The Raven and Crow of the Celts – Part I: Myth and Legend

Raven by John Auduban. 1861.

“There are about 45 species of Crow in the world known by a variety of common names, including Ravens, jackdaws and rooks.”  – Candace Savage (Crows)

Both the Raven and Crow have made many iconic appearances throughout Celtic myth and legend – and later in folklore as well.  In earlier times, these black birds were often believed to be aspects of the Morrigan, some other divine being, intelligent allies of the downtrodden, or hapless souls who had been transformed through foul magic. Slowly, however, these birds lost their status as divine messengers and instead became servants of the devil, representing death and dying. Truth be told however, the Crow and Raven have always symbolized death.

Lady Guest’s 1877 translation of the Mabinogion is a collection of 11th Century Welsh Tales. Within its pages Taliesin claims:

“I have fled in the semblance of a crow, scarcely finding rest.”

In the ‘Notes’ section of the Mabinogion, Lady Guest says that in some versions of the tale of Owain, the hero has “an army of Ravens.” W. Y. Evans-Wentz elaborates further in his 1911 book Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. He claims that Owain had a Crow, “which always secured him victory in battle.” This avian champion did so with the aid of 300 other black-plumed Crows.

In Charles Squires 1905 Celtic Myth and Legend Gwynhwyvar’s father Ogyrvan’s (ocur vran) name meant “Evil Bran or Raven,” which was “the bird of death.” Within the text we’re also told that Bran’s (Bran the Blessed) name meant Raven. Bran is said to be the “Celtic Hades,” or god of the Underworld.

According to John Rhys in Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, in Cornwall, it was believed that Arthur did not die in battle at all. Instead, he was turned into a Raven, which was “a form in which he still goes about.” For this reason, the author claimed that even to that day – the year being 1900 – that a Cornishman would not willingly fire upon a Raven.

The Raven and the Crow were aspects of the Morrigan in Ireland.  The Morrigan was sometimes seen as a trio of goddesses whose names were Macha, Babd and Namain[i]. These “war goddesses” often took on the form of the black bird[ii].  In Lady Gregory’s 1904 Gods and Fighting Men the Morrigan is sometimes called “the Crow of Battle” or the “Battle Crow.” In Charles Squires’ 1905 Celtic Myth and Legend it’s said that:

“Wherever there was war, either among gods or men, she, the great queen, was present, either in her own shape or on her favorite disguise, that of a hoodie or carrion crow. An old poem shows her inciting a warrior: Over his head is shrieking, A lean hag, quickly hopping, Over the points of the weapons and shields, She is the grey-haired Morrigii!”

Raven and Crow of the Celts
Cuchulain with Raven. Joseph Leyendecker. 1911

Cuchulain – along with many other heros in Irish myth – was followed by the Goddess Morrigan in her Raven form his whole life. When he did eventually die, “a crow comes and perches upon his shoulder[iii].”

In the 1902 Cuchulain of Muirthemne by Lady Gregory, one of the daughters of the evil Irish druid Calatin appears to Cuchulain in the form of a Crow. Having been influenced by the Morrigan herself, she does this in order to lure Cuchulain into battle.

In Lady Gregory’s retelling of the 12th Century Tain, we’re also told that Cuchulain said after killing his own son:

“I am a Raven that has no home.”  

George Henderson in Survival in Belief amongst Celts – published in 1911 – says that the famous bull[iv] also found in the Tain Bo had at one point taken many other forms including that of the Raven.

In J.F. Campbell’s 1890 Popular Tales of the West Highlands we’re told that a “Ravan was the son of the King of Lochlin.”

Not every Raven is black, however.  The Tuatha De Danann queen Eriu (Erin[v]) is described in Lady Gregory’s Gods and Fighting Men:

“In the one moment she would be a wide-eyed most beautiful queen, and in another she would be a sharp-beaked, grey-white crow.”

Over time, many other cultures and religions influenced and shaped the beliefs of the Celts. The old gods became fairies and devils, and in turn the Raven and Crow of the Celts became the never-tiring pawns of Satan. Next week, we’ll continue our exploration of these birds in The Raven and Crow of the Celts – Part II: Fairytales and Folklore.

Raven and Crow of the Celts
The Woman With the Raven at the Abyss. Caspar David Friedrich. 1801


[i] This third name is not always consistent and the three in one aspect is not always agreed upon. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. James MacKillop.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Celtic Myth and Legend. Charles Squire. 1905.

[iv] The bull’s name is Donn Cualnge.

[v] Eriu, or Erin, is one of the three queens in which Ireland was named after.

*Layendecker image: Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race. T.W. Rolleston. 1911

*Friedrich image:

Eadha (Aspen) II

“The people of Uist say … that the hateful aspen is banned three times. The aspen is banned the first time because it haughtily held up its head while all the other trees of the forest bowed their heads lowly down as the King of all created things was being led to Calvary. And the aspen is banned the second time because it was chosen by the enemies of Christ for the cross upon which to crucify the Saviour of mankind. And the aspen is banned the third time because [here the reciter’s memory failed him]. Hence the ever-tremulous, ever-quivering, ever-quaking motion of the guilty hateful aspen even in the stillest air.” – Alexander Carmicheal (Carmina Gadelica. 1900)

1) The Roots: Background information

2) The Trunk: Celtic Mythology and Significance

3) The Foliage: Spells using the Plant

The Roots:

Eadha, or Aspen, is the 19th letter of the Ogham in its tree form.

Aspen are very closely related to White Poplar. In many places the names for the two trees are used interchangeably. The species are so closely related, in fact, that they can intermarry resulting in the Grey Poplar species.

Aspen’s the only tree that dominates two letters from the list found in the Ogham Tract or Scholar’s Primer[i]. Eadha is associated with Aspen but so is Ebad. Writers who use the tree version of the Ogham have worked around this in various ways. The Murrays use the second Aspen, Ebad, to instead represent “the Grove”, which they also call Koad[ii]. Several other writers have since used this association.

The word-Ogham kennings are interpreted by John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman. Mathews interprets the phrase “distinguished wood” for Aspen as representing “insight.”

Caitlin Mathews has a slightly different approach to the Ogham. In her book Celtic Wisdom Sticks Caitlin says that some of the kennings relate to death while others may have more to do with the corpse-measuring rod we will discuss below. Her divination system uses a war-like theme for Aspen. The interpretations for the letter are retreat, attack, survive and persevere for love.

Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids says that the Aspen is associated with “healing and communication.” He also claims that the tree can also be associated with old age “due to it’s shivering.”

The Trunk:

At one time, the quivering leaves of the Aspen were believed to be mediators between this world and the spirit one. Their shaking leaves helped the spirits of ancestors to speak  with the living. The shaking leaves also carried the inspiration of poetry.

The Holly and Oak are often accused of being the trees used for the crucifixion, but the Aspen also shares this role. Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom claims that in Scotland people would throw stones at the Aspen to punish it. This was a tradition that was even practiced into recent times due to the trees great burden of “evil.” As a result, the quivering leaves of the tree have been equated to guilt, or to fear, in anticipation of the justice it will receive for betraying Christ.

In the 1881 book Notes on Folklore of the Northeast of Scotland by Waltor Gregor we also find that, “The cross is said to have been made of the wood of the aspen – ‘Quaking Aish’ hence the constant motion of the leaves.”

The many dark association for Aspen may be due to one of its historical uses. In Cormac’s Glossary we are told of the Aspen wand called a Fe which was used to measure the graves of the dead[iii]. Accordingly, there was even an Ogham inscription cut upon these rods. The Fe wands and their users are both called “pagan” in the glossary. We are also told that it was not advised for anyone, other than the grave measurers, to handle these wands. These Aspen measuring-sticks were said to hold bad spirits.

Despite this particular macabre reference to the Aspen, the tree is spoken of as “friend” within the Ogham Tract.

In mythology, one of Cuchulain’s great victories was over three of his enemies who had also armed each of their charioteers with Aspen wands. He killed all six of them[iv].

If the Aspen wand was used for measuring the grave, then the symbolism found within the tale is both direct and haunting. The three threes, including the wands, remind us that all of the old myths are just as likely to be secret riddles as stories. The story becomes a metaphor, then, in which Cuchulainn has overcome death once more. The charioteers had only intended on measuring his corpse.

(Still Life With a Skull. Philip D. Champaigne. 17th Century)

As well as being affiliated with the dead, the Aspen is also connected to ghosts and to the “undead.”  The following example is taken from Tales of the Fairies and the Ghost World by Jeremiah Curtain in 1895:

“The malignant ones are dead persons who rise up bodily and go around at night devouring people. When one of these has eaten a victim he rushes back to his grave, for he is obliged to remain wherever he may be at cock-crow; if outside his grave, he falls stiff and helpless to lie there till the next night. There are two ways of giving a quietus to such a ghoul. One is to pin him to the earth by driving a stake of aspen wood through his heart; the other is to burn him to ashes.”

So the Aspen turns out not be so bad after all. Perhaps, it is only seeking redemption? Perhaps, it wishes to aid us in our fight against evil spirits and the undead? The Aspen may even wish to help us battle those deathless creatures wandering the dark forests and deserts of our planet?

Every land is haunted. All countries have ghosts. In fact, we are all united as one people beneath the shadows of these global cultural beliefs.

The Celts, as well as most other cultures, had a respect for nature whose royalty was the pantheon of trees. Within a few generations, however, those kings and queens were literally “stoned.”

A strange reversal of belief.

The Foliage:

According to Robert Graves in the White Goddess, French witches used Aspen or White Poplar in flying spells.

In Survival in Belief Amongst Celts published in 1911, George Henderson reports that mare’s milk taken from an Aspen spoon was a cure for whooping cough.

In Scotland, an Aspen leaf “placed under the tongue made the bearer more eloquent.” According to the source, Paul Kendall, this magical shift was a gift from the fairy queen[v].

In Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook by Jacqueline Memory Paterson, we are told that Aspen crowns have often been buried with the dead to “enable these spirits to be safely reborn”

And just in case someone you know were to ever catch palsy, Alice Vitale in her book Leaves in Myth, Magic, and Medicine shares with us an easy cure. Apparently, a piece of the sick person’s hair was pinned to an Aspen tree and this chant was spoken in place:

“Aspen tree, aspen tree, I prise shiver and shake instead of me.”

The person would then walk away from the tree, but they would not speak as they did so. If they did talk, then the spell would be broken. If they succeeded in walking away in silence, however, then the palsy would be gone forever.

Jacqueline Paterson claims in her book Tree Wisdom that French witches used five pointed Poplar leaves in spells. She says that the tree was believed “to bring good luck in the monetary sense.”


“In her head was one deep pool-like eye, swifter than a star in a winters sky; Upon her head gnarl brushwood, like the clawed old wood of the aspen root.” – J. F. Campbell (Popular Tales of the West Highlands. 1890)

* All images used in this post are from public domain.

[ii] The Celtic Tree Oracle. Liz and Colin Murray.

[iii] Cormac mac Cuilennain was an Irish bishop and a king of Muster. He was killed in battle in 908ce. The glossary is attributed to him after his death but was probably not actually written by him.

[iv] Cattle Raid of Cualnge. Ulster Cycle.

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