Another excerpt from my book-in-progress. Crows and ravens are conflated in ancient Greek myth.
A less familiar goddess who has a link with crows is Coronis. She is one of the Hyades, the seven sisters of light who are rain-makers. Olympic genealogy has her the parent with Apollo of the healing god Asclepius. She is also tied to Apollo in a story where the mistrustful Apollo sends a crow to spy on the goddess, and she does indeed cheat on him with another god. Apollo has Coronis bumped off by his sister and punishes his crow for not halting the liaison by changing him from white to black. This story accomplishes three things: 1) it solidifies Apollo’s ownership of the crow while denigrating the crow at the same time; 2) it explains why the god of light would have a black emblem; and 3) it justifies usurpation of the goddess’s cult by making her demise a result of her own betrayal. Reading into this story a bit, I would guess the unruly priestesses of Coronis resisted the cult of Apollo effectively for awhile.
The goddess Athena is believed to have turned Coronis herself from a white crow into a black crow. This is why the raven rests on the bust of Pallas in the Edgar Allan Poe narrative “The Raven.” Pallas is another name for Athena. The story goes that Coronis brought Athena some bad news, and the goddess in a rage changed the feathers of Coronis from white to black and banished her from the Acropolis. I disagree with those who categorize the crow as a familiar of Athena on the basis of this story. I think crows and ravens were banished from Athena’s temples because her priests wanted owls to nest there. Crows like to nest in high places (hence the term “crow’s nest”), and they mob owls. The purpose in the mobbing is to defend chicks and eggs from owl predation, and yet crows seem from our perspective to pursue owls with an unnecessary vehemence, seeming to attack them on principle. At any rate the two birds could not have cohabitated, so crows would have to be banished from Athena’s domain. In addition to firmly linking Coronis with the crow, this story again makes the crow an oracular bird.
And then, as he looked after him Telemachus saw the stranger change in his form. He became first as a woman, tall, with fair hair and a spear of bronze in her hand. And then the form of a woman changed too. It changed into a great sea-eagle that on wide wings rose up and flew high through the air. Telemachus knew then that his visitor was an immortal and no other than the goddess Athene who had been his father’s friend.–The Odyssey (Padraic Colum, trans.)
I recently learned that the bird often referred to as the “sea eagle” in translations of Celtic, Norse, and Greek myth is the osprey. This is a large bird of prey that nests along shorelines. Like the bald eagle it prefers a diet of fish, and at a distance it is hard to differentiate the osprey from the eagle. The osprey has a white head like the bald eagle, but it has a brown stripe across its eyes and its underside is white. It is slightly smaller than the bald eagle.Ospreys are fun to watch. I observed this pair fishing in Lake Champlain this past week, divebombing into the water and then heading back to the nest. The young, whom I could not see from the ground, squealed as the the fish was dropped from above.Eventually one of the pair – I could not tell if it was mama or papa – decided I had been hanging out near the nest too long and began swooping over me, probably intending to intimidate me rather than provide a photo op. While the osprey was distracted by my presence, two little birds decided to mob it in a surprise attack. Ospreys are not built for maneuverability; they are designed to pounce on prey from above. The big bird had no choice but to escape to the open water while I chuckled and got back in the car.
Animal divinity can take many forms.A living animal can literally be a god or goddess. An example of this would be the crocodile Petesuchos, who lived at the temple to the Egyptian god Sebek. Petesuchos wore jewelry, lived a pampered existence and was considered the literal offspring of Sebek, elevated above the ordinary crocodile who might be killed for meat or safety.A specific animal can also be a living omen or message from a deity. The white buffalo calf Miracle, born on a Wisconsin farm, was seen as a message from White Buffalo Calf Woman of positive and momentous changes. Honoring Miracle honored the blessings and prophecy of White Buffalo Calf Woman. Miracle also shows how an animal can embody divinity in more than one way, as Miracle was often propitiated with gifts, sometimes highly valued gifts such as military medals, as if she were an actual goddess like Petesuchos (although not all Plains Indians who revered Miracle viewed her in this way).An animal species might be sacred to a particular deity, and thus all members of this species might be treated with deference out of reverence for that deity. An example of this would be the dog, who is sacred to the goddess Nehalennia and usually pictured as her companion.An animal can be considered sacred for her contribution to human life, for her symbology, or for her pivotal role in myth. The cow is given special status by Hindus for her gift of milk. In the 1980’s thousands of school children wrote the Ohio State Legislature protesting a proposal to allow dove hunting, arguing that it would be killing peace. Lenape Indians were successful in getting some limitations placed on groundhog killing in Pennsylvania, due to the significance of the animal in creation stories.Some deities of strong significance to humans are animal gods or goddesses. In his earliest known form of worship, Apollo is a mouse god. His temple in Tenedos housed hundreds or perhaps thousands of mice, who were not considered gods in their own right but were pampered as a favor to Apollo. The mice had a divine function as omens as well, with large litters presaging economic prosperity. Special priestesses were employed to interpret oracles from the mouse god. The goddess Athena typifies many deities of Old Europe by having twin animal forms of earth creature (snake) and sky creature (owl).Every animal has its own deity. Modern pagans refer to the chief deities of plant and animal species as devas, a word borrowed from Sanskrit which means “god.” In appealing to the deity of an animal which does not have a recognized cult, the animal “deva” will be invoked. Alternatively, when petitioning a specific animal colony, the “queen,” who is leader of that particular family, can also be invoked. It is also possible to appeal en masse to a group of animals, praying to the animals in their collective spirit, although some would quibble that this is the same as appealing to an animal deva.Closely related to an animal deity, but not exactly the same thing, is an animal familiar. A familiar is a being who helps a priestess with her magic. The familiar can be an incarnate living creature or a discarnate being who exists only in spirit, but most often she is a living animal. There is much that I can say about the animal familiar, and whole books have been written on the subject, so I will talk about familiars in a later post.
The Greeks ascribed the source of the olive to Athena, although the tree was first cultivated outside of Greece. The olive has been cultivated for at least 7,000 years, rather significant when you consider that the tree requires a fair amount of knowledge and care to obtain a usable product. The wild olive, native to the eastern Mediterranean, including Greece, produces a long narrow seed with meager flesh, and the tree must be grafted to produce what we would call a true olive. Pruning keeps the tree from growing too large and scraggly over the ten years or more that it takes to begin yielding a significant amount of fruit. Olives off the branch have to be processed, usually fermented in brine, to become edible. Large quantities of olives are crushed, pressed and filtered to produce oil. Whether done with modern or Stone Age methods, it’s a multi-step process that requires time, patience, equipment and collective effort.Athena is an agricultural goddess who invented the plow along with other technology necessary for a settled farming community, such as oxen yokes, pottery, spinning wheels and looms. Her animals are the owl and the snake, both of whom control rodent populations, the scourge of all grain based economies. To create the plow Athena had to invent metallurgy, and she became the patron goddess of metal workers. Eventually metals became used not only to fashion farm and household implements, religious objects, and jewelry, but to create swords, breastplates, and helmets. Athena at this point became a goddess of war. A later myth says she was birthed fully armed from the god Zeus’ head, but Athena is actually a pre-Indo-European goddess and her rein in Greece pre-dates that of Zeus.Even after her warrior goddess reputation was established, Athena remained a goddess of mediation and upholder of law, with a marked reluctance for armed conflict. Agrarian communities need peace in order to thrive. An early temple of Athena on the Acropolis honored the place where she was believed to have planted the first olive tree. The remains of a later temple, the Erechtheum, still stand. This temple was named for Athena’s foster son Erechtheus, who was a snake child born of earth goddess Gaia. The god Poseidon tried to claim the temple site for himself by striking his trident against a rock, spewing forth a salt water spring. Athena would have battled Poseidon for possession, if Zeus had not intervened, imploring the two to accept the judgment of a special council. As instigator of the panel, Zeus had to recuse himself, and the verdict was divided along sexual lines, with all the goddesses favoring Athena and all the gods voting for Poseidon. With one vote to spare, Athena won. Both her tree and Poseidon’s spring were incorporated into the temple complex. Athena and Poseidon’s conflict mirrors the rivalry along the coast between land and sea, where the sea tries to reclaim the land at every turn through storms, tsunamis and the erosion of relentless tides. The appearance of a salty spring on the high rocky outcrop of the Acropolis was a particularly bold invasion. Still, the Greeks must have seen a complementarity between the two deities, because they believed the olive tree could not grow far from the sea. This widespread belief has been verified somewhat; the olive tree thrives in dry, slightly alkaline, calciferous soils common to Mediterranean coastal areas, though it can also be grown in inland areas with similar temperature and soil compositions.Olive oil not only revolutionized dietary and cooking practices in the eastern Mediterranean, it produced a cleaner fuel for lighting and a more stable base for cosmetics. The olive branch became a symbol of prosperity and accomplishment for the Greeks and a symbol of peace for the Romans. Athena was worshipped not just in Athens but along the Italian, Greek and Anatolian coasts as the the goddess of technology, best illustrated by her gift of the olive tree and the knowledge of how to grow and utilize it. SourcesGrimbutas, Marija. The Living Goddesses. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1960.Quennell, Marjorie and C.H.B. Everyday Things in Ancient Greece. London: B.T. Batsford, 1954.
Back when I posted the quiz on Bird Companions of the Goddess I had requests for a tree version. So here it is. This will be a bit harder, because I’ve only mentioned one of these trees on this blog. Match the tree on the left with a goddess from the right column.
Answers are here.Bonus question. Name the gods linked with these trees: Ash, Pine, Laurel. (Hint: they are also associated with the goddesses of these trees.)Continue the tree discussion in the comments.
How much do you know about the winged companions of the Goddess? If you’ve been following this blog for awhile you’ll recognize many of these. Match the bird in the left column with the European or Middle Eastern goddess (or god) she is frequently associated with.