THE CURSE OF THE ORACLE: CORVIDS IN MYTH AND LORE
There is a wood of ambivalent memory in Buckinghamshire, on the periphery of Burnham Beeches, used for duck and pheasant shooting. On weekends, the air erupts with hollow thuds of shotguns. Cartridges litter the woodland floor, some half buried amongst the beech nuts and turquoise cushions of Leucobryum moss. I used to go there to collect skulls, and their eye sockets would stare at visitors from the window-sill at home: a fox, several ducks, muntjacs, a squirrel, rabbits, a stoat with the brain cavity cleaved asunder, but most of all, the globed and perfect skulls of crows. Crows are intelligent, capable of tool-use and lateral thinking; pheasants are not. The gamekeeper waged war on them, incensed by the increasing inventiveness of their strategies for stealing chicks and eggs. One day, trespassing deeper into the woods, I found a dead crow slung from a barbed-wire fence, strung up like a lightning zigzag, zeroing to ground. The wings and limbs were contorted; the beak pincered the wire. Mummified in its agony, the bird had been strung up alive. Anger clouded my eyes. I cut down the corpse, dry, crisp, feather-light but still noisome, wrapped it in dark cloth and buried it in the garden, letting its blackness seep back into the earth. Later, I stood over the grave, and imagination, or an apparition, made the earth heave. An explosion of soil, and the crow burst upward in my mind’s eye, over outhouses and fields, back to the wood. The gamekeeper had his own macabre sympathetic magic; I had mine.
Perhaps my love for corvids is as irrational as the gamekeeper’s hatred. As a teenager, I raised baby crows, fixed the broken wings of older birds, and came at times to prefer them to human beings. I am in good company. Jackdaws, crows and magpies all have reputations as loquacious pets. A very old broken-winged currawong, a black and white Australian corvid with piercing yellow eyes, used to wander around my favourite reptile park when I was a child, drawling “G’day mate” to all the tourists. Tame corvids learn quickly how to rule the roost, lording it over children, parents and pet dogs alike. They delight in stealing things and hiding them inventively, a vice which their owners are so beguiled as to consistently forgive. They imitate everything, and we echo and invoke them whenever we use their names. John Clare and Charles Dickens had pet ravens. Odin himself had two, Hugin and Munin (Thought and Memory), who flew out across the world bringing him news. The Saga of Flokki insists that the first mariner to discover Iceland did so by releasing his pet raven at sea and following it. A hooded crow belonging to a friend of Konrad Lorenz was trapped by a gamekeeper, escaping at the cost of one of its toes; the crow repeated the gamekeeper’s words on its return. William of Malmesbury tells the story of a witch of Berkeley, in Gloucestershire, whose talking jackdaw foretold her death. Corvids are too like us, which is perhaps why they are scapegoated and hated by those who know them little enough.
There are cultures in which corvids are revered. For the Koryac, and other tribes from within the Arctic Circle, Big Raven is at once the world’s creator and denizen. It is often remarked that the mischievousness of corvids is derived from boredom, like an intelligent child deprived of toys; Big Raven and his wife cure their ennui by becoming demiurges. The mountains are his excrement, and Raven himself is both celestial and earthy. His human weird is cantankerous, swallowing the sun in anger when his love-designs are thwarted, and puking it out again when he is tickled by his beloved. During a deluge, he resumes the form of a raven in order to fly to the heavens, so that he can plug up the vulva of the universe’s wife, which is shedding unremitting rain. This Siberian mythos has its counterparts across the Bering Strait, for the Raven is also regarded as a creator amongst the Inuit and the Haida tribe of the Queen Charlotte Islands.
Pre-Christian myths about corvids are characterised not by hatred, but by awe. Crows have always had the dubious honour of carrying the curse of the oracle, baring uncomfortable truths to those with too much power. In Greek mythology, the crow, originally white and personified as Cronus, was an oracular bird, and was said to house the soul of a sacred king after his sacrifice. The crow was cursed, blackened and banished by Athene after he reported to her that Herse, Pandrosos and Agraulos had plunged to their deaths from the Acropolis. Variants of this story, reinterpreted by Ovid, remain sympathetic towards the crow or raven, who is turned black for telling Apollo quite truthfully that his lover was unfaithful, and given a croaky voice for being tardy in fetching a cupful of water after being distracted by a meal of figs. A Christianised variant from the Tyrol has the child Jesus blackening the raven for soiling water he was about to drink. Perhaps this in turn was part of the genesis of allegations about Jews and witches poisoning wells.
An ancient Breton poem links corvids directly with deities. The mother of Bran, finding him dead, revived him in the form of a crow, and turned herself into a raven, so that they could spend eternity together in an old oak tree overlooking the sea. Irish and Welsh mythology emphasised the fearsome qualities of the birds, but also honoured them with divinity and superhuman powers. Badhbh, the Celtic goddess of war, united the three deities Macha, Neman and Morrigu, and manifested in a corvid form variously interpreted as a raven or a hooded crow. Her status as a deity of war is parallelled by the ancient Persian god, Verethragna, who also manifested as a raven, and who perhaps was reinterpreted as the raven attendant of Mithras. Badhbh plays a typical role in the narrative of the second battle of Moytura, in which, “after the battle was won and the corpses cleared away, the Morrigu… proceeded to proclaim that battle and the mighty victory… to the royal heights of Ireland and to its fairy hosts and its chief waters and its river-mouths” before prophesying the end of the world. A similar corvid war deity surmounts a Celtic war helmet of the second or third century BCE, found in Ciumeşti, Romania: a raven with hinged and flapping wings.
Cú Chulainn, too, tangled with the Morrigán in the Ulster Cycle. Woken by a shriek that could clot blood or curdle milk, the hero rushed out into the night, and was confronted by a surreal vision of a horse and chariot. The horse, blood-red in blenching moonshine, tramped on a single leg, the chariot pole pegged to his bleeding head, and rammed through his body. Beside the horse stood a woman, her eyebrows gore-tinged, her cloak dipped in dregs of battle. Beside them, a man drove a cow by hazel-fork, with tonking bell, inanely grinning. “I am Cú Chulainn, cattle-master,” roared the warrior, “And you, a cow-stealer. Submit, or feel my sword.” She of the reddened brow strode up to him, and riled him with riddles, till he clutched the chariot wheel and wept with rage. Her screech made mud clots in the puddles where they stood. Cú Chulainn realised that he had come out of the house bollock-naked. His wife was standing beside him, clutching his britches, sword and axe, and a chainmail suit. He turned away in embarrassment, but the chariot was gone, and on his shoulder, a croaking crow.
The supernatural awe inspired by ravens is at its most gripping in ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’ from the Mabinogion, which tells the story of a surreal battle between the forces of Arthur and Owain’s ravens. Arthur and Owain play Gwyddbwyll, with golden pieces on a silver board, the pieces reflecting their fractured faces, whilst the slaughter continues in the valley below. Distorted raven-shadows wheel across them like windblown ash. A king’s finger makes a move, its whorled print spreading and fading on yellow metal. There are cries of men and raven-cronks, flurries of black talons and wings, and the impassive faces of two kings. Skulls crash to ground, backbones fracture, spleens rupture, gashes bleed. The ravens have carried Arthur’s men into the sky and dropped them from a great height, smashing their bodies against the ground. A raven yawns; a bridge of blood spans his bristled gape. The king withdraws his hand, “Your move.” In all of these examples, one gets the impression that corvids were not to be shot and strung from wires, but to be propitiated and feared. Another tale from the Mabinogion, ‘Peredur, Son of Evrawc’ presents the raven’s taste for carrion in a romantic light. Meeting a raven eating the corpse of a duck in the snow, Peredur sees only his beloved: the snow is the whiteness of her skin, the raven the blackness of her hair, and the drops of blood the colour of her cheeks.
Nor was the demonisation of corvids quite complete in the middle ages. A thirteenth century bestiary insists that “the raven signifies the blackness of sinners”, but rather than dwelling upon this notion, proceeds to contrast the raven’s supposed neglect of its nestlings with the assiduousness of the crow: “Men should teach themselves to love their children from the crow’s example.” However, the bestiaries were quick to deride the classical reverence for corvids: “[The Greeks] say that the crow can reveal the purpose of men’s actions: it can disclose the whereabouts of an ambush, and predict the future. This is a great offence, to believe that God entrusts His counsels to crows.” Christian hegemony ensured that corvids, once the oracular birds of classical and Celtic paganism, were now suitable only as auguries for the heterodox. For Shakespeare, a fearful faith in the prophetic utterances of corvids could only be suitably expressed by a villain:
Stones have been known to move and trees to speak;
Augures and understood relations have
By maggot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth
The secret’st man of blood. (Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 5)
Macbeth feared that corvids would denounce him as a murderer, as in the case of the child-murderer Thomas Elks in Knockin, Shropshire, in 1590, but it was now left to witches to consort with them directly, or even to become them. Isobel Gowdie’s confession (1662) included crows amongst the favourite forms taken by witches for the flight to the Sabbat. Possession of familiar crows was a sure sign of an old woman’s isolation, a folk belief summed up neatly by Seldiy Bate’s lyric:
There is a woman by the hill, if she’s not dead she lives there still.
The henbane all around her grows, her only friends are big black crows.
Most damning for corvid reputations was the advent of the Black Death, which swept Europe in the mid-fourteenth century, killing between a third and a half of the population of England. Whole villages were wiped out, and survivors were often too few, or too terrified of contagion, to bury the dead. This unprecedented human tragedy can only have been a boon for carrion birds, whose taste for human flesh had previously only been indulged on battlefields and hangmen’s gibbets. The sight of great flocks of black birds descending on the waste land, and picking the eyes from the skulls of one’s neighbours or relatives can have done little for the estimation of corvids in the minds of survivors. It is not surprising that by the time Pieter Breugel the Elder painted The Triumph of Death (1562), a crow is depicted as Death’s pillion passenger, looking down on dying bodies as they are crushed beneath a cart full of skulls. The Child Ballad from the Scottish borders, ‘Twa Corbies’, and the more courtly English ‘The Three Ravens’ both dwell on corvids’ appetites for the flesh of a dead knight “slain under his shield”, but the corbies’ agreement on how to divide the spoil may well represent a comparatively young folk memory of genuine experiences in the horrendous British winter of 1348-1349:
Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I’ll pike out his bonny blue e’en:
Wi’ ae lock o’ his gowden hair
We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare.
This ballad seems to have influenced a late nineteenth century Devonshire tale in which a young woman of Brennan went to the fair, leaving her baby asleep in her garden. She saw three ravens flying from Blackingstone Rock, and asked, ‘Where be you going to, ravens cruel?” “Up to Brennan!” they responded, and when she returned, her baby was gone. Its bones were later found beneath the ravens’ nest on Blackingstone Rock. By the nineteenth century, it seems, the demonisation of ravens was complete. The Romans had interpreted its call as “cras”, Latin for tomorrow, an expression of hope. Poe’s raven only says “Nevermore”, a prophecy of doom.
Choughs have fared rather better in public esteem, although their popularity is perhaps in inverse proportion to their abundance. Shakespeare has hypothetical choughs picking rock samphire from the cliffs of Dover at the scene of Gloucester’s attempted suicide (King Lear, Act 4, Scene 6), although they have not been there for centuries. The bird is proudly vaunted as the Cornish Jack, but was extinct there until only recently. It was associated with Thomas á Becket, but there are no choughs in Canterbury. It has long been vaunted as the incarnation of King Arthur, a tradition perpetuated recently not so much by the British, as by the South African poet John Trotman, whose sonnets equate the chough with Nelson Mandela. Ravens share a similar honour; the ghost of King Arthur supposedly returns annually to Badbury Rings in Dorset to relive his triumph at the battle of Badon.
Rooks too, when they are distinguished from crows at all, tend to have a more positive image; it is said, for example, that Pengersick Castle in Cornwall will fall if ever its rooks decide to leave the grounds. Their prescience is the theme of oft-reported tales of their dismantling their own nests hours before a limb drops or a tree falls – a useful skill given their fondness for nesting in elms, which tend to shed branches easily. They are still used as weather auguries in county Durham, where it is thought that if rooks feed in a village, a storm is on its way. More sinister, because it seems to akin to human behaviour, is the “parliament of rooks”, a folklorically-charged phenomenon based on natural observation. Rooks may at times be seen standing in a circle in a field, as if conversing. According to some reports, two or three rooks stand in the middle of the circle, and at the end of the proceedings, either fly away looking relieved, or are set upon by the others and torn to shreds, as if they have been subjected to a trial by jury.
Jackdaws are so named because of their call, because they are smaller than other corvids, and because they are certainly the Jacks in any pack of birds; cunning, pilfering rogues. They are notorious for blocking chimneys with sticks. Accustomed as they are to nesting in hollow trees, their strategy is to drop sticks down any promising-looking hollow, until enough snag against the sides for the nest to hold. It is easy for them to provoke superstition: with daws and tchacks, the black beak clacks, tonails tapping on the chimney pot, and with his white eye in his cocked skull the little Jack blinks and bows, dropping sticks and chinking pennies into the soot. His wife lays eggs and begins to sit, but the whole lot comes clattering down the chimney, the eggs smashed, the nest collapsed, and the disgruntled jackdaw sitting in the hearth. In the north of England, such an ungainly entrance is a presage of death, the direst of omens.
Jays, with their conspicuous habit of eating and planting acorns, their near-vegetarianism besmirched only by the occasional nest-robbing escapade, and their electric-blue wing coverts, have obvious charisma. They are, however, garrulous in the extreme, and in Somerset, have earned the name Devil Scritch, along with the Gaelic Screachag choille and the Welsh Ysgrech y Coed, woodland screamers. The reference to the Devil may be more than a simple comment on the terrible racket made by a jay in the stillness of the woods. A folk tradition in the southern states of the U.S.A. insists that jays are never seen on Fridays, when they are busy taking sticks to the Devil. Perhaps jays too are still recognisably witches’ birds, lending their wing coverts as charms.
The decline of gamekeeping, which has to a certain extent led to the rehabilitation of corvid reputations, has not helped the popular cause of the highly successful English magpie. It has mastered the sins of all its relatives: carrion eater, pilferer and nest-robber. Like all pied things, it has a jester’s notoriety: it looks like a fool, yet is too wise for its own good. It is superfluous to quote the plethora of rhymes which find omens in the number of magpies that cross one’s path; they are at once too ubiquitous and too variable. More interesting is the other feature of the magpie-meeting ritual: the respectful tipping of the hat, tugging of the collar or pulling of the forelock, the addressing of the magpie as “Sir” or “Mister”, and the enquiry after the health of his wife. Here is a living tradition, still practised across Britain, in which an act of propitiation, often openly admitted to be superstitious, is in fact made with a certain degree of awe and trepidation. We have evidence, too, of other magpie-traditions which were still very much alive in the nineteenth century. A dream-book, written in around 1880 by “Zadkiel”, explains that: “To dream that you see a magpie, foretells that you will soon be married, but that you will lose your partner in a few years after your union. To dream you see two magpies, it denotes that you will be married twice, and be twice widowed. And if a man dreams that he sees three magpies, it portends the death of his wife in childbed, and also the death of the child.”
Sibly, whose notes on fortune-telling were printed in the same book, had some sage advice for young ladies confounded by the receipt of anonymous valentines. To reveal the author, you must “prick the fourth finger of your left hand, and with a crow-quill write on the back of the valentine the day, hour and year of your birth…Try this on the first Friday after you receive the valentine, but do not go to bed till midnight; place the paper in your left shoe, and put it under your pillow, lay on your left side…” My imagination is at it again: she sits, slightly dizzy from a too-tight corset, dizzier still from the heady thought of a gentleman’s infatuation, blushing, perhaps, at the thought of it – and then works witchcraft so potent that one wonders whether she is all that different from the modern teen-witch who drinks diet coke and invokes Black Shuck: the pricked finger, the left hand, the writing in blood. And she uses a magical item which is as common as dirt, yet more powerful than any number of crystal-tipped wands: the feather of a crow. When she dreams, I wonder will she, as she wishes, see the face of her lover? Or will she see the spirit of Badhbh, taking flight towards the “rooky wood”, before her eyes are blinded by upturned soil?