them.  Perhaps it is the cleverness of this highly intelligent creature.  It is hard to rate the intelligence of non-linqual creatures.  But those who have studied Corvids place them at the top of the bird world, on a par with coyotes and wolves, and many other intelligent mammals.

They are renowned for their problem solving skills.  Watch the following videos which chronicle the ravens incredible cleverness:

[]   Clip taken from BBC animal show Clever Critters, narrated by comedienne Dawn French, 2008.  Antony Bloom sets up a complicated test for several Corvids in his garden.  They must drop stones into one water-filled tube to raise the waterline in another tube that contains their favorite food floating on top.

[] Clip from National Geographic videos.  Dr Baron Heinrich, with the University of Vermont, devised an experiment that shows ravens have the ability to make logical connections, much like human beings. 

The cleverness of the raven has been both feared and revered throughout history.  Here are some excerpts from a recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine [October 2013] about using ravens for counterintelligence:

“A raven, in espionage parlance, is a male agent tasked with seducing intelligence targets.  But avian
ravens can be spies as well.  When Bailey [an animal trainer who worked with government agencies] describes the Western raven, he sounds as if he’s talking about Jason Bourne.  “It operates alone, and it does very well alone,” he says.  Western ravens are adept at pattern recognition.  “They could learn to respond to classes of objects,” he says.  “If you’ve got a big desk and little desk, you could train it to always go to the small one.”

“… There would be a rustle of oily black feathers as a raven settled on the window ledge of a once-grand apartment building in some Eastern European capital.  The bird would pace across the ledge a few times but quickly depart.  In an apartment on the other side of the window, no one would shift his attention from the briefing papers or the chilled vodka set out on a table.  Nor would anything seem amiss in the jagged piece of gray slate resting on the ledge, seemingly jetsam from the roof of an old and unloved building.  Those in the apartment might be dismayed to learn, however, that the slate had come not from the roof but from a technical laboratory at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.  In a small cavity at the slate’s center was an electronic transmitter powerful enough to pick up their conversation.  The raven that transported it to the ledge was no random city bird, but a U.S.-trained intelligence asset.”

Just as the Raven became a code word for an espionage agent, the Cherokee also recognized the analytical and strategic talents of the raven.   From Thomas E. Mails’ book, The Cherokee People, “The … principal leader of a revenge army [was] the Great War Chief, now called the Raven because he wore around his neck a raven skin … It was said that the Great War Chief, in his guise as the Raven, watched the enemy and kept the chief speaker perfectly informed.  He directed the necessary preparations, and each night magically went forward two days’ march yet was back in camp the next morning.”

The Cherokee saw both the good and the evil of the raven and drew from their study of this very intelligent and resourceful bird.  Whether witchcraft or warfare, the raven occupied a prominent role in their lives.
also author of "The First Raven Mocker",
Book One of the "The Cherokee Chronicles"
Available now.
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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

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Native American Skies: Cosmic Revolution

Because the stars and constellations in the night sky revolve around the North Star, it has been considered the center of the cosmos for many ancient cultures.  And those constellations near the North Star often hold a special place in their cosmology.  For the Navajo, for instance, the two neighboring constellations and the North Star form a unit.

The Navajo call the unit Nahookos (Na hoe kos).   The North Star is Nahookos Bikq (Na hoe kos Bih kwo), which means “Central Fire”.   Picture a Navajo hogan with the hearth in the center of the room.   Sitting next to the fire would be the father and mother (or grandfather and grandmother).   Likewise, next to the Nahookos Bikq are the constellations Nahookos Bika (Na hoe kos Bih kah) which means “Revolving Male” and Nahookos Bi’aad (Na hoe kos Bih aad) which means “Revolving Female”.
The position of the Nahookos group enabled the Navajo astronomers to predict the seasons just by checking the position of Nahookos Bika in relation to Nahookos Bikq every night at the same time.  If the three stars that make up what we now call the “handle” of the “Big Dipper” are pointing up, then it was summer.  When the handle was pointing down, it was winter.  When Nahookos Bika was above Nahookos Bikq it was spring, and when it was below it was  autumn.

Nancy C. Maryboy and David Begay [Sharing the Skies] describe the constellation as follows:

“Nahookos Bika … is considered to be a male warrior, a leader and father, and sometimes a grandfather, who provides for his family.  He protects his family with weapons such as the bow and arrow.  He reflects the ideal characteristics of a provider and protector for his family, people, and home.

Nahookos Bika and Nahookos Bi'aad

“Nahookos Bi’aad … is considered to be a mother, and sometimes a grandmother, who exemplifies strength, motherhood, and regeneration.  She reflects the ideal characteristics of stability and peace in the home.  She also provides for her family through her female weapons of a grinding stone and stirring stick, used to fight off hunger and ensure good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle for her family.”

Nahookos Bi’aad is the constellation we call Casseopeia today.

Tribes that lived below the 34th parallel, saw a different phenomenon—the Big Dipper drops below the horizon as it revolves below the North Star.  This prompted an interesting story by a tribe living in Alabama.  Here is an excerpt from “The Celestial Canoe”, from the book “They Dance in the Sky” by Jean Guard Monroe and Ray A. Williamson:

“ Back in the days when stars were people, they could travel back and forth between the earth and sky.  Some of these sky people regularly came down to earth in a canoe.  While on earth, they played a ball game on a large, grassy field and then, when they were finished, they went back to their canoe, began singing, and rose to the sky.

“One time, as the sky people played on earth, a man was hiding nearby … when a beautiful sky woman ran after the ball, he leaped from his hiding place and grabbed her.  Frightened by the man, the other players jumped in their canoe, started singing, and returned to the sky.  The man took the beautiful woman home and married her.  In time, they had two children.

“After several years the mother became homesick for the sky and soon devised a plan to return.  She told her children to ask their father to go hunting and bring home meat to eat … and their father set off to hunt.

[but the first time they were unsuccessful]

“In the weeks that followed, the woman made another canoe, a small one, and put it in a safe hiding place.  Before long, her husband went out hunting again.  The woman got in one canoe and put her children in the little one.  She began singing and they all started to rise.  The father again ran back, but this time he managed to stop only the little canoe with his children.

“The children missed their mother very much and begged their father to let them follow her.  He gave in finally, and they all got in a canoe, sang, and began to rise just as she had.”

From the beginning of time, the beautiful patterns of stars in the sky have stirred man’s imagination.  I know how much I enjoy showing my children and grandchildren the wonders of the sky.  I’m sure it has been the same for fathers and grandfathers  over the ages.
By Courtney Miller

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Native American Skies: The North Star

The ancients looked up to the sky and saw a reflection of the earth.  It was a representation of all that was happening or had happened and provided understanding for those learned in interpreting the signs.  When the ancients observed all of the sky revolving around the stationary North Star, of course, they saw it as significant.  It represented the center of the cosmos. 

Nahookos Bika and Nahookos Bi'aad
father/hunter and mother/provider
The Navajo call this important star, Nahookos Bikq (Na hoe kos Bih kwo) which means Central Fire.  It is the cosmic center of the Navajo night sky and represents the central hearth, the fire, centered in the home or Hogan.  And in the sky, it burns between the great father/hunter and great mother/provider constellations.  (Note:  Great Father is essentially the Big Dipper, Great Mother is the constellation Cassiopeia)

From “Sharing the Skies” by Nancy C. Maryboy and David Begay: “In Navajo culture, the central fire in a traditional Hogan has multiple values and therefore is extremely important.  It provides stability for the family, as well as a sense of security and well-being.  Nahookos Bikq provides warmth and tranquility as well as a focus, place, and means for ceremonial healing.”
the North Star changes over time due to precession

Nahookos Bikq as observed by the ancient Navajo is in the same today.  But, that tells us that this interpretation is fairly recent.  Because of a slight wobble in the axis of earth—called “precession”—the polar north changes over time.  Earth goes through one such complete precessional cycle in a period of approximately 26,000 years or 1° every 72 years, during which the positions of stars will slowly change.  The Egyptians looking at their North Star in 2700 B.C. would not have been looking at Polaris.  They would have been looking at the star “Thuban”.  Today Thuban is several degrees away from center.  In 1100 A.D. even Polaris was several degrees off center.

The cardinal directions were very important to the ancients.  In the ancient Cherokee water ceremony
for cleansing,  they paid tribute to seven directions—up, down, center, east, south, west, and north.  In Chaco Canyon, the Great Kiva called Casa Rinconada is perfectly aligned with a north-south  axis.  Today, we might use the North Star to establish north.  But, in 1100 A.D., when it was built, Polaris was 6-degrees from the pole.  There are several methods they could have used, however.  I think the most likely method was to mark the alignment during one of the solstices when the sun rises due east and sets due west.  Another is the old Boy Scout method of placing a stick in the ground and marking the shadows at the sun progresses.  The shortest shadow points north.

The Ancestral Puebloan, or Anasazi, were an agriculturally based society that build permanent homes and pretty much stayed in one place.  They could build permanent astronomical markers to help them identify important dates using the sky.  Nomadic tribes, however,  could not.  The Pawnee used a sky map painted on a buckskin.  From “Living the Sky” by Ray A. Williamson:

“The north star, whose name in Pawnee is literally “the Star That Dows Not Walk Around,” they compared to the god Tirawahat.  North Star was chief over all the other stars and saw to it that they did not lose their way.  As depicted on the star chart, the north star is among the largest stars, and certainly much larger than those near it.  This is directly contrary to the actual celestial appearance of the north star, which is fainter than, for example, several stars near it in Ursa Major [Big Dipper].”

On the chart, the “dippers” of the Big and Little Dippers represented stretchers and the “handles” represented the procession of mourners following.  This came from a story told by the Pawnee about the council to decide where the gods would stand in the sky.  Two members became sick and were carried on stretchers and still journey in the sky this way as a model to the Pawnee for caring for their sick.

 Who knows at what point Polaris centered on the pole in the north enough to appear to “not walk around”.   Even 500 years ago, a discerning observer could have seen it revolving around an empty space in the sky.   We assume that ancient mariners used the north star for navigation, but it has only been used for the last 500 or 600 years.  Before that, the sun or constellations were used in conjunction with a “cross-staff” or astrolabe.  Before that, crude compasses were used but they were not very accurate.  Before that, they hugged the shoreline and used line of sight to navigate.  To me it is a striking example of how times change and people adapt.
by Courtney Miller


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Native American Skies: The Milky Way

Well, its October!  According to an old Navajo tradition, we can now (October thru February) go into the Hogan a speak  about the night sky.   “The time of winter stories is considered to be a time of sharing and reflection when bears, reptiles, and insects are hibernating, and while plants are regenerating their potency for their next life cycle in the spring.” [Nancy C. Maryboy, David Begay, “Sharing the Skies, Navajo Astronomy”]  This time of teaching ends with the first sound of Thunder ushering in spring.
Navajo Hogan

Today it is hard for us to understand why the night sky and the sun cycles were so important to ancient cultures.  If we need to know the time, we look at our watch.  If we need to know what day it is, we look at our calendars.  We are told when spring begins by TV broadcasters or by notices from local department stores advertising their spring sale.  Most of the population in the “civilized” world can’t see half the night sky for the light dome over the city they live in.  Today the night sky and the stories related to the stars, constellations, and planets are just a novelty.

Starry Night software on laptop showing
Milky Way aligned along pre-dawn horizon
But in ancient times, understanding the movements and related stories of the night sky and sun cycles were as critical as understanding the computer is to us today.  It was, in a way, their computer or their internet.  The answers to all of life’s questions resided in the sky, if you knew how to read it.

This doesn’t just apply to Native Americans, it applies to all ancient cultures.  For most of us, what we know about the constellations and movements in the sky came from the Greek astronomers who learned from the Summerians and Babylonians who learned from the Egyptians, etc.   “Western” cosmology is a hodge-podge of multicultural stories, legends and myths.  Most have lost their meaning and significance over the ages.


Dr. John J. Boucek, in his article for the Wet Mountain Tribune, observed, “It is an amazing fact that ancient cultures, though continents apart, have viewed the Milky Way and philosophized along similar lines as to its significance.

“The ancient Greeks titled it ‘that spinning wheel which men called Galaxios,’ the name being derived from the Greek gala or galactos, which simply means milk.  Hence the Latin term Via Galactica or Milky Way.

“A half dozen more Chinese poets, some from the pre-Confucian era refer to the Milky Way in similar terms, calling it the ‘Celestial River’ or the Han River, sometimes regarded as the ultimate source of the earthly Yellow River of central China.

“In American Indian legend, it is the path to the hereafter.  The Algonquins saw the campfires of their departed warriors in the bright stars along the way.

“The Norsemen saw the Milky Way as the path of their warriors on their way to Valhalla.”
In Hindu mythology the Milky Way was churned by means of a serpent to acquire the nectar of life.

I would add the old Cherokee Story that attributes the Milky Way to the trail of a naughty dog that got into the corn meal and tracked it across the sky.

The Navajo name for the Milky Way is Yikaisdaha which means “That Which Awaits the Dawn”.   The Navajo observed that there is only one time during the year when Yikaisdaha aligns perfectly with the horizon.  That time is in January just before dawn.  Amazingly, it aligns with the entire predawn horizon.

What is interesting to me is that at the base of the cosmological systems is the belief that the sky is a reflection of what is happening or has happened or will happen on earth.  So, each culture looks up and sees those things or events that are important to their particular culture.  The Olmec and Mayan astronomers watched and recorded the skies for thousands of years and came to the conclusion that all things have a cycle and if you follow events long enough, they will repeat.  This is very powerful because that means that if you learn the cycle, you can predict the future because it will repeat!
-- Courtney Miller