Friday 12 August 2011

From the Sketchbook: A Storytelling of Ravens

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 hunti
ng 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.


alberridge said...

This is fascinating - thank you. Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven' haunted me for years as a child, and now I know why! I think it's the black beak that's faintly sinister, but there's a bolshy scruffiness about them I still find oddly endearing.

Sue Purkiss said...

There's so much here - will come back later and read more thoroughly. Thanks, Teresa - fascinating and very new to me - I think the only bit I already knew was that Odin had ravens. Another book to put on the list!

Caroline Lawrence said...

A "storytelling" of ravens & a "murder of crows"... I love it! And I loved this post.

Isn't it amazing that the world provides us with so many wonderful SYMBOLS. One flying dark-beaked bird can say "carrion", "gallows", "clairvoyance" to our European mentality whereas to a Native American it says "trickster", "greedy" & "shape-shifter".

P.S. Note to self: Use the word "psychopomp" in next Roman Mystery.

P.P.S. I love your illustrations!

adele said...

I have learned a new word: PSYCHOPOMP! Wonderful stuff, really, the whole post. Fascinating and educational and altogether great. I too am a fan of corvids and I date my interest to Edgar Allen Poe's Raven poem which I read first when I was very young.
PS An Unkindness of Ravens is the title of a very good book indeed by Ruth Rendell.

John Moore said...

You forgot the "parliament of rooks". I love the scientific work that Cambridge University has done on the intelligence of corvids under Professor Nicola Clayton. See

As measured using a logarithmic ration of brain to body mass, crows score as highly as chimps and rats. Only humans beat them. Elephants and blue whales are left trailing in their wake.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Wow, John! Scary how clever ravens are. Thanks for sharing that info and link! :-)

Linda B-A said...

Lovely, meaty post, Teresa. And, as Caroline comments, John's note about crows' intelligence is actually quite scary. I've always thought the sound of cawing was one of the most atmospheric sounds of the countryside - now I'll be wondering what they are talking about, too...

Katherine Langrish said...

I loved this post - and the comments - look forward to reading The Blackhope Enigma!

Teresa Flavin said...

A "parliament of rooks", John! That is brilliant and thanks for mentioning it. Ravens can be taught to speak, apparently, and one source I read said that the Tower ravens can say, "Good morning."

Thanks for all your comments!

Pippa Goodhart said...

I couldn't the resist that idea of ravens being protected by royal decree at the Tower of London. It seemed so odd to protect what are common vermin of the bird world. So I asked the historians at the Tower where the idea came from ... and, to my joy, they didn't know. Joy, of course, because that left a wonderful yawning gap to be filled by a story ... my children's novel 'Raven Boy'.
Pippa Goodhart

Mary Hoffman said...

I have always loved "an unkindness of ravens" which is the title of a Ruth Rendell novel.

And I have always loved th word "psychopomp." I feel as if this wonderful blog - this post and others - is uncovering all my secret cherished knowledge!

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Wonderful blog. Every morning i walk over the fields where a whole host of crows gather in the wood. I love their cawing as I walk by and now I'm thinking that tomorrow I shall caw a reply and see what happens.

Shawn Robertson said...

Thank you Teresa. Henceforth I vow to call every collection of animals by its proper name. No more "bunch of black birds." The real name evokes the magic and mystery of nature.

Does anyone know of a good list of animcal collective names?