Thursday, 6 February 2014

The Raven

Some weeks ago I was walking down Burton Street on the way to work when I heard a commotion before my head. I looked up and I saw two Crows mobbing a Buzzard who was flying nonchalantly off unconcerned at the antics of the member of the Corvus family.

It’s another member of that family I wish to write about following a conversation with a fellow “twitcher” at the Dimmingsdale reserve near Cheadle who was telling me of the increased presence of the Raven, after a period of long decline.

WH Hudson the travel writer and nature writer remarked  in his 1913 book “Adventures Among Birds” that on Axe Edge that the birds absence was marked "Not a buzzard, not a harrier, not a raven which when soaring would seem an appropriate object and part of the scenery in these high wild places". The situation seems to have been turned around.

 The largest member of the Crow family ravens are very intelligent birds. Two wild ravens helped a captive one escape by digging a hole from outside of its cage while the one inside dug from there. They can be taught to talk. Ravens are playful and have learned to use tools. They employ stones and other hard objects to crack nuts. It has been observed (not infrequently) that when a member of the flock perishes, the birds will hold what could be called a “raven funeral” – a 24-hour event marked by raucous outcries.

Its reputation in legend is not the most cheerful one as it’s associated with death. Not surprising as it was a bird that frequented the gallows of hanged men, a feeder off carrion and its size, colour and dismal call add to the sepulchral image.

It has an association with pagan deities such as Odin, Lugas the Celtic God and Bran the Blessed (Bran means raven in Welsh) whose head is buried under the Tower of London as a talisman against invasion. According to legend the country will fall if the Ravens of the Tower are removed. Even now an” unkindness”, the collective noun for the bird, of six is maintained.

Ravens were considered messengers of the Gods. One raven does appear in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English when St Paulinus is trying to preach in Yorkshire. The croaking of a raven appeared to be competing with Paulinus and the people think that the pagan Gods are arguing with Paulinus. (The Norse god Odin had two raven familiars named Huginn and Muninn who perched on his shoulders and told him everything they saw and heard)

I visited Durham Cathedral over the summer in which the head of St Oswald who bought Christianity to the north of England is buried in the same coffin as St Cuthbert. Oswald was killed at the Battle of Maserfield in 642 near to modern day Oswestry (Oswald’s tree) fighting the heathen Welsh and the Mercians. Although he was a Christian warrior Oswald included the powerful symbol of the raven on his war banners. It may well be he was keeping all options open in terms of his relationship with the pagan God Odin least things did not work out in the other world.