“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!”
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.
[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.
[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