Autumn has finally arrived here and as I walked the damp and misty fields yesterday, two crows were perched on a low branch of an apple tree. To begin with they just looked at me in their sombre way and then they started to chatter to each other in a voice that grew in strength and urgency until they flew from the branch and headed up into the tree tops; out of sight of me but from where they could watch me for as long as they liked. I smiled and carried on, thinking about them and how they and the cunning folk are so closely entwined.
The Crow is a bird that is very at home in the luminal places; it has the ability to communicate with the Otherworld and is a bird of divination. The Crow can always find its way and is known for its intelligence and ingenuity. They guide the cunning into the Otherworld, over the hedge and home again or bring us messages; we divine by them and use the gifts of their feathers in spell-workings and incenses. They also make excellent “look-outs” when buried deep in the hedge harvesting and collecting – they will soon let you know if there is something about that requires your attention! They will also keep you company as you walk the lonely places.
But the name Crow is sometimes a misnomer – the Crow, the Raven and Rooks are interchangeable within the European and especially British, folklore and magic. When we say Crow, we could be talking about a Crow or a Rook or indeed a Raven. The name Crow comes from the Latin Corvus which means Raven and the Rook is known as Corvus frugilegus and this isn’t to mention the Jackdaw which is Corvus monedula! But all are regarded as being of the Crow or Corvid family and so the confusion begins.
There is a great deal of lore concerning the Crow in Britain. Locally it was believed that to see two Crows meant a wedding but to see just one meant a funeral. However, if you said “Break” on seeing a single Crow, the spell would be averted.
Just like Magpies, there are rhymes about the Crows. One runs:
“One’s joy, two’s grief,
Three’s marriage, four’s death,
Five’s Heaven, six is Hell,
Seven’s the Devil his own sel’ (self)!”
To have a one sit on the roof of a house was believed to be a portent of death within – “A Crow on the thatch, soon death lifts the latch” is a well- known and still dreaded saying.
There has always been a strong connection between the Crow/Corvids and death; a group of crows is even called a “Murder”. A group of Ravens is an “Unkindness” and a group of Rooks is a “Parliament”; none of them sounding much like fun.
The other strong connection is between Corvids, prophecy and witches. Witches were believed to turn themselves into Corvids to fly from danger, to spy on people and to execute their nefarious plans. Isobel Gowdie confessed in 1662 that Crows were among the favourite forms that witches took to fly to the sabbat and old women who lived alone and were seen to be friendless but for the company of Crows, were believed to surely be witches; this was encapsulated very well in the lyrics of Seldiy Bates: “There is a woman by the hill, if she’s not dead she lives there still, The Henbane all around her grows, her only friends are big black Crows.”
The spirits of the dead are believed to inhabit the Corvid and thereby deliver prophecy and omens from the Otherworld. The infamous witch of Berkeley in Gloucestershire, was foretold of her impending death by her pet Raven. In County Durham, Rooks are used as auguries of bad weather where it is thought that if Rooks feed in the village, a storm is on the way. Ebenezer Sibly, writing in the 1800’s, gave advice to young women who had received an anonymous Valentine which was supposed to reveal the author: “You must prick the fourth finger of the left hand and with a Crow quill, write on the back of the Valentine the day, the hour and the year of your birth. Do this on a Friday after you receive the Valentine but do not go to bed till midnight. Place the paper in your left shoe and put it under your pillow, lay on your left side…” The important part here is the use of the Crow quill and blood.
Today, the cunning still work with the Crow to gain access to the Otherworld realm in search of knowledge and we will utilise its wisdom and intellect. But they can also be devious tricksters and so it is with caution and time that we build our relationship with them. In fact, they are such tricksters that it is believed by some that the Wee folk turn themselves into Corvids to carry out their mischief.
An old curse from Ireland uses Crows to drive a person insane and possibly to even cause death. The Crows, or more likely Rooks, are sent to take up residence in the nearest tree or on the roof of the house of the person to be cursed. The cacophony that this Murder or Unkindness generates is then kept up all day and all night, day-in and day-out. If the person leaves the house to escape the noise, they follow and continue the uproar. Eventually, the person is either rendered insane from the clamour or dies from the accumulated effects of exhaustion and thereby stress, on the mind and body. This would tie in with the knowledge that a Crow never forgets a face. They can and do remember the face of a dangerous human and with their memories able to last their lifetime, they will carry this memory throughout their life. If someone threatens them, they will “scold” the person with their shrill calls and they will bring in relatives and other Crows to join in and mob the miscreant. The other Crows that are now involved in the scolding, will also learn the face of the villain and henceforth associate that face with danger and react accordingly and so the number of crows that the person is known to, grows.
In legend, Bran the Blessed (whose name translates as Crow or Raven) is associated with Ravens. When Bran, who was one of the guardians of ancient Britain, was close to death, he gave instructions for his head to be carried to London. It took 87 years for his head to reach London and yet in all that time, it never decayed and he continued to give his followers oracular messages through songs. When it finally arrived, the head was buried under the Tower of London and his totemic birds, the Ravens which were his Otherwordly scouts & messengers, were kept in the Tower. The Ravens are still kept at the Tower and it is still believed that if they ever leave, then Britain will fall.
The Goddess Morrigan often appears as a Corvid, along with Badhbh, Nemain and Macha. She decided which side would win in battle and afterwards, they cleaned the battlefield of the corpses and Nemain (meaning terror, noise, bloodlust and prophecy) recorded the deeds and lives of the fallen souls. The Morrigan also sent the Ban Sidhe to families that worshipped Her, where the Ban Sidhe would guard the family and foretell of coming death.
Odin is represented by the Raven, often as a pair of them who are named as Huginn (thought) and Muinnin (memory). Their job was to act as spies for Odin and they flew out every day across the world and each night brought him news from the world of men.
In alchemy, the Raven or Raven’s head is a symbol used to denote the blackening stage of nigredo, where the material is dissolved and putrefies. This leads to new generation in a different form and so from death comes new life.
The lives of the cunning and the Corvids has ever been so interwoven and it would seem, will remain so for as long as both are around.