The Symbolism of the Raven

What is a Raven?

A raven is a type of bird, black in colour related to jackdaws, choughs, rooks and crows. Collectively, these are known as the “Corvus” family. They generally differ in terms of their size with the raven as the largest. If you see a big black bird that looks like a crow but looks too large to be a crow, the chances are it is a raven. They are intelligent creatures, quick to learn and curious. They display self-awareness beyond fight or flight of most other birds.

The Raven as A Cultural Icon

In Pagan Britain

Their perception as a cultural icon in Europe goes back to before Roman Europe. The Celts, a culture that spread across Germany, France, the modern British Isles and parts of Spain, treasured the raven. It was said that the creature has special visionary powers – the ability to see fate, and not just the negative. It was associated with the goddess Morrigan as part of the Samhain celebration (pagan New Year).

In Anglo Saxon Lore

Their black colour, substantial size compared to their cousins and menacing caw to human ears means that they have an otherworldly perception. It is not surprising in early medieval Germanic and British culture, they have been seen as symbols of death. They are popularised through famous literature in the English language as signs and portents – typically of something negative and usually death.

One of the reasons for this is where they live. They often live in imposing landscapes: craggy cliffs, mountainsides and coastlines. They are also seen in other wide open natural landscapes such as forest in those areas of the world that still have woodland closer to wilderness. These parts of northern and western Europe often have a spooky mythology to them, especially in the autumn and winter when it is cold and wet and a sea mist hangs over the land.

Native American Lore

It is not just in Anglo-Saxon where the raven entered folklore. It is / was perceived quite differently amongst the Native American tribes. Some felt it was a symbol of good fortune due to its associations with creation myth. Other tribes, rather like Anglo-Saxon / Norse mythology, feel it is a bird not to be trusted as it is a trickster or shapeshifter due to its intelligence and wiliness.

At The Tower of London

One of the most curious tales about ravens is their importance to the citadel known at The Tower of London. This castle built by William the Conqueror in the late 11th century, has had a group of ravens within its grounds for centuries. Charles II said that the resident flock should be protected. Rather than seen as a symbol of bad luck, their presence is seen as good luck. Should they ever leave, it is said, The Tower of London will fall.

Ravens: Good or Bad Luck?

In Europe at least, ravens are considered a bad omen despite the mixed history of this magnificent bird. This negative perception as an omen of death was not helped by Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem The Raven. If you see a raven on your way to your local casino or gaming rooms, do not despair, just remember that the rich history of this creature has brought bad luck in some cultures but not in others.