By Teresa Flavin
Elizabeth Bird, who blogs for the excellent School Library Journal, recently wrote this entertaining post about the growing number of ravens appearing in this year’s young adult books. Since the cover of my first novel, The Blackhope Enigma, features a cackling raven, it qualifies for what Elizabeth tagged a “weirdo trend”.
Now I’m no goth, but this is a weirdo trend I’m pleased to be associated with. I am a corvid fan. I spent hours cutting out big raven silhouettes for Blackhope’s UK book launch last summer and the real star of the show that evening was a pretty menacing stuffed raven. I have even been tempted to get some black feather wings to wear at events, but after reading Caroline Lawrence’s post on Tuesday, I’ll defer that decision!
I don’t know anyone who is neutral about ravens. They seem to be on a par with bats, snakes and spiders. Even an “unkindness”, the collective noun for ravens, is darkly evocative. A comment on Elizabeth’s blog post said that a “storytelling of ravens” is also used; if we add a “murder of crows” to the mix, we get an insight into people’s uneasy attitude towards corvids.
It’s hardly surprising, considering the raven is large, black, feeds on carrion and is therefore linked with the battlefield and the gallows. This bird is so intelligent, it is known to hunt cooperatively with man’s ancient enemy, the wolf, to secure its food. Ravens communicate in a complex set of sounds with a distinctive voice. Humans have long believed they possess the gift of clairvoyance and have even imagined ravens as witches’ familiars. It’s a bad omen to kill a raven.
Before coming to Scotland I was acquainted with the Native American depiction of Raven as a world-creating, shape-shifting trickster god, who can alternate between being deceitful and greedy or wise and heroic. In a Tlingit tale I once illustrated, Raven gives counsel to humans who later suffer consequences when they ignore his advice.
I learned that in European mythology, ravens act as messengers or guides, and sometimes a deity will appear in their guise. The Norse god, Odin, is accompanied by two ravens, Huginn and Muninn (“Thought” and “Memory”), who fly around the world and bring back news. Two wolves also accompany Odin, nicely echoing their connection with ravens in the wild. The Roman historian, Tacitus, linked Odin (and his Anglo-Saxon counterpart, Woden), with the messenger god, Mercury. Woden, Mercury and his Greek equivalent, Hermes, were all psychopomps, guides of souls to the afterlife. Certain animals were also considered to be psychopomps, including ravens. In my charcoal drawing above, the raven is in an imaginary night landscape, perhaps on the lookout for souls!
The Blackhope Enigma has an enigmatic late Renaissance painter-magician at its centre. I named him Fausto Corvo, the Raven, as he is a guide of souls to the living underworlds of his own magical paintings. Ravens act as his lookouts and messengers within the under-paintings, whose imagery is inspired by the Greco-Roman myths that Renaissance artists often depicted. Corvo has been able to create these worlds, in which he has hidden ancient secrets of the universe, because he is an adept at astral magic. This is a “natural” magic that purports to draw down the power of heavenly bodies. Belief in a hidden realm of angelic spirits who influence earthly matters was common in the sixteenth century; magicians who understood these stellar powers and were able to control them would seemingly be able to work wonders. A magician like Corvo, who is also an astounding artist, is a potent force indeed.
Renaissance adepts would be familiar with astrology and alchemy in ancient texts attributed to a supposedly historical figure from Hellenistic Egypt, Hermes Trismegistus (“Hermes the Thrice-Great”). He was actually a combination of Hermes and the Egyptian god, Thoth, also a psychopomp; both gods ruled magic and writing. The Hermetica, as well as other manuscripts and grimoires translated by European scholars of that time, covered not only philosophical matters, but gave instruction on how to work magic. I was particularly fascinated by esoteric spells to animate statues and control images; these would work very well for Fausto Corvo.
Ravens even appear in puzzling alchemical illustrations inspired by Hermetic writings, such as this one made by Michael Maier in 1618. Each phase in the process of creating the Philosopher’s Stone was symbolised by a bird; ravens stood for nigredo, or putrefaction, when all ingredients were cooked into black matter. The sediment at the bottom of the alchemist’s retort was called the “raven’s head” and when it began to turn white, the material was said to be entering albedo (white) or “swan” phase, followed by the “peacock” (many colours) and then rubedo (red), the “phoenix”. Once again, the raven is key to a transformational journey and a rich source of inspiration for stories and images.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Tower of London’s resident ravens. The Tower was once their hunting ground because it had fresh prisoners’ corpses to feed upon. Rather than being chased off, the ravens were allowed to stay. A legend, allegedly harking back to King Charles II, warns that if the Tower’s ravens are lost or fly away, the kingdom will fall. Six ravens and one reserve are kept in the Tower at all times to protect it and the Crown. Apparently they are even enlisted as soldiers of the kingdom and can be dismissed for unsatisfactory behaviour. The flight feathers of one wing are clipped to keep the ravens from absconding, but aside from this, these celebrity ravens seem royally treated. According to the Tower’s Ravenmaster, they are not only fed on fresh fruit and cheese, and the choicest meats from Smithfield Market, but on occasional road-kill and biscuits soaked in meat blood.
Even in royal surroundings, the raven reminds us of a bloody past and the dark side of nature’s cycles. Humans need such talismans to explore our own shadow sides. If we do not grapple with darkness, we cannot undergo our own transformations and discover the light.
To celebrate The Blackhope Enigma’s US publication this week by Candlewick Press, Teresa will be hosting a competition to win a large hand-cut silhouette of the raven on its cover. For more information on this and other prizes, visit her Facebook page. The Blackhope Enigma is published in the UK by Templar Publishing.