Sunday, December 18, 2011
Myths, Legends, and Tales: The Raven
World Bird Sanctuary is home to a very diverse collection of birds.
Most of our birds are birds of prey—that is to say, hawks, owls, eagles, and others. This is to be expected, of course since the Sanctuary started in 1977 as a rehabilitation center for injured raptors. However, raptors are not our only inhabitants. We house parrots, cranes, pelicans, and chickens… as well as those wily and mysterious creatures, the ravens…
Ravens are some of the most intelligent birds on the planet. They are able to recognize faces, shapes, and patterns, as well as mimic words and phrases. They have a mutually beneficial relationship with wolves in the wild: a flock of ravens will find a dead or dying herd animal, and then a wolf pack finds them. The wolves associate the gathering of ravens with fresh meat, and so follow the ravens to the prey. After the wolves tear open the tough hide of the prey, the ravens can eat their fill of carrion.
The ravens here at World Bird Sanctuary are no exception to the claim of intelligence. All three of our White-necked Ravens are able to recycle, picking up cans from audience members and placing the cans in a blue recycle bin. They are able to mimic the Sanctuary staff….from Mischief coughing to Hugnin’s mutter of “much better.” They are even able to complete puzzles, such as putting the correct shape in the correct hole in a puzzle ball. They are also very crafty, and try to outsmart even us trainers at every turn.
Mischief, a White-naped Raven demonstrates that "...even a bird can recycle"
Ravens in the wild, aside from being smart, are also prolific. The Common Raven is exceptionally so, occurring not only in North America, but also in Great Britain, Scandinavia, Northern Europe and Russia. So widespread is this bird that cultures around the world have adopted the raven into their myths and legends. Some of the most well known are as follows…
It is said that the king of the Norse gods, Odin, had two raven familiars. Their names were Hugin and Muninn. Hugin represented thought, and Muninn represented memory. Every day, Odin would send Hugin and Muninn out over Mithgarth (the world, in Norse myth) to gather information. In one poem of the Poetic Edda, a compendium of Norse myths, Odin states: “O’er Mithgarth Hugin/ and Muninn both/ each day set forth to fly;/ For Hugin I fear/ lest he come not home,/ but for Muninn my care is more.” This suggests that Odin valued his memory of things past over his knowledge of the present. In artwork depicting the god, he is pictured often with Hugin and Muninn, but also with wolves. This further alludes to the relationship between ravens and wolves in the wild.
Illustration courtesy of wikipedia shows the Norse god Odin enthroned with weapons, wolves and ravens
Legend says that, “…the kingdom and the Tower will fall if the ravens ever leave the fortress.” So proclaims a superstition once held by the English monarchy. If the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, the English monarchy is doomed. Around the British Isles, the raven is a symbol of prophecy, and is also said to predict the outcome of battles. So ingrained was this belief, that King Charles II and his astronomer, John Flamsteed, once argued about the ravens in the Tower, which was once home to an observatory. Flamsteed complained that he was unable to see anything in the sky, for the ravens were blocking his telescope. King Charles famously ended the argument by proclaiming: “The Observatory must go to Greenwich and the ravens can stay in the tower.”
Ravens strolling the grounds of the Tower of London courtesy of wikimedia commons
Native American Myth:
Whereas the ravens of the eastern hemisphere myths tend to be more intelligent and mysterious, the ravens of the western hemisphere are altogether more mischievous. This is never more apparent than in the story “Raven Steals the Light,” a myth from the Pacific Northwest.
At the beginning of the story, the world lies in darkness, and “The Raven, who of course existed at that time because he had always existed and always would, was somewhat less satisfied with this state of affairs, since it led to an awful lot of blundering around and bumping into things.” He hears a man singing about how he keeps the light in a small box, inside another box, inside another, and so on and so forth, until there are an enormous number of boxes. Raven uses all of his considerable wiles, and eventually worms his way inside the house and steals the light from the man, with which he brightens the world.
Ravens are indeed fascinating creatures, but by no means are they the only fascinating creatures we have here at World Bird Sanctuary. Check back soon for more Myths, Legends, and Tales of birds from around the world!
When visiting the World Bird Sanctuary’s Nature Center check the enclosure on the right-hand side of the observation deck to see one of our talented ravens.
Submitted by Emily Hall, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer