July 10, 2006

10-Bird Meme, No. 3: Raven

Odin with his ravens, Victorian illustration
I was elk-hunting when I came to a place where someone else had cleaned a downed elk. White snow, red blood, black ravens.

Instantly, I was back in the visual world of the sagas that I read as a 15-year-old: Beowulf, The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel, all that heroic slaughtering.

Letan him behindan hræ bryttian
sulwigpadan þone sweartan hræfn

They left behind them, to enjoy the corpses,
the dark coated one, the dark horny-beaked raven

Ravens carry so much mythological baggage that it is no wonder that they sometimes seem to walk with shoulders hunched.

Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory) perch on the shoulders of Odin. The illustration is from The Age of Fable by Thomas Bulfinch (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Company, 1894).

"Can a raven miss anything? Can it keep a secret?" asks Bernd Heinrich rhetorically in Ravens in Winter. Sometimes scavengers, sometimes killers.

And if you have any acquaintance with Pacific Northwest culture, you know Raven's status there.

Contemporary European and American Paganism is full of people with "Raven" in their self-given names. One writer hits the trifecta. (Try it yourself.)

Icelandic bands use raven imagery, not surprising, considering the sagas.

When I was 12 or so, before I knew much about either sagas or Paganism, I designed my own heraldic raven insignia. Dad was amused, and whenever we were in the mountains and saw some of them, he would say, "Look, there are your birds."

OK. Ravens. They have been done and overdone. Now when I am driving down to Pueblo and I see a pair of them (usually eating road-killed jackrabbit), I wave and I say, "Hello, cousins." They need to eat, those sweartan hræfn.

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