Animals in gothic literature often draw a link to the supernatural, whether as omens or harbingers of misfortune. The common raven is an example made famous by Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven as a bird with a strong connection to death. Yet ravens have appeared in legend and literature for thousands of years and their purpose is dependent on the culture that’s revering them. French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss believed that ravens claimed a place in myth because of their mediator status as an animal between life and death, feeding on carrion.
The ancient Greeks associated ravens with Apollo, the god of the sun and prophecy. In contrast to contemporary ideas of macabre birds, Apollo’s ravens were treated as good luck symbols and acted as messengers to the mortal world. According to legend the original raven was white and Apollo sent it to spy on his lover Coronis. The raven brought news that Coronis had been unfaithful and Apollo burnt the raven in anger, turning its feathers black. From this perspective we can interpret the raven as a sympathetic creature, dutiful to its master and punished for doing its job.
Another depiction of the good fortune ravens bring was recorded by Roman historian Livy. According to him the Roman general Marcus Valerius Corvus was battling with a giant Gaul when a raven landed on his helmet and distracted his enemy by flying into his face.
The raven had a place of honour among Germanic and Norse civilisations. The bird was associated with the chief deity, Odin who possessed two ravens called Huginn and Muninn. They acted as his eyes and ears, referred to as thought and memory. Every day the ravens flew to Odin and brought him news of what was happening on Midgard. The legendary norse ruler, Ragnar Lodbrok was known to carry a raven banner named Reafan, and if the banner fluttered then his forces would win the battle. If the banner didn’t move then the battle would be lost.
According to the legends of the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast, the raven plays a duplicitous role in their history. In their mythology it’s the creator of the world but is seen as a trickster with two sides. One side is the light bringer who banished darkness and the other is childish, sly and hungry for power. In another legend the raven originally lived in the land of spirits that existed before the human world. The raven became bored one day and flew away, carrying a stone in its beak. The raven dropped the stone into the ocean when it grew tired and the stone became our world.
In Christianity the raven has a role of protector, particularly in the legend of Saint Vincent of Saragossa. After he was executed ravens protected his body from being eaten by wild animals until his followers recovered it. His body was transported to what’s known as Cape St Vincent in southern Portugal and a flock of ravens continued to guard the shrine.
No matter the interpretation, ravens have shown to be intelligent, mysterious and resilient birds throughout history. Their link with death may be the most enduring characteristic, but it doesn’t erase their significance within our culture. Ravens will ever remain animals that appeal to the darkness and haunting landscapes of gothic novels.