by Jessica Sanchez
(Originally published in Druid's Progress 11)
As Samhain draws near, we must explore the dark side of the season. Commonly known as Halloween, this is the time when the souls of the dead roam the earth and bring mischief and death to the living. As with most holidays, symbolism plays a big role in celebrating the season. One animal that plays a role in representing Samhain is the raven.
In most cultures, the raven is represented as the messenger of death. There are a few cultures; however, where the raven is seen as the Creator of the Earth and man; in these cultures, it is respected and considered to be sacred.
The Vikings thought of the raven as a bird of war because of its raucous cawing and its feeding on the bodies of the slain. It is also said, however, that Odin, the father of the gods, kept a pair of ravens, Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory), perched on his shoulders. At dawn, the ravens were released to explore the earth and return at night to whisper the secrets they had discovered into Odin's ear.
In Alaska, the Koyukon see the raven as the Creator of the Earth, moon, stars, people and sun. Oral history relates that the raven first made people from rocks, but they proved to be too strong, so the raven destroyed the people and recreated them with sand instead. The Koyukon also described the raven as a trickster. They say that the raven put mosquitoes on the earth to plague the people because, at the time, their way of life had no difficulties. They also say that water once flowed in two directions at the same time, but again the raven believed that it made life too easy for people, so he made the water flow only downstream. Because of these beliefs, the Koyukon consider the raven to be sacred. It is considered strong taboo to kill a raven in their culture.
In Native American culture, it is also considered a bad sign to spot a raven acting in a strange manner. To hear a raven caw at night was a great omen to those who heard it. The Kwaikiutl would offer the afterbirth of a male newborn to ravens, so that when the child became a man, he would understand the cries of the raven.
In Jewish folklore, the raven is looked down upon, because it is believed that it was the only animal on the Ark that violated the law forbidding lovemaking on the sacred vessel. It is also believed that the raven was the first bird that Noah sent out to look for land. The raven never returned because it decided to stop and feed on the bodies of the victims of the great flood. It was then that Noah sent the dove.
Biblical writers have recorded that godsent ravens sustained Elijah during his retreat in the desert (1 Kings 17:6) . This contradicts the fact that ravens were considered to be 'sinners' who did not feed their young properly and ate carrion.
During the time of European settlement in America, the raven was associated with bringing failure to crops, death to livestock, and depletion of game. This belief was strengthened when it was seen that ravens were feasting on the corpses of farm animals.
Now as the time approaches for the raven to take flight and join the souls of the dead on Samhain, remember this-- Even though this bird is thought to be the harbinger of death, in some cultures, it is the bringer of life and omen messenger to the living.