Doctrines of Devils, Symbolism from False Religions and False Beliefs: The Black Raven. A Divine Trickster. Feasts on the Dead. No wonder this bird is associated with the occult. Little did you know. Warrior, trickster, messenger, god: the raven is the ‘best’ of all birds.
Van Badham. The Guardian. November 3, 2019.
Shut up and don’t argue; the Australian raven is the best of all birds, and should be bird of the year. Every year.
If you’ve ever seen one, your eyes already know these are magnificent creatures. They’re glossy black – plumage, beak, mouth and tongue – with feathers that shine purple, green or blue. The scientific name appended them by European naturalists, Corvus coronoides, translates, stunningly, to “crow shaped”, noting their resemblance to the carrion crow of Europe and West Asia.
Pah! to these paltry crows. Our raven is much bigger than its namesake – growing up to over 50 (5) cm in length, its wingspan a metre, it’s almost as large at the northern hemisphere’s common raven. That’s big enough for the omnivorous Australian raven to kill a freakin’ rabbit, even – though less often – a ‘lamb’. If you’ve ever despaired at the damage wreaked on Australian wildlife by the pestilent, introduced rabbit, build a shrine in your home and offer tribute to our raven; this local hero’s fighting back.
You don’t need to watch it kill a galah (it can) or feast on the dead (it does) to know that our raven is a badass. Just glance at its eyes; the irises of our adult bird are bright white. The contrast to its dark feathers and mouth gives its face a startling, fang-of-Dracula, switchblade-from-the-shadows-of-an-alleyway quality, a look that says “I will gut you for five (5) bucks, or for fun”. Your nightmares cast this bird in a horror movie directed by Ingmar Bergman. It transforms you into Edgar Allan Poe, freaking out in his study on a bleak December. From personal experience, I advise not walking through a park full of Australian ravens after a viewing of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds … unless you want the neighbours to hear you running and screaming.
This is a bird of stature. More delicate species tremble at the border of extinction; the population of Corvus coronoides is increasing. The highly intelligent raven is unafraid of the human city. It roosts in its towers, it feasts on its waste.
I grew up with this bird in the suburbs of Sydney. The Eora and Darug people of the area call the bird “wugan”. To the Kulin nation of what’s now Victoria, a great raven appears in myths going by the name Waa, sometimes Wahn or Waang, and among English-speakers, sometimes “crow” substitutes for “raven”.
Across the continent, Indigenous mythology depicts this raven as a divine trickster. The Kulin nation’s Wurundjeri people describe the raven stealing fire from five (5) sisters who guard it. He lures them into a trap, seizes their firesticks, and in the ensuing chaos his feathers are burnt the colour of charcoal (the sisters are swept up into the sky and become the Pleiades constellation). On the other side of the country, the Noongar of Western Australia revere the raven as Waardar “The Watcher”, and a psychopomp; the bird accompanies the spirits of the dead across the western sea to the paradise of Kurannup.
Does this symbolism sound familiar?
(Doctrines of Devils) The Australian raven reminds us that this island continent is no outpost to the human story; the lore of ravens is shared worldwide. They’re the ‘first’ bird mentioned in the Hebrew bible, and – on God’s personal instruction – they feed the prophet Elijah. In the Qur’an, a raven teaches Cain how to bury his murdered brother. Hindu Shani, god of justice, travels via a giant raven. In China, a three-legged raven lives in the sun. The Greek god Apollo uses ravens as spies, as does the Norse god Odin, whose twin pets Huginn and Muninn (“Thought” and “Memory”) oversee human life and death with the same detail the Twa Corbies do in the Scottish ballad. For the Inuit, the raven emerged from darkness and created the world as he flew over it – diverse cultures of the Pacific north-west believe in the raven as both creator and trickster; their sacred stories are known as Raven Tales. There is a feminist energy to other myths of the bird; King Morvran, the “Sea-Raven”, was both the son and mate of Hel, the Norse Queen of the Underworld. The Irish hero Cú Chulainn dies with the spurned raven goddess Morrigan waiting to peck out his eyes. The Valkyries take the form of ravens to drink the blood of slain warriors.
If you’ve ever heard the legend that Britain will resist invasion until ravens leave the Tower of London, know that it’s because the Welsh hero Brân the Blessed is said to be buried under it; Brân means “raven”. The strength of their symbolism is why they’re in the Game of Thrones saga, and poems by Ted Hughes.
I knew none of this at age 11, when taking a walk with my uncle through a Sydney park I watched an unkindness of ravens (yes) square off against an equal number of cockatoos, and followed bursts of black/white feathers in the light-and-shadow dappled cage of trees as the two halves sparred for territory.
The cockatoos were pale and pretty, yet the unique kraa! kraa! of the Australian ravens above rang out the instantly familiar drawl of long, slow, suburban afternoons, rural twilights, beachside sunsets … and I suddenly knew the sound of ravens for that of Australian stillness. Theirs is the song of our moments when the light dips and crowds thin and parents call their kids in for dinner.
My heart allied to the black bird then; I hope yours does now. Warrior, trickster, messenger, god – Raven is both the bird of the world, and the precise sound of coming home.
• Van Badham is a Guardian Australia columnist